In the United States, designated bike lanes and a growing bike culture have started to garner mainstream attention. And bicyclists now have a giant ally—Google.
At the 10th Annual American Bike Summit in Washington, D.C. last week, Google announced their maps feature will include bike routes for 150 U.S. cities. The feature includes 15,000 miles of off-street bike trails gathered by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that has collected trail info for its website since 2007.
Google made the decision after receiving a petition with more than 50,000 signatures for bike routes to be added to its maps. Google Maps introduced driving directions in 2005, and in 2007 the site added transit routes. Pedestrian navigation followed a year later. Now, it’s the bikers’ turn.
Online tools for mapping bike routes have existed for years, such as RideTheCity.com, which also points out bike shops along your route. But with an organization as enormous as Google collating bike-friendly travel information, two-wheel enthusiasts hope city planners and politicians will take note and improve bicycling conditions across the United States, like Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) aims to do with his proposed Active Community Transportation Act. The bill seeks to make active transportation, such as walking or biking, more accessible and safe.
Promoting bicycle travel for utilitarian purposes, in addition to recreation and exercise, has become a federal objective since Congress opened new sources of funding for bicycle facilities with the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, or ISTEA, in 1991. This continued over the next decade and now federal planning requirements must consider bicyclists in state and Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MPO, long-range transportation plans.
The League of American Bicyclists, who sponsored the American Bike Summit, hopes the Google feature will encourage wary would-be cyclists to get on the road, give more seasoned bikers the respect they deserve, and curb unnecessary motorist pollution by highlighting safe routes:
- Dark green indicates a dedicated bike-only trail
- Light green indicates a dedicated bike lane along a road
- Dashed green indicates roads that are designated as preferred for bicycling but without dedicated lanes
The tool is far from perfect, however. It does not yet work for mobile devices, so bikers will have to map their routes from home or the office before setting out. And Google’s algorithm that combines input from bike lanes, topography, and traffic signals is still just an algorithm. Some New York Post writers reported being led the wrong way down one-way streets and onto off-limits sections of Central Park, and many routes in the District of Columbia are missing, such as the bike lane on 15th Street NW, the Metropolitan Branch Trail from Silver Spring to Union Station, and the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail.
Luckily, you can suggest a route change or make a correction using Google’s “report a problem” feature. Google is fielding these requests and working out the kinks in the system.
Traffic congestion and vehicle pollution is a massive problem, and many would-be bikers are put off by the lack of designated bike lanes in many U.S. cities. Hopefully, the added Google feature will get more people on bikes and force cities to designate more bike lanes. Cities with a higher level of bicycle infrastructure—paths and lanes—see higher levels of bicycle commuting, which then increases state and local spending on such infrastructure to keep those people on their bikes.
Additionally, bike infrastructure should connect to popular destinations—already marked on Google Maps—to increase pollution-free commuting. And more commuters should be educated about bicycling through individual bike ownership or shared programs such as SmartBike, which could be coupled with adequate and safe parking at work. All these steps could help give the United States a greater share of the world’s most bike-friendly cities.