Google Maps for Bikes — Use with Caution

Google Maps for bike routes is live. It's a good start, but use with caution.


On March 10, Google Maps went live with its bicycling route option. Choose a destination and Google will tell you the best way to get there by bike. I give them a C-.

Some routes, like Santa Clara (where I live) to Santa Cruz are quite good. Others, like Santa Clara to Half Moon Bay, are downright wrong. Their route includes Old Cañada Road. I’ve ridden this road, but at the risk of being arrested!

Back in the day when I was young and foolish, I rode here with friends. Even then it was heavily patrolled by the San Francisco Water Department and on more than one occasion we were stopped and told to get out. Obviously, Google meant the nearby public Cañada Road. The rest of the route – Hwy 92 – is only advisable at early hours on weekends.

I checked on another difficult route – San Francisco to Calistoga. Conveniently, they include the ferry to Vallejo. Santa Clara to San Francisco, staying near Hwy 101, looks reasonable. Another puzzler was Santa Clara to Pescadero. Why they would include the hideously steep Spring Ridge Road (dirt) instead of Old La Honda Road is a mystery.

Google is trying. They have good intentions, but right now I’d call this a beta release. I’m sure they would agree. Bike routes aren’t easy to figure out. I’ve spent years refining my rides. It’s something that can be learned only through experience. The best algorithms won’t get it right.

They want your input. According to Product Manager Shannon Guymon, they plan to have a feature called Map Maker that will allow users like us to enter useful routes. Whether or not this will fix their algorithms may be another matter.

What I find interesting is OpenStreetMap.org, an open-source map maker’s dream. Founded in 2004, it’s slowly gaining a following. I wonder what affect it will have on Google’s strategy? Like open-source software, open-source maps (think Wikipedia), can be a real game changer. In the end, we all benefit.

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