Google's announcement Wednesday that it had launched a new bicycle route-finding option for Google Maps is already generating a lot of chat on Madison's "bikies" listserv. Though mixed, early reviews among local cyclists appear clustered in the neighborhood of, "Good start, but needs improvement."
Indeed, a couple quick tests of the new tool suggest this beta version is decent enough and its prospects promising if the cycling community is engaged to contribute toward its improvement.
Asking for a bike route from Olbrich Park to Isthmus Publishing here at the Capitol's King Street corner, for example, produces a Google-generated map and cue sheet that directs the querying cyclist to the east-side portion of the Capitol City Trail all the way to East Wilson, then proceeds up King Street. From Kennedy Heights, Google suggests biking through Warner Park to Sherman to Gorham to Butler to Main some of which you might quibble with, depending on your comfort in traffic. From Shorewood Hills, Google's bike route follows the Temin Lakeshore Path to State Street to get to Isthmus, sparing you the haul over Observatory Hill.
Other aspects of the new bicycle features on Google Maps include distinctions between bike trails and bike lanes, the option to drag and drop reference points to adjust a Google-generated route, and an option to report problems with Google's bike-map results, such as overlooked routes and the inclusion of streets with motor traffic that might be deemed too busy to be suitable for biking.
Early comments from across the U.S. note that for whatever shortcomings may exist in the beta version, Google's new route-finding tool for cyclists could become quite a dynamo if local cycling communities get behind it and contribute tweaks that improve its suggested routes. While there are reports of significant bike trails and routes missing from Google's map databases for California and Texas, these are oversights that can be corrected.
There has also been some early criticism (offered in what appears to be a constructive tone) regarding the new bike-route tool's apparent preference for avoiding hills among the considerations cited by the in-house cyclists at Google's Fremont, Wash., office who contributed to the project in their quest to develop a bike-route tool that might be useful to the greatest variety of cyclists in the 150 cities for which the beta version has been rolled out. Again, this is an attribute that may be amendable with contributions from hill-loving cyclists knowledgeable about roads and features in their area, or something that individual users may be able to override when they use the new feature to customize a route to suit their needs.
Cyclists on the bikies listserv are already trying to coordinate proposals for route corrections and other localized improvements to Google's bike tool. Features like the new Campus Drive bike path are missing. Arthur Ross, Madison's pedestrian-bicycle coordinator, notes that most of the additions and improvements to the local cycling infrastructure in the last couple of years appear to be missing from the beta version of Google's bike-route tool, and is endeavoring to get the city's latest bike-route database to the company.