Friday, March 02, 2007

Cycling route finding with online maps

Update 5/24: Google Maps added an "Avoid highways" checkbox to their route finding feature.

I'm a pretty big fan of all things Google and use several of their services and products. Google Maps, however, has a fairly serious drawback: Driving directions will always take you onto major highways and freeways -- where bicycles are prohibited -- if the highway is available. You cannot tell the route finder to avoid highways.

Back in the early days of online mapping software, this option was available but disappeared. It turns out the "No Highways" option has returned in at least a couple online mapping services.

MapQuest has a drop-down menu of "Advanced Options" where you can click "Avoid Highways." And avoid highways it does.

With, you enter your start and end locations then click the "Walking" tab after the directions have appeared. The Walking option gives Ask a little more flexibility than MapQuest's "Avoid Highways" feature; Ask will route walkers the wrong way down one-way streets, for example.

In my tests, MapQuest's service seems a little more appropriate for cyclists. seems to be very conservative on the roads it routes walkers on, taking you the very long way around, even for roads where sidewalks or good shoulders are available and pedestrians are permitted. MapQuest's "Avoid Highways" option consistently seems to provide a shorter route than Ask's "Walking" option.

Neither Ask nor MapQuest know about pedestrian or cyclist facilities -- pedestrian bridges and multiuse paths are not used by either mapping site. In the San Francisco Bay Area, some of these facilities make for valuable shortcuts that can take miles and headaches from my route.

I'm glad to see the map services recognize that their tools can be used for something besides driving directions. For the cyclist, I see these maps as a starting point. You'll still need knowledge of local conditions and compare the mapped route with what you can see on a local bicycling map.


A Midnight Rider said...

I noticed in your photos, you linked as a reply in commute by bike, how similar your geography is to mine.

If I was shown the pictures cold, I would be making guesses of the location, that would be within four or five miles of my home on Cape Cod. Except for the last one of your neighborhood. Our zoning laws do not allow projects that large.

It's very interesting seeing photos of others bike rides. I think it shows how so much alike all us Americans are, in so many ways.

SueJ said...

Hmmm.... might extend to other continents, even.

I wonder who the target audience was for teh 'avoid highways' option? Did they think of cyclists or ... hmmm... who else would want to avoid a highway...

m said...

I love the idea of getting directions that are off the Interstate, but the problem with the 'avoid highways' option is that it will still put you on 40+ mph roads (like Aurora/99 in Seattle). Sure it's not the interstate but there's also no bike lane.

It's meant for drivers that want the scenic route I think.

Btw has directions for cyclists, but only for two or three U.S. cities.

Fritz said...

I know one of the programmers at MapQuest in Denver, Colorado. She's an avid cyclist, and a couple of years ago she consistently requested this feature. MapQuest used to have "Avoid Highways" years ago then dropped it. It's not perfect, but I'm glad they've added it back.

I haven't been able to evaluate -- I'm not familiar with either Portland or Milwaukee.

Nick said...,, and are all great.

Fritz said...

Bikely and the others don't do anything for route finding/mapping directions. They're nice, but their purpose is different.