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by Matt de Neef
September 17, 2015
Photography by Dave Everett
Back in July, social fitness website Strava rolled out a seemingly innocuous change to the way its customers’ activities were displayed on the site. Instead of using Google Maps to display ride data, the company switched to an open-source option, OpenStreetMap (OSM), provided by a third-party company called MapBox.
Strava rolled out the change quietly and with little explanation, prompting criticism from some users of the site. Indeed, nearly two months later, users continue to comment on a Strava Help Centre forum post opened in July, registering their disappointment about the change.
For Strava customers – and particularly for Strava Premium customers who pay US$6.49 (AU$9) per month or US$65 (AU$90) per year for additional features – the change to OpenStreetMap creates a number of problems. Chief among them is the disappearance of Google Street View.
By partnering with Google Maps, Strava gave its users access to Google Street View inside the Strava environment. This tool, which uses images captured at street level by Google’s mapping team, was particularly useful when using the Strava Route Builder.
A quick check of Street View would determine whether a road surface was suitable for riding on a road bike, say; whether there was a bike lane; and what sort of and what volume of traffic a road might carry. Many Strava customers also used Street View to check out roadside vistas or scenery in rides done by friends and acquaintances.
But the change from Google Maps to OSM brought with it the loss of Street View, much to the chagrin of many users.
“Really disappointing to lose Street View. It’s a really good tool to help identify landmarks to judge efforts, work out where things are in relationship to others,” Mike Humphreys wrote on the Strava forums. “I find it particularly important for checking out race courses. Feels like Strava has lost a huge part of its [user experience].”
Strava responded to the criticisms by saying “We’ve heard that Google Street View is important to a small but passionate group of athletes and we are working on making Google Street View accessible at key touchpoints in the Strava experience.”
On August 21 the company added buttons on segment pages to allow users to see Google Street View images from the start and finish of the segment in question. But unlike before, where this functionality would be available in the Strava environment, the new buttons take users to the Google Maps website in a separate browser tab.
Of course, Strava users can still access Google Street View at the Google Maps website; the issue for many is that the tool was available within Strava before but no longer is.
Another of the chief criticisms levelled at Strava’s switch to MapBox and OSM is the comparatively low quality of OSM’s maps.
“Losing Street View is a big bummer. But far [worse] than that is the lack of accuracy of maps in my region, plus the abysmal image quality of satellite imagery,” Canadian Strava user David Bélanger wrote. “It’s a very stupid decision for my particular region.”
Bélanger isn’t alone in his frustration. Many users have complained about lower resolution satellite imagery on OSM (limiting how far users can zoom in) and lower detail in OSM’s “Standard Map” than in the Google Maps equivalent.
The following map comes from Strava user Vitaliy Z. who described the new mapping solution as “a mockery”, saying that using the new maps in his region “is simply impossible”:
While the quality of MapBox and OSM’s offering has improved in the months since the roll-out, many users remain unsatisfied. Others remain critical of Strava’s decision to make the change without warning and the perceived lack of an explanation for that change.
On August 18 Strava responded to customer concerns, posting an apology in the forums:
“We didn’t anticipate how strongly some of our athletes would react to the change and apologize that it was a sudden disappointment to some of you,” Strava community support officer Elle Anderson wrote. “We could have done a better job explaining our reasoning and bracing you for the switch, handling the roll-out, taking more time to work with Mapbox, etc.”
Since then the company hasn’t explained the reason behind the change, besides suggesting that the MapBox/OSM combination will serve to benefit Strava users.
“It may not seem like it now, but we believe deeply that changing to OSM is the best choice we can make for our athletes and our company. There is enormous potential and creative flexibility offered by the new maps and we ask that you stick with us and continue providing feedback as we bring that potential to fruition.”
Many users have taken to the forums to suggest Strava’s decision to change the maps was financially motivated; that the cost of licensing the Google Maps Application Program Interface (API) was higher than the costs associated with a partnership with MapBox.
“I really do believe that they’ve likely had an internal meeting and weighed how much money they’ll lose from premium users switching back to free accounts versus how much they’ll save by sticking with OSM,” Strava user Joel Dudgeon wrote. “Let’s be honest Strava, this is a cost-cutting measure, period.”
We asked Strava on several occasions whether the decision to dump Google Maps was a financial one but they chose not to answer.
While cost-cutting on Strava’s behalf isn’t completely unexpected — the company hadn’t turned a profit as of December last year — the concern from premium users is that the product they’re paying for has dropped in quality since they signed up for it.
There’s also a perception among some that Strava “doesn’t care” what its most loyal customers think of the change from Google Maps to MapBox/OSM. These frustrations have led some to cancel or consider cancelling their Strava premium membership.
“Cancelled my Premium account today,” Scott Kosman wrote on the Strava forums. “No sense giving you money for a product that’s gotten measurably worse since I started paying for it.”
Other users have started leaving Strava in protest, moving their ride-tracking to rival platforms such as Garmin Connect or Ride with GPS.
“Thanks Strava. I’m now going to ‘focus on the road ahead’ by using Ride With GPS where streetview is alive and well,” Strava user Lard wrote in early August. “This is a massive own goal!”
Ride with GPS, in particular, has the ability to switch between various map overlays — including Google Maps with Street View and OpenStreetMap — an option which many users are calling for Strava to implement.
“I often use the [Ride with GPS] routing tool to plan routes on faraway roads I’ve never been to,” wrote Mikey Moore. “I constantly switch back and forth between Google, OSM, Satellite, and Street View. Indeed, in many cases, OSM has more data than Google, but there are plenty of bike paths that show up in Google and not OSM.”
While many Strava users are far from impressed with the change in mapping service, there are those that have applauded the introduction of the OSM open-source alternative.
“For me, and all MTBikers in my area, OSM is a great improvement,” wrote user Valley of Dawn in early August. “Google Maps showed almost no [fire trails] in my area (Israel) and zero single tracks. StreetView was never useful as it doesn’t include anything off-road. Now we can also add newly-opened paths to OSM.”
It’s also easier to edit maps in OpenStreetMap than Google Maps, with users able to click “Improve this map” in Strava to be taken straight through to the MapBox and OSM websites where roads, trails and other features can be added.
And according to Strava, the opportunities afforded by the change to MapBox and OSM are considerable.
“Mapbox offers enormous potential and creative flexibility to create custom maps, and that’s the primary reason Strava has partnered with Mapbox,” Strava spokesperson Megha Doshi told CyclingTips. “For Strava, opportunities to customize maps for athletes abound — from maps for different activity types (run vs ride) to highlighting segments and other ways to differentiate terrain and visually prioritize environmental elements that matter to athletes.
“We are working with Mapbox on ideas like these to address very specific athlete needs. Google Maps simply does not provide this creative flexibility.”
Strava pointed CyclingTips to some examples of how MapBox has been used by several well-known brands to develop innovative and effective mapping solutions for their online environments.
The main Strava forum post protesting the site’s mapping changes has attracted hundreds of comments in the past two months, most of them negative. And while there’s little doubt some users are frustrated enough by the change to cancel their premium membership or even leave the site, it’s unclear how widespread the discontent is.
How many of Strava’s several million active users have been frustrated by the change? And how many of its several-hundred-thousand premium members? How many have been frustrated enough to cancel their premium membership and/or abandon the site? And how many users would need to abandon the site for Strava to roll back the changes?
The answers to these questions remain unclear. For the moment, Strava shows no inclination of reintroducing Google Maps and is instead focused on improving the MapBox/OSM offering it currently has available.
If you’re a Strava user, have you been put-out by the change from Google Maps to MapBox/OpenStreetMap? Can you see the potential in the switch?