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by Iain Treloar
July 25, 2020
Photography by Andrew Gook/Unsplash
Spurred by a swell in the number of bike riders globally as a result of COVID-19, Google Maps has rolled out an update of its cyclist offering. It’s now more sophisticated, more accurate and more up-to-date, and has some handy new features for bikeshare users too.
Google first rolled out Maps in 2005, and began adding cycling-specific functionality from 2010. In the years since, those features have received a number of updates – notably including the addition of elevation profiles in 2017 – but the app’s cycling features haven’t traditionally been the first port of call for The Serious Cycling Community™.
That’s in part due to the fragmentation of users between competing apps (like Apple Maps), but it’s also due to the use of GPS head units in the cycling space instead of phones on the handlebar, and the rise of exercise-specific applications like Strava and Komoot over transport-focused ones like Google Maps.
Nonetheless, because this is Google we’re talking about, we’re still talking about vast reach. Google Maps has had 5 billion downloads globally, and even though most of those users don’t care about cycling directions, there are still millions of people making use of it for that purpose every day – lycra people, bikeshare people, commuting people.
Photo: Kande Bonfim/Unsplash
The COVID-19 pandemic is – and continues to be – a global disaster, but one upside is that it has led to a mainstream cycling boom. That’s driven by both a growth in recreational cycling and also in commuting, with people more reluctant to expose themselves to the infection risks of public transport.
Since February, Google says that there’s been a 69% increase in searches for cycling directions, with the all-time peak last month.
It’s that wealth of data from the bike boom which Google has been able to wrangle into its latest update to Google Maps’ cycling directions, through “a combination of machine learning, complex algorithms and our understanding of real-world conditions based on imagery and data from government authorities and community contributions.”
In a blog post outlining the updates, Google Maps’ Product Manager Vishal Dutta explained that Google offers suggested routes based on a number of preferential factors – like bike lanes and lower traffic volumes – but also by avoiding things like tunnels, stairs and poor surface conditions.
Thanks to COVID-19, there’s been a swell in pop-up bike lanes or enhancements to existing cycling infrastructure. Google Maps is working to integrate “hundreds of thousands of new bike lanes in the coming months,” in part due to the input of that data by governments.
As new and returning riders take to the bike, that has an influence on Google’s data too, with a spike in search queries for stuff like “bike repair near me” – more than double this time last year – and an increase in the use of bikeshare services.
That is a factor that has led Google Maps to also roll out some new bikeshare specific features into the app in ten cities worldwide.
Now, Google Maps has real time updates to docked bikeshare availability – ie. you can now see not just that there is a Citibike dock over there, but that there are five bikes at it. There are also detailed walking directions provided to the docks, and in some places, internal links to the relevant bikeshare app to handle the booking.
In the US, the cities that have this functionality are Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, Washington DC. Further afield, bikeshare users in London, Mexico City, Montreal, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Taipei are now able to access the bikeshare features – and Google says that there’s more on the way.
That’s handy for users, but it’s also handy for Google’s bottom line, seeing as one of the ways that Maps makes money is through API and partnerships with other businesses, like these bikeshare companies.
While not included in this update, another recent feature that might have slipped past you is the integration of StreetView directions in the Android app. If you’re more of a visual person than a street-sign follower, Maps will display turn-by-turn directions with a StreetView image and an overlaid arrow to show you where to go. (Unfortunately, iPhone users are still slumming it with a boring blue line on a street grid.)
Plenty of people have justified concerns about big data, but as more people take to bikes, it’s heartening that there are steps being taken to ease that passage – whether from local governments installing new lanes, or the bike industry stepping up to support new riders, or tech giants rolling out updates to mapping software.
Let’s hope all of that continues long after coronavirus is gone.