Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Getting to the route of the problem

Now, I've been grumbling for some time about the lack of adequate route planning tools for cyclists. I was just ranting and raving after dinner in Tucson a few weeks back about the need for cyclists nationwide to build a national bike map together. Admittedly, touring cyclists comprise a pretty small proportion of the bike riding population. Thus the market for such things is relatively small. But we do exist. (We! I'm one of them! Ever since the bike glove tan, that is.)

Okay, to be fair, there are some resources around for touring and commuting cyclists. There are some clearly marked and relatively known regional routes: I traversed a decent stretch of the on-road Pacific Coast bike route that runs from Vancouver clear down to the Mexican border (though I only took it from west of Eugene, OR to Santa Barbara, CA) along a combination of Highways 1 and 101; I traveled almost exclusively on bike trails from Madison to Dodgeville, WI. There are some states with trail maps, some cities with maps of popular bike routes. Many places around the country have local cycling clubs with online resources ranging from meticulously detailed to downright useless. Adventure Cycling publishes map sets for prescribed routes, and they've expanded the number and variety of offerings recently (nearly twice the options now than existed a year ago when I was mapping out my trip, it seems), but along with the prohibitive cost for a map set that might cover a chunk of Ollie's and my loop around the country -- it's not chump change -- there are no resources for those looking to go to, say, organic farms or other off-the-beaten-path destinations. Historically, there's been no standardized resource to determine one's route by bicycle comparable to the way Google maps and Mapquest provide for pedestrians or automobiles.

[Funny that I find myself advocating for regionalized food systems while lamenting the lack of a standardized national bike network, but there you have it. The irony does not escape me.]

Planning a trip around the country, or even around towns that I am unfamiliar with (which is most of them), has been tough at times. There's always some kind of cross-referencing of local bike maps (if they exist), my state-by-state AAA maps (which are sometimes outdated and don't list some of the smaller, local roads), and the oft-maligned Verizon Navigator GPS (which remains somewhat unreliable), regularly supplemented by verbal directions from local bike mechanics, gas station attendants, and postal employees (many of whom have a very different idea of what "flat" or "5 miles" means). It's an adventure, to be sure, and in the grand scheme of things I've been getting by alright. I've been trying to convince myself that the added challenge of having to navigate my way around the country in this hodgepodge fashion, bucking the more systematic way we usually go about doing things, generally with the focus being speed and efficiency, is something desirable. It's kind of like a riddle. Or a puzzle. (I love puzzles! Especially the Washington Post or New York Times crossword variety.) Even so, sometimes I long for an easier way to do this....

A week ago, Google came out with the much-anticipated bicycling option for their online interactive maps. Hallelujah. I'd joined thousands of other bike advocates over a year ago who signed yet another petition for Google to add a bicycling option and it's finally here. No less than four friends -- some of whom aren't even avid cyclists -- sent me e mails about the exciting news that very morning. I was giddy. Ollie, too, squeaked with joy. (Or was that the sound of her fender screws loosening up again? Hard to tell sometimes. I'd better check that before we embark on our next leg.)

The system is not perfect -- there is not a version available for mobile phones yet and there is some contention about road bike vs. mountain bike routes, with no designation for one or the other that I can discern -- but I was excited to try it out. So last Wednesday, while at La Buena Vida Farm, Aaron and I borrowed Jennifer's laptop and looked at a few possible ways to get to our next farm using the brand spanking new Google bike program. The first set of directions generated didn't look too bad, but a local friend advised us that the utility road that comprised a good portion of the route was a dirt road with regular gates that were often locked. We tried another variation. Also largely dirt roads. I am not a huge fan of bouncing down dirt roads on a loaded bike. We defaulted to my AAA maps which, incidentally, also had us on less-than-ideal unpaved roads part of the way. Exactly 14 miles of the way, as compared to nearly 40 on the Google route to Deming. (Dirt: the difference between a 'state' road and a 'country' road. Noted.)

Maybe the program works better in towns, I thought. As Becky has kindly let me borrow her laptop for a few days here in the relative paved safety of Las Cruces, NM, I decided to try out the bike route planning program in a more urban setting. My trips to the Mountain View Co-op yesterday and the Wednesday morning farmers' market today went pretty smoothly. The roads themselves were crap in some cases, but how can the system account for potholes and cracked pavement? In fact, there's a feature that allows you to send feedback to the Google bike map folks on good/poor/alternative routes. This is where cycling clubs, bike advocates, commuters, and recreational riders can weigh in and make the system better.

So while the start has been a bit bumpy (har, har), I haven't given up on Google bike maps. Far from it. Ollie and I will be testing out the feature some more on our route from El Paso to Austin over the next few weeks, so stay tuned. (Good god, Texas is enormous....)


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Is that Asian spam or real comments? I can't tell.

    I think the bike direction will prove more useful in bigger cities. Perhaps you can plot your return to DC in Google Maps.

  3. Yes, Texas IS enormous. It takes more than nine hours in the car from Big Bend to Houston and that's not even all the way across the state. I'm suddenly realizing that this is probably NOT helpful...anyway... Finnegan's Wakeforest sucks! (had to put that in there for March Madness! and I HOPE you remember what it's from!)

  4. In the cities, Google biking directions will be helpful. In the rural areas you are currently traveling, google walking directions and biking directions will be exactly the same and will have the same pitfalls. The best way to go will be with your gut as well as cross references. But you already knew that.


Thanks for your comment! Just making sure this isn't spam.... Thanks for your patience. :)Ibti