I heard on the radio this morning that Google Maps now has an option to map routes for bicycles. This sounded cool; I've been generally impressed with their auto mapping and even their transit mapping works well here in the Twin Cities, telling you which bus you need and when the next one should arrive at your location. It would be an exaggeration to say I leapt immediately out of bed to give the bicycle routing a try, but once I did slither sluglike from my repose and completed my elaborate morning ablutions I did give it a common destination pair for me, between church and home. This is about 14 miles one way, crosses the Mississippi and can involve several bicycle-specific shortcuts or route options. How would Google do?
Google did pretty well. From north of Como Lake in Saint Paul to just east of Lake Harriet in Minneapolis it selected a route that used both the Intercampus Transitway and the Midtown Greenway. The Intercampus Transitway runs between the Saint Paul and Minneapolis East Bank campuses of the University of Minnesota and is limited to buses, emergency vehicles and bicycles. As a cyclist, it took me a while to notice it because it was so off my radar as a motorist, but it is a useful shortcut and google selected it.
The Midtown Greenway is a bicycle and pedestrian path from the Mississippi to Lake Calhoun that runs parallel to the very busy Lake Street in an old railway trench. It's like a bicycle Interstate, with limited on and off ramps and it goes under dozens of bridges carrying the surface streets. It even has a big swoopy bridge over Hiawatha/Highway 55/the Light Rail line just for bikes and pedestrians. It's not open to motorized traffic at all.
Google didn't select my usual route, down Hoyt and through the State Fairgrounds to either the Transitway or Raymond, but, to be fair, the fairgrounds aren't open all the time. They shut down for most of August for the State Fair and for selected weekends when they have boat shows or classic auto rendezvoux. The rest of the time, bicycles and pedestrians can slip through the NE gate (always open about 3 feet wide) and cruise through the grounds in splendid solitude.
I have to say Google does a much better job than my GPS unit. I have a Garmin Nuvi 275. I got this last year in anticipation of a trip to the UK and France because it has both the North American and European maps built in. I got it a bit early to see how well it did locally on roads and destinations I know, and I have to say, it did really well. It knows all the little back roads and residential streets in the Twin Cities (not sure about the bleeding edge of suburban sprawl, but certainly in our area it was good). It has lots of businesses in it. Once in Europe, I was delighted to find that it knew its way around medieval York, Winchester and Bayeaux as well as it did around 1950s Roseville. It knew speed limits, traffic camera locations and the number of exits out of roundabouts. It was particularly delightful that I could load in the Campaign for Real Ale's (CAMRA's) Good Pub Guide point of interest file, which cost six pounds, and the GPS would ding whenever we got within a mile or two of one of the pubs. You could select the pub and it would set it as a waypoint and guide you there, off the main roads and down the lanes to The Swan or whatever back in the countryside. All this of course is built into the GPS, it isn't picking up data downloads like the iPhone maps application, data downloads that can cost the unwary a fortune whilst overseas. I think the GPS unit is the single most impressive piece of computer gear I've ever used and is extremely useful in a country where the only straight roads are the ones the Romans built.
Anyway, back from our sojourns, I decided to try selecting "bicycle" as the vehicle type and see how it worked. It was hopeless. Basically, the route selection algorithm is the same but the average speed used to calculate time of arrival is much lower and it doesn't use Interstate highways. Put in home and church and tell it you're a bicycle and it sends you down every major arterial street clogged with traffic, transit, doorzones, intersection conflicts and highway on and off ramps. It even sends you down Snelling, perhaps the most gruesome bit of bicycling roadway in Saint Paul. It doesn't use the Intercampus Transitway or the Midtown Greenway at all. As brilliant as the GPS is for motor vehicle navigation, it really is pretty useless for bicycle navigation where, in my opinion, thoughtful route selection that is almost always different from what you do in a car is key to happy and safe cycling.
The only bad news about the bicycle option on google maps? It's not in the iPhone Maps application yet, where the choices are still motor vehicle, transit or walking (and yes, I checked the App Store for updates). I suppose it's still a beta product (I think gmail is too) so maybe they're going to get some feedback first, but it would be very useful for cyclists on the iPhone.