Google has been getting a lot of play for its new bike-mapping function, as this Google-centric, front-page story in the Pioneer Press illustrates. Since Google's tool will cover the nation and has the computing power and brand of an 800-million-ton gorilla behind it, a lot of cyclists will soon be using this service.
The story does mention that there's a local Twin Cities bike-route-mapping option, called Cyclopath, which has been built over the last several years as a wiki, incorporating the experience of local cyclists.
When it comes to finding your way on a bike, as with other personal activities, local knowledge tends to be superior to what you can get from the big box info machine.
Which is better — Cyclopath or Google? This won't be a close analysis of the two, but I'd urge cyclists to compare them to see which best fits your needs and riding style.
I've used Cyclopath on occasion to test my own commuter routes or find alternatives when no good options were apparent. It has the advantage of allowing the rider to select along a continuum of bike-friendliness and time. If you want to get to your destination efficiently — and are comfortable with a stretch of University Avenue or France Avenue — then you can move the route selector closer toward "Minimize Distance."
Google might offer an alternative route, but it doesn't allow such fine-tuning... yet.
To compare the two, I chose three destinations that pose some challenges for the cyclist who needs to cover a fair amount of distance and arrive on time. They cross major arteries and are not directly served by bike paths for much of the distance. They are also places I go only occasionally, so I don't have a lot of opportunity to refine the routes myself through trial and error. It's these kind of trips for which these route mappers are most useful.
The first trip is to my doctor's office. He used to be in a more bike and transit-friendly downtown location. Now his office is near the corner of 494 and 169, a place that few people would consider going except in a car.
Here's the Cyclopath route which covers 13.28 miles and is quite close to the route I actually take. (For this and all sample routes, I picked a midpoint between distance and bikeability.
The next test was for an eye doctor location, also south, but on the other side of Highway 100. Freeways, and the car-centric sprawl they spawn, tend to make direct commutes most challenging. (To be fair, so do lakes!)
The two mappers were closer on this trek — 12.57 miles for Cyclopath (the green line in the map below) vs. 13.6 for Google, which was not bad, but contained a number of unnecessary jogs to route me through the Country Club neighborhood of Edina. Google also offered two even longer routes of 14.9 miles (because the bike path around Lake Calhoun is one way, forcing you to ride on the far side) and 16.9 miles incorporating the Kenilworth trail.
If you're looking for a nice ride as opposed to a direct and timely commute, you can select such routes on Cyclopath as well.
Here's where the flaws in Google really became apparent — a ride across town to the Raymond/University area of St. Paul. Again, the Cyclopath route approximated what I ride — a 10.46-mile route.
Google gave me two options. The 12.6-mile low road incorporating the Midtown Greenway is not bad, and one I sometimes take for the return ride when my arrival time is not so important. The 15.2-mile high road is simply ridiculous.
As a route-finding tool with more functions, Cyclopath may be more difficult at first for a casual user, but I didn't do anything special to generate these routes.
For any cyclist looking for alternative routes, Cyclopath is worth a visit.