Turns out, all it takes is a little pandemic for Google Maps to get its cycling directions up to snuff.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced many of us out of our offices — and, apparently, onto our bicycles. As many major U.S cities started locking down to prevent spread of the disease, bicycle sales went through the roof. In the span of a few short weeks, bikes became the leading alternative to trains and buses — enclosed spaces where coronavirus can more easily spread. Major bike manufacturers such as Trek, Specialized, and Giant were sold out for months at a time (this reporter almost dropped serious dough on the only bicycle left at her local shop — a professional-looking single-speed mountain bike — before I remembered I was actually in the market for a beach cruiser).
Google Maps, the web mapping service, says app-based requests for bicycling directions have shot up 69 percent since February. Those requests may continue to rise as states reopen, compelling employees to find safe ways to get to their offices. But Google Maps doesn’t necessarily have a great track record when it comes to biking directions. In a popular blog post, a cyclist named Grant Holtes once said the service “sucks for cyclists,” explaining that Google Maps treats bikers like vehicles, often sending them onto a major highway like they would a Ford Fiesta.
But on Monday, the maps provider rolled out some updates to its biking directions that will allegedly make it easier and potentially less stressful for folks to get around on two wheels.
First, Google Maps is updating its software to include the hundreds of new bike lanes and car-free streets opened up by city governments in recent months (a climate-friendly side effect of shutdowns). Google also plans to include information about how your chosen route will affect your hardware and heart rate, such as the incline of your commute and whether and it includes any structural obstacles (goodbye, surprise staircases and tunnels).
The most exciting update of the bunch has to do with bike shares. If you’ve ever used a bike share before, you know the anxiety of showing up to a station only to find one glitching bike left at the dock. Starting on Monday, Google Maps will show bikeshare users in select cities end-to-end directions that include where to find bikeshare docking stations and what the bicycle availability is at those stations. Google Maps will also supply links to the bikeshare app in that city for booking and unlocking bikes. The bikeshare feature is currently limited to 10 cities, including Chicago, Mexico City, London, and Rio De Janeiro, but the company says it will be extended to other locations soon.
The biking update is welcome news — both for coronavirus-minded commuters and climate-focused advocates. As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the U.S., it’s become increasingly clear that things won’t be going back to normal for a long time. Experts say fear of contracting the illness may prompt people to abandon public transit altogether (bad for the environment) and get in their cars instead (even worse for our overheating planet). But others hope could also convince a wide swath of bike newbies to hop on a bicycle or use a bikeshare (really good for the environment).
Having better information about the (literal) obstacles in that path? Well, let’s just say it’s a good start.