Google Adds Cycling Routes to Their Maps!

Photo by Kamshots.
Regular readers of Obesity Panacea will know that I am a huge fan of active transportation (e.g. walking or cycling to work, rather than commuting by vehicle).  I just can't say enough good things about it.  It often takes about the same amount of time as commuting by vehicle, plus it ensures that you're getting at least some physical activity on even the busiest days.  Even just taking transit instead of driving yourself increases your chances of meeting the daily physical activity guidelines, since transit trips almost always involve some walking on either end of the trip (for more info on the transit/physical activity link, click here).

For the environmentally conscious, active transportation can also be a simple way to reduce your pollution and carbon footprint. Last fall the Lancet estimated that active transportation could result in dramatic reductions in morbidity and mortality due to improved metabolic health, less traffic accidents and reduced pollution.  Here are the results of the analysis, taken from a post written last December:

In the article titled Public Heath Benefits of Strategies to Reduce Greenhouse-Gas Emissions: Urban Land Transport, Paul Wilkinson and colleagues calculated the estimated changes in morbidity and mortality if there were to be widespread adoption of low carbon-emission vehicles, widespread adoption of active transportation,
or a combination of the two.  Low carbon-emission vehicles were defined
as those emitting roughly half of the average vehicle today (95 g/km
CO2 for cars compared with 177 g/km at present), while the level of
active transportation that was analyzed was similar to that seen in
continental European cities such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and
Freiburg.  Outcomes were morbidity and mortality related to changes in
physical activity, air pollution, and the risk of traffic injury, and
the calculations focused on London, England, and Delhi, India.

So, what did the authors find?  In comparison to continuing on with
"business as usual", substantially increasing active transportation by
2030 (either alone or in concert with reductions in vehicle
carbon-emissions) is estimated to result in dramatic reductions in both
morbidity and mortality.  Due to increased physical activity alone,
increased active transportation is estimated to result in a reduction
of 352 premature deaths per million people per year, as well as 6040
less years of life lost, and 816 years lost due to disability in Delhi,
India.  In London, increasing active transportation to levels seen in
Copenhagen would result in 528 less deaths per million people per year,
as well as 5496 less years of life lost, and 2245 less years lost due
to disability.  These reductions were related to lowered prevalence of
heart disease (by up to 19% in London and 25% in Delhi),
cerebrovascular disease (18% in London and 25% in Delhi), dementia (8%
in London), depression (6% in London), diabetes (17% in Delhi), and
breast cancer (13% in London) - all diseases which are negatively
associated with physical activity.

In addition to the benefits seen as a result of increased physical
activity, there are also estimated reductions in morbidity and
mortality as a result of lowered air pollution in both cities.  While
increased active transportation is expected to reduce the overall
number of fatalities related to traffic crashes in Delhi by 67 per
million people per year, there is an estimated increase
of 11 fatalities per million per year in London.  On the whole, simply
increasing active transportation could reduce fatalities by 511 per
million inhabitants per year in Delhi, and 530 per million inhabitants
in London.

Now of course this study is very speculative, but I think the idea that
commuting actively might be good for us is a pretty intuitive one.

All of this brings me to some excellent news for anyone who likes to commute by bike - Google has added cycling routes to Google Maps. If you are looking for directions from point A to point B, you can now choose the "Bicycling" option to be given routes that include bike lanes, have less traffic, or even avoid hills.  Personally, I think this is pretty awesome, because when you use your bike to commute, it's often hard to know which routes are going to be pleasant, and which ones are going to have you fighting for space with public transit.  I'm pretty used to traffic at this point, but when I have a load of groceries on the back of my bike trailer (yes, I have a bike trailer...), it's a real bonus when I can find a route that has a bike lane, or at least a nice wide shoulder.  And when I talk to friends about the reasons why they don't commute by bike more often, traffic is almost always their biggest concern.  So if this tool helps people to find convenient routes that minimize the amount of traffic they encounter, I think it could be tremendously useful. 

Me and my bike trailer

Unfortunately for us Canadians the bicycling option in Google Maps is only available in the USA for the time being.  Ride the City is a similar project which is being unrolled in a few North American cities, including Toronto. I haven't had a chance to use it myself, but
according to the Toronto Star, it sounds pretty handy as well

As with the new Google site, it steers cyclists towards bike lanes,
quiet streets and off-road trails, avoiding busy arterials. Ride the
City also lets users choose between "Safer" and "Direct" routes, and
it's possible to log in and rate the suggestions.

Since I live outside of Toronto, it looks like I will need to continue planning my routes on my own for the time being.  But hopefully not for long.

For details on how to use the new Bicycling option in Google Maps you can check out the handy video below. Hat tip to my friend and colleague Meghann Lloyd for passing along the details on this very cool development.  And if you've had a chance to use Ride the
City or the Google Maps cycling tool, I'd love to hear how it went!

Travis Saunders

ResearchBlogging.orgWilkinson, P., Smith, K., Davies, M., Adair, H., Armstrong, B., Barrett, M., Bruce, N., Haines, A., Hamilton, I., & Oreszczyn, T. (2009). Public health benefits of strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions: household energy The Lancet, 374 (9705), 1917-1929 DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(09)61713-X

More like this

wouldn't a decrease in mortality increase my carbon footprint/pollution i generate? ;)

Helmet -> decrease in mortality.

It was a real pleasure to find this blog in Scienceblogs. I am training to someday finish a marathon, and running is an important part of my life. I can't hide my envy when I read you can go to work in bicycle or running. I live in the tropics and in this country using that mode of transportation could be dangerous, because:
1. Congested roads, with bad tempered drivers.
2. Congested roads, with bad tempered robbers.
3. Risk of heat stroke, sun burning and getting ran over by a bus.
4. When the road is without congestion, the bad tempered drivers are less inclined to yield to pedestrians or bikers, because they are fed up with the congestion they just left.
5. If you get to your job alive, you just stink. You have that glamorous stench of carbon monoxide, dust, diesel fumes, sweat and sometimes dead dog meat.
I am sure you don't have any of those problems in Canada, but how do you manage to avoid the stink? Do you have the facilities to take a shower at work? Otherwise, you could have a problem that nobody wants to tell you but that can be solved with water, soap and deodorant.
Great posts. Congratulations.

So, far, it mainly just doesn't try to put you on the interstate. Unfortunately, it can tell you to take roads that no cyclist should ever be on (8 lane wide major arteries with 45mph speed limits and traffic that goes 65mph).

That said, if you know the area, start with the suggested bike route and then manipulate it to go around known trouble spots. It's still faster than designing a route from scratch

@ Cambrico,

Glad you're enjoying the site!

I'll admit that I often complain about it being too cold to bike to work (our snow just melted this week, and even that is earlier than expected), but it sounds much easier than in the tropics!

I usually change when I get to work, and also bike slowly enough that I'm usually not breaking a sweat. A few days when it's too hot, I've taken a shower when I get to work. I like to think that that's enough to avoid any problems, but to be sure you'd have to ask my colleagues :)

@ Keith,

I was curious about how accurate it actually was - I guess it's not surprising that it's not perfect yet. Like you say though, any info is better than no info when you're planning a ride in a new part of town. I can picture it being very useful on vacation as well, especially in larger cities like New York or Montreal (or even here in Ottawa) with reasonably extensive bike trail networks.


I wish I lived somewhere I felt it was safe to bike. People do it, but I'm always terrified having to drive past them. I can't imagine a 10 miles of riding every day dreading that every car that came along was going to run me down.

I've been following the developments in google maps for a while. I don't know if they have it everywhere, but around here you can ask it to plot a route for you using public transit and walking as well.

Ah, I love that without a street sign or a landmark I knew EXACTLY where that first photo was from! Those were the days, cycling was so easy when I lived in Oxford. Here in New York City, not so much. Other cities could learn a lot from Oxford, where pretty much every road has a bike lane, there are marked sections for bikes in front of other vehicles at stop lights, abundant bike racks all over town, and many workplaces and colleges have private, even undergound, places to secure your bike. There's also a one-way system that confuses the **** out of car drivers, discouraging them from driving in the city and thus reducing the amount of motor traffic that cyclists have to deal with. Hooray!

By Feefielou (not verified) on 13 Mar 2010 #permalink

I'll have to try this out, I've been meaning to add some destinations to my biking routes (beyond work, home and library) and have been told of offroad trails all over the place, but haven't been able to find most of them on my own.

By ABradford (not verified) on 15 Mar 2010 #permalink