No, Google Maps, I Cannot Bike Down A Staircase

After biking down the Dinkytown Greenway for the first time back in August, my passionate inclination toward bike infrastructure spilled to the world wide web. I wanted to see if there was some way to edit trails in Google Maps, similar to the OpenStreetMap interface where users are able to modify the map using knowledge the head internet honcho might not know otherwise.

What I discovered was just that – but quite a bit on the excess side of things. Since 2011, a large amount of revisions to the biking network have popped up in the Google Maps interface, now viewable to users like you and me. Here is a good example:

Bicycle Map, 2011

Bicycle Map, August 2011

Bicycle Map, August 2013

Bicycle Map, August 2013

Look at all of those new bike trails! Green lines galore! Riders are everywhere near campus, and all places lead to a convenient bike rack, right?

Not so much. Not only do the “upgrades” make the map look cluttered, many trails don’t even exist. According to the update, the staircase to the Civil Engineering building below is considered a nice, easy to access bike trail in Google Maps.

THere is my bike at the top, patiently awaiting the trip down the Fall-On-My-Face Greenway

THere is my bike at the top, patiently awaiting the trip down the Fall-On-My-Face Greenway.

Okay, so maybe some crazy graduate students in the building would be able to BMX their hipster figures into the Civil Engineering cavern, but most of us regulars taking that night construction management class on document revision techniques wouldn’t want to do that.

Or how about this one below? This is also considered a trail. Sure, you might be to bike across this lawn, but I think the U of MN Landcare people wouldn’t be too happy.

Grass biking like its 1995 with training wheels

Grass biking like its 1995 with training wheels

In most facets of the word “understandable”, the addition of information usually makes items more coherent. In maps, however, this is not the case. Most modern cartographers and GIS designers use appropriate scaling to only highlight specific roads. As an example, an aerial map of the Upper Midwest region might depict only I-94 and I-35 going into the Twin Cities, whereas a zoomed view of neighborhood locales or specific buildings show every possible street corner, alleyway, and even pedestrian maps inside of the Sprawl of America.

The problem with the biking features on Google Maps is the inability for the user-added trails to change and adjust scaling. The scale is coupled with the full street grid, rather than referring to major bike corridors like the Midtown Greenway or Cedar Lake Trail. When looking at a full view of Minneapolis, the result of this lack of scaling adjustment is an illustration of a big, green, jumbled mess of virtual bike infrastructure.

Anyways, back to my story: Not seeing the Dinkytown Greenway trail on the map, I tried the Google Map Maker feature, and inputted the trail myself. As a trial run, I also removed some of the nonexistent “trails” on campus to see if it would work. The process includes a peer review, so the map didn’t get updated immediately. But lo and behold, both the Dinkytown Greenway and the modifications to the trails were added after 3 weeks in the review stage. Success!

The Map Maker feature on Google Maps is a powerful tool, but as Spiderman’s Uncle Ben said in his last breath, “With a great sense of geography comes great responsibility.” When commoners have the power to make edits to the mapping world, great things can happen if it is done correctly. However, the biking map in Minneapolis currently needs a simplification. Sure, I suppose I can bike to the back of my apartment building using the LBJ-era sidewalk, but I wouldn’t consider that pristine infrastructure for any mode of transportation, and really, do we need to list it as a trail? If out of town visitors are curious about the buzz that Minneapolis has created with bike infrastructure, they will look to the URL input first, and then buy a bicycle map second if they have to. We need to make it look more simple for the casual biker, not just the everyday two-wheel commuter. I would suggest a more rigorous but diligent peer review, as well as edit confirmations by bike-based groups like the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition.

If we want to really show how well-established our bicycle infrastructure is to visitors, we need to show it online first in a simple manner so they aren’t accidentally coerced to ride down a staircase.

Edited note: I am not an expert in programming or HTML, so if anybody has any suggestions on how to improve this system, please speak up!

Chris Iverson

About Chris Iverson

Chris Iverson is a transportation engineer & planner for the City of Bellevue, WA and currently lives in Seattle. He holds degrees in both Civil Engineering & Urban Studies from the University of Minnesota, and worked on a myriad of transit & multimodal transportation projects in the Twin Cities. He is a former Minnesota Daily columnist, RAGBRAI participant, bad musician, marathon finisher, and an unabashed generalist.