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What Google Maps Could Learn From Strava

Planning a bike route isn’t as straightforward as it may seem.

A man on his iPhone standing next to his bicycle.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Zoran Zeremski/iStock.

On a recent point-to-point adventure ride, I encountered a problem. After cresting a small hill, I reached an unwelcome sign: Road closed ahead to all traffic, find alternate route. Defeated, I sat on a curb and pulled out my phone, trying in vain to use Google Maps to plot an alternate path to my destination. The suggested route was garbage: a flat, sightless jaunt paralleling a freeway riddled with afternoon traffic and momentum-killing stoplights. After some assurance from a pair of nearby hikers that I’d be “fine,” I continued on my original route (and was, indeed, fine, albeit muddy).

When you need to navigate cross town by car, public transit, or even via ride share, Google Maps is the best option on your phone. But for cycling, its routes can be hit or miss. And as cycling becomes an important means of transit for many commuters—and as tourists opt to explore new cities on two wheels rather than four—it’s becoming increasingly important to know which roads and routes are most cyclist-friendly.

For now, when I need to navigate via two wheels to places unknown, Strava’s route-planning feature is my go-to. It’s the type of alternative that Google could learn from to make its bike-based navigation not just acceptable, but excellent. Powered with data from 28 million users and more than 8 million activities uploaded each week, the web version of the app will successfully navigate you from Point A to Point B using the most bike-friendly routes—the ones cyclists actually ride on a regular basis. It’s not perfect. Its major failing, as I experienced firsthand, is when there are unexpected road closures or changes in traffic conditions.
But luckily, road closures are exceptional circumstances, and if you’re in doubt, a quick online search can verify whether there are detours you should be aware of.

If apps like Google Maps or Apple Maps feature up-to-date traffic information as well as information about bike routes and bike share stations, why aren’t they better at navigating cyclists? Google Maps is the only one that genuinely offers directions for cyclists—a feature it’s had since 2010. But while Google Maps is outfitted with extensive knowledge of the globe’s bike lanes, bike friendly–designated roads, dedicated bike paths, and trails, the app is still only so-so when it comes to recommending a way to get to your destination. According to Bicycling magazine, this seems to be because the app values “bike lanes, busier streets, and flatter routes over the lower-traffic side streets you might prefer.”

“Our algorithm takes a number of different factors into account when creating bike routes, including aggregated and anonymized historical data,” a Google spokesperson told Slate. “We’re constantly working to improve our algorithm in order to provide users with the best directions on Google Maps.”

It’s certainly improved over the years. Around 2013, a colleague used the app to bike through the Silicon Valley suburb of Santa Clara. It routed him onto an expressway, at which point a cop pulled him over and told him bikes weren’t allowed along the high-speed thoroughfare. Back in the office, we suggested he use Strava next time around.

Strava seems to be superior to Google Maps because of all that activity data it has aggregated since its inception in 2009. This helps it not just automatically formulate the best routes for you; it also helps you learn which roads are the most traveled by its users through its heatmaps. (Yes, the very feature that came under fire earlier this year for accidentally giving away the locations of sensitive military bases around the globe.) Strava’s heatmap color-codes roads and paths with varying levels of intensity depending on how frequently they’re traversed by cyclists. With the heatmap in one tab and the route planner in another, you can craft a bike loop where you can reasonably expect bike lanes, other cyclists, and—perhaps most importantly from a safety standpoint—cars that expect cyclists on the road. A quick cross-reference with Google Street View can provide confirmation of what road conditions to expect.

Since its January heatmap drama, Strava has made a few changes to alleviate privacy concerns—and these changes may also help improve its heatmap accuracy. The feature is now only accessible to registered app users; those who set their rides to private will not see their data incorporated into heatmaps; and paths with little activity won’t show up unless multiple people have shared workouts in that vicinity. The latter is particularly useful in addressing one of the heatmap’s flaws: Occasionally, a particular route will appear “popular” on the heatmap, but in reality, it’s just one cyclist riding that route day in and day out.

Google, with the plethora of information it collects about our daily travels, could use it to build the premier bike route planner. (It already has that with Waze and car navigation.) If you’ve not opted out, Google Maps keeps a timeline of all your past travels (you can view your own here). Browsing through, it can accurately identify when I’ve walked, driven, or ridden my bike, along with exactly where and for how long. With that information, it could suggest bike routes to me. It knows my average speed—which is faster than the 10 miles per hour the app defaults to—and it knows the level of elevation I’m comfortable with. It should know I prefer to climb a hill than hit 10 stoplights on a straight, flat road. Like Strava, it should be able to aggregate the ride data of Google Maps users and suggest routes that are the most friendly to cyclists.

Right now, it’s adequate. These days, Google Maps will not accidentally route you onto a freeway. And if you are completely new to cycling, the fact that it defaults to the flattest, most direct route to a destination could be a godsend. However, knowing all the information that Google knows about me and its other users, it could improve its bike navigation features even further. And in an age when bike shares and eco-friendly alternative transports are thriving, it’s important that folks on two wheels are armed with all the knowledge possible to get them to their destination safely. Google Maps still has one major advantage over Strava: Strava’s route planner is web only. If you’re lost on your bike and still have a cell connection, you can at least trust that Google will get you back home—one way or another.

Christina Bonnington is a technology writer whose work has appeared in Wired, Refinery29, the Daily Dot, and elsewhere.