July 28, 2008

Bikers, Walkers Push For Online Mapping Services

As a growing number of drivers turn to biking and walking amid higher gas prices, Internet mapping firms and local organizations are being pushed to provide maps of the quickest, safest biking and walking routes.

Many pedestrians are hoping to simply turn to the Internet for optimum routes, much the same way drivers have found online directions for years. 

Leading map service firms are already responding to the new demand.  Google Inc. recently launched its walking-directions service, and MapQuest reports heavier use of its "avoid highways" function and provides walking directions on mobile phones.  Additionally, some cities have developed detailed online maps to assist bikers, walkers and transit-riders in finding the fastest routes.

"They haven't yet reached the Holy Grail of 'I want to go from here to there, show me my options,'" Bryce Nesbitt, a walking and biking advocate in the San Francisco area, told the Associated Press

But many technical and practical challenges exist in developing such a ubiquitous network of biking and walking routes. The first challenge is accounting for the differences in pedestrian routes and driving paths.  For instance, pedestrians need sidewalks, but don't have to abide by one-way streets. And while bikers and walkers must avoid highways, they can often cut through paths or trails not meant for cars. And bikers, unlike walkers, must consider whether a road is paved, and are barred from sidewalks in some cities.

These are among many variables that prove the best route for a driver may not be the same as someone traveling on foot or riding a bike.   Also, developing a comprehensive pedestrian system requires the onerous task of collecting huge amounts of local metadata and incorporating them into a national database to be used by the mapping services.

"In the U.S. we are primarily a driving country, or have been for a very, very long time," Christian Dwyer, MapQuest's senior vice president and general manager, told the AP.

Supporters believe online walking and biking directions could help change that culture, particularly in urban areas.

The technical challenge involves overlaying detailed information for pedestrians onto existing online driving maps, and then applying it to algorithms used to determine optimum routes. For example, if a walkway, path or shortcut is on a map but not factored in to the algorithm, it may be essentially useless.

"There are some horror stories of the past of people being routed onto the Appalachian Trail or a couple driving off the ferry dock," Jay Benson, vice president of global strategic planning for Tele Atlas, told the AP. Tele Atlas supplies mapping data to Google, MapQuest and others.

But if these adjustments are done properly, Internet mapping services could, for example, instruct a biker to use a riverside trail to avoid congestion, while at the same time advising a walker to dart through a parking lot to cut off a corner.

Some efforts by local community groups have already proven successful. 

An Atlanta-based nonprofit group established a Web site last year that provides specific directions to users based on whether they are biking, walking or using transit.  And in New York, a site was set up to help bikers avoid roads that aren't meant for biking, while optimizing the use of roads with bike lanes and greenways.

In Broward County, Fla., city planners have undertaken a project to let users factor in things such as traffic volume, speed limits, lane widths and shortcuts.  Programmers are currently looking at aerial maps and entering key factors into a route-setting algorithm that incorporates things such as intersections where pedestrians and bikers can make left turns but drivers can't.

The project's planners are aiming for an online lunch sometime next summer.

"I get a lot of calls from people, especially now with gas prices being up, looking for routes for how to get to work," Mark E. Horowitz, the county's bicycle/pedestrian coordinator, told the AP.

Google Maps launched a new feature this week that provides walking directions for trips no longer than 6.2 miles.  The new feature will be added to existing services that help users find the best mass transit routes.

Mapmakers and route planners aim to capitalize on existing knowledge among local communities, a new approach for companies like Tele Atlas, which typically dispatches its own staff to seek out and test drive road routes.   But the company is receptive to accepting pedestrian route information from local groups as long as it can be properly verified.

In Philadelphia, regular walkers and bikers are aware of many timesaving shortcuts.   For example, a biker riding from the city's downtown northern edge to commercial areas to the south is well aware he doesn't need to navigate through the congestion of Center City.   He can simply take a paved trail along the Schuylkill River that would be both shorter and simpler.

Such local knowledge could easily be shared online with newcomers or tourists.

"The easier you make it for people ... the more they're going to do it," Joe Minott, executive director of Philadelphia's Clean Air Council, told the AP.


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