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MapQuest Bike Directions: Answers from the Inside

by Stacey Moses

MapQuestMapQuest announced its bicycle routes project on the MapQuest DevBlog in early November, and we’ve been following the reports closely to learn more about this new source for cycling-specific directions. For now, the usefulness of the MapQuest bike routing API is limited to the more tech-savvy cycling enthusiasts.  But the new platform that is being developed as an offshoot of MapQuest’s Open Direction API has the potential to offer more accurate, user-driven directions than other previously released programs. We’ve been generating questions at Commute By Bike as we follow the progress of this new platform. Antony Pegg, Principal Product Manager for MapQuest’s Open Data Initiative, answered our burning questions about open source data, comparisons to Google Maps’ “Bike There,” and more. Thanks to Ted, Melanie and Richard Masoner for their insightful contributions to this interview. And be sure to check out Richard’s comparison of MapQuest’s API and Google bike maps at his blog, Cyclelicio.us.

Commute by Bike (CbB): The MapQuest biking directions are currently based on OpenStreetMap (which is different from MapQuest’s driving directions). Can you explain what OpenStreetMap is?

Antony Pegg (AP): Let’s start by calling it “the Wikipedia of Maps” – OpenStreetMap or OSM is an open source mapping database that is built and contributed by regular people like you and me. All over the world, as I type this, thousands of people are making changes, fixes, and enhancements to this free map. In fact, I’m improving the roads that are part of Ted’s commute right now!

For more details, I’d like to point you to MapQuest’s guide to OpenStreetMap, hosted on our developer network, found at http://developer.mapquest.com/web/products/open/tools/guide.

CbB: Why has MapQuest chosen to use OpenStreetMap as a platform for biking directions? What are the advantages and disadvantages of using open source street data for generating bike routes?

AP: Because we could! We were already working with OSM for motor vehicle directions, and our Routing team has a large contingent of cycling enthusiasts who were very eager to make use of the cycle path data that was in there. Beyond our own enthusiasm to do something new in an area of our own interest, cycling has a huge global contingent and it’s an environmental interest that will only continue to grow. Therefore I think it’s easy to say there are rather obvious reasons for addressing bike routing for a company that provides maps and directions!

Some of the advantages our developers found to the OSM data include:

-Information on dedicated cycling paths and mixed use (walking, cycling) paths that are not present in many other data sets.

-The ability of users to add this information.

-Tags for designated bicycle routes (on streets): though we currently don’t use these, we will in the next iteration.

CbB: When do you anticipate that biking directions will be unveiled as a user-friendly, point-to-point feature on MapQuest?

AP: MapQuest is adding new features to both the regular www.mapquest.com and the open.mapquest.* sites at a regular cadence, so please check back often!

[CbB: I asked Antony for a more specific time frame for the point-to-point bike directions, and he was unable to provide me with any further information.]

Comparison of Google, MapQuest bike maps on Cyclelicious

Comparison of Google, MapQuest bike maps on Cyclelicious

CbB: Google released a biking directions feature this spring. How will MapQuest biking directions be different from what is currently available through Google?

AP: One of the advantages of using OpenStreetMap as base data is that you can edit and improve what you, as a user, find is wrong or changing, and then watch it appear for everyone else to see within minutes. The next day, you will have improved the routing. This is available not just in the MapQuest biking API, but to everyone else who uses OSM, too.

CbB: How will MapQuest verify the accuracy of cycling routes generated by open source street data?

AP: ‘Round here, I can assure you the avid bikers who are also MapQuest employees will be verifying the accuracy of the cycling routes they use themselves. Beyond that, remember this is a crowd-sourced data set with a community that actively enhances it. We encourage [anyone] to get involved, either by reporting the errors for others to fix using the bug reporting on the website, or by going even further if you feel like it, by editing the map yourself – be warned … it’s addictive!

CbB: The MapQuest DevBlog states that “we will route you on paths that are not vehicle accessible and also try to not let you do anything illegal, like riding on an interstate.” Will there be someone at MapQuest overseeing the routes generated or will speed limits, limited access road designations, etc. be updated by user input only?

AP: MapQuest is constantly reviewing the quality of the directions we generate, and working to improve how our algorithms interact with the data to generate meaningful and useful results. The underlying data itself is crowd-sourced. Many of us here are members of the OSM community and contribute in our own time on the routes we use and areas with which we are familiar.

We also evaluate user comments and suggestions and tune our routes and also may offer some route options based on a rider’s preferences. For example, some riders prefer riding on roads (though high traffic roads should be avoided) rather than dedicated paths, while others may prefer to only ride on paths and neighborhood streets.

Shortcuts in Ted's CommuteCbB: Will bike routes be accounted for in the new application? According to the DevBlog, the biking directions will account for bike specific paths (ie. bike access only), but the article doesn’t mention bike routes. For example, in Ted’s commute, there are two shortcuts that save almost a mile between three neighborhoods and downtown. Both shortcuts are legal, but neither is a pedestrian-specific path. One shortcut requires the rider to push the bike for about five yards between two unconnected parking lots. Will there be a way to enter these bike routes/shortcuts that aren’t necessarily pedestrian or bike facilities?

AP: With OSM, a user can enter these known shortcuts and make them cycling/pedestrian access only. Also note the capability to enter designated cycling routes (tags).

CbB: Will there be a way for users to modify MapQuest’s routing for bike facility preferences (e.g. to give bike paths a higher or lower weight or preference) and elevation profile (e.g. to avoid hills)?

AP: This is definitely a goal. We’ve only just begun integrating bike route info and usage into our engine. As we progress, expect to see options appear in the service.

CbB: When and how will the elevation service be integrated into MapQuest cycling directions?

AP: This is one of the more immediate items we are looking at, to help provide weighting on the routes regarding going uphill being harder than going downhill.

CbB: It appears that the MapQuest bike directions work in North America and Europe only right now. Will they work also in Asia, Australia and Africa?

AP: [The application works] also in India and Australia. It will work in later areas as we increase our OSM routing coverage. The full list at the moment is North America (USA/Canada), Europe, India, and Australia.

CbB: Will the “open directions” routing software ever become open source?

AP: I would certainly hope so! I believe in everything being open source… it’s not just up to me, though.

CbB: Is there anything else you’d like to mention about the new biking directions on MapQuest?

AP: There’s probably a ton of things I should say, but I can’t think of anything except to encourage people to not just use the service, but also visit the Open.MapQuest.com sites and report errors and help edit and improve the map, too.

Developers can check out our open tools, services, etc. on developer.mapquest.com.

Oh! And I should also mention the elevation service at http://open.mapquestapi.com/elevation/ which can be very powerful when combined with the directions service.

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4 Responses to “MapQuest Bike Directions: Answers from the Inside”

  1. It is really exciting to see that OSM is being used by Map Quest to provide cycling directions. The importance of user input and ability to edit this type of information is huge, as it really takes a community effort to develop good bicycling routes online since they are so variable and dynamic. The benefit of OSM is that it is really able to capture what things look like on the ground with cyclist input. It’s incredibly difficult for an algorithm alone to be able to do this, but coupling user input with advanced algorithms should produce some great, very user-friendly output. I can’t wait to try out the point-to-point cycling directions on Map Quest!

  2. Ant says:

    Hi Richard,

    thanks for bringing that to our attention. You’re definitely not meant to be getting a 401 error! The guys are looking into it. Hopefully we’ll have a fix soon

    sorry about that

  3. Antony says the service is supposed to work in Australia, but I get a 401 all the time. Here’s an example of the code I use requesting dirctions from Syndey to North Sydney, NSW. Help?

  4. Kinda sorta related: OSM Project of the Week: Bike Parking! It’s a super easy way to learn how to edit OSM data, too.

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