MapQuest and OpenStreetMap: Is there a Bike Under the Hood?

The MapQuest Dev Blog has announced that MapQuest can map a bike route using data from OpenStreetMap. Before you get too excited, there’s no place yet on MapQuest where you can search for bike directions, but it may mean that they are one step closer a user-friendly way to map a bike route using real-world information submitted by real people.

[W]e 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 : ) On a more serious note, the following list provides some specific rules that are applied to bike routes:

  • Avoids roads where bicycle access in OpenStreetMap is set to false
  • Avoids all limited access highways
  • Favors bike specific paths (road segments that have bicycle access only – no auto or pedestrian)
  • Favors walkways with no auto access
  • Applies various weights to roads based on the [maximum speed of a road] (ex. favors routes where [the maximum speed is less than] 30 mph)

An example of the shortest route (i.e. for a car):

MapQuest Shortest Route

An example of the a bike route from the same starting point to the same destination:

MapQuest Bike Route

The blog is silent on when (or even if) this will become a feature on MapQuest. But what it does mean is that in the hands of the right software geek (and mapping geeks are the intended readers of the MapQuest Dev Blog) this information can be used to generate bike-friendly directions right now.

So, MapQuest, why wait?

Other articles on Bike Route Mapping:

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7 thoughts on “MapQuest and OpenStreetMap: Is there a Bike Under the Hood?”

  1. Misty says:

    Google maps already does this. I’m sure it varies by location, but it has worked marvelously for me. You have to sometimes look at the street view to understand the directions, however, because sometimes it sends you through unnamed alleyways or parking lots. 🙂 I like to look at the street view, anyhow, to verify that it really is a bike-safe route.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      To understand the significance about this development, one needs to know what Google Maps doesn’t do, and what OpenStreetMap does do. The three other articles to which I linked provide an excellent primer on various mapping resources vis-a-vis Google’s Bike-There feature. (I’ll quote Part II here, but all three articles are worth the read. I’ll also see if I can get Melanie Meyers, the author of these articles, to chime in as well.)

      [T]he lack of actual human/local knowledge or input [in Google Maps], is also problematic for me, although Google claims to be solving this problem through their feedback option.
      OpenStreetMap, which is an open-source, free, editable online mapping service.
      What separates OpenStreetMap from Google Maps, MapQuest, or other similar online mapping tools is that it is dynamic, user-oriented, and transparent.  Perhaps the OpenStreetMap Wiki sums it up best:

      OpenStreetMap creates and provides free geographic data such as street maps to anyone who wants them. The project was started because most maps you think of as free actually have legal or technical restrictions on their use, holding back people from using them in creative, productive, or unexpected ways.

      OpenStreetMap allows each individual cyclist to edit or view data based on his or her riding preferences. One is not limited to avoiding major intersections, like Google’s current Bike-There feature does, for example, and instead, one can choose a route based more on personal preferences. This is limited however, by lack of elevation and terrain information, as this kind of map data is often expensive to obtain or copyrighted, and thus, doesn’t really fit with the OpenStreetMap model.

      So the (potential) big deal here is that MapQuest is developing a way of providing bike routes that are enhanced with information provided by real cyclists–plus elevation information. Imagine being able to generate a bike route that includes safe shortcuts that Google Maps doesn’t know about (my bike commute includes two of these), and also allows you to choose alternate routes based on the elevation contours you would encounter.

  2. Johnny K says:

    Ok maybe I am missing something with OpenStreetMap but I cannot find where to put a start and destination address for it to show me a route? It seems difficult to use and does not have the nice widgets that both Google and MapQuest have. To layout every turn for a route is very labor intensive and takes patients with OpenStreetMap due to how slow it responds. Don’t get me wrong Google and MapQuest are slow to respond as well however when you can type in a address and the software finds the location then you can ask for directions from that location to another I think this is what really sets these commercial map software apart from OpenStreetMap. I even looked at the cyclist version and it is no more intuitive than the regular version of OpenStreetMap.

  3. Ted Johnson says:

    That’s what I meant by, “Before you get too excited, there’s no place yet on MapQuest where you can search for bike directions.”

    What is exciting, is that maybe we’ll see the kind of user-friendly widgets found on commercial mapping sites, combined with the user-contributed secrets added to OpenStreetMap–plus elevation data.

  4. This is very interesting news about the new MapQuest development. I will really look forward to trying it out when it is available.

    I think the main difference at the moment between the proposed MapQuest tool that utilizes OpenStreetMap and the Google BikeThere Feature are the underlying data sources. While both applications get their data from a variety of sources, the data in the OpenStreetMap is much more dynamic and flexible in terms of user input. Although Google BikeThere does allow and encourage user input, by asking users to indicate problem areas where the directions generated are inadequate, incorrect, dangerous, etc., the underlying directions and structure still need to be approved by the Google system. Conversely, with OpenStreetMap, it is much more open to user input and therefore, potential more reflective of the actual bike routes that people use.

    However, they are both progressing towards the same goal, which is to capture the best bike routes when queried by a user. This is, in fact, a very lofty goal and requires some very complex algorithms and programing, as a bike route can often be so much more complex than a driving route, especially if there are useful shortcuts, off-road sections, etc.

    I am looking forward to watching these applications progress!

  5. I’ve whipped up a clunky proof of concept using Mapquest’s bicycle API.

    Ted’s observations about Google’s limitations are spot on. Using my map I’ve already found a couple of usable routes that I didn’t even know about.

    Not only that, MapQuest’s bicycle routing API works in several countries outside of the United States. MapQuest generates routes in Canada, the UK, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Mexico. It does *not* work for locations in Japan and Australia.

    Mapquest’s API does have a couple of serious limitations: it doesn’t seem to recognize all bike facilities, and I think Mapquest should weight bike facilities a little more strongly.

    My map app is still very clunky and doesn’t demonstrate MapQuest’s capabilities very well. The major functionality fail is in it’s geocoding capability — that’s the start and destination addresses that Johnny K asked about.

    The other major shortcoming is it doesn’t fail very gracefully – you either just get a blank screen, or a random map location (depending on the failure). This is *my* code and not a shortcoming of the underlying API.

  6. Update: I’ve fixed the map application to use a real geocoding service so you may enter addresses, zip codes, etc just like any other online map app. It’s much more usable now. I’d love to know your opinion.

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