Summary: Cycling for transport only becomes the superior option if you have a complete route that is safe, direct and convenient. This post provides a specific case study explaining how to find and refine the best possible cycling route to a regular destination. It may seem cumbersome but to get the most out of cycling for transport you can't just hop on your bike and take any route just like a car. If you spend a little time planning the most effective route you can significantly expand your personal cycling route network regardless of the progress of actual cycling infrastructure.
> Map your common trips to see how to really make cycling feasible
> How to refine your most frequent cycling routes
1. Use Google Maps cycling directions to map the basic problem
- In this case I started playing indoor cricket every Thursday night in Northcote about 7km to the north east of my house. I had never ridden to the area near the Northcote Indoor Sports centre before so needed to find a safe, convenient route to ride between 7 and 9pm.
- Google Maps cycling directions and "bicycling" layer are the key starting point. Save your home address to Google Maps so you can just type "home" when charting directions.
- Enter your destination first then home address and choose the bicycle icon to search for cycling directions.
- Toggle the "Show bike paths/Hide bike paths" link to turn on and off the bicycling layer of Trails, Dedicated lanes and Bicycle friendly roads. Note that the bicycling layer doesn't show up behind the blue direction route so if you wish to see if a recommended Google cycling direction route is bike-friendly you'll need to temporarily drag a route point away from that street so you can see the bicycling layer.
Google Cycling Directions - Home to Northcote Indoor Sports via Victoria Rd
2. Establish where the gaps are based on your current knowledge of preferred routes
- Typically you will have some familiarity with the most common cycling transport routes near where you live, particularly in the direction of the city or nearest activity centre. In my area (4-6km north of the city centre), most of the high-quality cycling routes run north-south and I know them well.
- By far the safest and most efficient way of going north from my house is using the high-quality St Georges Rd separated cycling route so this is my strong preference for travelling the distance north as opposed to the street Google Maps chose in route 1 - Victoria Rd. Google Maps directions usually lists just 3 route alternatives. Click between all three to check if any match with the transport routes you already know and prefer.
St Georges Rd separated bike track - A major north-south cycling route
- Below I've found that route 3 (marked "Cycle via Gooch St") uses the St Georges Rd separate bike path to go most of the way north so I've used this as my new baseline route. Now the only gap is purely how to get east to the Northcote Indoor Sports centre from St Georges Rd. The rest of the route is fine as I am already comfortable with it.
Google Cycling Directions - Home to Northcote Indoor Sports via Gooch St
3. Optimise the majority of north-south and east-west travel on the fewest number of safe streets; Don't worry about a little extra distance
- At its simplest, all travel can be broken down into a distance you need to move north or south and a distance you need to move east or west. When trying to establish safe, convenient cycling routes you should aim to cover the north-south or east-west travel distance on as few streets as possible even if it means adding a little extra to the total distance. The total travel time will often be quicker and it will certainly be safer and easier.
- For the indoor cricket route I have already optimised the north-south travel using St Georges Rd. The next stage is to choose an east-west route to cover most of the east-west distance that is safe and convenient enough.
- Google Maps recommends Gooch St as a "Bicycle friendly road" and also Christmas St further south. It also lists Dundas St as a "Dedicated lane" route - but this is 500m north of my destination. The most direct route is Mansfield St itself but it is not highlighted in Google's bicycling layer.
Google Maps Bicycling layer - East-west routes between St Georges Rd and Northcote Indoor Sports
- I then rapidly proceed via elimination to pick from the map what I think is the best east-west route:
- If I was simply crossing this neighbourhood in daytime and wanted to do so as efficiently as possible I would likely choose Dundas St as the best east-west cycling route due to its dedicated lane, directness and priority at most intersections. However, as I will be riding at night with safety a higher priority over speed I prefer not to use Dundas St as it feels less safe (due to the higher speed differential with cars) and also means travelling 500m further north and then 500m back south again.
95 Dundas St
- I then rule out Dennis St and Christmas St as my initial preference as it means having to cover a significant north-south distance using a road other than St Georges Rd. Google Map's bicycling layer indicates Station St may be a viable north-south alternative as it has "dedicated lanes" on part of the route. Unfortunately, other parts of Station St are occupied by parked cars and cycling on Station St in these areas is very dangerous (especially at night) as cars are travelling at high speeds.
259 Station St
- Based on Google Maps alone then, I selected Gooch St as my initial east-west preference as it was marked as a "Bicycle friendly road." Up to Victoria St it is wider than most residential streets and allows plenty of space for cars to overtake bicycles safely. It also has speed bumps on the initial stretch near High St to slow down the cars on this stretch.
10-12 Gooch St
4. Minimise the number of turns and streets if not compromising safety
- Transport is always most convenient via a grid of routes at 90 degree angles. Ideally, on a grid, you should want to have as few turns as necessary. However, Google Map directions tend to choose routes that have regular, controlled vehicle flows (i.e. that cars can also drive) so it has come up with 5 turns and 5 streets between St Georges Rd and Northcote Indoor Sports.
- Keeping it simplest would instead suggest that, if possible, I turn right from St Georges Rd directly onto the street that most closely lines up with my preferred east-west route (Gooch St). So this would suggest I turn onto Smith St.
East-west routes from St Georges Rd
- Most bike accidents occur at intersections or when turning so minimising the number of turns reduces the risk. Also, High St is a very busy shopping strip with risks from doorings, traffic, pedestrians and trams so I'd prefer to avoid riding too far on this road.
5. Investigate quieter cycling paths through obstructions that block cars
- Google Maps lists Woolton Ave as a "bicycle friendly road" because it has traffic-calming speed humps. However, because of the train line blocking cars from crossing east-west on most routes, the roads that do cross the train line attract much more traffic. Hence, I prefer not to use this route at night.
24 Woolton Ave
- Fortunately, railway lines do have much more frequent crossing points for pedestrians and cyclists and these can often be very usefully leveraged as part of safer cycling routes - even though Google Maps will typically not include them. Below you can see that Smith St just happens to have one of these crossings directly opposite and so this allows me to cross High St with fewer turns and without having to travel on High St itself for any significant distance.
21 Smith St
- All that remains is to find a suitable place to connect from St Georges Rd to Smith St. Well-designed cycling/walking infrastructure facilitates these connections for cyclists and pedestrians and the St Georges Rd bike track has a convenient crossing point opposite Smith St.
77 Smith St
6. Use actual experience to refine your route to optimise safety and convenience
- After having used St Georges Rd > Smith St > Gooch St > Wilmoth St > Mansfield Rd a couple of times I found Mansfield Rd didn't have much through traffic and I tried staying on it all the way back to High St. This proved to be just as safe as Gooch St and more convenient as I eliminated two turns.
- The main factor for choosing between similar streets like Gooch St and Mansfield St as transport routes is the safety and convenience of the intersections. Actually trying both resulted in my finding that Mansfield Rd has less intersections and that I found the high-risk one (Station St) to be more convenient and safer. Where Gooch St meets Station St there is no efficient crossing point.
258 Gooch St
7. Lessons from the finalised, optimum route
- The finalised route is extremely direct and convenient but also very safe. From St Georges Rd to the Northcote Indoor Sports centre I am not riding on any bicycle infrastructure but the route is safer than most of the roads Google Maps shows in its bicycling layer.
Google Cycling Directions - Home to Northcote Indoor Sports via Mansfield Rd
- Residential streets that are narrow or have traffic-calming infrastructure have minimal through traffic and cars are forced to travel at 40km/hr or less. These streets can be perfect connecting cycling routes. For example, Smith St will never pop up on Google Maps as a suggested route from St Georges Rd but it turned out to be the perfect way to get through. It is narrow and has traffic calming features that result in it only being used by residents.
57-59 Smith St
- Detailing this process using maps, illustrations and descriptions may wrongly suggest there is significant time and effort involved in finding a safe, convenient route to each new destination. In fact, I spent around 15min looking at Google Maps initially and the rest of the minimal effort was expended trying different variations of the route while getting to and from my cricket matches.
- The message of this post is simply that safe, convenient and enjoyable routes are not arrived at magically or perfectly via Google Maps bicycling layer. Nor are you simply at the mercy of whatever bicycle infrastructure happens to exist or not exist. All it takes is a logical, repeatable process to identify an initial preferred route and then refine it on your beginning rides to that destination.
- Remember that each new, safe transport route you establish methodically (as opposed to randomly) adds to your safe transport route network. Your continually-expanding network of safe, convenient routes becomes the foundation for transport freedom in any city - you can get to almost any potential destination on your bike quickly, safely and enjoyably.
- The network of safe-enough, transport routes I am now personally familiar with has expanded such that I feel comfortable travelling by bike to virtually any destination within 20km of my house. Please see the Melbourne Map linked from the home page of this blog to see this network of key cycling routes I can personally recommend. I update this network each time I establish a new key transport route.
- Wikipedia: Bicycle boulevard
- Uni of British Columbia: Bicyclists’ injuries and the cycling environment
> Uni of British Columbia: Safety evidence for bicycling (PDF)
- The Urbanist: How come we don’t already have safe cycling networks?