Sunday 5 January 2014

How useful is Open Street Map's cycling layer?

Summary: Open Street Map (OSM) is an open source, crowdsourced mapping project. Trying to use it to find cycling routes and destinations in Melbourne has shown the OSM map website isn't very helpful compared to Google Maps. However, other websites/apps that leverage OSM data in more usable ways may have some utility. On some routes, OSM route data is more accurate than Google Maps; on some routes it isn't.

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Taiyo FUJII

1. OSM's cycling layer is poor for quickly scanning all key cycling routes
- Below is a screenshot from the OSM website for inner city Melbourne. The key cycling transport routes mostly do not stand out. What is highlighted are off-road bike paths (light blue) and a few of the priority (e..g segregated) bike tracks (purple) that exist. Thus, the highlighted sections are mostly not well connected, indirect and slow. Consequently, it's impossible to quickly scan this map to plot an efficient route from A to B.

OSM map of Melbourne with cycling layer on

- The highlighted routes appear to be because of OSM's concept of National, Regional and Local cycling routes. The applicability and consistency of these in Western Europe may make this more useful, but in Australia, which has far more reliance on on-road lanes/markings, this leads to inconsistent designation with many key cycling routes lost in the low-emphasis "cyclepath" category. (It doesn't help that this legend can't be accessed from the OSM mapping site).

OpenCycleMap Legend

2. Google Maps cycling layer is excellent for quickly scanning all key cycling routes
- Below is a screenshot of the same area from Google Maps. In contrast to OSM, all the key cycling transport routes for getting around inner city Melbourne visibly stand out. It's easy to quickly identify direct, connected-up, cycling-friendly routes. The off-road bike paths ("trails") are still visible in the darkest shade of green but do not dominate the map. The few segregated/priority bike tracks appear in the same "dedicated lanes" classification as the majority of Melbourne's cycling-friendly routes. This makes it easy to quickly scan this map to plot an efficient route from A to B.

Google Map of Melbourne with cycling layer on

3. Ride the City which uses OSM data has a more usable map website than OSM
- Other sites are able to leverage OSM data and present it in more useful and usable ways for cycling routes on websites or smartphone apps. Ride the City is one example where the OSM data is presented in only two colours - Protected paths are green and Bike lanes and routes are blue. On this map it is easier to scan the map and find a connected, cycling-friendly route. The cycling legend is also readily accessible from the bottom right.

Ride the City - Melbourne

- The other Ride the City map functionality is not as good as Google Maps. For example, the directions and map details. However, it does show bike share docking stations and bicycle shops.

- In terms of the accuracy of cycling route data, I've noticed different gaps and errors in both Google Maps and OSM, so neither is clearly superior. Google Maps tends to be more comprehensive though in marking more routes as bicycle-friendly.