Thursday 4 September 2014

Improving Google Maps bicycling layer data for Melbourne

Summary: Google Maps bicycling layer is an essential tool for urban cyclists seeking the safest, most convenient and pleasant routes in their city. In a separate post I will discuss enhancements to the presentation of useful bicycling data in the maps interface (e.g. directionality of bike lanes). This post is simply about improving the data as currently displayed to make it more accurate, comprehensive and useful for cyclists. I detail how to use Google Map Maker to directly make corrections and additions to the Google Maps bicycling data. If in Melbourne, please use the comments to submit the most critical corrections needed.

Related Posts:
> See the "routes and maps" category of this blog.
Melbourne map of key cycling transport routes, infrastructure and destinations

1. About the Google Maps "Bicycling" layer
- This is available on all devices by clicking to display the "Bicycling" layer or selecting "Show bike paths" when looking up directions.

- The 4 types of bicycle route markings are defined on the Google Maps Help site:
Trails” don’t have auto traffic.
Dirt/unpaved trails” are off-road dirt paths.
Dedicated lanes” are roads with cars that have a separate bike lane.
Bicycle-friendly roads” are roads that don’t have a bike lane but are recommended for cyclists.
Help: Traffic, transit, biking, and terrain on the map
2. Google Maps typically gets its base bicycling data and classifications from government departments and then allows end users to submit corrections/additions
- In Australia it seems to collect most of its data classifying routes as Trails, Dedicated lanes or Bicycle-friendly roads from local governments. Unfortunately, some local governments exaggerate the extent of their cycling infrastructure by wrongly classifying some roads as having better cycling facilities than they do. Other local governments are simply careless about accuracy and have lots of mistakes in the data.

- It's important for experienced cyclists to use Google Map Maker to correct the data, not just to help other cyclists but because it should force some greater quality control from the data providers with lots of errors (deliberate or accidental). I'll be doing this as time permits for the routes I know well and will document key examples and lessons learned here. Hopefully, this should facilitate efficient corrections/updates by other cyclists in Melbourne and other cities.

3. Google Map Maker Help - Guidance on editing maps
- See the Map Maker Help Center
> Roads and other lines > Road Attributes

- The most critical parts are extracted below:
Bicycle access
This attribute indicates how accessible a road is for bicycles.
Unknown: The default option for all roads. This allows routing for cyclists unless the Priority is set to Expressway or Freeway.
Allowed, no bicycle lane: Roads where bicycling is permitted even though there is no special marked lane for bicycles.
On-street bicycle lane: Roads with bicycle lanes that are marked by stripes, signs, and pavement markings.
Closed to bicycles: Roads that completely restrict bicycles.
Segregated Parallel lane/Trail: Roads designated for use by cyclists only. 
Bicycle suitability
This attribute indicates how suitable a road is for bicycle use.
Preferred: Roads that you'd prefer while cycling.
Avoid: Roads that don't have any explicit bicycle restrictions, but you'd rather avoid while cycling. 
Pedestrian access
This attribute indicates how accessible a road is for pedestrians.
Unknown: Roads that allow routing for pedestrians except when the Priority is set to Expressway or Freeway. Unknown is the default option for all roads.
Allowed, no sidewalk: Roads that allow pedestrians, but lack pavement or sidewalks.
Sidewalk: Roads with pavement or sidewalks constructed for pedestrians.
Closed to pedestrians: Roads that explicitly forbid pedestrian access.
4. Gaffney St: Newlands Rd to Sydney Rd - Non-existant dedicated bike lane
- Google Maps indicates there is a dedicated bike lane along this section:

- In reality, there are no bike lanes (of any type) on either side of the road. There is a narrow, shared path on one side of the street.
Gaffney St near Newlands Rd

- The shared path is not very suitable as a means of completing this section of road. It is narrow, indirect and only lasts as far as the park extends. The Google Maps on-road "dedicated bike lane" clearly needs to be deleted.
Open Street Maps - Gaffney St

- Using Google Map Maker with my Google account I am able to click on the section of the road I wish to view the current attributes for. In this case, the reference to a "On-street bicycle lane" is clearly incorrect.

- In determining what the bicycle attribute should be I check a well-known reference example to see what its attributes are. In this case, I looked up Nicholson St in Carlton which has a shared path next to the road.

- Now I need to apply my correction but I have to be careful to only update the relevant sections. So I select the 5 segments along which the shared path runs. The rest of Gaffney St will need to be done later. It is important that you are confident that your edits are accurate for all segments being edited. Apart from cycling the route recently you can also use Google Streetview to double check but make sure you review the Streetview photo dates (when I reviewed this segment on Streetview the date was Feb 2014 - six months earlier).

- This is what the "Bicycle & Pedestrian Info" road attributes section looked like prior to my edits. The "multiple values" is due to the fact that I am editing 5 sections at once (some segments were marked as "On-street bicycle lane" and others as "Unknown").

- To apply my new selection to all 5 segments I choose from the dropdown options. Thus it is critical that your selection accurately apply to all selected segments. I will be choosing "Segregated parallel lane/trail" as my update. Also check the correct updates to apply to both directions as you need to make separate updates "From A to B" and also "From B to A".

- After completing my updates the attributes are as below. I decided not to choose "Preferred" or "Avoid" for bicycle suitability as this section cannot be recommended but it shouldn't be totally eliminated from direction routing as the rest of this route is safe and convenient. I updated the pedestrian access attributes while editing as this is useful for walking directions.

- After saving my edits they are queued for review by other locals. I added a comment summarising why the corrections were made. Apparently, my submitted edits will be reviewed quicker if I review other edits.

- The next step was to continue selecting sections of Gaffney St with the same attribute update needed and saving them. I've finished this now.

5. Brunswick St: Bike lane disappears near Victoria St but gap does not appear in Google Maps
- Brunswick St (between Victoria St and Gertrude St) does not have any type of bike lane on the west side (heading north). This isn't a big problem though as cars only use a single lane and bikes ride in a de facto lane between parked cars and the traffic lane. However, the bike lane on the east side (heading south) disappears 30m before Victoria St and this is a cause of significant inconvenience, particularly for bike commuters to the CBD. I've documented the issue and the City of Yarra's proposed (but not yet approved) solution of creating space for a narrow bike lane. See: Improving Brunswick St and St Georges Rd south of Merri Parade

Google Maps bicycling layer indicates dedicated lanes in this section of Brunswick St

The disappearing bike lane leads to cyclists squeezed against the kerb and dangerous passes

- Generally, Brunswick St is a safe and very convenient cycling route so in making such corrections (removing the incorrect dedicated lane) I don't wish to reduce the chances of this route being suggested in the directions. However, it's desirable that gaps that need to be (and can be) addressed actually show up in Google Maps rather than being hidden away. Hence, I have used Google Map Maker to update this segment:

- My submitted update now lists bicycle access as "Allowed, no bicycle lane". However, I have set the bicycle suitability to "Preferred" in order to ensure that this key cycling route is not de-prioritised as a result. I will monitor this update to see if any issues are raised and, hopefully, to see the green line end before Victoria St - reflecting the actual experience of cyclists.

6. Heidelberg Rd: Sections marked as dedicated lanes which are not dedicated and either consist of awareness symbols are too narrow or have parked cars on them
- The next correction will focus on Heidelberg Rd. Past rides and reviewing Google Streetview indicates that many significant corrections are needed. I will first need to re-ride this route to confirm whether the current Google Streetview photos are still accurate for all segments.

Google advises Heidelberg Rd has dedicated bike lanes here. All I can find is this!

Further Info:
Google Map Maker
> Map Maker Help Center
> Roads and other lines > Road Attributes

Google Maps
> Help: Traffic, transit, biking, and terrain on the map

BigYak bike trails map (shows Open Street Map data in Google Maps)

Brisbane Cyclist: Urban planner wants your help to make a better cycle network map

Bicycle Network
> Heidelberg Road Bicycle Provision for the Cities of Darebin and Yarra (PDF)