By Jon Hilkevitch
CHICAGO – The world’s most popular Internet search engine is getting more bicycle-friendly.
Google has unveiled a service offering bicycling directions on its Google Maps feature.
Hard-core and recreational cyclists will be able to use the Web-based technology to plan trips or explore biking trails and routes in 150 U.S. cities, Google officials said.
Several online bike-trip sites already exist. But bicycling advocates hope Google’s entrance in the market benefits not only individual riders but Chicago’s transit system as a whole. One goal is to make it easier for non- or infrequent cyclists to access the service, thereby promoting more bicycling.
The Web address for the service is maps.google.com/biking.
After typing in start and end points and selecting “Bicycling” on the drop-down menu, a user will be provided with itineraries and estimated travel times, although trip times undoubtedly will vary depending on the pedaling power of the individual.
But to allow for such variations, the step-by-step biking directions factor in the length of the trip, changes in elevation and even fatigue, Google officials said.
Until now, Google Maps was limited to helping drivers and mass-transit users navigate their way around.
“This is the next move in what we think mapmaking should be,” said Jim Lecinski, managing director for Google in the U.S. and former head of Google’s operations in Chicago and the Midwest. “Streets are not just for cars.”
Could Google’s new venture mean more commuters may soon start wearing Spandex shorts while traveling to work?
Bicycling advocates think so. While Google isn’t the first company to offer online trip planning for alternative forms of transportation, including walking, it is the largest.
Avid bicyclist Kevin Conway said he is eager to give Google a spin to see whether it’s better than its competitors. Conway has a couple of bike-trip planning sites bookmarked on his computer, but he doesn’t find them particularly useful.
“There are a couple of bad ones out there,” said Conway, 50, an attorney who biked to work 230 days last year and who hasn’t missed a day so far this year.
“A lot of the sites are less sophisticated about choosing more bike-friendly routes versus the shortest distance between two points,” he said.
While withholding judgment until he’s tried the new service, he is especially looking forward to Google’s promise of providing turn-by-turn directions, he said.
The Google bike-trip planner will not immediately be available on cell phones and other wireless devices, but company officials said they are working on a mobile application so that cyclists can look up directions while on their bikes.
Google Maps’ new software program includes recommended cycling routes for specific point-to-point travel and maps that show bike trails, on-street bike lanes and bike-friendly roads.
Bicyclists can also use other features in Google Maps, including Street View, to receive turn-by-turn directions or preview the width of a bike lane, company officials said.
Another feature, Local Search, guides cyclists to locations where they can take a break or find bike shops along the route.
The biking directions provide time estimates for routes based on an algorithm that takes into account the length of the route, the number of hills, fatigue over time and other variables, Google officials said.
Other existing trip-planning services for bicyclists include ridethecity.com and mapmyride.com.
But bicycling advocates say Google’s entry will be a game-changer because it will reach the masses, including anybody at a computer who enters “bike” into a Google search.
“Google is already a tool that people use every day,” said Margo O’Hara, a spokeswoman for the Active Transportation Alliance. “To expand the choices where people are already looking for directions will make more people think about getting around by bike and show them how quickly they can do it in a bike-friendly city.”