Pound to a penny you’ve got a satnav in your car; have used Google Maps to find a location; and, to plan a long journey, have used the planners on the RAC or AA websites. Now imagine having all this on a smartphone, but in cycle-specific form. Imagine when the POIs –satnav ‘points of interest’ – aren’t petrol stations, but bike shops.
Such a scenario is coming. The Bike Hub levy – an unsung success story which has been quietly working away for UK cycling for many years – has commissioned web developers and a smartphone app developer to create an online and mobile tool that could help customers find bike shops, which, let’s face it, aren’t always in prime High Street locations.
An online journey planner will be integral to BikeHub.co.uk, the new levy-themed name for Bikeforall.net, the website owned by the Bicycle Association and the Association of Cycle Traders.
There will also be a smartphone journey planner. Users – especially newbie cyclists – will be able to plan routes using cyclepaths and quiet streets, not something Google Maps can do in the UK (the US Google Maps has a ‘Bike There’ option). Bike shops will be on this map. Tescos won’t be. Nor will certain other chains which retail bicycles.
The Bike Hub journey planner will be loaded only with independent bicycle shops, with data supplied by the ACT/ActSmart. Think about it. A newbie cycle commuter is riding through a town when she gets a mechanical problem. She’s got her iPhone strapped to her bike in a handlebar mount. She has been following a turn-by-turn route on a cyclepath, a route supplied by the Bike Hub iPhone app. She stops and uses the app to find the nearest bike shop. It’s tucked away out of site, but is easily spotted on the app. Sure, she could have found a bike shop by clicking out of, say, Google Maps (which doesn’t have cycle paths or cycle friendly roads marked) and using Google search, but the Bike Hub app is an all-in-one solution, the digital Swiss Army knife of bicycle wayfinding.
There’s some clever coding being done on the online and smartphone versions of this journey planner. Tinderhouse of Kent is producing the smartphone apps; Roundhouse of Newcastle is working on the website. However, the mapping is done by two blokes in Cambridge. They’re the brains behind Cyclestreets.net – an online journey planner for the whole of the UK. Cyclestreets is a routing engine using opensource maps. The map is OpenCycleMap which is based on OpenStreetMaps. These crowdsourced maps are global and created by enthusiasts.
Cyclestreets.net is run by Martin Lucas-Smith and Simon Nuttall, longtime members of Cambridge Cycling Campaign. Lucas-Smith is CCC’s co-ordinator; Nuttall is the events officer. Lucas-Smith has a degree in geography and works on web development for Cambridge University, while Nuttall has a PhD in artificial intelligence and occasionally works for Cambridge Dutch Bikes.
With 1,000-plus members, CCC is the biggest UK cycle campaign group outside London.
Cyclestreets.net is an online journey planner married to a database of photos. The journey planner is for newbie cyclists (or keen cyclists in an unfamiliar town) and the photo database is for cycle campaigners to upload geo-located photographs of cycle infrastructure problems.
The project launched as a beta just over a year ago, but is based on an earlier Cambridge-only map launched in 2006.
Users of Cyclestreets choose one of three journey speeds: Unhurried 10mph; Cruising 12 mph; and Fast 15mph. The route given depends on the speed chosen. Somebody choosing ‘Unhurried’ on the app will be directed on to cycle paths, where provided, and quieter back streets. Likewise, somebody choosing ‘Fast’ would be directed on to busier roads, although not suicidal ones. The journey planner avoids hills wherever possible.
All three route options are provided to the user, although the preferred route is highlighted. The choices are given as ‘fastest route’; ‘balanced route’; and ‘quietest route’. Users are given a suggested journey time, a hill profile and are told how much of the route is fully classed as ‘quiet’.
“The way I’d cycle somewhere is very different to where my mum would want to pedal,” says Lucas-Smith. “I want to get places quickly, whereas she would like somewhere scenic away from traffic.”
Existing mapping – such as Ordnance Survey – is detailed but doesn’t always contain ‘insider’ information such as non-obvious cut-throughs. As the OpenStreetMap is ‘crowdsourced’ such local knowledge is part and parcel of the dataset.
Further enhancements will include ranking of routes based on quality of surfaces. A standard map would direct a cyclist over cobbles; CycleStreets would give such an uncomfortable road a much lower scoring and so it would be much less likely to appear in a recommended route.
Crowdsourced maps are not all equal. Some areas are better mapped than others.
“OpenStreetMap is better in places where there are lots of cyclists and lots of geeks,” comments Lucas-Smith. Cambridge and London, then, are extremely well mapped. The OpenStreetMap of Germany is now so good, even individual lamp-posts have been placed on the map (a map layer unnecessary for cyclists so easily turned off for daytime use but it can turned back on for journeys due to be undertaken at night).
But what about malicious editing, the Wikipedia problem? “The level of vandalism [on OpenStreetMap] is tiny,” says Lucas-Smith. “People with an interest in a particular area watch maps for changes. Not a lot can be changed without the ‘crowd’ noticing and quickly rectifying. OpenStreetMap is not a cycle map, it’s a general purpose map. Different groups have different interests in the data. The data is robust.”
Ease of editing is an advantage. Physical changes make it on to OpenStreetMap very quickly. While Ordnance Survey has to send out surveyors, OpenStreetMap is done on the hoof, by volunteers.
Newly minted online maps are produced every few days, not weeks or months. “People are sceptical of crowdsourcing but it’s easily good enough for most uses,” says Lucas-Smith. “For routing we don’t need to know exactly where an underground powercable is; we don’t need that level of accuracy.
“That’s not to say commercially available mapping is perfect. We’ve all heard of the routing errors of car satnavs.”
While OpenStreetMap isn’t cycle specific, much of the mapping work done for it has been completed by cyclists. Lucas-Smith explains: “Cycling is the best way to map streets with on-board GPS devices. It’s quicker than walking, more flexible than a car, especially when mapping housing estates. If you see a point-of-interest, you ride in a circle and when you upload to your computer you see this turning circle on the GPS track. Cars can’t do that and nor can they stop every few metres.”
The Cyclestreets journey planning tries to send cyclists only on waymarked cycle routes where it’s sensible to do so.
“We take into account routes with branding. Sustrans routes are in the system,” says Lucas- Smith. “We give a bit of weighting to off-road routes but we don’t want to emphasise ‘facilities’ for the sake of it. However, if a route is branded, there’s going to be some signage, so it’s silly to verge off it to save a few seconds.”
Currently, the Cyclestreets journey planner can construct journeys up to a maximum of 50kms, though that restriction will be extended as the coding matures.
“It’s not designed for Land’s End to John O’Groats routing. We’re focussing on commuters.”
The average length of routes planned to date is four to five kilometres.
“That doesn’t sound far, but lots of town planners and the like thinks that’s too far for most cyclists and base planning decisions on such assessments,” adds Lucas-Smith. “Our data has information that can inform policy makers to the actual journeys being planned.”
And actual journeys will be planned with the Cyclestreets information in the Bike Hub iPhone app. When news of its imminent launch was revealed on Twitter, would-be downloaders were enthusiastic: “That will be really useful,” wrote @cicom. “Sounds amazing!” enthused @dancromb. And, in a foretaste of how the app will transform the commutes of some cyclists, @JobySp said: “I could kiss you all over.”