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Archive for July, 2008

Google Maps "Walk There"; Walk Score

July 23, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Advocacy

We saw some news about this a couple of weeks ago, and now the beta Google “Walk There” feature seems to be fairly widely implemented:

It’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere, and when it’s not too hot, it feels like a waste of gorgeous weather to get behind the wheel or hop in a cab. Doubly so when you’re traveling to a city you’d love to explore, and you’re pretty sure that you could walk from your hotel to the aquarium, if only you could figure out the way. You could try to use driving directions from Google Maps, but city centers are always a maze of one-way streets and no-left-turns. These driving directions from a local hotel to the Seattle Aquarium require numerous contortions in order to obey one-way streets and find a route under the freeway, taking you out of the way of where you could go by foot:

The above image shows driving directions from a Seattle hotel to the Seattle Aquarium. Notice the funky left turn onto 2nd Ave. I guess I had forgotten about just one of the many ways driving is often so wasteful.

Reading more at the Google LatLong blog post on this awesome new feature, we see that now the “Public Transit” directions now include better walking directions. They used to basically just say something like “get yourself to the bus stop over at 123 Jones Ave.” and drew a big arcing arrow path, but now they provide real walking directions for those parts of your public transit trip where you’ll be walking. Very cool stuff.

Walk Score is a very interesting and very important venture. I had first heard of them months ago, but didn’t pay them much attention; I had not yet connected the dots of how bikeability and walkability and open spaces all fall under the same umbrella called “Livable Streets.” We all wanted the same things, I just didn’t see the big picture yet.

So, a few months go by, the Livable Streets and biking and walking movements continue to pick up steam, and then Walk Score releases a report on America’s Most Walkable Neighborhoods and Cities. It looks at data for 2,508 neighborhoods across America.

And then I get an email that mentions that Google played some part in Walk Score, and sure enough, there it is on the Walk Score website:

Advisory Board

The Walk Score advisory board includes urban planning, environmental and technical experts from institutions such as The Sightline Institute, The Brookings Institution, and Google.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot, but it’s something. Google took some of their time to work on what is a very important public policy initiative—essentially advocating for more livable communities, or, at a minimum, a renewed dialogue on the role of transportation in America.

Walk Score is so important because it is helping to push the idea of livable communities into the public imagination, and it helps promote this with actual data and scores. They give this basic premise on their website:

About Walk Score

“What I can walk to” is a common home-buying and apartment-renting criterion. Walk Score’s patent-pending technology calculates a Walk Score for any property and shows a map of what’s nearby with reviews to help you find a great neighborhood.

Walk Score launched in July of 2007 and over 1 million addresses were searched in the first month. Walk Score has been featured in over 500 blogs and 75 newspaper articles and radio segments.

Our Mission

The Walk Score mission is to promote walkable communities. We believe that walking is good for our health, our communities, and our planet.

Very cool stuff. And you can visit the site, punch in your address, and get the Walkscore for your location. From there, it can serve as a tool for you and your neighbors to try to increase your walk score. The Walk Score algorithm is not perfect yet, but it should continue to get better and more accurate with time.

There are lots of folks who have played a part in Walk Score, among them (I’ll probably miss some, sorry) the main software house responsible for the tools, Front Seat. The Advisory Board is full of heavy hitters. Zillow.com provided information on the neighborhood boundaries.

The legislative action that Walk Score asks us to pay attention to is the upcoming Transportation Bill—the big Congressional kahuna that’s passed once every ten years. Talk about pork city. I’m not sure how much effect we’ll be able to have, given that Congress and other leaders have approval ratings that all seem to be the lowest in the history of America, and most encumbents seem to get re-elected for virtually their entire lives, but I’ll listen to whatever the Walk Score folks say. We can sign their petition, which sounds like a very good idea, and I’m sure we should all be following it as closely as we can, calling our reps, all the usual stuff. The legislation scene is not my game, but it’s crucial, of course, so when an organized group of citizens says they need our help, we need to be ready to support them if we agree with their cause. Transportation for America seems to be the driving organization behind the petition and lobbying Congress for more money for livable communities. They’re going to need all the help that they can get, so even if we only have a couple of minutes, we should definitely help them out however we can.

If you want to keep up with what Walk Score is up to—and I think that would be a worthwhile endeavor—they have a blog and a newsletter.

BikeBlogs.org: The Bicycle Blog Network

July 16, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Advocacy

In our Big Initiatives post, #13 was to:

13) Create and promote a “town hall”—virtual and/or physical—that can connect the entire bicycle, pedestrian, and mass-transit community.

Well, we’re finally going to start addressing the “virtual” half of this equation, with what we hope will become a worldwide bike blog network, BikeBlogs.org. The first blog in the network is San Francisco, at sf.bikeblogs.org. News and information at the main URL, bikeblogs.org, will be restricted to news about the operation of the network (e.g. new city/town announcements), and possibly national and international bike news. If a local bike blog, like sf.bikeblogs.org, covers a national news story, it will do so by relating it back to the local community. This makes sense for various reasons, but it goes particularly well with our mission of helping to build up the self-sufficiency and vibrancy of the local bike community in each city and town we operate. We want to be able to mobilize when we need to.

Since about the second time I visited BikePortland.org, I started thinking, “Why doesn’t Palo Alto have a bike blog? Where is BikePaloAlto.org?” (I was living in Palo Alto at the time.)

The more I read BikePortland.org, the more I became convinced of its importance to the bicycling community, there. Of course there were hundreds/thousands of bikers participating all over Greater Portland to make good bike things happen, but BikePortland.org seemed to have an amplifying effect. Whatever bike advocates in Portland were up to, they were made more effective because of BikePortland.org—and they knew they had a voice in the media that would give them a fair hearing. And for everyday bike riders, they could learn the ins and outs of riding a bike, and could easily get involved in bicycle advocacy because of Forums and other collaboration features of the website. We want every town to be able to experience this.

StreetsBlog is a great blog (network) that is doing great work, too. They already cover New York City and Los Angeles.

StreetFilms, while not necessarily a bike blog network, is having a tremendous impact on bike advocacy efforts all over the U.S., if not the world. Their films are forces of nature; they’re so good that sometimes I think long-time bicyclists must have suffered an awful lot to justify our good fortune these days. In our advocacy efforts, we sometimes have only to point to a full-motion, skillfully-edited, and highly informative video clip of exactly the type of public policy we want our local governments to adopt. The videos are overpowering. They’re an absolute gift. I’m glad StreetFilms is on our side.  :)

And there are countless other hard-working bloggers, videobloggers, Twitterers, etc., all over the U.S., and all over the world who are helping to bring that shared sense of purpose to their towns, and we applaud them all—please keep up the good work. It is true that anybody can blog, but not everybody has resources (time, money, etc.) to write an informative blog that really serves the public good.

At a high level, BikeBlogs is no different than any other type of bike advocacy—it’s organizing—pooling resources and working together to be larger and more effective than the sum of our parts. We want to help those hundreds/thousands of bloggers out there who really love bicycles and the bicycle lifestyle, but don’t have the several hours a day to spend keeping their blogs updated often enough, dealing with technology issues, trying to dig for bike information from the recent town council meeting while holding down a job and taking care of the kids, and so forth.

And we’re particularly concerned that smaller towns might not have the resources to make a stand-out bicycle blog. We want to do everything we can to make sure that Small Town, USA, and Small Town, Anywhere In The World, is able to start and run a first-class bike blog.

We hope this works. We’ll give it our best shot. And if you think you might like to help, or if you’d just like more information on this project, please check out the growing FAQ at BikeBlogs.org.

Having the “physical town hall,” I believe, is equally important. It can even be someone’s living room, and it can be as often or seldom as you want—once a month or once a week; it’s up to y’all. Some of the bike shops in Austin, TX would have a weekly or monthly Bike-In Movie Night (old article), kind of a play on the old Drive-in theatres; they can be multi-functional meetups. And maybe they should be: too much policy talk can get boring in a hurry.

Google Testing Walking Directions

July 10, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Advocacy

This is not just hearsay—this has really been released into the wild, in Beta (test) form, for a few users in a few different cities. Google Operating System blog has a screenshot, and News.com backs it up.

The one curious thing that jumps out at me is the lack of a “Public Transit” option on the screenshot; there is a “Drive” option and a “Bike” option. Not necessarily all that interesting, but curious. Once you start talking about walking or biking directions, you have to start planning for true multimodal transport directions—being able to get a route based on your specific walk/bike/mass transit/drive preferences.

This is a great development. We’ve talked before about how we need to put pedestrians at the top of the transportation hierarchy (something which not everyone may agree with), and this new feature will help us to do that. Our FAQ #9 addresses walking directions. Lots of people who signed the petition, left comments on this blog and other blogs, and sent emails were very interested in walking directions, so I’m very happy to see that they are finally getting them, or hopefully will be shortly.

A lot of the expertise that Google developed and/or acquired to make this happen can only mean very good things for our efforts to see bicycle directions.

In the meantime, we can hope that Ride the City continues to fill out their offering, and then expands it into our cities and towns.

A quick aside: a company that works in the “online directions” space, based out of New York, is HopStop.

So, a hearty congrats to the Google folks! We wish them the best of luck in rolling this out around the world. Let’s push for bicycle directions next!   :)

Reddit!

July 10, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Bicycle Maps

Reddit is a popular social news website. Today, we made their front page:

Now, we just need a bit more help to push it up to the top and keep it there for a bit. It could help us get lots of exposure, so please consider rolling over there, doing the quick sign-up (which does not require an email address, I don’t think), and voting up our petition. I’ve been an on-and-off-again user of Reddit, so I already had an account.

Thanks!

New Amsterdam Project

July 07, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Advocacy

The New Amsterdam Project (NAP) “provides human-powered delivery services in the metro Boston area.”

Check out a recent video clip that aired on local Boston-area television:

An electric motor-assisted bicycle was not something I was particularly enthusiastic about, but after seeing the New Amsterdam Project in action, my mind has done a 180—sometimes you just have to abandon absolute purity in favor of absolute awesomeness.   :)

We referenced work bikes in our Big Initiatives post.

Google Maps and Tour de France 2008

July 07, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Advocacy

Google has partnered with Tour de France to bring us the Street View feature for all 21 stages of the 2008 Tour. I think much of France is extraordinarily beautiful, so even if you’re not a Tour person, you’ll probably be able to find some pictures that you really dig.

Check out the intro video:

When I first heard about this project, I thought, “Cool!” but now I look at it and think, “Ah-ha! Google is using the icon of a person on a bicycle to represent this!”

It might not seem like a big deal, but it is still kind of cool. There is really no way a Google developer could work on this and not think, “Darn—we should have bicycle directions on Google Maps.

Here’s a snapshot of what this Tour feature looks like, from Stage 3, Saint-Malo to Nantes:

On a semi-related note, some time ago I went to a Tour de France “viewing party” at a movie theatre in Arlington, Virginia (metro Washington, D.C.). A Washington Post blog entry about the 2005 party is here. This was one of the best events that I have ever attended. I hope they’re doing it again this year, but I don’t know. BikePortland.org also has a couple of older blog posts that mention viewing parties. I tried to crank one up in Palo Alto a year or two ago, but didn’t have much luck. I hope to see more of these all over the place.

Monocle Magazine, 25 Most Liveable Cities, Alain de Botton, and Urban Design

July 02, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Advocacy

A couple of months ago I started looking at Google.org (Google’s non-profit arm) just to see if we might be able to somehow get them involved in our efforts to see bicycle navigation on Google Maps. I knew they were big into renewable energy and staving off climate change, so they might have an interest in our lobbying efforts. I knew they were into plug-in hybrid cars, but I didn’t know they were into geothermal power. To figure out what geothermal was all about, I started Googling around, and must’ve cycled across this Monocle article on Swiss grocery store chain Coop (video interview), which Monocle labels “the greenest grocer in the world.” It turns out Coop (pronounced Kohp, like Hope) was using geothermal power. And that’s how I found out about Monocle Magazine (wiki).

A few months on, they provided us a list of the world’s most-liveable cities (subscription required). Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space gives us the full list. Copenhagen Cycle Chic was quick to tout Copenhagen’s top ranking. (Also, Denmark just came out on top of the “World’s Happiest Countries” ranking.) It’s OK, though—I plan to do the same when Austin makes #1. ;-)

Monocle is a high-end ($10 USD per issue; £7.50 Euros per issue), “freaky,” and all-around very good magazine. There are not too many magazines I can pick up these days and read more than an article or two of (Momentum is an exception), but if I could afford Monocle, I’d subscribe right away. At a minimum, you’ll get interesting pictures from all over the world. The website has lots of great video, and both the content and the look seem very polished.

Check out the video trailer for the “Quality of Life” issue here (.mp4 format), or just play the Flash version below:

To explain their methodology, Monocle’s founder and editor published an article in the IHT last year titled “Urban Manifesto: Factors that make a city great.”

For this current “Liveable Cities” issue, Monocle has an interview with Alain de Botton (homepage) (wiki) that is worth a listen.

A few years ago, I read de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy and thought it was pretty cool, so I was interested in what he had to say. I didn’t know he knew a thing or two about architecture.

Over and over again, it seems like we keep running into the concepts of urban design. For much of the world, it seems clear that we’ve messed up pretty badly and now we need to get back on track. Bicycling and urban design go hand in hand.

…p.s. I was hoping someone would smush this list of liveable cities up against the top bicycling cities and tell us what the overlap is. Is there a positive correlation between liveable cities and bikeable cities? I would think so, but I’d like to get a little more clarity.

Women's True Beginner Class

July 01, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Advocacy

Yet another inspiration from the folks in Atlanta: the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition and Emory:

Ladies: Always wanted to learn to ride but never could or did? So many of us would love to ride a bicycle for the pleasure of riding with loved ones, especially kids and grandkids, for the satisfaction of moving by your own (green!) power, and for doing something active to keep our bodies and minds healthy.

Here’s your opportunity to learn how to ride a bike with the support and encouragement of other women who share your enthusiasm and willingness to try something new and challenging. The course is designed and taught by a trained female Licensed Cycling Instructor and Atlanta Bicycle Campaign Cycling Educator especially for adult women who have never learned to ride.

This class is open to women only in order to ensure a comfortable learning environment and will take place on the grassy and green Emory campus.

I feel that this is really important because I suspect there are lots of people out there who are very self-conscious about hopping on a bike. Still. It doesn’t matter to them that we think “it’s no big deal,” or that “it’s easy, don’t worry about it, you’ll get it no problem,” or that “even kids can do it—go on, hop on, try it out.” We need to take folks’ concerns seriously.

With the title of this particular class having the words True Beginner in it, there is no room left for uncertainty; if you do not know how to ride a bike, you will be a perfect fit for this class. You will not be the only one in the class who has never ridden a bicycle, and no one will make you feel insecure for not having ridden a bicycle before.

To me, this class is an example of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition and Emory reaching out, in no uncertain terms, to at least one group of folks who just can’t or won’t hop on a bike, even if they really want to. Maybe they never learned? Or maybe it’s been 20 years? Maybe they’ve been in other “fitness classes” where they felt intimidated by others being better cyclists and/or athletes? Maybe they’re just not comfortable doing exercise activities in the presence of men? It could be anything. But whatever it is, the folks at the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition and Emory are seemingly making it their mission in life to put these women on bikes, and that’s a great thing.

Further down on the page, we even have this:

Helmet and bicycle required – please let us know if you do not have a bicycle – we’ll work with you!

Again, the message to potential class participants is clear: “You do not have to explain yourself. You do not have to justify yourself. We are going to put you on a bike and make you self-sufficient. Just sign up, give us a call if you do not have a bike and helmet yet, and we will work with you to make sure you get what you need. We are going to help you learn to ride a bike. It is going to be fun. There will be no rush. There will be no pressure. Even if you have no idea what a bicycle looks like, we will most likely have you riding at the end of the day. We have a 98% success rate. And if you happen to be part of that 2% that does not quite get it the first time around, then we are going to make sure you get it the second time around. It is that simple. We will not give up on you.”

This is similar to the attraction that the entry-level triathlon packages might have for “true beginner” triathletes. Beginners are more likely to participate when all barriers to entry are removed.

Of course, not every organization has the resources to do this cool stuff, but many do. If nothing else, this would be my exhortation to myself and to all of us bicycling advocates to continue to reach out to folks and really try to grasp what is preventing people from participating in bicycling.

The Boston Globe covers the topic of adults learning to ride bikes, too:

SOMERVILLE - Michael Lamb is a 44-year-old history teacher with a quiet smile and unusual courage. He’s learning, finally, how to ride a bicycle - despite being nearly four decades older than the usual beginner. His goal is modest: ride well enough to accompany his two young children on local bike paths.

“The older you get,” he says, “you feel a little strange asking for help.”

But Lamb is hardly alone. Gas prices hovering above $4 per gallon have led to the busiest season so far for the woman known as Boston’s Bike Whisperer, Susan McLucas, a 59-year-old chronic smiler with a reputation for teaching even the most fearful and frustrated adults to balance on two wheels. Enrollment in Bicycle Riding for Beginners, offered through the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, has nearly doubled since 2006. And demand for one-on-one lessons is on the rise as well.

Don’t forget to check out the cool video.

Nokia Maps 2.0; online mapping dealmaking all around

July 01, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Advocacy

The online mapping world continues to change rapidly. Nokia Maps recently released an update to their mobile application that the online community seems to have dubbed “Nokia Maps 2.0.” The biggest new feature is pedestrian navigation; very cool stuff.

There is no bicycle navigation yet, and no plans to implement it that I know of.

Here is a demo/commercial of the new Nokia Maps. It starts out with the “Drive” stuff (blah), but gets to the “Walk” stuff about halfway through:

I suppose Nokia Maps would be a direct competitor to Verizon’s VZ Navigator mobile application.

Nokia is the biggest mobile handset manufacturer in the world, with 40% market share—that is “undisputed leader” territory. Their two closest competitors in this area (hardware) are not even close: Samsung and Motorola have 15% and 13% market share, respectively.

Nokia has been on an acquisition spree, as have other mapping companies. They recently purchased a Berlin-based mobile social networking company called Plazes (more).

Nokia also recently purchased Chicago-based NavTeq, the mapping technology provider that still also provides data to Google for Google maps. Mapping tech provider TomTom bought a rival mapping tech provider, Tele Atlas, and now Google has signed a data deal with Tele Atlas.

Oh, and Nokia also bought and open-sourced a mobile phone operating system called Symbian. Lots of folks (including me) thought it was a direct challenge to Google’s Android platform, and that could be true, but this writer has a slightly different take. Regardless, it’s important news; open-source mobile operating system software just allows developers (like Ride the City) to be innovative. There are still some concerns that the new iPhone will not allow applications to provide navigation (directions). Sounds a bit bizarre, but if you have one technology provider that is dominant, and you have a completely closed system, then they might just be able to get away with it. We’ll see how that pans out.

Google has also just released a new mapping technology in beta: Google Map Maker. Think “Wikipedia for maps.” In the wiki sense, it’s similar to the existing My Maps, but it adds new functionality, like “Show features near a point.” I would be hard-pressed right now to try to explain exactly how and why Map Maker differs from My Maps, but it seems like something worth watching closely.

I suspect Google’s move to create Map Maker was brought about from several motivations. One reason could have just been the desire to reduce risk. With all the mapping companies consolidating and getting bought by Google competitors, Google wanted to throw another variable into the mix—crowdsourced maps. There are other reasons Google might have created Map Maker: pure goodwill, a desire to improve map accuracy, to make money, a natural creation flowing from 20% time, and so forth. Some think that this effort by Google is a potential threat to the OpenStreetMap initiative. I’m not so sure, but I think we’ll have to see how things play out. Right now, you can only use Map Maker with a few areas/countries that just don’t have good map data available for them yet, apparently (e.g. the Caribbean islands, Iceland, Pakistan, Trinidad and Tobago, Vietnam, etc.).

I’m not sure what Map Maker means to our efforts to get bicycle navigation on Google Maps. Maybe something, maybe nothing, but I am very interested in this idea of wikimaps (lots of regular people being able to contribute to a map). I think the Ride the City guys really took things up a notch when they introduced their feedback form, which is a sort of wikimap. It seems Google Map Maker might do the same, albeit in a different way. Lean more about Map Maker at the Google Sites website (Google Sites is Google’s wiki product;  think Wikipedia, but a bit more structured, and easier to learn and use for novice computer users). [Update: And, of course, OpenStreetMap would have to be considered at least one of the leading and original wikimap makers.]

Of course, some high profile efforts to use Google Maps to help us get around safely by bicycle are going on in Boston. The bicycle advocate for the city of Boston, Nicole Freedman, is using Google Maps to both figure out where folks are riding (which routes), and then to actually implement Boston’s first bike map. At first, and for a long time (up until 3 minutes ago), I was very skeptical of the crowdsourced bike-route-creating idea, but now I see that is not really what was going on; instead, it was a bike-map-creating idea— somewhat related, but not quite the same thing. In any case, it now sounds to me like a great idea.  :)

And having a full bike map available on Google Maps might not be a first, but it would certainly be helpful to Bostonites, and it would garner some more publicity for our cause. NYC Bike Maps has an example of a full bike map implemented on Google Maps, and there have been countless other efforts from bike organizations and individuals. I think we still need some better Google Maps technology infrastructure to make a really great bike map on Google Maps (e.g. white tile background needed, better/faster Google Maps performance—possibly from the new Flash API, etc.). So, let’s see what Boston can come up with. Best of luck to Nicole and her team and all the bikers and volunteers helping out with those projects!

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