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Official word from Google: "Nothing new to share"

April 13, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Uncategorized

I chickened out of calling Google on the phone, but I did send an email to the ‘Press only’ email address and got a very nice response - if not a commitment.

Because you’re not supposed to quote folks’ emails without explicit permission, I’ll paraphrase Google’s response:

Thank you. Everyones’ efforts and enthusiasm are awesome. Unfortunately, no new information to share.

So, we press on.

Now that we’ve heard something more than just an internet rumor about bicycle directions on google maps, I’m feeling a bit more confident that this can/will happen. Still, without official confirmation from Google, I think we need to continue to build momentum for this feature request, and that includes working on all of the associated tasks - like making sure our local governments have valid/accurate/up-to-date bicycle route information available in digital format.

The Good Human

April 13, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Green

Not sure we stumbled upon The Good Human blog, but we got a shout-out this past Friday - marking what might be our first entry into the ‘green blog’ world. That’s a big deal. It’d be nice to eventually get picked up by the TreeHuggers of the world - or their Digg-like clones, like Hugg.

Here’s what The Good Human’s About page says:

The Good Human was born out of my idea for a website that can encourage people to be better humans..whether through working to clean up the environment, being active in political issues that mean a lot to you or just being more aware of your life and surroundings. Started back in May of 2006 there are now well over 700 posts relating to all sorts of stuff, but the main focus has been the environment and how we can make this world a better place. Go ahead and check out the site, and be sure to visit the “Most Popular” section near the top for the most popular posts since the site started.

I like the tagline of the site: “Don’t Blow It…Good Planets Are Hard To Find.”

Thanks, David!

Pedestrian and bicycle navigation on your Sony PSP

April 13, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Bicycle Maps

C|Net Asia brings us some cool info about the Sony PSP:

The map’s zoom-in, nine scales. A mediocre performance, not an impressive affair anyway. The most useful function for PSP model could be the pedestrian navigation and its route searching. While you are on foot, or on two wheels (bicycle; not recommended to motorcyclists for obvious reasons), you can search your shortest route through obscure back alleys and holes in the fence, at least, within the radius of 10Km.

So, you need a PSP, a GPS add-on, and some software from Zenrin, but it’s possible! :D

All in all, it sounds like the Sony PSP solution might be a bit rough around the edges, but I like anything that moves us towards more ubiquitous access to bicycle directions.

Also, there are rumors of the new iPhone having native GPS abilities - there already exists some ‘faux GPS’ ability in the iPhone.

And in perusing the web, I cycled across a cool blog called NaviGadget, which might be interesting to you GPS heads out there. I’m not a GPS head, myself, but I do love the iPhone - though, I’m gonna hold out for version 2 of the iPhone - hopefully in a couple of months. I’m actually curious to find out more about existing GPS devices that already provide bicycle directions - I need to do some reading.

For my future cell phone, I might also go with an Android-enabled phone if/when it hits the market. Android is basically an operating system for mobile devices/phones (wiki) - it is being developed by a group of 30 or so companies - and one of those companies is Google. The Android operating system is fully GPS-capable - the only question is whether device manufacturers will create handsets with built-in GPS capability or not. Let’s hope so.

There are lots of things going down in the mapping/GPS/directions/web arena right now, and it looks like things might really start popping in the summer (when the new iPhone is rumored to be released) - just a couple of short months away.

Speaking of GPS, I’m reminded of a cool Austin company I found out about recently - BarZ Adventures. They make these cool, little GPS-enabled tour-guide devices. Check out a YouTube video here. I like tools like this because they seem like they might be able to help excite people about walking. As cyclists, we all know how cool it is to be able to appreciate our surroundings. Hopping in the car is sometimes easier, but we roll down our windows so we can taste the air - like we would if we were on our bikes. Well, tools like BarZ’s GPS Ranger (and any GPS-enabled device) seem to me like they could have this effect of helping people (like me) to appreciate our immediate surroundings a bit more - and if we don’t like what we see, we might even get motivated to do something about it. I’m starting to believe that we all should be at least knowledgeable, if not experts in, the theory and practice of good urban design. We’ve left it to ‘the powers that be’ for too long, and now we have (sub)urban sprawl that is killing us. I’m not against suburbs or cities - I’m against poorly-designed suburbs and poorly-designed cities. More on this in a future post.

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CrunchGear

April 11, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Bicycle Maps

Thanks to CrunchGear for the shout-out:

Google Maps has a neat feature that will help you find driving directions or more notably public transit directions. It works quite well, but what if you don’t like either option?

Some people have started a petition to Google to include the feature to get “bike there” directions, and we think it’s a good idea.

CrunchGear is part of the TechCrunch empire (wiki).

TechCrunch covers Web2.0 companies like Facebook and YouTube and Digg and all that, and CrunchGear covers electronic gadgets and toys and iPhones and the like — including GPS-enabled devices that many cyclists already use, and we will probably want integrated with our bike directions at some point.

Speaking of Web2.0 companies, for any of you cycling (or even Web2.0 professionals), you might be interested to check out NetSquared:

Our mission is to spur responsible adoption of social web tools by social benefit organizations. There’s a whole new generation of online tools available – tools that make it easier than ever before to collaborate, share information and mobilize support. These tools include blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, podcasting, and more. Some people describe them as “Web 2.0″; we call them the social web, because their power comes from the relationships they enable.

One of NetSquared’s sponsors, Wild Apricot, is something I’ve been looking at recently - their web-based software will help you do your website (it seems to be a fairly simple, but fairly complete content management system, with blog and rss feed, etc.), some of your marketing activities (like mailing list stuff), but importantly, they also seem to help with a lot of the time-consuming membership-oriented work (like member sign-ups and re-ups, with paypal integration, events, reminders, etc.) involved with running small non-profits - like cycling associations and clubs. Oh, and it seems they could be affordable for your low-budget operation. I haven’t actually used them for anything yet, but I’m definitely thinking about it. I’ve been evaluating their stuff for almost two weeks now, and it seems solid, if not perfect. And they’ve been responsive to my 3 or so emailed questions and my 1 blog comment. Two cycling clubs that use Wild Apricot are the Petaluma Wheelmen and the Santa Rosa Cycling Club - I’m not sure what their experiences have SRCC’s experience has been with Wild Apricot [Update: Petaluma Wheelmen say, effectively, that Wild Apricot is good, especially in membership management area.] [Update 2: Santa Rosa Cycling Club have had a similarly positive mixed experience - see comments for details. Thanks PW and SRCC for getting back to us!].

[Commentary: The reason I write all this stuff about Wild Apricot is that I want the cycling community to be able to accommodate what I hope becomes explosive growth in cycling, particularly commuter cycling. Wild Apricot looks like a tool that might be able to help small cycling/pedestrian/other non-profits take care of a lot of the busy-work typically required of associations and clubs. Rather than have yourselves and other volunteers, or your one or two paid staff folks, spend time doing busywork, I think we need to do whatever we can to free up their time so you/they can do the important work of organizing events, meeting people, shmoozing people and politicians, recruiting and motivating volunteers, building coalitions, brainstorming, being creative, etc. And, content management systems like Wild Apricot can help you delegate website and coordination duties to the various folks who are responsible for particular events or programs - and it's got all that permissions/privileges stuff built-in. If you know of other companies that offer something similar to Wild Apricot, please let us know about them. Thanks!]

Back to our petition — now that most of the cycling blogosphere seems to know about it, it’s important that we can make inroads in other areas - like technology and green blogs - so getting covered by CrunchGear is a big deal.

Thanks again, CrunchGear!

…rewrote the Wild Apricot paragraph because I wrote it quickly and it didn’t make a whole lot of sense the first time around. Added the ‘Commentary’ section, too.

Life in the Bike Lane

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

Trek has a few bicycle blogs, one of which is focused on commuting, advocacy, and city riding, and it’s called ‘Life in the Bike Lane‘.

I think that’s just a great thing. Almost a month ago they posted about our petition. That was a big boost when we were trying to get things going around here, so we definitely appreciate it.

Many of us are now aware that Lance is getting ready to open a potentially-commuter-focused, Trek-carrying bike shop in downtown Austin. I consider that a major coup for the city of Austin. I’m thinking that a least a few folks would have a different opinion on the likely impact of such a shop, but to me it’s a big deal not just because of the potential for inspiring the local cycling community (and politicians!) to work even harder - and to get more non-cyclists onto bikes, but for the ripple effect that such a facility could have. The Field Museum in Chicago just copied the (Paris-based) Vélib’ bicycle sharing program on a small scale - and it’s a great start, and it’s just the very latest example of just how catalyzing any one event/program/facility can be. Granted, the Vélib’ program is relatively large, now - with 20,000 bikes, but it started in 2007 with ‘only’ 10,000 bikes, and before Vélib’ there was an even-yet-smaller bike rental program called Roue Libre. Check out this NY Times article from 2001. So, to me, the important thing is to just start - to try things. We’ll work and live and learn. Once we have a toehold, who knows what can happen.

Speaking of Chicago, the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation wants people to bike to work - and is gearing up for this summer’s Bike to Work Week. Some of their main advice? ‘Plan your route well in advance‘. If you live in or around Chicago, it might be time to call the nice folks at the Chicago DOT Bicycle Program and check if they have bike route data available in electronic format. You might also want to ask them if they, too, are working with Google on getting bicycle directions going on Google Maps. :)

Cambridge Cycling Campaign

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

The Cambridge Cycling Campaign:

was formed in 1995 to provide a voice for cyclists in our area. We aren’t a cycling club, but an organisation of volunteers campaigning for the rights of cyclists and promoting cycling in and around Cambridge. We lobby for better and more convenient conditions for cycling, safer roads, and more people on bikes.

That’s Cambridge, UK.

They have a bunch of mapping resources, including a ‘journey planner’ to plan bicycle routes. Cool!

I tried it out right quick and it seems pretty cool. I added it to the ‘Other Efforts’ page.

Thanks y’all!

I apologize for not getting this posted sooner - they originally let me know about it almost a month ago. Sorry.  :oops:

Big News

April 08, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Bicycle Maps

Yesterday I spoke with someone at the Austin Bicycle and Pedestrian Program, which is part of Austin Public Works. This person said that there is ‘an ongoing effort‘ on the part of Google and the City of Austin to provide bicycle directions for Austin on Google Maps. Austin is one of the ‘test cities’.

Really.

This is not an April Fool’s joke - I promise. I’m as surprised as you.

It’s not as good as a definitive “yes - we are doing this” from Google, but it’s something. A good thing.

The person I talked to on the phone is real - I’ve met them in person.

There’s a lot of information that I don’t know - like all the details about how things happened to date, between Google and Austin Public Works, and what the actual status of the work/project is - but because I was a bit taken aback, I asked the person I was speaking to, “What should I say (on the blog)? What exactly is going on? Is anything going on? How can I characterize things/the situation?” This person said I could describe it as ‘an ongoing effort’.

So, there you have it.

Some time ago (I’m not sure how long), Austin provided Google with bicycle/traffic data in electronic format (see the ‘City of Austin Bike Routes‘ link here), and told Google that, yes, Austin would like to participate as a ‘test city’, and that Austin will provide bike route data, but that they wanted to be able to update the information before anything went live. So, Austin is working right now to update that bike route data. I don’t know what the timeline is.

So, what does all this mean?

Well, from my point of view, this is very good news, but I think we need to continue to build momentum for bicycle directions on Google Maps at least until we get official confirmation from Google that they are working on it. I was supposed to try and call Google today, since we hit 30,000 signatures over the weekend, but I didn’t get around to it (sorry). I don’t really expect to get an answer, but I’m gonna call up anyways. “Hi, yes, this is Peter - can I speak to Larry, Sergey, or Eric, please?”

But, as someone suggested to me via email a week or two ago, there is at least one concrete way to start getting prepared for getting bicycle directions on the web - somehow by someone, whether it’s Google or us or whomever - and that is to get the bike route data for your city/town/area in a digital format.

That’s a bit ambiguous, I know, but that’s about all I can offer at this point - I really don’t understand more than that. I’d strongly suggest looking at the metadata file included in the bicycle data zip file. If you are new to GIS, then this file will help you figure out the questions you need to ask, and possibly some of the key terms you need to use, when you call your public works office. You should be able to point whoever you talk to to this file. If I needed to ask my local public works department what they had going on with regards to all this stuff, I would call up and try to talk to someone who knew something about the bike map - if your town has one (and if your town has one, it’s probably in PDF format), I would ask the following:

“Hi - my name is [your name here]. I’m curious, you know the bike map? - do we have that bike route data available as a GIS layer?”

If your town does not have a bike map, then I’d probably ask something more like this:

“Hi - my name is [your name here]. I’m curious - do we have a GIS layer - the data - with information about traffic volume and things like that? I ride my bicycle a lot and I’m trying to figure out some good routes to use, so I want this data if it’s available.”

If they say, “Huh?”, then you can tell them that you want to know which streets/roads are good/better/safer for cycling, and you’d like to avoid big hills and no-shoulder roads and things like that, and that Austin has sample data that you can send them a link to if they want. You might mention something about street classifications or bike path ‘classes’. This AASHTO organization seems to have something to do with the road classification system. You never know - you might talk to someone who is friendly and helpful - and you might even learn something. At a minimum, just making the attempt will help the cause of cycling.

So, that’s probably the most important thing you could do at this point - make sure your city/town/area has bike route data available in electronic format. Once Google or whoever gets their technology/infrastructure/algorithms in place, they’re going to need data. Some of us think that Google might create and then ask for bike route data in some specific format - like the Google Transit Feed Specification - but bike route/traffic could potentially be more static in nature than Transit data, so maybe we won’t need a new feed spec. The Austin bike data zip file is, I believe, a pretty standard GIS data format - which consists primarily of a shape (.shp) file (with its other corresponding/required files). To view the data, you need ArcView, ArcExplorer, ArcInfo 8 or some other software that can read shape files. All of these ‘Arc’ products are from ESRI (wiki) - they seem to be the big GIS software player.

I just got my evaluation version of ArcGIS 9.2 in the mail - haven’t installed it yet - looks like a beast. I’ve previously installed and used lots of free and trial versions of GIS software, from ESRI and other companies, and I’ve had very limited success. Specifically, I wanted to try to convert the Austin bike route data such that I could automatically paint it on Google Maps (I’d prefer to have this rather than those PDFs). I managed to do this ‘paint job’ to some extent, but the results weren’t particularly pretty or useful. There are tools (ArcView plugins, etc.) to convert a GIS layer to KML (wiki), which you can then get to show up in Google Maps.

So, here are some ways I think we can all continue to help:

  1. Make sure your city/town/area has bike route data available in electronic format.
  2. Digg this petition if you have no done so yet.
  3. Promote the petition in one or more of these other ways.

As usual, feel free to contact me (or just leave a comment, below) if you have questions/comments/criticism/etc. Every email is appreciated, and I apologize if I haven’t gotten back to you yet - don’t hesitate to try again if it’s been more than a day or so - spam filters aren’t perfect, and it’s possible I just screwed up and somehow missed your email.

p.s. Thanks to the folks at the Austin Bicycle and Pedestrian Program. If we’re successful at making Austin a premiere bicycling city, it’s going to be at least partly because we have good people ‘on the inside’ working hard for us.

In other Austin cycling news, there were only 100 people there last night? I’d suggest something closer to 300, myself. [Wow - was my estimate wrong! Looks like the actual number was, indeed, a lot closer to 100 - consensus seems to be at or around 120 or so, depending on when you counted - the room was pretty full, and it got really hot after while, etc. (pic).] Not an endorsement, but Allen Demling gave cyclists something to smile about when he provided, off the top of his head, detailed turn-by-turn bicycle directions for the circuitous route he would take to get to work if he were elected to city council - including many of the difficult features of many of the roads he mentioned. Was pretty funny. And now Austin has this funny-looking contraption.

Digg this!

April 06, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Advocacy

digg_logo.pngHi all,

Mitch from the PDX has set us up on Digg, so all we need to do now is Digg the story!

Getting attention on Digg could possibly expose this petition to tens of thousands of new people, so it can be a big boost. The catch is, we need to Digg our petition right now. The more people who Digg it, the better. And the sooner we and others Digg it, the better. The more the story gets dugg, the more attention it gets - the more people see it, learn about it, and can support it.

The URL to send to your friends is:

http://digg.com/tech_news/Bike_There_Option_on_Google_Maps

By Digging a story (in this case, our petition), you are saying, “Yes - I think this is important - this is something people should know about”.

So, the best thing you can do right now is to go Digg us, and after that contact your friends or your local cycling mailing list or cycling forum and let them know about the Digg story.

More on How Digg works. (Digg on wiki.)

Elm City Cycling

April 02, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Worldwide Movement

elm_city_cycling.pngOccasionally we try to spotlight different groups of people - often cycling advocacy groups - from around the world. We recently covered groups in Australia and Hungary.

‘What is The Elm City’, you say? Why it’s New Haven, Connecticut (wiki), of course.

Elm City Cycling is:

a group of more than 400 advocates who work to make New Haven a better place for bicycling and walking. We keep in touch with each other through a yahoo listserv, and through monthly public meetings on the 2nd Monday of every month.

Up to the right you’ll see a mini-screenshot of their website, which is very cool. Click through and have a look around.

We’re all strapped for resources - money/time/etc., so getting a good-looking website together can be challenging, but I have a feeling that having a top-notch website can be a great motivator and recruiter - so any time spent towards this end is probably a good time investment. Software like WordPress - which is free, and is the software running this website - can really help. Just my opinion, of course. :)

One of the many issues Elm City Cycling has been working on is ‘intermodal connections’ - that is, being able to do part of your journey on bike, and part via bus, train, subway, etc. - so you need connections that can accommodate your other forms of transport. Train transit systems seem to move a bit slower than their bus counterparts in terms of accommodating bicycles - check out the ridiculous ‘bikes on seats’ picture at this post. Updates here.

Keep up the good work, y’all!

Bike 'parking lots' planned for Budapest

April 01, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Worldwide Movement

That’s Budapest, Hungary. And it’s just the latest example of how this bicycling thing is a worldwide movement:

Budapest’s local government is planning to equip area metro and HÉV (commuter rail) stations with “parking lots” for bicycles, reports tabloid Blikk. Following the example of the “park and ride” (P+R) parking lots put in place for automobiles, the “B+R parking lots” would make it possible to reach metro or HÉV lines by bicycle and continue the journey via public transport.

According to Hungarian Bicycle Club (Magyar Kerékpáros Klub) chairman János László, the bike parking spaces could end up being as popular in Budapest as in some other large cities in Europe, where virtually every metro station is equipped with organized facilities for storing bicycles. Lászlo added that success for such a project in Budapest would depend on commuters feeling secure in parking their bicycles.

I do have some mixed feelings about bicycle infrastructure development. For instance, in this case, it seems like the mass transit system may have an easier time in decreasing service because bicycling might be able to fill the gap. In my eyes, this development is of dubious benefit. I want to increase cycling and get cars off the road, but I’m not too interested in decreasing mass transit. We’ll have to figure that out as we go.

On a semi-related note, whenever I think of Hungary or Budapest, I think of the movie Kontroll, which is set in the Budapest Metro. Great movie.