I got the idea to write this post after experiencing the awesomeness that is the bike maps update that Google rolled out the other day. I love the update, route creation is super easy compared to what it was and I’m working on assimilating those same changes into my web app. That said there is still one aspect where Google bike maps is lacking when compared to Ride Free Bike Maps and that is how the maps are displayed when printed.

I’ll back up a second and talk about why this matters. For an everyday rides getting to a destination, say a seaside park, you probably don’t need a map. If you don’t know the best way to get there looking it up online may be all you need. That all goes out the window when you want to ride someplace you haven’t been. A friend of mine posted this on one of my online updates: “You need a map to ride a bike? Ok…” I responded with a link to one of my experiments with the new Google bike maps, . I’ve ridden that. The maps I carried were absolutely essential to the ride. I had to know where I could stop to eat which I did, ravenously, every 15 miles. A more common use would be to create a map for a shorter in town ride, say riding around Lake Samish from Bellingham. In the end you may not need a map but when you do it can make a big difference.

On to the comparison!

This is a scan of the printed Google maps we all know and love. It gives directions, step by step, and allows you to add in small maps of every turn. In this map I plotted directions from Seattle, WA to Bellingham, WA. These first few turns are all in downtown Seattle. There is a lot of traffic down there and you have to be on top of making all those turns. Doing this with a print out of from google.com isn’t going to be easy. The space that a cyclist has to display a map isn’t very big. My map holder measures about 9 X 5 inches (23 x 13 cm for those of you who use civilized units). Those dimensions are about what is pictured to the left except for the section with distances. So if you slid those directions in your map holder you’d have to stop after 4 miles and change maps. I can live with that when you are riding in the city. Directions get more complicated and you really need those maps just in case you get turned around. However! There were only two map panels in the Google page. I could have added more but then I’d get a lot less directions on a single page. Using one map for multiple turns isn’t really great either because they are so small and you can’t see that much in them. You need something better if you are going to be using it in the saddle.

From the first line of code on, I built the Ride Free Bike Map Creator to be used in a printed form. The first thing I did was figure out the conversion rate of pixels on the screen to inches on the page (96 dpi) because that was most important to me. The second thing I did was get rid of most of the elements in the page that didn’t need to be printed (I know there are ads on the top, I’m gonna fix that soon). The whole design of the app revolves around that black rectangle that encloses the maps when printed. I could have made the map bigger in the non-printing stages of route creation. It would have made it a lot easier and faster to create way points. I didn’t end up going that route because I want users to think about how the map will ultimately be used in a printed form.

On that note let’s get into the features of my maps that work well with the printed form. The first page of every route is an overview of the entire route. Ultimately I want to use the blank space on the side for statistics about the route. I’m not super worried about it right now because I’m working on some more fundamental aspects of the app. Note the 9 x 5 size, fits perfectly in a Bike Map Holder! Wow! Note I printed using the traditional ‘portrait’ orientation of the page. This actually scales down the size of the maps. If you print in ‘landscape’ mode they will be printed full size.

Below the route overview the map shows about one mile of travling city streets in Seattle. My maps have a viewpoint that allows you to see your route and surrounding the area. The only limit on detail is how much you zoom the map. I designed my app this way so you could get back on route if you ever made a wrong turn or missed a turn. On the right side of the page I’ve got all the turns spelled out with the distance to the turn from the beginning of the page. That way you know when a turn is coming in two forms, distance and pictorially. The last distance on the page is the distance to the end of the page from the beginning. That allows you to reset your distance measurements when you change to a new page.

The last picture shows a page I created where the route goes into a long stretch of no turns. I printed this just to show the compromise of detail in action. You can see that this page shows 16 miles of the route. It runs from north Seattle to north Lynnwood, all of it along hwy 99. I opted for this view because I didn’t want to waste paper by printing a lot of pages just to ride a small distance. At the same time I still wanted a bit of detail because I’d be riding through the city.

When it comes down to it, this site is an add-on to Google maps. I’ve taken data from Google and massaged it into a form that is much more useful to cyclists. There isn’t anything unique about this data. That’s the whole point. Maps as content are public knowledge. What a good map does is take several sets of data, say street names, street locations, mileage, and combines them into pictorial representations with a high degree of usefulness. My aim with this site/app is to do just that.