PHILADELPHIA — With the old gas-guzzler in the garage, you've got your bicycle ready and your sneakers laced up. Now all you need is a map of the quickest, safest routes for riding around town. Well, not so fast.
As more commuters consider ditching their cars to save money on gas, Internet mapping services, cities and community groups are being pushed to lay out the best routes for biking and walking -- just like drivers have found online for years.
Technical and practical roadblocks stand between such a network becoming ubiquitous, but there are signs of progress in this world of $4-a-gallon gas.
Google Inc. just launched a walking-directions service. MapQuest is reporting more use of its "avoid highways" function and offering a walking directions service on cell phones. And some cities have developed detailed online maps to help walkers, bikers and transit-riders find the fastest routes.
"They haven't yet reached the Holy Grail of 'I want to go from here to there, show me my options,' " said Bryce Nesbitt, a walking and biking advocate in the San Francisco area.
The first challenge: how to account for factors that make bicycle and walking routes different from driving paths.
Pedestrians need sidewalks but don't have to abide by one-way signs. Walkers and bikers can cut through paths or trails not meant for cars, but they try to avoid highways. Bikers, unlike walkers, need to think about whether a road is paved, and they are prohibited from sidewalks in some cities.
All these variables mean the fastest, easiest route for a driver may not be the same as for someone on foot or riding a bike. And developing a comprehensive system for non-drivers requires a tricky step: collecting huge volumes of local metadata and getting them on national databases used by mapping services.
"In the U.S., we are primarily a driving country, or have been for a very, very long time," said Christian Dwyer, MapQuest's senior vice president and general manager.
Advocates think making electronic walking and biking directions available on the Internet could help change that culture, especially in urban areas.
The technical challenge involves overlaying detailed information for walkers and bikers onto existing online maps, and then applying it to algorithms used to lay out the quickest routes. If some path, walkway or shortcut is on a map but not accounted for in the algorithm, it may be useless.
"There are some horror stories of the past of people being routed onto the Appalachian Trail or a couple driving off the ferry dock," said Jay Benson, vice president of global strategic planning for Tele Atlas, an international mapping company that supplies data to Google, MapQuest and others.
But if these tweaks are done right, the Internet mapping services could tell a biker to use, say, a riverside trail to avoid congestion, while showing a walker to dart through a parking lot to cut off a corner -- or at the very least to head against car traffic on one-way streets.
Cities get involved
Some local efforts are already having some success.
In Atlanta, a nonprofit group set up a Web site last fall that lets people punch in whether they are walking, biking or using transit, and then get specific directions. New York also has a site that helps bikers avoid roads that aren't meant for biking and make maximum use of roads with bike lanes and greenways.
In Broward County, Fla., planners are working on a project that would let users factor in things such as speed limits, traffic volume, lane widths and shortcuts.
The project, shooting for online launch by next summer, has programmers looking at aerial maps and punching key factors into the route-setting algorithms. They also incorporate things like where people or bikers can make left turns but cars can't.
"I get a lot of calls from people, especially now with gas prices being up, looking for routes for how to get to work," said Mark E. Horowitz, the county's bicycle/pedestrian coordinator.
This week, Google Maps launched a feature that offers walking directions for trips shorter than 6.2 miles. That is being added to a feature already helping visitors find the best mass transit routes.
Mapmakers and route planners say they need to capitalize on existing community knowledge. That would be a change for companies like Tele Atlas, which typically goes out and test drives road routes itself. But it is open to accepting bike and pedestrian route information from cities and community groups if it can be verified from multiple sources.
In Philadelphia, for example, regular walkers and bikers know many shortcuts that save time. A bicycle commuter traveling from the northern edge of downtown to residential and commercial areas to the south knows he doesn't need to meander through the congestion of Center City; taking a paved trail along the Schuylkill River takes time and heartache off the trip.
Such "secrets" could be shared with newcomers or tourists if they were added to online maps.
"The easier you make it for people, ... the more they're going to do it," said Joe Minott, executive director of Philadelphia's Clean Air Council.
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