Google Bicycle Directions: A Review

Not too long ago, Google came out with bicycle directions for its Google Maps utility, as well as a map view that shows bicycle paths and designated routes in green.

When you search for a route, Bicycle Directions takes you on bike paths or designated bike-friendly routes whenever possible, and also avoids dangerous spots like highway interchanges and busy intersections.

I’ve used Google’s bike directions a few time now, and it definitely has some good points, as well as some room for improvement. I asked for directions from my house to PHEW, and it gave me virtually the exact route I normally take to work, which links city streets and bike paths, avoiding high-volume car traffic as much as possible.

This weekend, however, some friends and I put Google’s bike directions to a more stringent test- a bike-friendly route from Philly to Long Beach Island on the Jersey Shore. The directions took us over the Ben Franklin Bridge, through Camden, Cherry Hill and other town, and routed us around bad interesections and busy highways like it was supposed to. The directions then brought us to the rural area around the Pine Barrens, a fairly vast forest of pines, scrubby bushes and marshes. In keeping with its purpose, the directions took us off of a main highway and onto deserted country roads with virtually no traffic.

From Philly to Jersey Shore

That’s when things went a bit awry.

Our wonderfully quiet, smooth paved country road soon ended at a gate and a sign for a state nature preserve. The road beyond the gate was composed entirely of sand and curved into the monotony of flat pine forest. We weighed our options, deciding that we should go back to the last fork in the road and go the other way. That road soon turned into an unmarked, sandy track as well, but since there was no gate barring the way, we figured it was a much better option. We forged ahead through the semi-packed sand, occasionally slipping on a loose spot and falling down. A light rain began to fall.

From Philly to Jersey Shore
From Philly to Jersey Shore

After three hours of uneasily riding, wondering whether we would have to spend the night out there, we spotted some trucks driving up the road. We flagged them down, and they directed us to the nearest paved road, which happened to be a main road we had turned off of hours earlier. Because of our mishaps, we had made a long southeast curve and were around fifteen miles south of where we made our fateful turn.

From Philly to Jersey Shore

After stuffing ourselves at the nearest restaurant, we stuck to the easy, straight highway for the rest of the trip. We fell into beds at a cheap motel and awoke to a beautiful day at the shore.

From Philly to Jersey Shore

In the end, I can’t really fault Google for our misdirection, it is only an electronic map service after all. I certainly would not have expected it to anticipate the lack of any road signs or the difficult road surface.

So if you’re considering using Google’s bike directions in a rural place, either confirm the route with other sources or at least bring a good local map and a compass.

And maybe don’t put so much faith in directions you found on the internet like we did.