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If you take your bike out for a spin and end up venturing into the unknown, embrace it. Not only because you might find your new favourite cycling route, but because as long as you’ve got signal on your smart phone, you’ve always got good old Google Maps to bail you out if need be.
Introduced in 2005, before adding bike-specific functions in 2010, Google Maps has plenty of cycling benefits. For one thing, it actually shows you where the bike lanes in your area are, but it also gives you a rough estimate of how long it will take you to ride from your current location to your destination.
Obviously, this can be seriously different in reality if you go significantly faster or slower than the speed they use. So, what speed does Google Maps use for biking? And are Google Maps cycling times accurate all the time?
Why the Google Maps Cycling Speed is Important
So you can plan your journey time ahead, so you can find the quickest or most accessible routes, so you can tell how much longer it will take you if you’d prefer to take a longer yet perhaps quieter or more scenic journey. All the obvious reasons, really.
What Speed Does Google Maps Use for Cycling?
Google Maps assumes a standard moving speed of roughly 16kph (10mph) irrespective of the length of your journey.
It also does not take into account time lost due to stopping for water, checking directions, and so on, while it uses the average stopping time for traffic lights, rail crossings and other stops.
Yet people often say they complete their journeys before the clock hits Google Maps’ estimated time of arrival (ETA), so don’t take that speed as gospel. There are other factors at play, of course, as we’ll get onto next…
Does Google Maps Adjust Cycling Speed?
Yes. Google Maps alters the moving speed for each part of the route based on factors such as gradient and the number of intersections, while GPS data previously logged by other Google Maps users can also affect it.
Cycling speed is not adjusted because of:
- Weather conditions
- Time of day (and so the amount of congestion)
- Traffic lights – it assumes all cyclists wait until red lights turn green
- Route surfaces (e.g. off-road cycle paths, bumpier, less even terrain)
- How fast you cycle on average
Don’t just take our word for it. Richard Russell, an ex-Google engineer, used Q&A site Quora in 2013 to expand on how Google Maps calculates speed.
Asked if ETAs are determined by speed limits or actual travel time by previous users, he said: “These things range from official speed limits and recommended speeds, likely speeds derived from road types, historical average speed data over certain time periods… actual travel times from previous users, and real-time traffic information.
“They mix data from whichever sources they have, and come up with the best prediction they can make.”
Is Google Maps Good for Cycling?
Of course – it offers you multiple routes from A to B, giving you a pretty good estimate of how long each will take.
But it’s not perfect, either. As we’ve established, there is a sense of uniformity about its ETAs which, while rarely if ever wildly inaccurate, aren’t exactly geared to individual cyclists or specific factors mentioned above, like weather or traffic.
That said, credit where it’s due – it’s still pretty reliable, and is always adding new improvements, including a visual overhaul last summer courtesy of algorithmic analysis of satellite imagery, which tries to automatically decipher the nature of the environment.
Then, late in 2020, Google Maps launched a messaging function, so verified businesses can now communicate with customers directly from the Google Maps app. Its performance insights were also updated, as well as adding Street View contributions straight from your phone, and a Community Feed.
And as of March 2021, Google Maps have started defaulting to the route with the lowest carbon footprint, rather than the fastest, in a bid to make it more eco-friendly.
Google Maps Alternatives for Cycling Routes
If you decide you no longer want to be of the billion-or-so users of Google Maps, you’re at least spoilt for choice when it comes to picking another app.
Google Maps may offer great ease of use and arguably the most contemporary data, but some understandably feel uneasy about the amount of information it logs about you.
So, if you’re looking for something a little more private, niche or under-the-radar, these are a few good recommendations:
- Apple Maps – for iOS users, obviously, but Apple Maps is, perhaps a little surprisingly, one of the most privacy-friendly options available. It doesn’t like to your Apple ID or retain a search or cycling history, and when you save locations across devices, it uses end-to-end encryption, so Apple itself can’t view them.
- OpenStreetMap – like a Wikipedia of maps, where the users update it themselves through GPS devices, aerial photography and their own manual changes. No-frills, non-profit, only collects limited data, no logins or ads – simple but effective. The only real downside is it has no official app, so isn’t exactly tailor-made for smart phone users.
- OsmAnd – best for when you’re looking for previous users’ experience, it uses the OpenStreetMap database, which allows them to provide more precise live traffic updates. Available both online and offline, it’s also free with a Premium subscription from $1.99 a month. It also has tools to change the look of maps, ‘dark mode,’ and Wikipedia integration.
- CycleStreets – a UK-wide, non-profit journey planner, which offers a choice of four different route modes based on the type the user prefers. It also saves previous routes, tells you how many calories you’ll burn on a route, as well as how many traffic lights you’ll come across and how busy it is.
- Bike Citizens – an app which, through logging its users’ journeys, will then suggest the best routes for you, or help you explore a new city through a ‘cycling tour’ curated by the area’s regular riders.