Don't go there

Local bike-mapping web sites help riders navigate Boston's treacherous traffic
By CAITLIN E. CURRAN  |  May 9, 2008


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Biking in Boston is a venture rife with obstacles — my daily, 2.4 mile commute between home in Cambridge and work near Fenway is proof of that. It's like a video game, only with more dire consequences, in which you have to share the narrow street space with never-ending construction projects (ride on the sidewalk for one block, minus two points), honking trucks, and the 47 bus (pull over to let them pass, minus three points). Memorize the locations of many crater-size potholes near the BU Bridge, and exactly when to swerve left (plus four points). Avoid flying over the handlebars (Game Over!).

These hindrances are moderately manageable on familiar routes, but visiting other parts of town is tricky, even for more experienced bikers. Google Maps and other Internet mapping programs lend directions, but even the No Highways option won't necessarily display the best biking paths.

"It can put you on some scary routes," says Andrew Conway, who bikes from Arlington to South Station for work every day, and writes a cycling blog, "The pothole thing is diabolical at this time of year." Conway typically uses Google Maps or Andrew Rubel's legendary Boston's Bikemap, which has been the go-to for area cyclists since 1978. His ideal map, he says, "would also tell you what the surface of the road is like."

With rising gas costs, as well as concerns about the environment, biking is quickly becoming the most logical way to travel within Boston, not to mention that it's fun — and comparatively cheaper than driving or taking public transportation. So, what are the city's ambitious bikers to do? Several Web sites, including MapMyRide, TheRightRide, Bikely, and the City of Boston's bike-committee-planned site (still in it's planning stages) are seeking to solve this problem, by providing online mapping programs specifically geared (no pun intended) toward bikers.

"We talked to bikers in other cities, to see what's been successful for them," says Nicole Freedman, a former pro bike racer, on the phone from her office at City Hall. Freedman is the city's "bike czar" — the unofficial title for Boston's Director of Bike Programs — who's helming Boston's bike-mapping project. Freedman cites New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and especially Santa Clara, California, as role models for her project. She also consulted Rubel himself. "It's been clear from the start that the more information and feedback we can get, the better," says Freedman.

At the end of this past summer, Freedman began contacting members of varying bike communities in Boston — from Bikes Not Bombs to Critical Mass — and asking them to mark either on paper maps or via Google Maps, the streets they typically bike in and around Boston. Freedman was aiming to gauge where people bike and why, in order to narrow down which parts of town her map would cover. So, she posted a draft version of a bike map online, and asked cyclists to assess various roads, with a high rating for those with less traffic, and possibly a bike lane, and a lower rating for those that are crowded or unsafe.

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