Last week, in my role as the chair and co-coordinator of the Redbridge Cycling Campaign, my borough chapter of the London Cycling Campaign, I hosted a panel debate where I invited the TFL and the Mayor of London’s commissioner responsible for walking and cycling, Will Norman.

One question that came up (and I am glad that it did) was the fact that the mapping apps offer a poor experience for cyclists. If anyone has ever used Google Maps for cyclists travelling from central London to the east of the city will know that it is virtually impossible to avoid the canal tow path when travelling beyond Stratford.

Now there are times when I would like to use the tow path to travel by bicycle. Perhaps I would like to take a more scenic and leisurely route; or perhaps I would like to lead a group of novice cyclists into central London. I do not, however, want to take it when I am travelling home from a meeting when it’s getting dark. The canal offers no lighting, it’s narrow and scary. I do not want to end up riding into the canal.

Inaccurate maps

Will Norman got very animated with the question. He said that he had met with engineers from Apple and Google Maps who visited London to discuss the matter with them. As stated, Google already offers mapping options for cyclists, but it is not accurate. Apple currently has no option of cyclists in its app in London.

You would have thought that these these corporate behemoths would have given deep and ponderous consideration to their reputations and their supposed commitments to combating climate change – one of the easiest ways to combat climate change would be swap motorised transport for cycling. These companies, you would think, would want to boost their green credentials with excellent navigational options for cyclists.

In London, that doesn’t appear to be the case. But is this an issue that Google and Apple are beginning to take more seriously? Their recent meeting with the walking and cycling commissioner may indicate that they are.

Clearly they recognise that their offerings for cyclists is imperfect – and that’s putting it diplomatically. Will mentioned that various options were discussed and he proffered his favourite solution.

Sources of data

“Perhaps the best way would be for these companies to recruit ambassadors with special local knowledge of their neighbourhoods to help them map the best routes for cyclists and little known short cuts,” suggested Will.

That may be one solution. However, this isn’t an option that mapping software engineers have used with other modes of transport. Google has it’s own fleet of mapping vehicles which drive around every street with multiple cameras and sensors gathering data. Apple, on the other hand, relies on third party information principally mapping software specialists TomTom – which has it’s own fleet of mapping vehicles.

However, these companies also utilise data from their customers to improve their route finding abilities. Google, for example, owns Waze, which crowdsources information in real time to find the quickest routes for their customers. But it has been criticised by many for encouraging rat running through residential streets.

‘Waze for Cyclists’ may not distinguish between private property and public property and may encourage routing through unconventional shortcuts – such as pedestrianised precincts which, strictly speaking, are restricted for cyclists.

Google does have Street View trikes, but these are limited to mapping tourist destinations and off-track sites where it’s cars would not be easy to get to.

In fact, Transport for London (TFL) has opened up its data to third parties. It plans to extend its data to all mapping software companies – including startups. It plans to do this by establishing an application protocol interface (API). An API is a method for software programs made by different companies to talk to each other without any human intervention.

If it’s successful, that would mean that various companies would be able to develop apps for cyclists – and this would boost competition. This would be welcomed by London cyclists.