Archive for May, 2008

Crowdsourcing bicycle commuting routes

May 31, 2008

I met someone last night (I think it’s badhill but didn’t get a last name) who described himself as a transit hacker, and we talked for a while about bike commuting (I bike to work almost-daily).

We talked about one of the problems for new bike commuters, which I’ve seen over and over again – getting started is hard because you don’t know how to get there. Especially if you haven’t bike commuted before and so are going to be nervous, you want a route that’s safe, has no unexpected obstacles or hills, and is easy to remember.

Automated online driving directions don’t cut it, even if you can skip highways, because while you might be ok taking a chance on online directions when you’re driving, biking is a bigger commitment and mistakes loom larger (especially for new cyclists).

In Seattle, you can ask for help on the Cascade message boards, but you first have to know they exist. Of course you can talk to friends, but that’s still not perfect.

The City of Seattle distributes a beautiful Seattle bicycling guide map, but it’s job is to tell you what you can do, not what you should do. They take input from commuters, but it generally comes from public forums, which are really just an excuse for people to yell at each other.

This is a perfect opportunity for crowdsourcing, though: thousands of people bike commute every day in Puget Sound, and wherever you’re going, probably dozens of others are doing the same. What if you could just follow their routes, even if you didn’t know them?

The more fun way to do this is to give thousands of cyclists tiny GPS devices that unobtrusively tracked their routes and then reported back to a server, like Dash‘s outbound features for cyclists. This would work, could update as construction impacts routing, etc. It’s also very cool. The more practical way to do this (which Brandon suggested) is to have an online map tool where you encourage cyclists to post their commute routes.

Then you overlay all of the paths heat map-style so that people planning their own route can find the most-often-trekked streets (and directions) and routes. Ideally you could follow individual routes as well, so that you could see why people pick one route over the other based on their final destination.

There’s obviously some way to save out the coordinates that somebody uses to create a path on an online map – Gmap Pedometer creates permalinks, for example – so it certainly seems possible to build this sort of thing. And as being a transit hacker sounds fun, maybe I’ll do it sometime. Or maybe you will. I’m already behind on other projects…