Tom MacWright

Dear map people,

Routing is the most powerful tool we have to reduce the environmental impact of driving, make cities quieter, safer, and more livable, and fight congestion. And you are blowing it.


This might be because HERE, the number two provider of map technologies, was bought by a bunch of car companies. Or because Google is headquartered in the suburbs. Or that the financial world is fixated on opening the pandora’s box of self-driving cars.

But the end result is the same: bicycle and multimodal routing continues to be a toy, and driving directions keep getting better. We have nearly real-time reports of car crashes so that drivers can shave a few minutes off their commute. Blocked bike lanes are invisible to the system. Even lanes that are redirected into street traffic because of construction that lasts for months – they’re all the same. Google Maps lets you avoid tolls and highways in your car. It sees no difference between a sharrow, a protected bicycle lane, or a so-called bicycle-friendly road.

We have the technology. 311 systems are flooded with cyclists reporting lane blockages. Historical data can be analyzed to identify which lanes are real and which are unenforced paint on the ground. Cross-referenced with traffic fatalities, cyclist safety can be accurately estimated. The same LIDAR/imagery synthesis being used for hyper-accurate self-driving maps could be used to measure the size of the shoulder, the presence of obstructing cars, and the use of horrible mixing zones.

What happened to multimodal routing – directions that include multiple types of transit, like biking or driving to train stations? Why does OpenTripPlanner have great support for multimodal routing in Portland, and the small startup Transit app does too, but every major player barely supports mixed modes? What does it mean that cities like San Francisco and Washington, DC are installing bike lockers and most cities have Park n’ Ride stations for reducing in-city traffic by encouraging people to take the subway into town – but Google Maps, Apple, and most of the apps on your phone will just recommend driving the whole way?

Is there any bigger wasted opportunity to positively influence people’s mobility choices than routing? Can companies continue to wax poetic about reinventing mobility and simultaneously encourage people to drive more? It’s time to reroute.

May 27, 2019  @tmcw