The latest update to the CycleStreets Android app app will go live in the next few days.
The first release was in June 2011, so we’re just gone over twelve years. In app terms, that means it’s been around since basically the beginning of time.
(Do you remember Android 4? Ha, you crazy kids these days. Don’t know you’re born.)
The install base sits at around ten thousand, which simultaneously makes it the most used software I’ve ever written but still doesn’t seem like very many. (Active installs were significantly higher during lockdown and have been falling back to the 10,000 level over the last year or so, which is kind of sad. I don’t mean for us, but for what it says about how people choose or feel able to travel around.)
We aren’t the only cycle routing app in town, obviously, although we’ve outlasted a few over the past dozen years. The only one I’m really familiar with is CityMapper, which does a particularly nice job of multi-modal travel. Maybe I’m missing something and one of those other apps is so good we should shut up shop.
Well, maybe. But I don’t see them as competitors.
I just want more people to be able to walk and cycle, and a free app is small part of helping enable that. We’re open source, don’t charge, won’t track your data, and don’t show you ads.
We don’t do that alone, we’re part of the wider community of apps and services that builds on OpenStreetMap, one of the great open projects.
Of course the <enormous proverbial animal> of routing apps on Android is Google Maps.
Google Maps, of course, offers different routing modes for driving, walking, public transport, and cycling. The cycling mode rolled out, to some fanfare, during 2010 and 2011. Huh, look at that, they’ve been doing cycle routing 12 years too.
I don’t know if I wish they’d never bothered or if I wish they’d do it so well they’d run the rest of out of town, but the current state of cycle routing on Google Maps?
In fact, it’s worse that awful, I believe it’s actively dangerous.
I should emphasise that I’m speaking for myself here. I don’t represent CycleStreets in any kind of official capacity and I am not speaking for them.
A journey I used to take all the time was across Birmingham from my house to the headquarters of West Midlands Fire Service. It’s about 3 and half miles, so exactly the kind of short urban journey that should be cycleable. (And which many of our continental neighbours wouldn’t even think of driving.)
Here’s the route Google Maps suggest I take.
Looks pretty direct, right? What could be simpler?
Here’s an enormous, busy, high-speed roundabout it wants us to cycle across.
Survived that? Then steel yourself for another …
And another …
For the majority of the journey, essentially once you turn out of the end of my street, Google Maps suggests you ride on an arterial road and then negotiate three of the biggest, busiest, fastest roundabouts in the city to cycle around the ring road, presumably while you pray to whatever god you believe in to keep you from harm.
If you try and ride this route, you are actively in harm’s way. It’s simply not safe. On the other hand, if you look at that and think "fuck it, I’ll take the car", there are other, externalised, harms.
This is a dangerous route.
Twelve years and the best the combined resources of Google can do is put people in danger.
Here’s what CycleStreets suggests, which you can see in more detail on the website.
At first glance it looks wiggler and longer than Google Maps' route, but it’s pretty much bang on the same distance.
More to the point, it keeps you away from major roads. Where it can, it uses cycle paths - about half the distance is entirely off-road and along the canal.
Google’s route brings you up Lawley Middleway and suggests you try and turn right across multiple lanes of traffic, at a roundabout, while cycling up a slope. CycleStreets brings you in by the canal, has a look at the roundabout and says you know what? hop off and use the crossing.
Is it perfect? No. Is it safe? Yes, I believe it is. It’s a route you could give to a new cyclist, or someone unfamiliar with the city with a degree confidence.
A two man organisation on a shoestring budget and a handful of volunteers are giving you safer routes.
Google employs over 190,000 people and turned over $279.8 billion last year. They could give you safe routes. Easily. Quickly. They could certainly do it without spending even a penny more. But they don’t because, as an organisation, your safety doesn’t matter.