Support BikePortland - Journalism that Matters

A few last notes and a mini-Q&A with Google Maps product guy

Posted by on March 10th, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Peter Birch from Google.
(Photos © J. Maus)

Earlier today, I got he opportunity to speak with Peter Birch, the product manager for Google Earth (and world traveler) who spearheaded development of their new biking directions feature.

Before I get to the Q & A with Birch, here’s a recap of his comments from this morning’s Opening Plenary.

“The challenge we face is, how do we get more people on bikes…. A lot of people don’t feel comfortable on a lot of the routes they’re on with busy roads and unfamiliar streets. We wanted to figure out, how can we scale this up, so we can handle every ride? At Google, we love problems of scale.”

Birch shared that they’ve got detailed map data ready to go on the site for 150 cities and over 12,000 miles of trail data — thanks to a partnership with the Rails to Trails Conservancy. “And over the next several months, we hope to extend that coverage as well as improve the quality of directions we provide.”

Birch then started talking like an advocate (which it turns out, he is — see my Q & A below):

“With this launch, we’re showing our commitment to providing maps for people, not just cars. We’re really proud to be a part of this growing movement in helping to build greener and more sustainable communities… What we’re launching today is just a start, we know they’re only as good as the data that’s fed into it, that’s why we need your help. You guys are the experts, we need your feedback in terms of providing directions and advice in terms of which roads and trails are the best ones… then we’ll transfer the knowledge to the people who aren’t as confident and experienced in where to go.”

“With this launch, we’re showing our commitment to providing maps for people, not just cars.”
— Peter Birch, Google Earth Product Manager

Next up was Google product manager Shannon Guymon. “Cyclists have not let us forget that they haven’t been included [with Google Maps]. We’ve heard you all loud and clear.”

Guymon pointed out some of the new tool’s features. “We weight the algorithm to put you on trails as much as possible, if those aren’t possible, we go to the next best options avoiding steep hills and busy roads.” Guyton says they’ve also updated trip times. In addition, the new tool also allows you to drag and drop your route anywhere you choose and the directions update automatically. There’s also a gadget on the main Google Maps Biking so website publishers can embed the tool in their site.

Here’s a quick and rough transcript of my Q & A with Birch:

With car directions, a wrong turn can be a hassle, but with biking directions, bad directions can led to serious safety issues. How do you respond to people who are pointing out direction results that put them in harm’s way?

We know that’s going to happen. But this feature is in beta… it’s not a mature product yet. We really want to get everything right, that’s why we made this announcement here at the Summit; because these are the people with the expertise to tell us which roads are good and which ones aren’t.

What about data? Where did most of the bike route data come from?

“We’ve been working with RTC [Rails to Trails Conservancy] to get access to their rail-trail network. Most of the other data was brought in more ad-hoc from municipalities.”

Will this be brought to the iPhone and other mobile platforms any time soon?

“You can expect that to happen. Mobile is a key focus for Google, especially with directions, it’s great to have it in your pocket. I can’t tell you any specific dates right now, but we’re working on it.”

Is there any compatibility with GPS?

Right now, users can import a .KML file through the MyMaps tool. Just go to the “mymaps” tab and hit “import.”

What about problem spots and handling feedback from users?

“[There’s a nice “Report a Problem” feature on the Google Maps Biking page.] Once it comes in, we vet it and say, “Is this a valid change?” If it is, it’ll take about a month for us to make the change.”

While you spoke, it was clear that your heart is in bike advocacy. Can you speak to how/if advocacy plays into this for you personally and for Google?

“I’ve been a bike advocate for years. I tried to get on the SFBC board and have been a member for 15 years. At Google, we like to make change thru action. Google is very bottom up… This [biking direcdtions] happened because people that work here are passionate about biking… We also want toserver the needs of our users. By launching bike direcstion, we want to make it easier for more people to get into biking.”

What do you think about the summit?

“It’s great. I wish I could stay here all week. Bicycling advocacy is hard work and it’s great to see so many tough and persistent people working on this.”

Go to to learn more. Previous coverage of this story here (with lots of informative comments) and here.

Bike Summit coverage sponsored by Planet Bike. More stories on our special coverage page.

NOTE: Thanks for sharing and reading our comments. To ensure this is a welcoming and productive space, all comments are manually approved by staff. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for meanness, discrimination or harassment. Comments with expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia will be deleted and authors will be banned.

Leave a Reply

8 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
5 Comment authors
Paul JohnsonPeteAndrew HoltzSleepySamSlimBill Recent comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Notify of

Tried it for my commute. Gave me a few crazy routes. Not necessarily unsafe for biking. But several faster+safer+easier routes were available. Hope it gets better.


Sounds useful if they can get enough route data to make it work.

Awkward Question by the Interviewer: “Can it be brought to iPhone ….”

Awkward …. Goggle and Apple are now fierce competitors in the mobile / phone arena. Oooops


Glad to see you posted the link to his travels! I met Peter in Costa Rica in the mid-90’s and he became a windsurf pal. Just sent him an email the other day and have been waiting for a reply but I guess I can see that he’s busy. Last time I saw him was in October’s “Outside” magazine…

Andrew Holtz

Boy, it’s going to take a lot of work to fix all the glitches. I tried a couple of my common routes and it directed me on to the wrong side of the Hawthorne Bridge (with unnecessary loops around to get back on the correct side of the street at each end) and it is missing a number of key bike/ped paths, including at SW Humphrey/Hewett at the Sylvan/Hwy 26 overpass and SW Stearns from Washington Park down to W Burnside.

The system (while not perfect) is generally better, even though it hasn’t been updated in ages.

Andrew Holtz

But… I don’t mean to be too negative. Google Maps recognition of cycling is very appreciated. I’m really looking forward to seeing the Street View images of paths that I saw the Google camera bike trailer shooting last summer.


Just so you know he’s got some bike cred:

Paul Johnson
Paul Johnson

I just tried it with a few common Washington County routes. There’s definitely some deficiencies in the routing engine and the underlying data compared to OpenStreetMap and Lambertus’ free OSM to garmin map generator.