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A Bumpy Test Ride With Google's Bike Map

A screengrab of Google's map service for bicyclists shows a cycling route similar to the one the author used — complete with a ride through the White House grounds and multiple turns near the Lincoln Memorial.

Google Maps has long been one of the most popular Web sites for driving directions. Bicyclists who have been asking for directions that show the best biking path to a destination recently got their wish, too.

Peter Smith is a big fan of Google Maps. "I love Google Maps," he said. "I use it daily; I've used it for years."

When Smith started riding a bike to save money two years ago, it didn't work out so well. He looked up his route on Google — a quick trip from his house in Austin, Texas, to the bookstore.

"When I got out on the road, it felt terrifying, like death-defying," Smith said. "There were these big Ford F150s passing me by like really close, and I thought, man, there's gotta be a better way."

Google had shown him the fastest route for cars, which happened to also be the scariest way for bikes.

"Google needs bike directions," he thought. Smith gathered 50,000 signatures in an online petition. This month, Google unveiled the new feature.

To test it out, a friend, Mike Brown, and I printed out directions from downtown Washington, D.C., to Arlington, Va., where Mike lives. The site gave us an estimate: 34 minutes to cover 5.4 miles.

We started pedaling, south toward the White House. But the street we were supposed to ride on was blocked by a spiky iron gate and a not-too-friendly guard.

"Is this East Executive Avenue?" we asked.

"Yes."

"And can we bike through here?"

"No."

So getting around the White House was a bit of a challenge for Google.

But that was nothing compared with what came next: eight instructions consisting of turning left and right toward Lincoln Memorial Circle. Over and over. Google was trying to help us stay off busy streets by sending us through a maze of unmarked paths on the National Mall.

We made it across the river into Virginia, but there was more trouble ahead. Another guard — this one at Arlington National Cemetery.

"OK, you can't ride bikes in the cemetery, and you definitely can't take that stuff in the cemetery. OK?"

OK. So, I took my microphone and stuff, and we biked around the cemetery. Then we got lost.

An hour and 15 minutes after we started, we pulled up to Mike's house — about twice as long as Google had projected. Obviously, the company is still perfecting the bike directions. And it's taking user feedback.

So I went to the Google Maps Web site, clicked "Report a problem," and wrote, "You can't bike through the Arlington cemetery."

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Transcript

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Drivers have gotten used to plotting their route using Google Maps, but commuters trying to find a safe route for two wheels have found themselves out of luck. Cyclists have now finally gotten biking directions from Google. As Jacob Fenston reports, they're still a work in progress.

JACOB FENSTON: Peter Smith is a big fan of Google Maps.

Mr. PETER SMITH (Bicycle Rider): I love Google Maps. I use it daily. I've used it for years.

FENSTON: But two years ago, when he started riding a bike to save money, it didn't work out so well. He looked up his route on Google - a quick trip from his house in Austin to the bookstore.

Mr. SMITH: But then when I got out on the road, it felt terrifying, like death-defying. There were these big Ford F-150s that were passing me by really close, and I thought, man, you know, there's gotta be a better way.

FENSTON: Google sent him the fastest way for cars, which happened to also be the scariest way for bikes. Google needs bike directions, he thought. He gathered over 50,000 signatures on an online petition. This month, Google unveiled the new feature.

(Soundbite of car horn honking)

FENSTON: So I met up with my friend Mike to go for a test ride.

Mr. MIKE BROWN (Bicycle Rider): I'm Mike Brown. I'm a bicycle rider.

FENSTON: I had printed out directions from downtown Washington, D.C., where I live, to Mike's house in Arlington, Virginia.

Mr. BROWN: It says it's 34 minutes, 5.4 miles.

FENSTON: We started pedaling, south toward the White House.

Mr. BROWN: Continue on to East Executive Avenue, which I think is this block...

FENSTON: But then the street we were supposed to ride on was blocked by a spiky iron gate and a not-too-friendly guard.

Mr. BROWN: Is this East Executive Avenue?

Unidentified Man #1: Yes.

FENSTON: And can we bike through here?

Unidentified Man #1: No.

Mr. BROWN: Oh, it's because of the White House, I guess.

FENSTON: We weren't making very good time.

Mr. BROWN: No, we've gone .3 miles and 433 feet.

FENSTON: Okay. So getting around the White House was a bit of a challenge for Google. But nothing compared to what came next.

Mr. BROWN: Wait a minute. Hold on here. Turn right toward Lincoln Memorial Circle. Turn left toward Lincoln Memorial Circle.

FENSTON: The next eight directions consisted of turning left and right toward Lincoln Memorial Circle, over and over.

Mr. BROWN: Turn left toward Lincoln Memorial Circle. God. Turn left at Lincoln Memorial Circle.

FENSTON: Google was trying to help us stay off busy streets by sending us through a maze of unmarked paths on the National Mall. We made it across the river into Virginia, but there was more trouble ahead.

Unidentified Man #2: Hello.

FENSTON: The Arlington National Cemetery.

Mr. BROWN: We were just going to ride up through the cemetery.

Unidentified Man #2: Okay, you can't ride bikes in the cemetery, and you definitely can't take that stuff in the cemetery. Okay?

FENSTON: Okay. So I took my microphone and stuff, and we biked around the cemetery. We got lost.

Mr. BROWN: Wait a minute - Ninth Street?

FENSTON: One hour, 15 minutes after we started...

(Soundbite of dog barking)

Mr. BROWN: Eli, Eli, Eli...

FENSTON: ...we made it to Mike's house - about twice as long as Google said. Obviously, the company is still perfecting the bike directions. And they're taking user feedback.

Okay. I'm logged onto Google Maps. Click report a problem, and I'm writing: You can't bike through the Arlington cemetery.

For NPR News, I'm Jacob Fenston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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