There are few facets of everyday life the pandemic has not changed. Social distancing measures will leave lasting impressions on the way we work and socialize. Many of us worked from home and are now getting re-accustomed to wearing trousers instead of pajama pants. Even our commutes were not immune.
In lieu of taking more populated forms of public transportation, an increasing number of Americans opted to bike to work. The country’s top 100 metro areas experienced an 11% cycling increase in September of 2020 compared to September of 2019. One in ten adults admitted to riding a bike for the first time in a year (or longer) or trying biking in a new way since the onset of COVID-19.
While these trends were accelerated by the pandemic, they have, in reality, developed slowly over nearly two decades. From 2000 to 2019, the number of commuters who bike to work increased by 61% from 488,000 to 786,000. Bike share accessibility, improved biking infrastructure and technological advances in the biking industry have all played a crucial role in this increase. And, with gas prices at a national high, the rise in bike ridership shows no signs of slowing – especially in the Midwest.
Topping the list of cities where bike commuting is growing the fastest, Detroit has seen a 540.1% growth rate from 2000 to 2016. Cleveland follows closely behind in third place with a 392.6% growth rate. In Omaha, bike commuting is up 306.1% and Chicago saw a 240.7% increase.
Despite these impressive numbers, certain mapping services have largely lagged behind in creating navigational coverage for bikers in the Midwest. And, with more and more urban Midwesterners opting to cycle to work, there is a growing need for corresponding universal navigation on the most used mapping platforms.
By selecting cycling-specific directions on apps like Google Maps or Apple Maps, users are automatically directed towards cycle paths and bike lanes where available, as well as roads deemed to be bike-friendly, making commuting more convenient, enjoyable and safer. For example, the mapping service Apple provides informs bikers of the duration of their ride and how to avoid major roads or particularly hilly routes.
“Ensuring that online mapping resources can adequately support bicycle trips is really critical to meeting peoples’ transportation needs,” Caitlin Harley, Safe Routes to School and Active Transportation Manager of the Ohio Department of Transportation, said.
While Google’s coverage has been relatively comprehensive across the nation since its biking-specific mapping addition in 2010, until recently, Apple’s coverage was sparse.
Cycling directions on Apple Maps were first introduced through the iOS 14 update in September 2021. The addition covered the Northeast, West Coast and small portions of the Southwest and Midwest.
In April 2022, these urban-centric directions expanded to include portions of the Northwest and Midwest.
With bike-specific mapping routes originally limited to 18 states, Apple Maps added directions in April to new cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Bloomington, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. Since April, Apple Maps has expanded bike routing coverage to include all U.S. counties.
Apple has yet to officially announce the rollout of cycling directions in smaller Midwestern cities or update the list of areas where cycling directions are available. In the most recent update, the incremental expansion of directions tended to correspond with the cities with notable increases of bike commuters. Areas where the development of bike infrastructure, like additional bike lanes, paths and stands, is prioritized are likely to see more bike commuters, and thus receive better bike-specific mapping directions.
“Identifying routes that feel comfortable might be intimidating to people who don’t have as much experience with biking. I think if Apple Maps helps locate better routing options, or helps to relay information about routes to users, it will empower people to make decisions and expand their transportation options,” Harley said.
Essentially, better maps make it easier and safer to bike, and the availability of bike-navigation routes is likely to encourage more people to do so.
“In general, institutionalizing this type of information across all platforms is useful for increasing biking accessibility,” Harley said.
Moreover, biking is good for both people and communities. A recent study created a new model to measure the health benefits of replacing automobile-dependent, sedentary lifestyles with active biking and walking. The same could be done for increasing safety for bike rides.
“There are roads [where] drivers don’t expect bikers, therefore it’s really dangerous to bike on them,” Sam Aronson, a bike commuter and avid recreational cyclist in Chicago, said. “Also, scenery wise, I personally prefer to be on back streets that are more green and scenic with less pollution from a lot of cars. I think in general, mapping is important for both the safety aspect and the enjoyment of riding.”