Google Maps vs CycleStreets: Battle for the best route planner

Which is the best service to use when you are planning your cycle route? I needed to cycle up to Hampstead to see a friend, so I decided to put the two route planners to the test.

CycleStreets and Google Maps

Entering my route

I loaded up the two services in to my web browser.

On Google Maps, it was far quicker to find the address I needed on the familiar interface and get the route up on screen.

This took marginally longer on CycleStreets, as the address took longer to enter and then the route planning needed slightly more time to load.

Round one went to Google Maps.

Customising my route

Changing route on Google Maps

With the routes up on screen, if I wanted to use some of my local knowledge to tweak the suggested route, it was quick and easy to do on Google Maps – I could simply drag the line across.

On CycleStreets I can choose between three routes. The fastest route, a balanced route and the quietest route are available. However, there is no ability to tweak the route.

Round two also went to Google Maps, as I enjoy having the power to customise my route.

Following directions

iPhone app

Both the services offer turn by turn directions. However, on a bicycle, I’d find it hard to concentrate on the road and to read off directions. My 21st century male brain was simply not created for this skill. I know that I’d spot a great looking bike coming the other way, lose my concentration and then be searching for the route again.

Fortunately, I use an iPhone bike mount. This makes following a route as easy as glancing at a little blue dot on a screen.

Google Maps is available on the iPhone. However, cycling directions are not. Google is rumoured to be releasing a separate Maps app in the app store, in the new version of the iOS. At which point, Google may add bicycling directions. Until then, getting directions on to the iPhone is a bit of a kerfuffle:

  1. Log in to Google
  2. Hit “Save to My Maps” button
  3. Choose “KML” to export the route in to a file
  4. Email the file to yourself
  5. Open it up on your iPhone using an app such as Cyclemeter.

Things are a little simpler on Android phones, where you can just copy the link to your map and it will load inside Google Maps.

Things are much simpler with CycleStreets. I can simply use either the CycleStreets app or the BikeHub app. Both work on iPhone and Android and are free to use.

Points here go to CycleStreets.

Cycling the route

Both the routes started off in the same way, as I was directed down a nice little shortcut on Elm Tree Road.

Elm Tree Road

This is where the similarities largely end. Google Maps then directed me along a busy and horrible A road. The A41 is a nightmare, as large coaches frequently speed along the route. It is a prime candidate for a segregated cycle path – however, I’m not holding my breath.

a41

CycleStreets on the other hand decided to save me from this nightmare. It instead directed me down the quiet St. Johns Wood High Street and then along back routes. There was enough turns in the route to make you dizzy, but the surroundings were very pleasant.

St Johns Wood High St

Back on the Google Maps route, I was coming up to a horrible junction. I’d have to filter across three lanes of fast moving traffic, to follow the route that Google suggested.

I pedalled as fast as I could and battled with heavy fast moving chunks of metal to get in to the correct lane.

Meanwhile, on the CycleStreets route I was following a very pleasant path, away from all the traffic. I even felt I had time to stop and take this picture:

Swiss cottage

(Oooh pretty!)

On the Google Maps route, with my lungs filled with exhaust fumes, I was finally turning off on to a quiet street. Thank you Google!

I was then directed up a cobblestone street, whilst missing the far more obvious previous turn. It’s unclear why Google would miss a turn to send me the long way around and also why it thinks a cyclist would rather rattle their teeth on cobblestones.

Things were more pleasant on the CycleStreets route, which cleverly used a cycle link to get me to my destination.

Cycle link

Overall winner

Whilst Google Maps may have the edge on speed of route planning and ease of customising your route, it is no match for the results of CycleStreets. The better routing combined with the mobile apps, make this a great companion for cyclists planning their route.

There are two downsides to be aware of. The CycleStreets routes tend to have more zig zagging which can add to the time. However, on a short 18 minute cycle, the difference comes down to around one to two minutes. This is a time penalty I’m happy to pay for more enjoyable cycling.

London Cyclist Test Winner: CycleStreets

The two sites:

Update! Since performing this test a new site has entered the scene. Ride the City have added a London edition to their routing directions. Check them out: ridethecity.com/london# – we’ll have to pit them against CycleStreets in future!

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31 Responses to Google Maps vs CycleStreets: Battle for the best route planner

  1. Samir 14/08/2012 at 10:32 pm #

    And OpenStreemap is opensource and give you the power of freedom, something not to take too lightly my friend from where I come from this freedom is unfortunately not free (hint: from the middle-east I am). Take care my london friend drive safe and god bless you and your queen.

  2. Aran 15/08/2012 at 8:45 am #

    I agree – CycleStreets results are far better, but I wish there was an option for searching for ‘the route with least zig-zagging’ – I don’t have a smartphone, and usually try to memorise the route at home before venturing out onto the streets with my AtoZ. But if I have to remember more than about 7 turning instructions, I get hopelessly lost, and end up defaulting to main roads…

    • Andreas 15/08/2012 at 10:11 am #

      I’ve tried to do the same Aran – but probably remember about 5 turns and then get hopeflessly lost! If you are not using a smartphone then an option could be to write down the instructions and attach them to a handlebar bag that has a clear plastic area at the top.

  3. Iain 15/08/2012 at 9:39 am #

    Googlemaps isnt nearly as good at the “permiable to cyclist” bits, like alleys between the ends of cul-de-sacks, which can give nice, quite alternatives to the nasty, fast main roads.
    Attempting to cycle around High Wycombe and the Chilterns, as I do, I am also extreamly grateful for cyclestreets routing based on minimising hills, and its little route-profile display, which can show if the route is actually viable for someone as unused to cycling up hills! (though it could be impoved with the ability to look at eleveation in meters and the ability to zoom…).

  4. Iain 15/08/2012 at 9:41 am #

    As far as memeorising routes go, I find looking at turnings on google street view before going out helps to recognise them when you are cycling. At least untill I get lost and off the route!

  5. Matt 15/08/2012 at 9:57 am #

    I’ve tried Google Maps cycling directions a couple of times and ended up laughing at the ridiculousness. I love Google Maps but the cycling directions are abysmal. On my 6km commute to work it decided to take me to the busiest and nastiest roundabout west of Big Ben while there is a quiet street that goes perpendicular to that nasty A road. Hey, even when you’re driving a car you are better off taking the side street as it’s quieter and faster.
    On another occasion I check what would the route be to go from Chiswick to Central London. Google Maps said go to the traffic lights, turn left, go ahead, turn right, turn right again and then a few hundred meters turn right once more and turn left when you get to the same road you just left while turning left at the first set of lights. What is the point of avoiding a busy road for 200 meters?

    CycleStreets, as others said, is amusingly zig-zagy. Went from Richmond to Crystal Palace once using the map provided by them and as much as I loved being taken on little quiet streets the constant stopping to check the route got a little tiresome after the 5th time. (I do not have the ability to mount my iPhone on my bars, no space).

    So what I do is use Google Maps car driving directions and just go the straightest fastest way possible. Haven’t had any problems so far.

    • Andreas 15/08/2012 at 10:13 am #

      Sounds like they’ve got much to improve on if the routing isn’t even picking up an obvious side road!

    • sm 16/08/2012 at 7:18 am #

      I use the car directions too and then simply spend a little time dragging the route away from the major roads. I don’t think we can, or should, expect any mapping software to find the best route for us. Spending a little time adjusting the routes also helps me remember them.

  6. John 15/08/2012 at 9:58 am #

    I used cyclestreet yesterday to go from Crouch end to Hampstead Heath, and it was terrible. First it tried to send me up a one was street the wrong way, shortly followed by a short cut down a set of stairs. The last straw was being told there was a cut through at the end of a cul-de-sac that was in fact a community centre car park. I’ve used it before and it was fine, but it put me off using it after the little adventures I went on yesterday. I’m interested to see what google maps for bikes is like now though

    • Andreas 15/08/2012 at 10:15 am #

      Oh dear John – was this using the “Balanced” option or the “quietest” option. I’ve found the errors you describe when I try the “quietest”.

      • John 15/08/2012 at 10:54 am #

        I think it may have been both at that point, its crossed over a fair bit between the three

        • Harry Wood 15/08/2012 at 11:13 am #

          Yes because the “quietest” mode will look for lots of itty bitty footpaths to use in preference to roads, it’s unfortunately more likely to encounter missing/incorrect stuff in the OpenStreetMap data. But we can iron out these problems! Looking at This route, I see it’s going along these little footpaths. I’ve just edited OpenStreetMap to add some highway=steps data, so when cyclestreets pulls in an update, this problem will be fixed (it will not send you that way)

          If you don’t want to learn to edit OpenStreetMap (you’re missing out on a lot fun, but I can appreciate it might look like too much hassle at first) perhaps I could persuade you to try out osmbugs.org. Simply report a map bug at a particular spot.

    • GrahamS 15/08/2012 at 10:32 am #

      CycleStreets is based on maps from OpenStreetMap. So it is only as good as the local mapping – which generally tends to be a lot better than Googles, as it is done by actual cyclists on the ground; but sometimes it isn’t perfect.

      The good news is that with OpenStreetMap you can easily edit and fix the map yourself – improving it for yourself and any other cyclists in your area.

      http://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/Beginners%27_guide

    • Marmoset 17/08/2012 at 11:05 am #

      I use cyclestreets fairly regularly and, for journeys from home towards the SW it would always direct me the wrong way up a one way street. I eventually got round to reporting this fault yesterday morning and by the afternoon I’d had an email explaining that the street had been faultily entered on openstreetmaps, that they would edit OSM and that the inaccuracy would soon disappear from searches. They also gave a link guiding me in the mysteries of OSM editing should I ever feel up to doing it myself.

      My impression is that cyclestreets has a committed and human face and responds quickly to such inaccuracies. The great thing about this is that by making it friendly it’s easier to report or edit and that, by reporting or editing, the system becomes even more accurate.

      I tried googlemaps out just after it launched in the UK and for a local journey it sent me twice under the Thames via the Blackwall tunnel (no cycling or walking permitted) to get back to ”my” side of the Thames. I’m not tempted to use it again in the near futures.

  7. Harry Wood 15/08/2012 at 10:24 am #

    Thanks for a great write up. For me it’s gratifying to read about your good experience of cyclestreets routing because I contribute to the OpenStreetMap project, which is where cyclestreets gets its data from. A routing system is only as good as its map data, and OpenStreetMap has far better cycling related data than google, and it’s all been added by contributors (people like you and me) to this UK-based not-for-profit project.

    This is something you’ve not mentioned in your comparison. Don’t forget you can improve cyclestreets routing by improving OpenStreetMap. It takes a little while to learn about the editing process but it’s hugely satisfying to see your contributions on the map (and in cyclestreets routing) There’s a nice guide on editing OpenStreetMap written for cyclists here.

    • Andreas 15/08/2012 at 10:35 am #

      Hi Harry – I was aware of the open source nature and you are right it’s important to encourage new contributors. I’m taking a look at the guide now – I’ve only ever contributed some new bike shops to the OpenStreetMaps project but would like to contribute more based on personal experiences from cycling the routes.

  8. carpo 15/08/2012 at 10:33 am #

    I haven’t tried Google Maps – but I ALWAYS use Cycle Streets. I’m freelance – so work in lots of different office all over town – so need lots of different routes. I am constantly amazed at the routes it finds. Even the most direct routes tend to avoid busy junctions and traffic lights and most of the roads i ride are empty of cars. But the main reason I use cycle streets is it gets me there FAST.

  9. Les 15/08/2012 at 3:51 pm #

    I use CycleStreets every time. I tried Google for a regular ride I do from Oxford to West London. Their route was pretty hairy from the word go but when it directed me along the 3 lane dual carriageway A40 at Denham, where you share the road with traffic coming off the M40 at 70-90mph, I vowed never to use it again.

    I’ve given feedback on routes to CycleStreets and they’re very responsive. Also I seem to remember reading that they’re working on improving the routing to reduce zig-zagging. So this is definitely the app to go with.

    • Matthew 15/08/2012 at 9:36 pm #

      CycleStreets needs to learn from the research done by Space Syntax lab at UCL: people prefer routes with the fewest turns, even if they are longer. That’s just human nature. If CycleStreets is calculating the _shortest_ routes, they will come out zig-zagging all over. I use CycleStreets to help plan new routes, but then I reroute them myself while riding!

      Apropos of importing your own routes, you can do that with MotionX GPS via Google Maps (dodgy) or Bing Maps (much easier).

      There’s a community group on NavFree that’s trying to get them to include an ‘import route’ function, that’s got good support… but the perfect app isn’t quite there yet!

  10. Sam Saunders 15/08/2012 at 6:02 pm #

    Are CycleStreets likely to enable the “draw your own route” feature? I’m a leisure cyclist with a fondness for circular routes and obscure rural places. Neither Google nor CycleStreets are much use to me at present. I’m also near-allergic to mobile devices. An OS map is much more time efficient and its batteries last longer.

    • Will 16/08/2012 at 2:42 pm #

      For leisure routes, try the bike hub app. It uses cyclestreets data to plan circular routes of a length you specify past as many pleasant places as possible!

      As for google maps, I’m prepared to give it a chance. It will get better quickly as google gathers more data based on the cyclists using it…

  11. Maxime 16/08/2012 at 9:14 am #

    The CycleMaps app for iOS uses CycleStreets routes with a Google Maps overlay, so that you get the high-quality search and the blue dot. I find it much easier to use than BikeHub or the CycleStreets app.

    • Matthew 16/08/2012 at 9:31 pm #

      Hmm, CycleMaps costs £1.49 and has a _lot_ of one-star reviews saying it’s awful, interspersed with 5-star reviews saying it’s amazing. I will wait for a more consistent set of reviews before I dive in!

      I think the key is, plan the route using one of the apps that you like, try to memorise it, and then take a better route if you see one on the way. And feed back problems to Open Street Maps. You need to be watching out for cars and pedestrians, not gps.

  12. Andrew 17/08/2012 at 10:58 am #

    I don’t think it needs to be an either/or proposition. I typically use both Goofle Maps and CycleStreets to plan a route – I put the details into both, then take the best of both and modify the route in Goofle Maps to come up with something I’m happy with. I then get acquainted with turns on Street View before export the route for later reference.

    Incidentally don’t waste time “reporting problems” with cycle routes produced by Goofle Maps – I’ve done this a number of times to report genuinely dangerous route suggestions and have just got canned “we aren’t going to fix this” type responses weeks later which made me feel stupid for having taken the time to try and help them make a better tool for cyclists.

  13. Duncan 18/08/2012 at 7:46 am #

    Riding round London I always use Bike Hub as it speaks the directions and the route also scrolls along with your ride. I use a handle bar mount which does impair hearing the directions although I can clearly see the graphics. When I haven’t got the mount ear phones are fine as it only speaks intermittently so can hear traffic sounds fine. And when I have neither bike mount or earplugs I’ve put my phone in a shirt breast pocket and that works too with the speakers at the top. Just be careful of phone falling out of pocket. (hasn’t happened yet but definitely possible).

  14. erik 23/08/2012 at 1:14 am #

    You should try BBBike.org, which is the best of both Google and Cyclestreets. Because it uses OSM data but you can tell the route planner your preferences: Smooth streets (no cobblestone): important or not so important. Big/busy streets or small/calm streets. Try to find routes without traffic ligths, find routes for child cycle trailers or with child bike seat.

    Not yet available for all cities worldwide, but for most of the cycle cities, I think.

    • carpo 23/08/2012 at 10:00 am #

      hi erik
      I am trying BBBike.org but can’t find where you adjust the preferences – can you give me a steer

      • erik 23/08/2012 at 10:30 am #

        Ok:
        • Go to http://www.bbbike.org
        • Click on e.g. London http://www.bbbike.org/London/
        • Write a street name or POI name in the start field (e.g. Picadilly Circus)
        • Write a street name or POI name in the dest field (e.g. Oxford Drive)
        • Click on “Go on”
        On the next page you see “settings” where you can change all your preferences.

        But: If you choose your start and destination by dragging the markers on the map, the settings window does not appear. You can then change your settings at the bottom of the results page (below the map).

        Did that help? If not: Please contact the authors for usability improvements. :-)

  15. Andreas 23/08/2012 at 4:18 pm #

    Newsflash: Another site, Ride The City, have added London bike route directions: http://ridethecity.com/london

    The site has a very nice interface and the routing seems good – it will be one to test again the winner of our first battle!

  16. Ted 31/08/2012 at 12:58 pm #

    I generally use the walking directions on Google Maps rather than the cycling routes. Much more direct and therefore usually quicker.

    Usually this also means you go down more back streets, although personally I don’t have a problem with main roads – fewer pedestrians walking into the street for one thing…

  17. Simon 01/08/2014 at 5:02 pm #

    Strangely in the android app for CycleStreets the route is far more customisable. The simple reason for this is that it allows you to put in as many way points as you like. I love this feature as I like to plan circular routes down to fine detail and this doesn’t work well in Google maps or the cycle streets web site. Why they don’t give you that on the website I have no idea.

    I am not from London but came upon the article and I don’t think anyone has mentioned this. I think it elevates CycleStreets to the comfortable winner.

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