Berlin Lab

Dynamic Connections: For Cyclists, by Cyclists

Dynamic Connections bike map

Rachel Smith’s Lab City Project could represent a better bike map.

Bike maps are useless.

There. I said it.

I’ve long resisted publishing this opinion, as I’d like to keep peace with the cycling advocates who have worked hard to make these maps widely available. In no way, of course, do I wish to undermine their well-intentioned hard work. So it’s somewhat apologetically that I say the time has come for brutal honesty: as a cyclist, I gave up on bike maps long ago because they tell me next to nothing.

That is part of the reason that I am very excited about the potential held by Dynamic Connections, a Lab City Project currently being launched by Lab Team member Rachel Smith.

Dynamic Connections is, in essence, a bike map of information that cyclists actually need from the people who know it the best: other cyclists.

The problem with traditional bike maps is that they assume a cyclist’s decision about where to ride hinges entirely on whether or not cycling infrastructure is present. Meanwhile, the maps often completely ignore several factors that are, in most cases, actually more important in deciding the best place to ride. Maps like these do not show the route’s topography, its traffic levels, or the speed that traffic moves, for instance. Nor do they often make visible the number of traffic lights, the quality of the infrastructure, or how much the route is used by other cyclists.

Perhaps their most glaring shortcoming of all is that they also fail to recognize that even if the “official” routes are the best option (which they often aren’t), every now and then we need to leave the official network of cycling infrastructure in order to get to the places we need to go. We don’t just need information about bike routes. We need information about every route.

Dynamic Connections is an attempt to tackle all these issues through crowdsourcing. It enables cyclists to mark on a Google-based map a stretch of road on which they frequently ride. Then they can answer a series of questions about that route regarding traffic flow, number of parked cars, visibility, topography, density of amenities along the route, and so on. That information gets processed using an algorithm that designates the route bicycle-friendly or -unfriendly, and the route is marked as such on the map in green or red, respectively.

One can filter the map in various ways—to see only the friendly routes, for example, or only unfriendly routes, streets with good access to amenities, those with safe intersections, etc.

“They’re auditing existing networks and they’re auditing existing streets that don’t have facilities, and they’re creating a map, as a community, of which streets are safe and which aren’t,” Rachel says, speaking to the role participants play in shaping the bike map.

The map and the process that creates it are still in the early, exploratory phases. Neither is quite perfect as of now, and both will be tweaked as time goes on. Rachel is planning on adding a comment forum, for instance, to enable people to self-solve. Also, the map is currently only viewable after one has gone through the survey process. This, too, will change.

As a user, I would personally like to be able to isolate more of the information on the map, which means that the questions one answers in the survey would need to be more specific and less bunched together. In one question, for instance, one is asked to answer “yes” or “no” to whether traffic volumes, vehicle speeds, number of parked cars, visibility at intersections, and topography make the street bicycle-friendly. I would prefer to answer each of those questions individually, so when I look at the map I can see the difference between roads that are really bad because they’re hilly and roads that are really bad because they’re full of high-speed traffic.

Still, as a starting point, Dynamic Connections gives me a lot of hope for the future of my tortured relationship with bike maps.

As it currently stands, Dynamic Connections is only available in Berlin. But Rachel’s goal is to eventually open the gates for the map to be used in any city with cyclists willing to contribute their expertise. In the meantime, she’s collecting constructive criticism. So please, check out Dynamic Connections and pass along any feedback you might have in the comment section below. What changes could make this even better?

  • Abdullah Khalid

    Phones have GPS, that can be used to track a biker. If an app is made that sends info about the biker’s route to a central server, that can be processed for lots of other info, and much simpler for everyone involved than filling out surveys..