Biking website pools cyclists' expertise

  • Article by: TONY GONZALEZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 18, 2008 - 3:40 PM

Cyclopath "geowiki" allows riders to edit information, build routes based on "bikeability."

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Reid Priedhorsky

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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Sitting near an eight-level tower of enchilada sauce cans in his University of Minnesota office (he really likes enchilada sauce), graduate researcher and avid cyclist Reid Priedhorsky browses an online map at Cyclopath.org, searching for a gap between a street and a bike path on the U's East Bank.

He knew, from riding there, what the map didn't.

A click. A drag. "These actually connect," said Priedhorsky, showing how easy it is to fix a "hole" in the map.

When the Cyclopath "geowiki" goes public in August, cyclists will be able to edit information (that's the "wiki") on a digital map (the "geo"), thereby building better routes from Point A to Point B and beyond. Cyclopath.org will be the world's first geowiki of its kind, but it isn't trying to attract millions of users or make money. Its benefits are local.

Some road information, like daily traffic volume, already is easily available from city governments. But Cyclopath will give riders super-local information, such as where to avoid pothole-riddled patches and narrow shoulders and whether a route might get dicey because of aggressive-driver flare-ups.

It's the kind of spokes-to-the-street information that cyclists crave. Riders can rate road conditions block by block, enter text descriptions, pinpoint interesting places and fix faulty map data throughout the seven-county metro area. Then Cyclopath crunches the information and returns personalized routes based on a "bikeability" rating.

"There are lots of bike maps out there, and I think each of them have significant failings," Priedhorsky said. "Who knows where cyclists can go? Well, cyclists do, and they know better than anybody else."

Around the dead-end guardrail, over the train tracks, and across the brown scar worn into the grass -- routes like this one used by cyclists on N. Chatsworth Street in St. Paul, won't appear in other routing systems. They will in Cyclopath, if cyclists add them.

"GoogleMaps doesn't really accommodate bicycles, and if we find a problem with a GoogleMap, well, bummer," said Hokan, 52, a Minneapolis cyclist who goes only by his first name.

Hokan, who doesn't own a car, worked on Cyclopath before its public release. He began by rating bikeability near his home and has since rated more than 2,000 city blocks, making him a good example of how Cyclopath transfers expert information to novice riders and new commuters.

The Cyclopath map isn't perfect. It relies on map data provided by several counties and the Minnesota Department of Transportation, so highways such as New Brighton Boulevard appear on Cyclopath to disconnect when crossing county lines, and some bike paths aren't included.

However, a cyclist can change the map or add a route, such as through parking lots or between fences. Once the connection is added, the system can suggest it as part of a route.

Even with open editing privileges, Priedhorsky doesn't anticipate much wiki vandalism.

"Wikis seem to work. And the reason seems to be that bad information doesn't last very long," Priedhorsky said. "You can imagine in Wikipedia George Bush is very controversial. ... You don't have as many people that feel as passionately about Lyndale Avenue as they do about George Bush."

Before working on Cyclopath, Priedhorsky contributed route suggestions to the Twin Cities Bike Map, a map book published since 1984 by Doug Shidell. The 57-year-old owner of bikeeverywhere.com said his book sales are holding steady, especially with the release of tear- and water-resistant paper in the spring.

He won't go online with his map, Shidell said, but he is eyeing Cyclopath's development.

As Cyclopath adds features, the service will be able to link with mobile devices and snap GPS data points onto routes.

Priedhorsky, aside from his personal cycling interest, is a researcher first. His team is keen on how people interact online.

"For getting information about cycling routes and cycling-relevant information, I think the most likely approach to get that online is a user approach," said Loren Terveen, associate professor of computer science and Priedhorsky's adviser. "It's going to be up to communities."

Tony Gonzalez • 612-673-7415

  • FIND ROUTES WITH A 'GEOWIKI'

    Starting in August, cyclists can visit Cyclopath.org to find bike routes and input "bikeability" data. The service is free.

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