Monday, November 22, 2010

Op-Ed: What should a statewide bicycle map have?

So last week I posted a general notice about NJDOT’s public forums to get some feedback in their efforts to put together a statewide bicycle map. This project leaves me very excited since I love maps and will even confess to having over 100 in my collection. I read maps like people read books, plotting adventures and rides many of which, unfortunately, will never come to pass.

As for bicycle specific maps that I’ve seen, results seem to be hit or miss. Some of maps are excellent, a number are mediocre but still useful, while others are downright useless for navigating by bike and aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. From decades of map use to travel by bike here in New Jersey, elsewhere around North American and in Europe, I would like to suggest some ideas that I feel are critical in producing a quality New Jersey Bike Map:
  • Rate roads for bicycle suitability – This is by far the most important bit of information that a bicycle map can provide but is often not done at all or in a way that I think is incorrect. Many bicycle maps simply list the presence of a shoulder or a bicycle lane to rate the bicycle suitability of a road. Using this as the only or primary criteria in a rating system can make for a bad bicycle map. Without considering other factors, I’ve seen some maps give busy six-lane highways what appear to be a more appealing bicycle suitability ratings than the back roads that I know are fantastic to ride on. Yes, the highway has a shoulder but the little back road only gets 10 cars per hour making the shoulder all but unnecessary for bicycle travel. The most important factor in rating bicycle suitability of a roadway is traffic volume. A road may be narrow, with a 50mph speed limit and no shoulder but if only a handful of cars pass by on a given hour, that road would be far superior for riding than a 25mph arterial with a well engineered bike lanes but heavy and continuous traffic. Knowing if there is a shoulder or bike lane is still useful but that info will always be of secondary importance to a cyclist compared to knowing or conveying traffic volume.
  • Keep it large-scale – Maps that include a very large geographic area are said to be small-scale. Such small-scale maps can make visualizing details difficult, again such as small back roads that cyclists seek out due to their low traffic volumes and superior scenery. To me a scale of 1:63,360 or 1 inch = 1 mile would be ideal. 1:100,000 would be acceptable (1cm = 1km) but anything beyond 1:126,720 (1 inch = 2 miles) and you start to lose the granular detail that cyclists need. If the scale is too small the map can end up becoming useless now matter how accurate and well presented the information on it. This would likely require the creation of more than two maps but I think this could be the difference of creating just a good map to an excellent one. For example Delaware’s useful bike map divides the state into three sections, one for each county, and Delaware is smaller than New Jersey.
  • Quality Cartography – I’ve gotten spoiled from my days traveling in Europe because the maps you buy over there are true works of art. These maps are mostly hand drawn (or so they seem) and the iconography and detail they use allow for an amazing amount of information to be clearly and concisely conveyed to the map user. As a traveler of non-motorized means one will quickly appreciate the detail and information a good map can convey, particularly as the light of day begins to fade while traveling on unfamiliar roads with many miles still to go.
  • Label all roads (at least the through streets) – One of the greatest shortcomings of some bicycle maps that I’ve used was the failure to label small roads. Experience has taught me to seek out the small roads and residential back streets to avoid the high traffic volumes on arterials. While it is useful to indicate that the labeled arterial street is unsuited for bicycle travel, it would be nice to have the local side streets comprehensively labeled to help navigate around that arterial.
  • Show topography by some graphic means – A bicycle map doesn’t need topographic lines but some sort of shading to show terrain relief is just about an absolute necessity. I also like the system that many European maps use to show the grade of a climb. Chevrons are pointed uphill with a number of chevrons used to indicate steepness in grade percentage (> = 5 to 9%, >> = 10 to 14%, >>> more than 15%). Also reference elevations of significant mountains like High Point, Bearfort, Jenny Jump, the Sourland Mountains and even Apple Pie Hill in the Pine Barrens should be given, just to name a few.
  • Include and indicate unpaved roads – From the draft I looked at on-line last week, many of the gravel and dirt roads in Hunterdon County are shown on the map. This is good since these roads, by nature have very little motor vehicle traffic and are very useful to cyclists. However the map should somehow indicate that these roads are unpaved so unsuspecting roadies aren’t caught off guard. On the flip side, some significant sand roads in the Pine Barrens were omitted even though there were no other roads in that area on the map that would be competing for space. In the same vein, it would be nice to indicate graphically if multi-use pathways are paved with asphalt or some unpaved surface.
  • Locate camping icons directly where the campsites are located – For example, from the draft I’ve seen, camping is indicated in Stokes State Forest but the icon is just placed randomly in the green area indicating the state forest. Stokes State Forest is rather large, at least a dozen miles across or more in some parts. Having an accurate idea where the THREE campgrounds are actually located throughout the forest would allow for bicycle tourists to more accurately estimate travel distance and time. Also it would be nice to include county (Morris and Monmouth, maybe others) campgrounds as well as private ones (mostly located in South Jersey).
  • Include all NJ TRANSIT train stations and major bus terminals.
  • Finally, do not forget that some of the users of this map will be tourists from out of state or even out of the country. Do not assume they know anything about New Jersey and that they outcome of their trip may be entirely dependent on the information provided on the map. I’ve been there on a road far away from home, relying on the map to get me safely to my destination so I know how important an accurate map can be.
From what I’ve seen of the draft New Jersey bike map, NJDOT and its consultants are off to a good start. Still, they must remember that there are already plenty of other good map sources that this map will be competing against. Google Maps with its “Bike There” instructions has shown itself to be a very useful tool and Map My Ride will even calculate vertical profiles as it maps your ride. As for printed maps however, I still find myself grabbing for my Hagstrom and ADC county maps over any county bicycle map published for a New Jersey county so far (the new Mercer County bike map is really good but it’s only an online source as far as I know). Still, I have high hopes for this map project and look forward to the final product.


Ben said...

I'm surprised you haven't been mentioning Dustin Farnum's excellent Aside from cartographic beauty, it meets almost all of your requirements, and has to be the best resource for New Jersey cyclists at the moment. I think it's a good model for pushing cyclists towards smaller roadways, even if they don't have a wide shoulder.

Andrew J. Besold said...


I was just talking to Dustin the other day at Efinger's about this project. His map is an absolutely mind-boggling amazing project that New Jersey cyclists are very lucky to have for free. He does stuff an incredible amount if information on his maps.

However, I personally do not always agree with his road ratings. I think a more independently objective system is needed than just one person's gut feelings which is why I suggest using an empirically acquired data on traffic volume. I think it is also important for cyclists to know if a road with heavy traffic has shoulders which is something his map does not currently show.

Still, I totally agree with you Ben. Dustin's maps are a fantastic resource and set the bar VERY high for NJDOT if they have any hope to do any better. I'm confident that Dustin's high standard will just about require NJDOT to go for the Gold on this project. For that we should all thank him.

No pressure, Liz ;) if your reading this.

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