What Google Maps knows about cycling habits around the world
Tech giant Google knows a lot: where you live, what you’re looking for, what you’re buying, and what’s keeping you awake at night. This knowledge is informed by a number of its products – such as Google Search, or Google Chrome, or Google Home – and it is also informed by Google Maps, the the world’s first mapping application.
But despite any worries you might have about the insidious introduction of big technology into people’s lives, there is some fascinating information that can be gleaned from the bigger picture. Google has unmatched scale and is uniquely capable of providing a holistic picture of what’s going on in the world.
And today, thanks to Google Maps, that’s exactly what they’ve done for cycling.
Google Maps and cycling
Maps was first rolled out in 2005 and started adding cycling-specific features from 2010. Over the years these features have received a number of updates – such as the addition of cycling profiles. rise in 2017 – with the aim of making the app more appealing to cyclists of all stripes. Specific cycling routes are currently available in over 30 countries1.
Due to Google’s immense reach and market penetration of its Maps app, all of the data Google provides is supported by billions of trips from an app that has had more than five billion downloads in the world. Cyclists are, of course, only a fraction of that whole, but we’re still talking about a huge amount of data.
Last year there was a massive COVID-induced bicycle boom that saw a 69% increase in bicycle steering searches from February 2020, along with an all-time record search volume in the region. during the Nordic summer.
Searches for bicycle repair services have doubled year on year, and Google has worked with local governments to incorporate any new pop-up bicycle infrastructure into its maps. Last year, more than 150,000 km of new cycle paths were added to Google Maps.
Top cities and countries for cycling, according to Google Maps
In 2021, the bicycle boom seems to have continued. In one new blog post published today, Google has pooled a year of Google Maps data to provide a snapshot of the year in cycling2.
According to Google, based on “the overall usage of cycle routes in Google Maps”, the top countries for cycling in the world are:
- United States
- The Netherlands
Breaking this down into metropolitan areas, the world’s best cities for cycling (again, using the caveat “using cycle routes in Google Maps”) are:
The United States does not appear in this top 5 list, so Google has provided a special ranking of cities for its country of origin. The main US cities for bicycle direction requests are:
- new York
- Los Angeles
- San Francisco
- Washington DC
Large and small images
By zooming out on a global scale, Google estimates that people are cycling further in their average trips. There is no data available to reveal why this is the case – maybe new riders are getting fitter, maybe COVID lockdown restrictions have eased, maybe none, or maybe – be both – but regardless, the average cycle route via Google Maps in 2021 is now almost 10% longer than in 2020. In San Francisco, the routes searched are 15% longer, while in Ireland , users are looking for colossal routes 50% longer than a year ago.
Of course, these great figures have nuances behind them; it’s easy to take a shiny number and use it while coming to a completely wrong conclusion.
Google itself provides a classic example without context:
“Tour of New Zealand? New Zealanders seek ‘bicycle shops’ 30% more [than] they were at the end of April 2020, signaling that their interest in cycling might even hold up as the country’s winter season approaches.
… Which sounds good, but also, the entirety of New Zealand was indeed sheltering in place during April 2020 and probably not looking for a bike shop. New Zealand’s cycling industry didn’t fully reopen until mid-May.
How does this sort of thing affect the integrity of the dataset? It’s hard to say for sure, but again, you have to get back to this vast user base, over a good part of the planet.
Zooming out, to that very wide view where you aren’t looking at regional sights and worrying about data privacy, at least one thing seems clear.
More and more people are riding their bikes, and they are riding more.
And that can only be a good thing.
- I asked the Google media team which countries these were and what Google’s plans were to roll out this feature to other countries, but at the time of publication I had not received a response. .
- Keep in mind that these stats are based on the 30 countries that have cycle routes in their Google Maps, and the dataset is for people from those countries who specifically use Google Maps to get around. This means that there is a level of wealth, as these people all have smartphones and allegiance to particular devices (i.e. smartphones rather than, say, Garmin or Wahoo GPS units). The developing world is not making an appearance, and there could be a huge bicycle boom in India, China or Africa that is not in this dataset because they do not use Google Maps or have not as many smartphone users or Google has yet to introduce cycle routes.