Exploring Seattle with Google and a Bike

I went on a lengthy bike ride around the Seattle area yesterday. There were a couple of errands I wanted to run in the city and I thought I’d use them as an excuse to test out Google Maps new bicycle directions feature, which I had yet to use.

The Interurban Trail runs through Snohomish and King Counties, forming a highway for human powered transport. At least, that’s the idea. Parts of the trail are on old railway routes and parts are on normal city streets. The part of the trail in King county is great, but the Snohomish county trail is very poorly signed and notoriously difficult to follow as it moves between trail sections and streets. If you’ve never ridden it before, you’re guaranteed to lose it. Since the trail parallels I-5 and 99, it’s difficult to actually get lost – just keep heading north or south and you’ll eventually get where you’re going – but it’s nice to be able to stay on the trail itself as the Interurban’s route is generally the friendliest to non-motorized vehicles.

I was very impressed with Google’s ability to keep me on the trail. The directions only once told me to turn onto a non-existent road. Other than that, they proved accurate. I also had with me photocopies of the relevant route directions taken from Biking Puget Sound. The directions from both were very similar, but where they differed, I found that Google’s route was superior.

Of course, the whole trip couldn’t be on the trail. I had to get on the Interurban at the beginning of my ride and off it at the end. For that bit, I was also happy with Google’s directions. The route on and off the trail was not as direct as the one I would have chosen myself, but Google seemed to go out of their way to keep me on smaller streets with less traffic. It’s clear that Google takes topography into account, as well, as the streets that Google suggested were flatter than those on the more direct route that I would have chosen.

The downside to Google’s route was the number of turns. The directions were 7 pages long for the full trip (both to my destination and from the destination back to my starting point). I think the longest section I had without a turn was about 2 miles. I would make a turn, pull the directions out of my pocket to see how long I had on this stretch and what the next turn would be, shove the directions back into my pocket, go on for a bit, make the turn, and repeat the process. It was a bit inconvenient, shoving the directions into my pocket and pulling them out so frequently, and the directions got crinkled and difficult to read. I need to figure out someway to mount them on my handlebars. The other problem with the directions was that, because much of the Interurban is on the old railway that doesn’t have street names, Google would occasionally give a direction like “Turn left in 58 feet”. Turn left? Turn left where? In this driveway? That business parking lot? The lake? With the infrequent signage on the trail itself, I would often miss these mysterious left turns. When that happened I would look a couple steps ahead on the directions till it had me turning onto a street with a number. I could make my way to that numbered street along normal roads and soon find myself back on Google’s route.

Overall I was pleased with the directions and will definitely be taking advantage of Google again for future trips – though if it’s in an area that I have no familiarity with, I would probably want to supplement them with a good road map for added security. I’ll also be curious to see how they do in other cities, or outside of urban areas altogether. I’m told that the team who developed the bike route feature is based in Seattle, so it would make sense that that city would have the most accurate directions.

In Seattle I made a bit of a tour. I went past Woodland Park and cruised around Green Lake a bit before stopping in the center of the universe to refuel. From there I went over the Ship Canal and decided to torture myself by pedaling up the hill to Queen Anne before heading down to Pike Place. At the market, I paid a visit to Left Bank Books to browse the zine collection before heading over to Metsker Maps. I have something of a map fetish, so Metskers is one of my favorite shops in that area. I spent 45 minutes in there pouring over various topos that are difficult to acquire anywhere else.

Outside of Pike Place I saw somebody with what looked like a TAD FAST Pack. I don’t see those around very often, so I went up to the guy to congratulate him on his taste in bags. But on closer inspection I saw it was one of those cheap Japanese airsoft knock-off designs.

After walking the bike around downtown and doing more people-watching, I started to head back north. I decided to take a different route and go the long way around Lake Union. Eventually I picked up the Burke-Gilman Trail and ended up back in Fremont. From there I made a slight detour over to Ballard (nope, it isn’t free yet) and visit Second Ascent. They’re one of the best independent (i.e. non-REI) gear shops in the area and usually have a good selection of used gear. Once there I spent another half hour looking at maps – this time aided with some of the guide books they had – and happened upon a nice 50-ish mile loop in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, which is something that I’ve been looking for lately.

From Ballard, it was back to Fremont where I made a quick stop at PCC for some dolmas and a couple of cookies before retracing my route back home.

The route that I took was supposed to be 50 miles, but for all my detours and added explorations, it was probably closer to 70. My butt cheeks hurt, despite my padded panties.