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It can be difficult being a cyclist in a country paved for automobiles. After all, most roads in the US were built for use by cars and trucks and it is a rare sight to see a designated bike lane in a major metropolitan area. Sure, you can use the Google Maps bike function to help find ways to bike from place to place, but it will not tell you whether there is construction or heavy traffic on the road and it has absolutely no idea of the safety of the surrounding area or the availability of bike racks. And it certainly will not mention the beauty of the scenic view along the trail.
Cyclopath, an online and recently mobile geowiki created in May 2008 by the GroupLens Research Lab at the University of Minnesota Department of Computer Science and Engineering, aims to meet all of these common needs. It services the Twin Cities metropolitan area in Minnesota by allowing users to rate path ‘bikeability’, create tags like “new pavement” or “little traffic” for specific areas, enter new trails into the online map, and essentially make the cycling experience more convenient and enjoyable. As more users share their personal experiences with different trails, the program becomes more useful for bikers to create their own, personalized trails that are suited for them. Gone are the days of unknowingly biking into dead end construction zones and being forced to take outrageously long detours.
As a geographically centralized wiki, or geowiki for short, anyone can download and edit the source code straight from the Cyclopath website in order to improve the operation and accuracy of the system. Research led by GroupLens developer and PhD graduate Reid Priedhorsky in 2007 before the launch of the website showed that a high proportion of bikers surveyed would in fact be willing to share information about routes to the public. An active biker himself, Priedhorsky recognized the potential success of a constantly updated and user-supported network of information on bike routes and paths, and with the help of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the Metropolitan Council, and the United States Geographical Survey (Sioux Falls, SD), he was able to create an online and mobile tool that is currently helping almost 3,000 bikers make their rides safer, easier, and much more convenient.
How does it work? Simply enter a beginning and ending destination – an address, city, point or intersection. Then modify the search according to your preferences. Would you like to minimize the distance of your ride? Or do you prefer to take a longer, more “bikeable” route? If you would like to use Metro Transit buses on your trip, check the box indicating so. Click on tags like “wide lanes” or “resurfaced, smooth” in order to further enhance the search and find the perfect route for you.
It is no small wonder that Minneapolis was named the “Best Bicycling City” in the United States in 2010 by Bicycling Magazine. With tools like Cyclopath, Twin Cities bikers have it much easier than most of the world’s major cities when it comes to bikeability. In fact, the Minnesota Department of Transportation was so impressed with the project after its initial launch that it awarded GroupLens a grant in summer 2011 to expand Cyclopath’s limits to the entire state. The expansion is expected to take effect in early 2013.
Cyclopath is a successful example of a society that is using technology to encourage collaboration and make a sustainable contribution to the local environment. The information shared by users is extremely valuable to others (imagine how many injuries are prevented due to a user’s kind warning about a pothole) and promotes safe and efficient cycling, thereby incentivizing drivers to ditch their air-polluting cars and join the cycling movement. Priedhorsky stated in 2008 that he yearns to “use technology to solve the social problems that were themselves caused by technology”, and as biking gains popularity in Minnesota and potentially throughout the US, Cyclopath will certainly continue to contribute in solving these problems. One cyclopath at time.
Janey Lee is a college student in Chicago majoring in public policy and French whose life goal is to make everyone recycle.