Lost? Find a bike route online

Any Portlander who has ever been lost on a bike in Southeast will be relieved to discover byCycle’s Trip Planner. The trip planner is a project that turned into a career for Portland couple Lauren Donohue and Wyatt Baldwin, who developed it as the first bicycle trip planner for Portland.

The byCycle Trip Planner generates written directions and maps for point-to-point bike routes. Similar to a MapQuest for cyclists, the bike trip planner is run through a web site the couple developed located at www.byCycle.org.

“We were just sitting around one evening talking about how great it would be to have a tool like this,” Donohue said. “We decided that rather than just talking about it, we should do it.”

Created in November 2004, the byCycle Trip Planner is currently the major project of byCycle, the software development organization created by Donohue and Baldwin. Although Trip Planner is still a prototype, Donohue said byCycle is interested in continuing to build products like the trip planner that encourage sustainability within the city and working with groups that want to do the same.

“We’re still trying to figure out just what byCycle is,” Donohue said. “Originally, it was just bike advocacy, but we realized that there are lots of other groups already doing that in Portland. We thought we could best serve the community by doing software development.”

Trip Planner currently takes what Baldwin calls a “middle-of-the-road approach” to route planning. It generates a single route that attempts to minimize elevation and exposure to high-traffic streets without taking the cyclist too far out of their way.

Because different cyclists have different preferences, byCycle is working to create a drop-down menu that will allow users to indicate their preferences for hilliness, safety and speed on their route. Eventually, users will be able to save a profile of their favorite type of route, so that Trip Planner can provide them with a custom route every time they use it.

Future versions of Trip Planner might also include a time estimate for each route that it plots.

Baldwin, who has a degree in computer science, has done most of the programming for Trip Planner so far.

“We haven’t decided yet if this will be for-profit or nonprofit,” Donohue said. “It will never make a massive amount of money, anyway. Up to this point, we have been paying for it ourselves with my job and some savings.”

Baldwin now works full-time on Trip Planner. Until recently, Donohue worked part-time at a grocery store to pay their expenses.

She is now promoting Trip Planner full-time, focusing on community outreach, applying for grants and securing funding to continue developing Trip Planner.

Trip Planner plots bike routes for the Portland-metro area and for Milwaukee, Wis. It will soon generate directions for Pittsburgh, Pa., as well. Long-term goals for byCycle’s Trip Planner include having the capacity to create bike routes between cities like Portland and Eugene, and perhaps even across the country.

The Portland cycling community’s response to Trip Planner has been enthusiastic. One commenter on Jonathan Maus’ popular blog, BikePortland.org, raved, “This is the coolest. Thing. EVER.”

Complaints surfaced about glitches or gaps in the mapping of Trip Planner on the byCycle’s Google Group, a forum that Baldwin created to discuss concerns, suggestions and questions related to the program. Some key bike trails do not appear in Trip Planner directions and a few users had difficulty locating certain addresses or intersections.

Donohue said that because the data is placed on Google Maps, data differences have created problems. She said the group is considering switching to using MapServer maps.

Much of the praise, however, is paired with suggestions or questions about the how the routes that Trip Planner generates differ from cyclists’ regular paths. Some complain that Trip Planner directs them to streets with too much traffic, while others say that Trip Planner deviates too far from the most direct route just to put them on a bikeway.

Many also said Trip Planner routes contain too much elevation.

“Much of the program we still consider a prototype,” Donohue said. “There’s definitely work to be done to make it better.”

“Our focus right now is on Trip Planner,” Donohue said, “but [in the future] we would take on other projects within our mission. We build open-source, free software tools. That’s what we want to build for people.”

In the meantime, Trip Planner is becoming a favorite internet toy for Portland cyclists. As one commenter on BikePortland.org enthused, “This is the most exciting thing I’ve seen since the rapid-shifter.”