Wednesday 11 April 2012

Transport Direct Cycle Route Planner

In the Cycling News from around the World digest today, there was a mention of the Department of Transport's new online cycle journey planner ("They may have closed down Cycling England, but the government in Britain are still trying to promote cycling ...")

An initial response to it was that it only seemed much use for sedate recreation rides due to limited route planning options, though it also seems to have a serious problem in that it will only plot routes of less than 50km - not a long ride, by the standards of many serious cyclists. Since then, I've had a better look at it, as has Cyclopunk's Twitter pal Gareth Evans - and we've both highlighted some more issues.

Let's not even get started on the aethetics of the new
route planner (click to enlarge)
In Use
One problem I noticed immediately is that the interface is likely to be found too complex by an average casual user, which may prove off-putting. To plot a route between Cambridge and Ely requires the user to select whether they are setting off from a post code, facility/attraction, station/airport or town/district/village - it's not difficult to select the correct one, but easy to forget. Failure to do so will either lead to a page stating that the details given are insufficient or a long drop-down menu of further options. Other mapping software, such as Google Maps, apparently have a database covering all four options and as such avoid this - and this application could presumably do the same, perhaps even utilising Google data.

The user must also enter the date and time of departure. I assumed that this was in order for the software to decide whether a particular route would be busy at the time the user plans to ride, "quietest" being one of the route options. Gareth, meanwhile, suspects it's not as clever as that and believes the application simply reuses the code from the (very similar) train route planner available on the same Department of Transport website. He's more techy that I am, so he's probably correct. He also notes that when he enters the name of his street and the name of his city as his departure point, the program demands he chooses from one of eight places. I tried the same - and had to choose from over 200 addresses, including one that no longer exists (Gareth then discovered that a major, safe, multi-million off-road cycling path completed some time ago is also not included). Oh, and my address - this building having been here for at least six years - isn't one of them. Anyway, why does it need that level of detail? The majority of us are quite capable of finding our way to the end of our own street.

Yawn. Also, evidence that Gareth might be right with his
recycled train journey planner theory.
What's the alternative?
Another point from Gareth: if the Government closed Cycling England to cut costs, why exactly have they bothered to create this application when there are already several others that provide exactly the same service, most notably CycleStreets which does exactly the same thing only better? Would our beloved leaders not have saved a whole lot more money had they have bunged CycleStreets some cash to further develop their version and linked to that instead?

Note: Since writing this, CycleStreets have been in touch to tell me that they have in fact been working with the DfT to create an amalgamated and much-improved application. More details here!

Searching once again for a route between Cambridge and Ely but this time using CycleStreets proves to be a far simpler process - there are no "You did it wrong! Go back!" messages, it assumes if I stipulate Cambridge as my departure point the centre of the city is good enough (which it is) and I get the details I want in a fraction of the time. What's more, the details of the route it then provides me with are a great deal better: in addition to a written guide, I get a quality, zoomable OpenStreetMap and some photos of stuff along the way - which might prove useful to somebody unused to following a map if they need to confirm they're on the right route, as might the small scale maps that explain each one-mile section of the journey (which also show the locations of local bike shops; a nice touch).

CycleStreet's route guides are quite literally magnitudes
better than the Transport Direct versions
Two last points: The Department of Transport route finder automatically avoids hills where possible. Thing is, I consider myself to be a proper cyclist. I ride my bike because I like doing so, not just to get from A to B, and I purposefully seek out hills because they make me fitter. That, combined with its inability to plot a route greater than 50km in length, makes it useless to me. Personally, I prefer to stick to my trusty Ordnance Survey maps when planning my rides and a lot of people now have Garmins (not me - the batteries don't run out on my OS maps); but people new to cycling, perhaps taking it up as a result of this cycling boom that the Government are supposedly encouraging, will soon find these limitations. The CycleStreets application, incidentally, includes hills and can plot a journey from and too any two points in the country regardless of distance.

Originally, I wrote that "it would seem that the Government have commissioned a route planner by finding the cheapest vendor possible, rather than one that knows something about cycling and what cyclists might want from such an application or can at least be bothered to find out." Now that CycleStreets have informed me otherwise, it becomes apparent that the DfT have recognised this and the service will be improved - I can only assume, therefore, that the site as it stands had to be launched in order to avoid missing a deadline. Hopefully, not too many people are going to be put off by its current limitations before improvements are made.

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