Finding the right map

To navigate Canberra, you need to find the right map. The maps need to be current and suitable for the type of biking that you are doing. Putting aside mountain biking in Canberra, we need maps for all those other types of bikes that prefer paved surfaces, which I will call city bikes. To find the best route to the destination, the maps need to show rideable paths, including bike paths, but roads are not so important for most people. Therefore, the bike infrastructure needs to be highlighted in preference to that used by cars, i.e. bike paths need to stand out.

Furthermore, it is also important that the maps are up to date. I have previously suggested that OpenStreetMap maps are amongs the best for Canberra. Here I will address the issue of the best representation of the OpenStreetMap for biking. Additionally, I will provide background information to online bike maps. I believe that printed maps would be better if they were printed from the source of data that was more current, and that OpenStreetMap on digital devices are worth using for navigating Canberra.

Where do open-source maps come from?

Paper maps are published intermittently. When maps went digital, the first attempts were digital copies of those paper maps. Such archaic approaches have been superseded with maps now contained in databases with images created from this data being fit for purpose. Most people will be familiar with Google maps found on the internet, with features such as the possibility to zoom in and out, and have different representations of the same map – such as night mode for night-time driving.

OpenStreetMap works similarly but is not so well known. OpenStreetMap is built on an open-source database, exported daily, so that the data can be selective turned into maps. This process of making useful pictures from the large volume of data is called rendering. It can be done in different ways and starts with deciding on the map’s purpose and filtering out that information. Additionally, usually one is interested in a specific geographic area, such as Australia. In this case the elements of the data related to city cycling would be extracted for Australia. The maps are provided online and used on websites and smartphones with data connection. They can be stored on devices, but this is not the default as changes to the map are made frequently. It is not uncommon to change the colour scheme and lines. Such style changes affect the map’s appearance but not content.

Another aspect that I will not deal at this time in any depth is transferring the data to portable devices likely to be used for sport and on bikes. Such devices are made to be robust, waterproof, ergonomic, and work even when there is no coverage and therefore no data. This makes the devices faster and more reliable in practice than easily damaged smartphones. These devices are popular on bikes and manufacture with routing functions by Garmin and Bolt. Garmin has many models to chose from. They are sometime called bike computers but for bushwalking and outdoor recreation they come in other formats, including watches and handhelds and labelled as GPS navigation. Bike computers are just specialised GPS devices and the differences – while mostly ergonomic – make a huge difference and therefore are well worth the investment. 

Maps are needed for different purposes. There are road maps for cars, bike maps for paved surfaces, mountain bike maps, topographic bushwalking maps, recreational maps, and others.

OpenStreetMap rendering types

OpenStreetMap provide the data for third party map software developers to render maps for a variety of uses. Additionally, they are rendering about 15 different map types. On the website four types of maps are available for viewing. These are: standard, bike, public transport and humanitarian.

Figure 1: standard
Figure 2: bike map
Figure 3: public transport
Figure 4: humanitarian

The best bike map for Canberra

After comparing many alternative renderings for the OpenStreetMap (OSM) data, I recommend OSM OpenCycleMap.

Figure 5: OSM OpenCycleMap for Well Station, Harrison, ACT

The map above shows rideable paths (blue dotted lines), on-road bike lanes (blue lines either side of Well Station Drive), gravel and dirt tracks (in the open area and the picture centre), and other community paths (along the suburb streets to the left.)

Figure 6: OSM OpenCycleMap for Stromlo Forest Park, ACT

The second map is of Stromlo Forest Park and the mountain bike paths are clearly visible in the centre. The bike paths are represented as red dotted lines. The reason for the orange highlight is that multiple paths are bound together as a name route. More can be found about these routes on the Stromlo Forest Park website. This map representation supports mountain biking to a degree but there are specialist maps for that purpose. I have included the map here to contrast the representation of dirt paths and tracks of Stromlo Forest Park with the pave infrastructure for city bikes.Here are the main contenders which all have their strengths and weaknesses and may be discussed further at another time.

Figure 7: Same map but a different appearance to highlight different things: selected rendering of OpenStreetMap

The OSM OpenCycleMap does a good job of showing the rideable paths in a simple and clear manner, without distracting the rider with too much road detail. The roads are visible and the important ones that have on-road bike paths are lined in blue so they stand out.

Routes are also shown on the OSM OpenCycleMap. Routes are found throughout Canberra and sometimes signed posted (signed bike paths.) Routes on OpenStreetMap don’t need to be official, just rideable. The advantage of showing routes is that major and popular paths through the city can be found quickly, at a glance. A road map is typically colour with important roads fatter and bright. With a bike map there is a similar hierarchy of footpaths, bike paths and routes.

Selected features

Figure 8: on-road bike lanes on Belconnen Way interchange
Figure 9: Mount Stromlo Park single tracks for mountain biking

Komoot smartphone app

Komoot is worth mentioning and discussed also here. The map representation is perhaps not quite as good as the OSM OpenCycleMap but it has the distinct advantage that it is a very good smartphone app. It is a very feature rich app that includes route planning and is free. As everybody has a smartphone it is the easiest way to take OpenStreetMap maps with you for biking and route planning on the run. The Komoot website is also very good for PC use and preplanning. Unlike Strava, it is not about sport but rather travel, and unlike Strava it uses OpenStreetMap maps and not Google maps. Komoot is a social media app that allows users to share and comment on their rides and trip plans.

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