Finding the right route

Photo by Joshua Woroniecki on

We rely on directional signage to find our way around Canberra, which has improved, but there will always be the need for navigation. OpenStreetMap is the best cycling map for Canberra. Finding the best route with digital maps and GPS technology can be a great aid for biking and active travel.

We could see cycling as city bikes that are designed for paved surfaces, and mountain bikes that are designed for loose surfaces. These are both broad categories, but it is the first step to making sense of the routing problem.

Update 2 March 2021: Strava has been removed from this article as it does not provide a free route planning tool. The Strava routing tool is not only available with an expensive paid plan. 😦

The “best route” depends on the type of riding you do. The digital maps discussed here are auto routable. This means that the paths are laid down as lines that connect many points and form networks. The routing software will calculate a route.  If you are not fussy, this route may do, but many people will want to tailor this first suggestion. Routing is more an art than science as it must balance many priorities. Sometimes more than one routing algorithm is available, and often the routing can be optimised with click-box preferences.

There are a range of bike computers that provide navigation and Garmin devices work with OpenStreetMap cycle maps. This and other options will be discussed

Garmin cycling GPS with Komoot app shown
Garmin cycling GPS with Komoot app shown

City bike routing

City bikes are for paved surfaces. Surveys of city cyclists in Canberra show that they have their favourite path types and avoid others. Routing algorithms are designed to reflect the most common preferences. A routing algorithm ranks paths in this order and prioritises them in route selection:

  1. Bike only paths
  2. Bike paths
  3. Foot paths
  4. Bike lanes on road (cycleways)

What is a bike path?

Particularly in Europe, the regulations are such that cars are only permitted on roads, bikes on bike paths, and pedestrians on footpaths. Another way to say this is “think three”: cars, bikes and pedestrians. Different types of vehicles need different types of paths, which are then made available for their exclusive use. In the ACT all paths are shared paths and called community paths. Community paths are available for pedestrians, bikes, skateboards and more. The only exception to this is dedicated bike only and pedestrian only pathways of which there are few.

Quality of the paths

As has often been discussed, the quality of the paths vary greatly in Canberra. The paths in the new suburbs are newer and built to better standards than those in the older suburbs. Due to the lack of maintenance, the quality of the paths often depends on their age. The range of materials used can vary as does the quality of the design. Paths need to be graded.

Rather than focus on the path’s origin, it is better to focus on its rideability. If a path looks rideable and in the right direction, then it is probably worth trying. These qualities are encoded in the OpenStreetMap database. The routing software simply works with what is provided.

Painting big bumps does not help. We will still need to ride around it. Fixing the path is a better option. Aranda, Belconnen, Canberra.

The Garmin routing algorithm

Garmin manufactured GPS navigation devices for a long time. Their product range has expanded from GPS navigation devices for hiking and outdoors, to car navigation, bike computers, watches, and now fitness devices. A device can cost from less than $100 to more than $1000. Outdoor and fitness watches are not the same as a smartwatch, as the will work without a mobile phone.

Smartphone GPS navigation with an app. Photo by Ingo Joseph on

The bike computers from Garmin are good but not particularly easy to use. In this rapidly expanding segment, they have plenty of competition and have sacrificed market share. Wahoo is a competitor. For $399 a bike computer can be purchased from Garmin or Wahoo that is capable of navigation with maps onboard.

Wahoo ELEMNT Bolt cycling GPS
Wahoo ELEMNT Bolt cycling GPS

The Garmin bike computers gather and display information during the ride including distance, speed, heart rate, cadence, and more.

In a typical navigation scenario, the rider has downloaded and/or activated a saved route on the bike computer and wishes to follow it. That is the purpose of navigation. Should you deviate from the planned route, the device recalculates the route to get you back on track. Another function is return home, which will calculate the route back to start.

The Garmin routing software was originally designed for cars. There are two modes: quickest route and shortest route. The quickest route may not be very direct, but the paths are expected to be better. The shortest route will take you along every shortcut, but the paths may be suboptimal. As the navigation was developed for cars, the quickest route prefers straight paths with no sudden turns. The shortest route is generally what you would want to get you to the next bike shop.

Routing software

Route planning can be done on the PC and taken with you with a portable GPS device or smartphone.

Garmin BaseCamp

Figure 2: OpenStreetMap standard map in Garmin BaseCamp

Garmin BaseCamp is a free mapping software and includes auto-routing with a very similar algorithm to that found on Garmin devices. Maps can be downloaded from various sources for free. For example, it is possible to download the OpenStreetMap maps for Australia and export them to a Garmin device. The maps can be updated on the device with BaseCamp.

Figure 3: VeloMap on Garmin BaseCamp

The quality of the routing is dependent on the quality of the maps. A map optimised for cycling produces a better result. VeloMap is OpenStreetMap rendered for Garmin devices. The map looks strange on PC, because Garmin GPS devices have small screens and low resolutions. When riding, it works well enough.


Figure 5: Komoot route planer (browser)

The Komoot map is similar to the OpenStreetMap standard map. Komoot has a good website and a good app. Add beginning and end points and the route will be calculated and shown on the map. Click on the map to add waypoints. The route is automatically recalculated. The route can be saved or shared. For a free app Komoot is impressive.

Transferring data to portable GPS devices

Whether the route is planned with Garmin BaseCamp, or Komoot, it can be easily transferred to the Garmin GPS navigation device or bike computer. To range devices allow you to plan routes on the fly, directly on the device. The routing is automatic with OpenStreetMap and derivatives. Komoot makes route planning easy and works with both Garmin and Wahoo cycling computers.


OpenStreetMap and bike computers are a worthwhile investment for a regular cyclist. With a little effort you are likely to find new and hidden areas of Canberra. With the continual expansion of bike infrastructure and new suburbs there is always something new to be found in Canberra. For those who want to leave the car at home, a bike computer will show the way and make the trip easy and enjoyable.

Bollard barrier, Belconnen Bikeway, Belconnen, ACT
Bollard barrier, Belconnen Bikeway, Belconnen, ACT


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