Finding the right route

We rely on directional signage to find our way around Canberra. The directional signage may not be good. This is particularly true for cycling, so how do we find the best route? There will always be the need for navigation. I have written about the best cycling maps for Canberra. These maps can be used to find the best route. 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.

To decide what is the “best route” it is necessary to define what the preferences are for 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 software is built into mapping software and apps and anything worth using allows this. A good routing algorithm is more art than science as developing the algorithm for a specific type of riding involves balancing many different priorities to give you a good route most of the time. Any algorithm cannot give you the best route all the time. Sometimes more than one routing algorithm is available, and often the routing algorithm 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 commnity 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.

What do we find on digital maps?

For OpenStreetMap (OSM) maps there are different types of paths as there are different types of roads. Paths are most common for bikes and pedestrians. OpenStreetMap (OSM) maps allows path permissions to be set. The permission can be set independently for both pedestrians and bikes. 

Table 1: Permission qualifiers for paths in OpenStreetMap

DesignateA path is designed, built and preference for this type of use.
YesThe path is permitted for this type of use but may be not particularly suited for it.
NoThis type of use is not permitted.
PrivateThis path is on private property or restricted access (military, industrial, etc)

In our routing algorithm above the first two items, bike only paths and bike paths, are qualified as “designate”. For the third item, pedestrian paths, the bikes are qualified as permitted (yes). The final option, on-road bike lanes, are added to roads and identifiable too. These differences are visible on the map by changing the lines colour and form.

Quality of the paths

As has been often 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 is better to focus on its rideability. This is what we normally do. 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. Good bike paths using the “rideability” criteria are always designated. This appears to be current practice.

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 for days independently from a mobile phone connection.

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

The bike computers from Garmin are good. In this rapidly expanding segment, they have plenty of competition and have sacrificed market share. Bolt is a competitor and popular in the USA with cyclist. For $399 a bike computer can be purchased from Garmin or Bolt that is capable of real time autorouting and navigation. Bolt and Garmin use different maps: Google maps are found on Bolt bike computers and OpenStreetMap cycle maps on Garmin. In both cases regularly updates of the maps on the device are recommended (but unfortunately rarely done).

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. We are only interested in the navigation here. 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. Routing is a feature of better Garmin bike computers and is activated whenever you deviate from the planned route. It 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 and has evolved somewhat. 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. This algorithm provides good routing for recreation biking where the best bike paths make sense, even if they are out of the way, and utilise on-road bike lanes as well, which are commonly used by commuters. 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. It often quicker and more convenient to use a PC than a smartphone or portable GPS device. The maps can be updated on the device with BaseCamp. If you only have a smartphone, consider Bolt products.

Figure 3: VeloMap on Garmin BaseCamp

The quality of the routing with the Garmin algorithm is dependent on the quality of the maps. A map optimised for cycling produces a better result. It also has the advantage that the maps are more easily read. One such specialist bike map is VeloMap. VeloMap is the OpenStreetMap rendered for Garmin devices. The map looks a bit strange on PC screen, but it is optimised for Garmin GPS devices which have small screens and low resolutions. When riding, it works well as the map is displayed zoomed in on the GPS device.


Figure 4: Strava heat maps (browser only)

Strava allows routing planning with its famous heat maps. Heat maps are colour representations of all the uploaded rides. Paths ridden regularly are red and rarely used paths are blue. Strava will automatically route along most used paths. This heat map has its strengths as it evolves faster than most maps are updated, but it is historical representation and there no way for the user to correct the heat map when it is wrong, as is the case, when the path conditions change.


Figure 5: Komoot route planer (browser)

Another option is Komoot. The Komoot map is similar to the OpenStreetMap standard map. Komoot has a good website and a good app. Both allow routing planning. The Strava app, in comparison, does not feature route planning. Komoot has a simple method for route planning and optimisation. First added the beginning and end points and whether the trip is one way or return. The route will be calculated and shown on the map. By clicking on the map, it is possible add additional waypoints and the route is automatically recalculated to include these points. Removing waypoints is just as easy. When you are happy with the route it 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, Strava, or Komoot, it can be easily transferred to the Garmin GPS navigation device or bike computer. Garmin GPS devices allow you to plan new routes on the fly, directly on the device. The routing is automatic with OpenStreetMap or VeloMap maps downloaded on the device. Komoot makes route planning easy with the smartphone app and transferred to the Garmin bike computer as required.


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 just want to get from A to B and would rather leave the car at home, a bike computer will show how it is done and make the trip easy and enjoyable.

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