The urban bike map, sans spaghetti

Urban bike maps have long had a problem: too much spaghetti!   

In delineating every possible bikeable street, bike maps often become too complicated to make quick sense of (like the San Francisco bike map above and the Portland, Oregon, and Pittsburgh ones below). Moreover, the major arteries that are not good for biking — but are essential for understanding how a city is geographically organized — are typically obscured.

This would seem to present an insurmountable puzzle to the map-maker: how can you make a map that shows all the bikeable routes as well as the unbikeable major arteries and still keep the whole thing simple to make sense of?

Enter Informing Design’s “islands and bridges” method.

Bike riders often experience inner-city pockets of calm, safe biking as “islands” surrounded by un-bikeable barriers like train tracks or interstates or rivers. The trick to getting around is to know about the bikeable “bridges” to neighboring islands of good biking.  

This is what we do:  we map areas of good biking as color-shaded “easy-riding zones” and limit the articulated bike routings to just those bridging routes that connect islands, the corresponding island-spanning routes connecting to the bridges, and a few cut-through and spin-off routes as needed. The overall result is that dramatically fewer routes need to be called out, even as all good biking streets are able to be communicated via the color-shaded easy-riding zones.

Not only does the “islands and bridges” bike map present a simple appearance, when hot spot business districts and other major destinations are highlighted, a remarkable thing happens. You can  easily “get” how a whole network of routes works to get from heres to theres, across an entire city.

First employed with our bike maps of Pittsburgh (see above), the “islands and bridges” method also led to something surprising:  a major discovery in Nashville. Mid-south cities are usually infamous for not being the bike-friendliest of places, and Nashville was no exception. Even with a great bike-booster of a mayor, an active biking community, and an amazingly expansive greenway-building program, on-street biking opportunities seemed limited.  But one day while scouting for the new traffic wayfinding system there, we realized we were in a neighborhood full of great biking streets, but with seemingly no way out . . . until (hurrah) we discovered the “bridge” route out of this “island” by following a local bus.

After that, we couldn’t resist:  we kept going and going and going, one island and bridge to the next, until we had discovered a complete network of comfortable bike routings in and around Central Nashville.

The City was shocked. The local bike activists were thrilled — each had known about their own islands but had never dreamed they could all be linked together. The end of the story? The “Nashville Groove” bike map (see below) is now in its third edition in four years, available in print, on-line, in an app and at map kiosks at every Nashville bike-share station, and is considered an essential resource for local bikers.