Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A conversation with Steven Vance, developer of the Chicago Bike Map app

Posted By on 10.17.12 at 06:00 PM

Snapshot from my iPhone (pretty cool!)
  • Snapshot from my iPhone (pretty cool!)
Back in April, writer, transportation know-it-all, and year-round cycling enthusiast Steven Vance launched the inaugural version of the Chicago Bike Map app. Billed as a portable version of the City of Chicago's official printed and online bike map, the app includes CTA and Metra Station stops, "Points of Interest"—like, say, a fix-it station at the Lincoln Park Whole Foods—and resources on how to prevent bike theft or the rules for bringing bikes on CTA trains and buses. And, of course, bike lanes and trails galore—spread all up and down a grid of 228 Chicago neighborhoods.

Vance spoke with me on the phone last week about the app and his plans for its upcoming versions:

What other projects are you working on aside from the Chicago Bike Map app?

Most of my time is spent writing for and then sometimes I write for a magazine called the Architect's Newspaper. Those are the two ways I make money.

(Vance has also worked for the Chicago Department of Transportation in the Bicycle Parking Program, in addition to doing consulting for the Active Transportation Alliance.)

And the other apps you've launched, what are those?

I've done other web applications, but this is my first portable application. My web apps include a couple for Grid Chicago like the Bike 2015 Plan Tracker, which lists the 153 strategies [and tracks their statuses] in the city's Bike 2015 Plan. I made the first bike crash map.

And this app is meant to mimic the city bike maps you see in your neighborhood bike shop, right?

Yes, but with a custom design. The printed bike map is a really good resource, because it's nicely designed and has information about how to take your bike on the bus and some laws and tips, but it has things that don't belong on every bike map. Features that don't actually exist in real life, like "recommended route."

You don't believe in recommended routes?

It's dependent on who made the map, what their comfort is, and when they made it. Maybe they made it and routes have since changed. Maybe it recommends biking on Garfield Boulevard, which I would not recommend. Three lanes in each direction and drivers go fast.

So directions wouldn't be a thing you would include?

People have been asking about it. I've been meaning to write an essay on why I'm not going to do it. I don't agree with the answers that a directions engine gives you. Google has an engine called Open Trip Planner Google has their own directions engine; then there's one called Open Trip Planner made by a group called Open Plans in New York City. Then there's the Open Street Map routing engine. I use the Open Street Map data.

Accuracy is based on algorithms and you can't modify the Google one as a programer. Other engines you can modify and basically tell them what to prioritize. The staff at Open Plans built a web app for New York City bike sharing, which is coming soon. It routes you based on the availability and location of bike sharing stations. Walk these two blocks, pick up a bike here, and drop it off at the destination nearest to you.

Maybe those are ideal but I think Chicagoans know the grid and streets pretty well and can make assessments of the best way to go. We just need a reminder of what the bike infrastructure is. So I took off things that don't exist like recommended routes. I also removed marked shared lanes because i don't believe those are part of the infrastructure.

Explain what those are, will you?

State law says that all lanes on all roads except for highways otherwise marked are shared lanes where drivers must yield to bicyclists. That means the left lane, right lane, middle lane. However state law also says you must ride as close to the right as is practicable. Marked shared lanes are just those same lanes but with a marking. Either all lanes should have the marking or no lanes.

One benefit of marking them is that the marking on the roadway shows you where to position yourself in order to stay away from the door zone. That's really the only benefit.

Like Milwaukee Avenue with its markings, right?

Yeah, they’re called "sharrows."


I mean, that’s the colloquial term. Engineers might call them Chevron and bike symbol [laughs].

Back to the app. You have 228 neighborhoods listed. Are Chicagoland suburbs included or is it just the city?

It’s only the city of Chicago. In the version I’m working on right now, which I call version 0.5, I will be extending it a little bit north and a little bit west, west to Maywood where the Illinois Prairie Path begins. Because the Illinois Prairie Path is extremely accessible from the Forest Park Blue Line station. They’re like 200-feet apart. I want to promote that as a recreational opportunity for Chicagoans to take their bikes and ride on this nice, long path. It will be in the new section called “Trails.” It’ll also point out the trails that are within the city of Chicago, like the Major Taylor Trail, the North Shore Channel Trail, and a couple others.

And I might include Evanston. I was just there yesterday and they built a new protected bike lane. It’s on Church Street and is great because it connects the high school to downtown and goes through a neighborhood, which is kind of unlike all the other lanes built so far in Chicago. It’s longer. It’s the single longest protected bike lane in the state now, I believe.

What's the difference between a buffer bike lane and a cycle track?

So I like to use the term "cycle track" because I don’t feel that the "protected bike lanes" in Chicago are protected. I kind of wish we didn’t throw around the word "protected" so easily. Except for the segments that have parking-protected lanes. If there were cars parked there, they might stop a force from moving further into the bike lane. So a "cycle track" is just a generic, meaningless term.

How many downloads of the app have you had thus far?

Like 575, except half of those are free downloads.

Right, which you do when you update the version?

Yeah, and that’s mainly just to promote it. I’ve been hoping for more feedback than I’ve been getting, but I think that’s a problem with the app itself because the app doesn’t ask for feedback. And the iTunes store isn’t really the best in connecting developers with their users.

What are your future plans with the app? Are you constantly going to be updating?

One new feature I’m working on for the next version is a bookmark. You’ll be able to add a bookmark to the app and save it to your phone. I should stop saying "phone," because it works for iPod Touch and iPad as well.

You’ll also be able to add bookmarks and categorize them. This is a restaurant, this is your home, etc. I’m trying to figure out how to share bookmarks with other people, or maybe just yourself. So then you can click a button and it would email you a file that you could open in Google Earth.

What do you want this app to achieve in the further development of the city’s bike culture and awareness? Is it mainly about the accessibility of it, instead of having a big folded map stuffed in your bag?

I think what’s going to emerge as the more useful part of this app are the resources. I’m working on improving those sections. And I’m also working on a laws section. You can have basically a law book at your hands. I also plan on linking my app to apps and websites that give directions. An acquaintance of mine, Tom Kompare, and I have an unofficial partnership. We copromote each other’s apps. He has an app called, which provides directions.

Thanks for your time, Steven.

Check out more snapshots of the app I took from my iPhone:





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