Tuesday 26 September 2017 07.15 BST
But on a bike, the stakes are higher. One wrong turn and you’re in gridlocked traffic, with two lanes between your bike and the nearest pavement. In this moment, cyclists can be divided into two types: the few who stay calm and embrace getting lost, and the rest of us, who turn to a navigation app.
Although cyclists, of course, managed to navigate before smartphones, typing two addresses into a phone for real-time directions has changed the game for most of us.
Google Maps added a directions function for cyclists in 2010 in the US and Canada, and two years later across Europe. And while there are dozens of other apps now offering a similar service, Google Maps is the default for many. But the app seems to be falling behind expectations.
As someone with no sense of direction, I knew it wouldn’t be easy when I started cycling earlier this year. I was right; it took me months to memorise my eight-mile route from home in north London to work in Kensington.
I appreciated that the app gave me two warnings before I needed to turn off a road, and automatically recalculated my route if I accidentally went off course. But still, it wasn’t a smooth process. Google Maps thought I could cut across a dual carriageway with no breaks in its barrier, assumed I knew what it meant when it told me to “head west”, and thought nothing of taking me the wrong way down a busy one-way street.
It was annoying at best and at worst puts safety in the hands of an app, which could be dangerous for cyclists.
But cyclists don’t just want safety – they want convenience. Londoner Jack Dobson-Smith regularly cycles between Clapham and the City of London and would like to see Google Maps calculate routes where his bike is allowed on public transport and more choice of the type of routes he can take.
“Google tends to calculate the most common and comfortable cycle routes. It would be good to have an option which included the fastest route, regardless of comfort,” he says.
Elizabeth Eden, Southwark Cyclists infrastructure coordinator, says she doesn’t use Google Maps for cycling because it’s “pretty useless”. She wishes the app could indicate cycle parking, but her main reason for shunning the app is down to wanting to feel safe.
“Google Maps assumes that cyclists are car drivers who can occasionally use parks. The routes it suggests all go straight along main roads. The main use of a cycle app in London – at least for me – is identifying where the safe routes are.”
For this reason, Eden says she uses the app CycleStreets instead. It offers a choice of four different route modes, based on the type the user wants, and saves previous routes. It also tells you how many calories a route burns, how many traffic lights you will encounter, and how busy it is.
“I find the app will typically opt for fast and direct routes over safer, but more winding, back routes. Of course, it’s very much personal preference whether you prefer to weave down side streets, across parks and around the increasing number of strategically placed metal barriers, or high-tail it at 25mph down a bus lane.”
A Google spokesman pointed out that Google Maps can show streets with bike lanes (light green) and streets recommended for cyclists (green dashes), although the routes don’t always incorporate these. He also advised cyclists to use the “send feedback” option on the app for their comments.
• What are your favourite mapping and routing apps and methods? And what would you like to see from the next generation of mapping tools? Please share your tips in the comments below