As a multimode bicycle traveller I use a lot of maps, but I’m also a mapaholic so I probably spend more time playing with and exploring maps and using them to plan journeys than most people. Online mapping is a huge benefit, especially as you can often access a variety of maps of the same place to see different aspects and cross check what’s going on.
I’ve been a fan of multimap.com for a long time. Now multimap has been subsumed into Microsoft’s Bing competitor to Google so it will be interesting to see how they develop it. At the moment they have cleaned up the interface a little (some aspects are a bit less usable) and they are soliciting feedback on the mapping and how you use it. They have also added some very minimal topographical shading, not enough to be of use to cyclists and not as good by a mile as the contours on Open Cycle Map.
The first reason to use Bing maps for me are that they offer some really good quality options for UK maps. Their London Street map is much nicer and MUCH more informative than the standard web map style, very like a printed colour A-Z map.
Their general UK road map uses a colour scheme that reflects the UK Automobile Association road mapping with green and red major roads rather than the ubiquitous bilious orange of most online mapping.
and (brilliant) you can select Ordnance survey topographical mapping down to 1:25000 scale as an alternative to the web map. They don’t offer similar options for other countries as far as I can see.
Since the OS maps are the best consumer maps in the world (most comprehensive, most attractive, most informative, most usable) this is a wonderful resource and ideal for cyclists. I have bought the Mapyx 1:50,000 digital OS mapping which has some good tools for route planning and printing, but the Bing version is a good free alternative, Pre Mapyx I’ve often cut and pasted sections from Multimap OS onto A4 pages in Powerpoint, added route and annotation and printed out. If you rescale the images to 150 dpi you can get good printing quality.
But the killer benefit of Bing maps is the choice of aerial views, not the satellite view which may not be as good as Google, but the “birds-eye” view which gives really high quality aerial photographs, from a low angle, of most urban areas in developed countries. This is fantastic for route planning, for example I worked out how to get from O’Hare Airport into Chicago, checking the exact nature of the all the roads and junctions I used, you can see road markings and the nature of the surroundings very clearly and select views from all four points of the compass. Similarly I was able to plan my route in Gent for a trip next month, there was a little bridge over a canal which was marked on Open Street Map but not Google or Bing, the satellite images showed there was something there but it could be one of those pipeline bridges, or redundant or private.
The Birds-eye view showed clearly that it was a usable bridge for pedestrians and cyclists, and, viewed from a different direction it also showed that there was a cycle track that would allow me to go down the canal bank against the flow of the one-way road traffic, under the trees on the left hand bank. I would go so far as to say that this view allows a kind of virtual tourism where you can wander around foreign cities and get a good feel for the nature of the place.
Incidentally, I’m impressed by the progress made by the Open Streetmap project. Their mapping of Sheffield (as an example that I can check from personal knowledge) looks pretty accurate and complete now and there is huge potential for this project to develop a real public GIS system, Open Cycle Map being a tentative exploration of those possibilities adding topography and specialist cycling information although it’s a bit scrappy at the moment.
I’m also pleased that OSM started in Britain and has some people who are passionate about cartography as an art, there’s a great talk online by Richard Fairhurst from an OSM conference on the value of good cartography and the limitations of mashups pointing to the kind of thing that might start to develop now that OSM gives us all copyright free basic mapping to provide a foundation for individual projects. OSM appears to have good coverage in Northern Europe but there’s a need for more people to get involved in mapping North America where I’ve always felt mapping was underdeveloped, even the term “Road Map” used to describe a plan of action particularly in US government and management speak, indicates a misunderstanding of the nature of maps.