Pedestrians left at the kerb by Google Maps

It’s 2018. When you’re in an unfamiliar part of town and you’re figuring out how to get to where you’re going, what do you do? You certainly don’t ask for directions or to borrow someone’s street directory. If you’re navigationally minded you might get a bearing from the sun or, if you find yourself in Melbourne or Adelaide, a known street that forms part of a grid. Chances are though, you’ll whip out your phone and open Google Maps.

We’re all used to the type of map that Google Maps, Apple Maps, or OpenStreetMap present to us. They look more or less like the street directory of yesteryear. Roads are emphasised with width and colour indicating how busy they are. Parks are green, water is blue. The main difference is that now shops are marked and, if you zoom in, you get greater detail.

If you’re navigating by road, this is just fine. They’re colour-coded by type of road in the familiar orange-yellow-white hierarchy and if you input your destination none of that matters anyway as a blue line appears to guide you effortlessly to your destination. This tool even works (to a point) for public transport navigation. Worlds away from the days of carrying multiple timetables and optimistically standing at windswept bus stops.

These maps, however, are not made for pedestrians. The colour coding of roads tells drivers something, it tells them if a road is designed for high traffic volumes or not. But it doesn’t tell pedestrians much. Sure, a yellow road will be busy, but will it have regular safe crossing points and accessibility ramps? A thin white road probably won’t have too much fast moving traffic, but are there footpaths?

It’s easy to look at these maps and think that they simply show us what is there. It’s easy to forget that there is a hidden bias to these maps, that they’re designed to be used in a specific kind of way.

When was the last time you used Google’s directions while driving and it suggested you take an illegal right turn? Or told you to continue through onto a street that is blocked off to cars? When Google, Tom Tom and their ilk were first introducing this software they had their fair share of bugs. Over time we became more dependent on and trusting of these directions, often with, errr, unforeseen consequences. But nowadays they’re connected to extremely accurate databases that know not only when a right turn can be legally made, but when the traffic conditions are conducive to making one turn as opposed to another.

This data just doesn’t seem to exist for pedestrian trips. Try using Google Maps to navigate as a pedestrian and you’ll be sent the long way around, advised to walk along roads with no footpaths, across car parks or industrial lots. Why is it that walking directions on Google Maps include the disclaimer “Use caution–walking directions may not always reflect real-world conditions” and yet public transport directions and driving directions don’t? It’s like the pedestrian directions are in beta. But they’re not. Pedestrians just aren’t considered to be an important user group.

A screenshot from Google Maps showing walking directions between Prince Alfred Park Pool and the Powerhouse Museum near Central Station, Sydney. Google Maps walking directions suggest a long way around primarily using Cleveland Street, Regent Street and Harris Street. A much more direct and pedestrian friendly route using the Devonshire Street Tunnel and the Goods Line has been marked in Red.
Google Maps suggested walking route across Central Station involves walking alongside a series of high volume, high speed roads. The red line is my suggested route, through the Devonshire Street tunnel and along the Goods Line. This route is not only much more direct but involves no interaction with vehicular traffic. Notice on the left that users have the option to avoid ‘Ferries’ for some reason, but not stairs, steep sections, busy roads or an absence of footpaths.

Have a look at the layers you can choose to populate your map with:

  • Default – Yep, that’d be your car-centric map.
  • Transport – In Sydney this means all the train lines are marked in orange. Buses and ferries aren’t shown. This would be the equivalent of having a ‘Driving’ option that only showed major freeways.
  • Traffic – Another useful layer if you’re driving
  • Cycling – You’ll want to have a pretty good idea of what you’re doing before you rely too heavily on this

Despite the fact that drivers, passengers, public transport user and cyclists are almost always pedestrians at the start or end of their journey, there’s no layer available that helps to convey information in a way that helps someone navigating on foot.

A pedestrian layer could show pedestrian crossings and traffic signals with crossing points. It could highlight intersections that have long average wait times for pedestrians or force to you to double-cross, like City Road at Broadway. It could show off-road walking tracks in the manner of the cycling layer. (Use the cycling layer as a pedestrian at your own risk, you could easily find yourself ambling along a bike only route getting sworn at in much the same way as if you decided to wander onto a freeway.) It could use information from the terrain layer to show steepness, it could show footpath availability, protection from the elements and it could integrate internal pedestrian accessways through train stations and shopping centres.
Much of this sort of information is presented on fixed signage installed by local councils, the City of Sydney taking pedestrian navigation particularly seriously. Yet increasingly we turn to our phones for such directions, as a tool that most of us have on hand 24/7. A platform like Google Maps has the capability to take all of this data and present it in a highly customisable and user friendly format, just like it does with driving directions.


Jed Coppa is a Sydney based spatial science enthusiast and transport blogger. You can find him at jedsetter.com or on twitter, @jedsetterau