Project details

Full project title: Evaluating cycle mapping styles

Sponsor: Bristol City Council

Centre for Transport and Society (CTS) researchers: Dr Henrietta Sherwin and Dr Caroline Bartle

Project partners: CycleCity Guides

Other team members: Dr Danni Sinnett and Professor Katie Williams (Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments, UWE Bristol) and Dr Nick Cavill (Cavill Associates)

Start date: December 2011

Finish date: May 2012

Project report: Find the report on our research repository

Project summary

This research project used four different maps at the same scale, of the same area, to explore the views of focus group participants on the 'usability' of the different styles of map. All the participants lived 'on the map' or just outside it, and worked at locations in the centre of the map, which meant that all had a good local knowledge of the area.

The results highlighted the difficulty of classifying cycle routes in a meaningful way for different potential user groups. Some cyclists or potential cyclists would like to see routes suggested on the map, whilst others would prefer to be provided with information such as traffic intensity to help them identify their own routes. Before any map can be produced, the specified users and its intended purpose must be clarified. For example, a type of map with little detail can successfully show that cycling from one area to another is possible, whereas a more detailed map might be required to assist in the planning of a route and with way-finding once a trip by bicycle is underway.

Although the type of information thought to be required on a cycling map varied according to individual preference and map purpose, a number of points were considered to be essential:

  • Clarity/consistency of terms used to describe cycle routes
  • Information on gradients (eg contours)
  • Information on distance (a grid)
  • Indication of traffic volumes and speed

There was much discussion about the presentation of information on the maps, particularly the choice of colours used, whether colours were clearly differentiated, and whether in some cases they distorted the information - for example, using two colours on the same road might make it appear wider than it was in reality. This was related to a lack of consistency across the maps, and led to uncertainty about what the different colours signified on the different maps.

As participants had good local knowledge, they found discrepancies in the maps and questioned the labelling of some of the routes as 'quiet' or suitable for cycling. This led to a more general questioning of the credibility of the maps and whether it was possible to 'trust' the information. There was also discussion of who had decided which routes to mark as 'recommended', and what the criteria for this might be.

Though few would pay for a paper map, there was recognition that paper maps still occupy a 'niche' in providing an overview of a geographical area 'a route in its context' and, unlike mobile electronic devices, are not dependent on GPS or batteries. However, on-line maps were seen to offer the major advantages of being easy to update, and providing a large amount of information to suit the needs of different users, thereby allowing the individual to select specific types of information and leave the rest behind.

The results highlighted a tension between detail and visual simplicity, or the ability of participants to digest the information on the maps. Only so much information can be included on a static paper map, and the results suggest that there may be a role for a simplified paper map centred on workplaces, which has the sole purpose of showing employees that cycling to work is possible. However, people might then be expected to seek out further information for route-planning, using a more detailed paper map, or on-line information sources. The research concluded that, whatever the delivery mechanism, there is a need for consistent standards of representation and clarity about the meaning of terms such as 'traffic-free', 'shared path' etc. Consistent representation on the map must also reflect certain agreed standards on the ground, as some people, particularly novice cyclists, might be discouraged if they find that the actual cycling experience falls short of the expectations set by the map.