Why Google Maps' 'Lite' Navigation Mode Is Great for Cyclists

Many things are better without cars

Key Takeaways

  • Lite navigation is coming to Google Maps soon.
  • Lite gives you extra cyclist-specific information.
  • The mode can be used without turn-by-turn, or with the screen off.
person riding bike on road

Flo Karr / Unsplash

Cyclists and drivers might share the same roads, but they have very different needs. Google’s new lite navigation mode takes care of those needs. 

Satellite navigation is a fantastic tool for city cyclists. Instead of stopping at every confusing corner to check the map, you can cruise through intersections, line up into the correct traffic lane before you get there, and focus on not getting knocked off your bike. But bike navigation usually has been either exactly the same as car GPS or has followed the same paradigm, only bike lanes included. Google’s new "lite" navigation mode takes things in a different direction. 

"Dedicated navigation is important for cyclists because we often use different routes and directions than a motorized vehicle. By offering features that are dedicated to cyclists, it will increase safety and streamline travel," active cyclist (and snowmobile blogger!) Chaz Wyland told Lifewire via email.

Dangers

Turn-by-turn navigation for cyclists has its place. If you’re heading to a new part of the city, then a single AirPod can whisper directions in your ear, and if you use a dedicated cycling and hiking app like Komoot, you get routings that avoid main roads, favor bike lanes, respect local traffic laws (in Germany, bikes can often legally ride the "wrong" way down a one-way street), and even avoid cobbled streets. 

But you don’t always want the full turn-by-turn experience. Say you’re out on a long ride, and you have a general idea of the route. Or you only need to get from one part of town to another, or you already know most of the route except the destination.

Bicycle route when using Google Maps

Google

In these cases, Google’s new lite mode has options. For example, turn-by turn is decoupled from the map. If you want it, it’s there. If not, the map still tracks your location, shows it on the map, and updates the distance remaining. You can keep the phone in a handlebar mount and tap it to check your progress, keeping it asleep the rest of the time. 

"Bike riders don’t always need turn-by-turn directions, and they also can’t constantly be looking at the phone screen to get to where they need to go. The new Google Maps features deal with this in a beneficial way by giving you directions without entering the turn-by-turn interface. It will also make getting around by just glancing at your device easier," says Wyland

"Google Maps' 'lite' navigation mode doesn't require phone data, which can be expensive for some cyclists."

Another advantage to bike-first navigation is it can route you differently. Google Maps already offers bike routes, and the lite navigation mode does too. This is safer and more pleasant than choking down car fumes on major roads. It may even be faster, too, because bikes can take shortcuts not open to cars. 

"Some features that cyclists need that aren’t available in car map apps are directions that include bike paths and other routes that aren’t on your standard car navigation system. Many of these car-focused apps limit the possible routing by not considering other established routes," says Wyland.

Comforts

It’s not just about the directions you take, either. For instance, a motorist might prefer a direct road, even if it goes up and over a steep hill. A cyclist will almost certainly choose a less direct, but flatter route, unless they’re riding for a workout.

"The Wiggle" in San Francisco is an excellent example of a cyclists’ route that’s longer, but flatter. It zig-zags from Market Street to Golden Gate Park, and avoids San Francisco’s hills. This is the kind of thing a good bike-nav app should know about. 

Google Maps showing bike route through DonkeyRepublic

Google

Another nice feature of lite navigation is that it can run offline, giving directions without an internet connection,

"Google Maps' 'lite' navigation mode doesn't require phone data, which can be expensive for some cyclists," Will Henry, founder of Bike Smarts, told Lifewire via email. 

This is also good for remote locations without cell phone coverage, or for travelers to foreign countries.

If we want to reduce car use and increase cycling, apps like Komoot, and now Google Maps, are essential. We might have to share the roads with cars, but we don’t have to share our apps.

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