Waze, HERE, Apple Maps, Google Maps. The list of sites and apps to help you navigate the fastest driving route keeps growing. If you’re hoofing it, however, you’ve largely been on your own to figure out a safe and speedy pedestrian path.
But now walkers are starting to catch up to cars in the realm of mapping apps thanks to the University of Washington’s Taskar Center for Accessible Technology.
The group today is releasing an online tool called Access Map that will allow Seattle pedestrians to enter addresses and generate customized walking directions. Users can request maps that include only routes with sidewalks with sloped “curb cuts” that allow strollers and wheelchairs to easily pass, and that bypass construction sites and exclude the steepest streets.
The UW researchers are additionally creating tools to help other cities and communities build their own maps. They’re also working on a project with Seattle Public Schools to help families crowdsource and discover safer routes for kids walking to school.
“There are almost endless applications that can use this data,” said Anat Caspi, director of the Taskar Center, which is part of the UW’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering.
The tailored pedestrian routes could be useful for someone who uses a wheelchair or has difficulty walking and requires a flatter route, for delivery workers maneuvering heavy hand trucks, people pushing strollers, roller skaters and cyclists. The Access Map also includes walking paths through parks and green spaces.
The Access Map team won a City of Seattle Hack the Commute competition in 2015 and participated the Data Science for Social Good summer program last year, which was sponsored by the eScience Institute, Urban@UW and Microsoft.
State agencies and local governments have contacted the UW group seeking information for transit and development decisions. The city of Kent, located south of Seattle, was trying to understand changes in the popularity of different bus routes and realized that pedestrian access for people trying to get to and from bus stops was playing a role.
Building the map wasn’t easy. The team of UW student engineers and computer scientists working on Access Map had to meld data from numerous sources including elevation information from U.S. Geological Survey, sidewalk and curb cut data from the Seattle Department of Transportation and notifications about construction from city building permits.
“Nothing was standardized,” said Caspi. “As we were trying to expand [the maps] to all of King County, the lack of standards in the data became a really big concern, because it takes so much time and effort to do the data wrangling.”
In an attempt to make it easier for others to follow in their footsteps, the UW researchers recently launched their OpenSidewalks project, which will create a set of standards for mapping pedestrian routes.
“Our goal is to have a set of tool kits and instructions so other municipalities and local communities can get their own mapping efforts up and running,” said Nick Bolten, a UW electrical engineering doctoral student and project lead for Access Map and OpenSidewalks.
The researchers are also working with OpenStreetMap, which is a global mapping project that uses crowd-sourced information to update roads, bus routes and more — but hasn’t systematically included pedestrian information in a meaningful way.
The group has identified 10 urban areas that are promising candidates for developing better pedestrian mapping tools, including New York, Washington DC, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, Pittsburgh, Denver, Philadelphia and Atlanta.
Learn More: The Access Map and OpenSidewalks team will talk about their projects on Feb. 2 from noon to 1 p.m. at the “Open to All: Designing for the Full Range of Human Experience” exhibit at the Center for Architecture & Design, 1010 Western Ave. in Seattle.