The Mellow Bike Map app is a new way to get low-stress Chicago cycling directions

A suggested mellow route from Blackstone Bicycle Works to Original Soul Vegetarian on the Mellow Bike Map app.
A suggested mellow route from Blackstone Bicycle Works to Original Soul Vegetarian on the Mellow Bike Map app.

Ever since the Chicago Reader’s Mellow Chicago Bike Map, covering the central city, first came out in 2018, and even more so after the expanded Simplified, Citywide Mellow Chicago Bike Map was published this summer (both included smartphone-friendly Google Maps versions, as well as awesome illustrated renditions by local artist Joe Mills), I’ve been getting feedback from people who wanted a way to get customized route suggestions based on the map. Streetsblog Chicago cofounder and resident app expert Steven Vance advised me that there was no simple way to do this so, not having tons of extra bandwidth, I put the idea on the back burner. Often when that happens, I never actually get around to completing said project.

Happily, local tech wizzes have taken matters into their own hands, expending the elbow grease to actually get this done. In August Paul Esling, a web developer with the Center for Neighborhood Technology, released the Chicago Bike Routes app, which combines all the routes from both the Chicago Department of Transportation’s Chicago Bike Map and the MCBM. His announcement was met with hosannas from local cyclists. Read more about that application here.

Keeping the religious metaphor going here, self-described “web nerd, data maid, and bot mother” Jean Cochrane attacked the same problem with the zeal of the convert. “This summer I was indoctrinated into biking on side streets. Small quiet streets > big streets with bike lanes, every time,” Cochrane tweeted.

“Thanks so much for your work on the Mellow Chicago Bike Map,” Cochrane wrote me. “It’s been a huge help this past summer as I’ve moved neighborhoods and gotten used to biking in a new part of town.”

Cochrane collaborated with fellow tech geniuses Bea Malsky and Kalil Smith-Nuevelle to build out a version of the Mellow Map that can provide directions. In contrast to Esling’s application, their app, dubbed Mellow Bike Map, focuses solely on the MCBM.

Check out the new Mellow Bike Map app here.

“The directions engine uses pgRouting on top of map data from OSM,” Cochrane further explained on Twitter. “This gave us a great routing algorithm out of the box but it meant that we had to build an interface to manually tag every mellow OSM way. [Malsky’s] Django plugin made this a breeze.”

If you know all what that means, you’re much more technologically savvy than I am, which isn’t saying much. But I do know that the Mellow Bike Map app appears to give solid advice on where to ride, similar to what I might send you if you emailed or tweeted at me to ask for route suggestions. Think of it as “John Greenfield in your pocket.” On second thought, don’t think of it that way — that sounds kind of weird.

Steven also was fine with giving the app the official Streetsblog Chicago “seal of approval.” SBC assistant editor Courtney Cobbs also likes the application, and suggested that it could be made even more useful if it provided step-by-step directions, which I’m guessing will become a thing before too long. Getting the mileage for the suggested route, as well as a time estimate (maybe allowing the user to enter their typical mph?) would also be handy.

Cochrane envisions a future where mellow maps can be created without having to rely on ex-bike messengers collecting route suggestions from dozens of other local cyclists, and then spending countless ice cream-fueled late-night hours staring at stoplight locations on the local equivalent of the Chicago Traffic Tracker, trying to figure out safe main street crossings.

“If we had reliable data on street widths, speed limits, and traffic calming infra, we could infer mellow routes,” Cochrane tweeted. “That’s the future goal. In the meantime, J0hn Greenfield’s crowdsourcing effort helped us bootstrap and could provide a model for other cities.”

There was a major outpouring of enthusiasm for the Mellow Bike Map app on Chicago social media today, so I’m sure Mellow Map apps for other major U.S. cities would also be warmly received.

So kudos to Esling, Cochrane, Malsky, and Smith-Nuevelle for taking the Mellow Chicago Bike Map to next dimension and making it more accessible for local cyclists. In fact, I’m sure their apps will come in handy for my own future explorations of this great city.