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The right tracks to reach your destination

Cycle maps, routing and navigation

OpenCycleMap section of Hamburg
OpenCycleMap section of Hamburg ©
Cycle maps give a good impression of the cycling infrastructure of a municipality or region. Individual routes can be planned using cycle route planners with increasingly optimized functions.


Cycle maps and navigation devices help cyclists to either find their way in an unknown region or optimize routes in a familiar region. In this respect, leisure cyclists who prefer the nicest routes must be distinguished from everyday cyclists who like to reach their destinations as quickly and safely as possible.

The antecedents of today’s road maps came up by the end of the 19th century and were initially developed for cyclists. As cyclists, unlike rail travellers, had to find directions themselves, their map scales were larger than those of existing railway maps (initially 1:200,000 to 1:300,000). Moreover, cycle maps contained additional important information such as climbs, distances and road conditions. At the beginning of the 20th century, these maps also provided orientation to the small number of private motorized transport users there was at the time. When the level of motorization increased, road maps were adapted to motor traffic needs, and after the Second World War, special signatures for cyclists had nearly completely disappeared [Lierz 1990].

Classic paper maps

With mass motorization, it became ever more difficult for cyclists to get from one place to another in a safe and relaxed way. Since existing road maps addressed only the needs of private motorized transport and mainly showed major transport arteries, cycling initiatives were established and specialized publishers developed maps for cyclists from the 1970ies on [Difu 2012]. Today, cycle maps cover the German-speaking countries as well as most of the important cycling regions in the rest of Europe. Many cities also have their own cycling map.

Even in the digital era, paper maps are still interesting for cyclists as they provide a good overview of the region and, for this reason, are well suited to plan a route or tour. It can also be advantageous to carry a paper map just in case there are technical problems with the navigation device.

Cycle maps are usually drawn taking generalized maps as a basis (city centre maps with scales of 1:15,000 to 1:25,000, maps of other areas with scales of 1:50,000 to 1:100,000). These maps contain the most important information for cyclists:

  • official and recommended routes (by the publisher), divided into main and secondary routes;
  • quality of the tracks (track surface, signage, volume of traffic, climbs, car-free tracks, type of routing etc.);
  • one-way streets;
  • public transport links (rail, bus, ferry);
  • cycling infrastructure (repair shops, bike rental, rest areas, pedelec charging stations etc.);
  • information on distances;
  • facts for tourists (on sights, hotels, camping sites, rest points, tourist offices) and other points of interest.

There are special editions for bicycle racers or mountain bikers, and cycle route books do not only contain maps but also provide additional information for tourists in text format. Some cycle route books even feature texts that describe the route to cast light on confusing routing and signage on the ground.

Cycle maps give an overview of the commitment of a local authority or region in the field of cycling infrastructure. They help to analyze the local cycling situation and find gaps in the cycle network. Furthermore, they are an easy and useful means to promote cycling [Rupprecht Consult 2010]. Depending on their circulation and size, printing costs range between 20 and 80 cents per map. In addition, there are one-off costs for drawing up a map [BMVIT 2013].

Local mobility overlays

Local mobility overlays – such as the one designed by the city of Mönchengladbach – can be placed on a city map and help cyclists and pedestrians to easily determine how long it will take them to walk or cycle to certain close-by destinations: 5, 10 or 15 minutes. They are mainly addressed to new residents. In 2015, overlays were handed out in welcome bags in Mönchengladbach together with a city map. When developing an overlay, it is important to adapt it to the scale of the respective city map.

Digital maps

There are two types of digital maps: grid maps, where the displayed content remains the same at all zoom levels, and vector maps. Depending on the zoom factor, the latter show different levels of detail, objects displayed can contain additional information (such as opening hours, timetables or climbs), and users can choose between individual display options. Therefore, vector maps are a good choice for route planners.


Many cycle route planners now take the free OpenStreetMap (OSM) project as a basis. By early 2016, just under 2.5 million users worldwide had uploaded five billion GPS points and about 330 million routes. It depends on the region how detailed the map basis is; in Western cities, in particular, it is very good. Since this is a free project and everybody can take part, objective evaluation of the collected data is not possible.

EuroVelo-Routen und D-Routen bei Waymarked Trails
EuroVelo-Routen und D-Routen bei Waymarked Trails ©

Based on OSM data, interesting cycle maps such as OpenCycleMap or Waymarked Trails were developed. Websites such as or provide OSM maps that have been processed and can be downloaded to GPS devices.

Routing and navigation

Routing means searching for a route between two points A and B and potential intermediate destinations following certain criteria. Navigation means route guidance by means of turn-by-turn navigation [Tetzner 2008]. The possibility to use GPS technology for civilian purposes revolutionized cartography and created new possibilities to find directions and plan routes.

Information Box: Facts and figures: the Global Positioning System (GPS)

In 1973, the United States began to develop the Navstar GPS system and the first satellites for the system were put into orbit starting in 1978. Since 1995, the system has been available worldwide. However, until 2000 its accuracy had been falsified for military reasons by means of Selective Availability (SA), producing deviations of over 100 meters. Ever since SA was deactivated, deviation has only been 10-15 meters which makes GPS systems attractive for civilian use [Froitzheim 2015].

To guarantee worldwide availability, at least 24 satellites have to orbit the earth. While doing so, they are sending out signals (identification code and position, current time and general satellite schedule) that are used by receivers on earth to determine the exact position. In order to identify the exact position and height as well the current time by means of triangulation, a GPS device needs to be in contact with at least four satellites. Since satellite signals are rather weak and, unlike mobile communication, cannot be amplified with radio masts, GPS devices need a clear view of the sky to be accurate. Narrow street canyons, tunnels or high cliffs can reduce their functionality [Froitzheim 2015].

In addition to the fully developed American GPS system, there is the GLONASS system of the Russian Federation, which can only be used to a limited extent, and the Galileo (European Union) and Beidou (China) systems, which are both still in the development stage.

With GPS receiving devices, it is very easy to determine your own position quite accurately. Special programmes help to find the exact route and – based on pre-defined criteria – the best route to reach the desired destination. This is not only helpful for people who regard classic map navigation as too complicated. Cyclists who are experienced in reading maps also enjoy the advantage of not having to stop at every confusing intersection to consult the map for orientation. In a study it was found that cyclists who were riding in an unfamiliar environment and consulted classic paper maps tended to take massive detours from the planned route. In addition, it was found that they took a considerable number of stops for navigation purposes, which extended the total trip time considerably in some cases. The test persons also stated that this reduced the recreational value of the tour [Tetzner 2008].

Navigation devices

Conventional navigation devices for passenger cars are usually not sufficiently reliable for cyclists. Their map basis is inadequate, they do not consider routes that would be interesting for cyclists and they are not adapted to their needs. However, in recent years many device manufacturers have discovered cyclists as a target group and are now providing a broad range of specialized navigation devices. Depending on the model, these devices have a pre-installed map basis with a user-friendly navigation function or are suited for the installation of commercial (e.g. Kompass, Garmin, Falk) or free maps (e.g. OSM). The latter ones are particularly interesting for detailed advance planning with specialized software (e.g. Garmin Base Camp, MagicMaps Tour Explorer or QuoVadis). Many online route planners are available as smartphone apps that can be easily used for navigation. However, in case of longer tours, adverse conditions, direct sunlight or cycling abroad (roaming fees) smartphone navigation soon reaches its limits. In this case, it is preferable to use special cycling or outdoor devices.

Route portals and route planners

To plan a route in advance, online route portals such as GPSies, Komoot or outdooractive can be helpful. They make it possible for users to create their own routes or download tours created by other users as GPX files to their navigation devices. Many apps also allow to access the route portals directly on the smartphone. From the German Cyclists' Association ADFC route portal, long-distance cycle routes and regional tours can be downloaded. Some map publishing companies (such as Esterbauer, Kompass, Bruckmann) also provide free GPX tracks when a tour book is purchased.

The majority of the above mentioned portals also has individual cycling route planners. Usually, it is possible to enter the precise address of the starting point, the destination and, if necessary, several intermediate destinations. As an alternative, points can be chosen directly by clicking on the map. Generally, users can refine their choice of routes by adding certain criteria such as “everyday or leisure cycling” (shortest or nicest tour), “touring, racing or mountain bike” (type of surface) or “difference in altitude” (avoid climbs). Some portals also make it possible to move points on the route using “drag and drop” to adapt a route to individual preferences. If the cycling style (from out of shape to trained) or the assumed average speed is entered, the programme calculates the presumable journey time. Usually, it is not only possible to display the route and the elevation profile in the map, but also to download a GPX track. Developing a route planner or an app is quite costly and, depending on the range of functions, local authorities might have to spend between 10,000 and 70,000 euros [BMVIT 2013]. In addition, the data has to be updated regularly. Cooperation with route planner projects of the federal states or projects such as Naviki (see below) is usually cheaper and is advisable.

Route planners of the federal states

The building authorities or tourism organizations of many federal states operate own cycle route planners. Usually, they use data of the federal state survey offices as a basis for their maps which is likely to ensure high quality on an area-wide basis. Information on routes, touristic destinations and public transport links is often also provided by public authorities. Occasionally, the fact that the information on routes is not up to date may cause problems. Even though they would be very helpful for users, is still very rare that dynamic data, for example on road works or diversion routes, is provided. Another obstacle to user-friendly operation is that different regional route planners are not linked to each other at a supraregional level. At the moment, queries can only be processed if they refer to routes within a certain federal state, there is no route planner for all of Germany. Especially in border areas and where cycle tourism is concerned this creates problems when using the planners: Of the ten most popular long-distance cycle routes in Germany – according to the 2015 ADFC cycle tourism survey – the Ruhrtal cycle track is the only one that runs within one federal state.

The federal states of Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Bremen, Hesse, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate, Schleswig-Holstein and Thuringia have joined forces in the “Cycle Route Planner for Germany” which is to provide a platform for cross-border and large-scale planning of cycle routes. Here, a central system determines which cycle route planner is to calculate which route section. A general map shows the entire route, the detailed route between the borders of the federal states can be found on the pages of the individual route planners [Dölger 2013]. However, the system has not yet reached maturity and the remaining federal states would have to join the project for it to become established.

Application scenarios of cycle route planners for federal states, regions and municipalities

In the following, examples are given to show different applications scenarios of cycle route planners. All cycle route planners shown here are also available in the form of an app.

Intermodal route planning: Baden-Württemberg cycle route planner

Apart from all-cycle route planning, the Baden-Württemberg cycle route planner also provides an easy solution for intermodal route planning. Users can chose whether they prefer the calculation of an all-cycle route or whether a section may also be travelled using public transport. The route planner is directly connected to the EFA-BW timetable information system. When the route is calculated, only those means of transport that allow to carry bicycles are considered and lockout periods are taken into account [Lenz 2015]. To determine a cycle route, it is now possible to choose between the most comfortable and the fastest route or give preference to long-distance bicycle paths of federal states. In addition to route information, users also receive information on the journey time, the means of transport that have to be used, the route length of the cycle section as well as riding instructions. If an all-cycle route is planned, differences in altitude and an elevation profile are displayed, too.

Routenvorschlag des Radroutenplaners Baden-Württemberg
Routenvorschlag des Radroutenplaners Baden-Württemberg ©

The official topographical cartographic information system (ATKIS) forms the basis of the map. The State Institute for Environment, Measurements and Nature Conservation Baden-Württemberg (LUBW) maintains the central database and the regional or local authorities can update and manage information on their cycle tracks with a web-based geographical information system (Web-GIS). Local authorities, rural districts, tourism associations and integrated transport authorities have the possibility to include the cycle route planner on their own website [Lenz 2015].

Safety aspects and rainfall radar: Radlkarte Salzburg

The Salzburg cycling map does not only cover the entire land of Salzburg, but it also shows the Bavarian municipalities of Freilassing, Ainring, Piding and Saaldorf-Surheim. OSM and the official geodata of serve as map basis. When a route is planned, there are always two alternatives shown. While the “shortest route” shows the fastest route between two places, the “recommended route” considers safety aspects. These include the width and structural design of cycle tracks, the volume of motorized traffic, the maximum permissible speed, the type of roadside parking space and the availability of traffic signals at intersections [Loidl/Zagel 2013].

Both routes feature an elevation profile with information on climbs. Moreover, there is information on how many calories are burned on this route and how much money can be saved compared to going by car. Not only is important cycling infrastructure such as parking facilities and bicycle repair shops displayed, but also rapid transit railway stations and train stations including the timetable for the next 24 hours are shown. An interesting function is the integration of rainfall radar that provides a precipitation forecast for the next two hours.

Regenradar der Radlkarte Salzburg
Regenradar der Radlkarte Salzburg ©

Reporting platform for cycle problems: Radroutenplaner Hessen

The Hesse cycle route planner does not only provide standard route planner functions, but it includes also the possibility to report damage to cycling facilities and deficiencies that affect road safety. After selecting the relevant municipality, a map section of the affected area is shown. Now, it is possible to directly enter the address where the deficiency was found, indicate the GPS coordinates or directly mark the relevant point on the map. For better orientation, it is also possible to switch to aerial view. Next, a detailed description of the deficiency (e.g. surface, direction sign for cyclists, obstacle etc.) has to be entered. In addition, pictures of the site can be uploaded.

With the participation of cyclists, existing deficiencies can be determined fast and at low cost. The information provided will be forwarded to the competent entities of the respective local authorities. In an internal section of the route planner, they can mark the reported points to classify them by their level of urgency and provide a work status. Furthermore, local authorities can display all reports for their area and filter them based on certain criteria.

Specifically tailored route planner: Naviki

The internet portal Naviki is based on the OSM map. When planning a route, it is possible to chose between different criteria such as everyday cycling, leisure cycling, use of a racing bike or a mountain bike. Users can register and have their own statistics prepared, such as CO2 emissions avoided, calories burned or passenger car costs saved. Furthermore, routes can be uploaded and shared and users can compete with each other.

Naviki offers a specially tailored route planner to local authorities, tourism associations and companies. It can be integrated in their own website and highlights predefined locations (such as cycle parking facilities, bus stops) or tour proposals. There is also a function that allows users to point out deficiencies on the ground to the respective authority. What is more, the app collects data and develops heatmaps. Very busy sections are depicted as bold, dark red lines on these maps, rarely used routes as thin and lighter lines. Thus, transport planners can determine gaps in the network of cycle tracks and improve the cycling infrastructure of a local authority and/or region [Reidl 2015]. Cities such as Cologne, Berlin or Münster now use the portal as a route planner. But also the transport operator of the Unna district, the Volkswagen Group or the island of Usedom have own Naviki websites.

Nearby destinations: Bike Citizens

The Bike Citizens route planner provides a useful additional function called “5 Minutes by Bike”. With this function, users can find out how far they can get by bike in their city in 5, 10, 15 or 30 minutes. This is particularly interesting to see for cycling newcomers. Regular cyclists can also see at a glance how long it will take them to get to their destination. Bike Citizens tries to optimize the travel time of cyclists by recording waiting and riding times [Reidl 2015].

15-Minuten-Radius von Bike Citizens
15-Minuten-Radius von Bike Citizens ©

Cargo bike function: I Bike CPH

Copenhagen’s cycle route planner I BIKE CPH has an additional cargo bike function: After activating the cargo bike symbol, the programme optimizes the route for cargo bikes and avoids sections that are difficult to manoeuvre for cargo bikes, such as narrow passages and stairs. In addition, travel speed is adjusted.

Checklist: requirements for cycle maps and cycle route planners

  • Paper map: city map scales between 1:15,000 and 1:25,000; regional map scales between 1:50,000 and 1:100,000
  • Digital map: different levels of detail depending on the zoom level
  • Show all infrastructure information that is important for cyclists, traffic volumes, public transport links as well as quality of tracks
  • Show important destinations (points of interest) of the city or region
  • Divide cycle routes in a network of main and secondary routes
  • When cycle maps are developed, it is of paramount importance to make use of the knowledge of local cyclists and the ADFC.
  • When developing cycle route planners, the expertise of existing portals should be used and it should be attempted to integrate them in one’s own website by means of cooperation contracts.
  • Good direction signs for cyclists on the ground help cyclists even more to find their way around quickly and safely.

Summary and Outlook

Cycling maps show the current status of the cycling infrastructure in a municipality or region. They provide cyclists with an overview of the fastest, safest and nicest routes on the ground. Even in the digital era, paper maps are still very important for planning and direction-finding on a larger scale.

Cycle route planners make it possible to plan individual routes based on personal criteria. Apps or cycling navigation devices help cyclists to find the right route when they are already on the way. If they get lost, the devices automatically calculate a new route.

Local authorities and regions can increase the attractiveness of cycling and activate additional potentials if they use cycle maps and cycle route planners. Furthermore, cycle maps show gaps in the cycling network to decision makers on the ground. Cycling data collected by cycle track planners as well as deficiencies reported by users can help optimizing the cycling network of a municipality or region.


[Difu 2012]
Abruf 08.01.2016
Deutsches Institut für Urbanistik
[Dölger, Reiner 2013]
Folienvortrag auf dem 3. Nationalen Radverkehrskongress am 13. und 14. Mai 2013 in Münster, Abruf 11.01.2016
Dölger, Reiner (2013)
[Froitzheim, Thomas 2015]
Froitzheim, Thomas (2015)
[Lenz, Sebastian 2015]
in: BWGZ 4/2015, S. 215 f.
Lenz, Sebastian (2015)
[Lierz, Wolfgang 1990]
in: Cartographica Helvetica, Heft 1/1990, Abruf 08.01.2016
Lierz, Wolfgang (1990)
[Loidl, Martin; Zagel, Bernhard 2013]
in: GIS.Business 4/2013, S. 36-39
Loidl, Martin; Zagel, Bernhard (2013)
[Reidl, Andrea 2015]
in: Magazin 5/2015, S. 64-67
Reidl, Andrea (2015)
[Rupprecht Consult 2010]
Abruf 08.01.2016
[Tetzner, Stefan 2008]
in: Straßenverkehrstechnik 9/2008, S. 528-536
Tetzner, Stefan (2008)
Meta Infos
SPT 05
Date (Text as of…)
15. April 2016
Handlungsfelder NRVP