#51 – Mapping for Bicyclists

North Carolina

Mary Paul Meletiou, Program Manager for Planning and Safety, NC Department of Transportation Division of Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation




One of the most common questions a bicyclist asks is, “Where can I ride my bike safely?” A good bicycle map will answer this question. Bicycle maps can provide information to guide novice cyclists to less-traveled routes, help an experienced cyclist get around unfamiliar parts of town, or identify suitable routes for touring cyclists. A bicycle map can be a tool to promote alternative transportation, improve cyclists’ safety, or provide a guide to recreational opportunities.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation Division of Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation (DBPT) has a long history of developing bicycle maps. In mid-1975 the Bicycle Program, as it was then called, initiated a project to design and map a cross-state bicycle route. The map was in response to the Bicycle and Bikeway Act of 1974 that charged the NCDOT with the responsibility of developing a statewide “bikeway” system. The goal of this initial effort was to select and map a route that provided access to the major population centers of the state, linking them to state parks, historic sites, and other points of interest via the more lightly-traveled roads of the extensive secondary road system.

The NCDOT effort was pioneering a new arena. At that time, guidelines for selecting and designating bicycle routes did not exist. Only one other state had produced a bicycle map. Few North Carolina cyclists had long-distance touring experience or knowledge of roads outside their immediate area. No funds had been set aside for such a project. Fortunately, existing resources of the department could be tapped to undertake the tasks. Bicycle program staff, experienced in bicycle touring and mapping, developed route selection criteria, designed and drew the maps, and utilized the DOT print shop to produce the maps (see Yates and Meletiou, 1978).

In the ensuing years, the “Bicycling Highways” system grew to nine discrete routes covering more than 4,023 km (2,500 mi) (See http://www.ncdot.org/transit/bicycle/maps/maps_highways.html). In the 1980s the Division began to produce county and regional bike route system maps as well as urban route and suitability maps. Funds for placing signs on both “Bicycling Highways” routes and local routes became available in 1987. Twenty-two local and regional maps are now available with three additional maps nearing completion. These maps detail approximately 2,000 mi of designated routes. Requests for 20 more maps are being handled as time permits.


The 1,126 km (700 mi) Mountains to Sea Route was the first route to be mapped and was completed in June of 1976. A set of sixteen trip-tic maps, each covering 64.3 to 80.5 km (40 to 50 mi) of the route, was developed. The 0.2 m by 0.2 m (8 by 8.5) inch maps were designed to fit in the map pocket of a front handlebar bag when folded, providing easy access for cyclists while riding. All maps were hand-drawn and designed to provide information of interest to cyclists. Narrative information accompanied each segment and included a general description as well as information on terrain, any hazardous areas, roadway conditions, available services, and points of interest. A separate listing of campgrounds with contact information was provided. The strip maps were packaged in a jacket that provided general information on bicycle touring in North Carolina, a description of the overall route, a guide to using the maps, basic weather information, and a list of resources for obtaining additional information.

As noted above, additional cross-state routes were developed from 1976 to 1985, creating a 4,023 km (2,500 mi) system of “Bicycling Highways.” In 1983, the DBPT completed the first county bicycle map, showing a 241 km (150 mi) system that connected towns and points of interest via low volume scenic roadways. Local cyclists were involved in developing the routes and providing input on map design. In 1987, federal funds became available to place signs along the routes. The 321 km (200 mi) north/south Carolina Connection, which had received American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) designation as U.S. Bike Route 1, was the first to receive signs.

In 1991, the DBPT worked with local cyclists, staff, and consultants to create the first two suitability maps. Unlike route selection maps, which recommend a “best route” between two points of interest, bicycle suitability maps provide information on a broader selection of roadways, with the goal of helping cyclists make good choices about where to ride based on their own level of cycling ability and traffic handling skills. Although suitability maps had been created for localities in other parts of the country, the DBPT refined the process of data collection and application of suitability ratings to reflect conditions in each community. Each North Carolina community is unique, and whether producing a route map or a suitability map, the DBPT strives to reflect these unique characteristics and cycling opportunities.

Over the past 28 years, the route selection, mapping and signing activities of DBPT have continued in response to high local demand for such products. The annual allocation for map and sign projects is now $200,000, set aside from Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) funds. Communities can request a project to develop a route or suitability map for their area through the biannual Transportation Improvement Program. Such requests are generated through local planning departments, parks and recreation departments, chambers of commerce, regional agencies, and advocacy groups. To receive funding authorization, requests must be endorsed and submitted to the NCDOT by a local governing agency such as a city council or county commission.

Evaluation and Results

Evaluation of these projects is mostly subjective except for a survey of “Bicycling Highways” map users conducted in 1980. This survey was undertaken to collect demographic information on users and to poll their opinions on the safety and appeal of the routes and usefulness of the maps.

Verbal or written feedback is provided to DBPT staff periodically from requesting agencies noting local response to maps and perceived usage of routes. Individual cyclists, local cycling groups and bicycle shop personnel also provide feedback in the form of praise for the product or constructive suggestions for improvements or revisions to routes.

Although information on the effectiveness of map and sign projects is primarily anecdotal, it is clear that bicycle maps and signs increase bicycle usage and the visibility of bicycling. Following are some examples to support this statement.

Other positive results involve roadway improvements along sections of designated bicycle routes. The route selection process often reveals barriers to bicycling such as bridges with inadequate width or low railings and roadways that need bicycle improvements such as bike lanes, wide curb lanes, or wide paved shoulders to provide a continuous safe corridor of travel. Over the years, by working through ongoing processes of the NCDOT, many significant improvements have been made to roads and bridges identified through these activities.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Bicycle map and sign projects provide a low-cost way to improve the safety of cyclists by directing them to roads that are better for bicycling. Bicycle maps are also an excellent tool for promoting cycling. The appointment of a local committee of planning and engineering staff, interested elected officials, and citizens to guide the mapping project creates greater awareness of other bicycling needs and often leads to future planning efforts or facility improvement projects.


Costs and Funding

Costs of mapping projects vary greatly depending on the format, area covered, number of colors, size of finished product, number of copies printed and whether the work is done in-house or through the services of a consultant. Cost for the trip-tics (strip maps) for the original “Bicycling Highways” maps were minimal – just ink and paper. Recent updates include digitizing the information, undertaken by a consulting cartographer at an average cost of $1,000 per segment for two-color artwork. The four-color map/brochures for county route systems, produced by outside cartographers and graphic designers, cost $20,000 for production and about $.50 for each printed copy. Urban maps produced by outside cartographers and graphic designers have ranged from $30,000 to $60,000 for production and $.34 to $.78 per copy for printing. These costs do not reflect staff time spent in administering the projects, developing routes, coordinating with local committees, preparing text, or reviewing and proofing the product throughout the production process.


NC DOT Division of Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation
(919) 733-2804