improving Visit Brabant’s interactive map of the walking route network

My first article for Eindhoven News sings the praise of the integrated networks of cycling and walking routes developed and managed by VisitBrabant. I’ve since learned a bit more about their history, design criteria and ambitions. That made me even more of a fan and got me thinking about what kind of tinkering might improve my already happy user experience.

As the Dutch expression goes, nothing easier than to be a captain on shore, so I focus on suggestions, that seem easy to implement and don’t require either lots of money or a huge stakeholder consultation circus. I also focus on the walking route network, as that is my main interest (and because its cycling twin is hard to improve upon). And my suggestions are based on my main interest in the network: as a tool for exploring my environment. That makes me a particular and admittedly not mainstream user. Someone looking at the network from e.g. the perspective of boosting tourism, or encouraging walking as a way of getting around for other purposes, might have other/additional suggestions. However, I do not think that mine conflict with the interests of those with other priorities.

Intermezzo: exploration is such an undersold objective for a walk that I use any possible opportunity to ride that hobby horse: once you actually start looking, you might see a lot more. Having the ability to see is something different from actually seeing, like being able to move doesn’t mean you actually do. It is difficult to grasp how blind we normally are to our surroundings. The illusion that we see what is there to see is pretty strong. Enjoy these supple, rhythmically flowing bodies as a movement metaphor for what is really out there to see if only we would look.

By way of background to my suggestions a short list of what I’ve learned from talking with VisitBrabant staff in charge of the networks:

  • the local sections of the networks are designed upon the suggestions from municipality level committees of locals with a detailed knowledge of the lay of the land and its attractions.
  • an underlying assumption of the walking network is that people know their local area well enough to not need a map of route options. They are (only) in need of way markings when going for a walk somewhere beyond their home turf. And when they do they will tend to choose areas they’ve heard about as being scenic and interesting. That is why the walking network only has information boards with network routes at entry points of such areas – where those coming from further away will park their bicycle or car (versus the cycling network which has an info board at every junction).
  • There are three major design criteria. The first is that the minimum distance for a circuit of three nodes/junctions of the network, in other words walking from A to B to C to A, is 3km, and the maximum distance is 10k. The maximum distance is based on the assumption that 10k is what can be covered in approx. 2 hours, the time that many normal walkers would aim for when going out. The second design criterion is that the routes offer diversity. The third is that at least 50% (even for cycling routes) is unpaved.
  • Some sections, although being the best possible way to connect two nodes of the network (remember the local route expertise underlying the network), are primarily to connect the nodes. The route isn’t particularly scenic or interesting. Any integrated network of routes with a fine-meshed grid cannot do without them but the network managers envision some room for future culling of such sections based on analyses of actual use of the network.

Below access the full-screen version of the existing VisitBrabant route network:


My list of suggestions:

  • add a full screen option to the interactive maps for designing your own routes on the VisitBrabant site; easier to work with than the limited space that the embedded window offers.
  • have a look at the interactive map (click above), zoom in until you see the many dotted lines indicating trails and marvel at the level of detail. The VisitBrabant interactive maps (not the one above, only the ones on their site!) allow you to create your own route, node by node, and then print it, and/or export its GPS track. Its usefulness as a tool for exploration would increase substantially if one could create routes using any road, path or trail indicated on the map (not only VisitBrabant route segments), or even draw a trail where no path (seems to) exists. That would allow for creating your own variations and connections. The full screen route planner of the Dutch hub and portal for all walking related initiatives Wandelnet offers such facilities; have a look here (unfortunately no English version available).
  • I love the information boards with a route map of the network. It would add great value to the interactive map if it would show which walking route junctions have such a board. A differently coloured node would be all it takes…Big advantage is that one can then ensure to plan for routes with an info board early in the walk. Then all it takes is a camera to have the map in your pocket. No need for a phone with a data bundle anymore.
  • the interactive map allows you to add a plethora of points of interest to your map, from food & drink, and lodging options, to tourist offices, rental options, and attractions. However, the most important info for anyone deciding what route to take is not visible: why does a particular route follow the course it does? I can vouch for the correctness of the claim that the segment between any two nodes is a, and often the most interesting, scenic and fun way to get from one to the other. But which segments are primarily connections to more interesting parts of the landscape or townscape and which are the segments that are what the walk they are part of is ‘about’ and define its character? And what does that character look like? Rather than adding a clickable map layer with info that answers those questions to the database I think that a possibility of clicking on any node-to-node segment to make a small popup window appear with some keywords describing specifics of the segment (in very general terms, what ‘kind’ of landscape, what ‘kind’ of architecture – e.g. ‘post WWII reconstruction’, particular highlights like a monument, art work, or monumental tree, etc.) might work better. Only one popup at the time to be made visible to avoid cluttering the map. And no need to make that info printable on the map (although adding it to the printable list of nodes would be very helpful).
  • I am very aware that visualizing information on a map is a delicate art. That It is difficult to avoid overkill is an understatement. I’m pretty sure that my above suggestion to give network nodes that host an information board a distinctive colour stays on the safe side. Segment colouring can also be used to indicate relevant information. But the risk of overdoing it are obvious. A max of three different colours for segments seems a prudent guess. E.g one colour for ‘regular’ segments and two different colours, used only sparingly so they stand out, to highlight something specific. Possible candidates for highlighting in such a way would be a) segments that are really only to connect, and b) the most scenic/interesting segments within a larger area of the network.

Finally, not a suggestion for the interactive map but a more general observation about what a fully integrated network of walking routes means for anyone looking for a practical tool to support pedestrian exploration. As I have lamented elsewhere, Eindhoven and pretty much anywhere else in the Netherlands suffers the consequences of decades of extremely car-centric spatial planning. Exploring one’s environment quickly loses its luster when one walks into territory designed for cars. Anyone living in Eindhoven for a while knows those corners of the city, boxed in by motorized transport infrastructure that dissuade one from even considering it as a possible corridor from one nice bit to another. The walking network shows that fine pedestrian corridors do exist. They may not figure on anyone’s list of the-five-best-local-walks but to the explorer they are finds to be treasured. They are proof that the terrain still is ours. And they are crucial for anyone wanting to explore larger areas.

Let me end with some thing totally unrelated, just because…

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