bike traffic lights green
With turn-by-turn bike directions coming through your AirPods Pro, you can pay attention to traffic.

AirPods Pro are perfect for in-bike navigation

Satnav for cyclists is great, but how do you do it safely?

Right now, public transport is scary, especially if you’ve experienced anything like the sardine can that is the London Tube at rush hour. It might be tempting to climb back into your car, but don’t do it. Fix up your bike instead.

A bike is the best way to get around the city these days, with public transport full of mask-eschewing scofflaws, and cars being just as dirty and dangerous as cars have always been. I’ve started using turn-by-turn navigation when riding to an unfamiliar spot in the city, and I’ve found that the best tool — by far — is a single AirPod Pro in my right ear, coupled with the Komoot route-planning app.

Why satnav?

If you know a city, you can just kind of wend your way towards your destination, and work from there. But in a big city, or in a city you don’t know well, or in a city where you’ve only ever traveled in underground metro cars, you may need some help. A map is good, but good turn-by-turn directions are better, and a lot safer.

Picture this: You’ve memorized your route, but you’re coming up to a tricky junction, one where you have to take a swing across four traffic lanes to turn left. Or do you? Maybe you’d better stop and check the map, by which time you’re stuck over on the curb, and out of the traffic flow.

Much better to have a bike-centric guide give you clear directions. It seems obvious, especially if you’ve driven with car navigation for years, but on a bike it seem to me like a small miracle.

So, satnav for cyclists is great. But how do you do it safely?

AirPods Pro are the safest earpiece for cyclists

Listening to music or podcasts is a terrible idea in city traffic. You’re cutting off one of your most important senses — a sense that works in any direction, not just the direction you’re facing. Ideally, you want something that can be heard above the traffic noise, without cutting out that same traffic noise. And one earpiece is enough. You don’t need two ears to listen to directions. Wearing one earpiece also provides better deniability if the cops stop you for riding with headphones on.

Drivers tend to get angry when they see a cyclist doing anything.

Practically speaking, then, a single AirPod Pro is the best way to go. You can wear just one without having to somehow secure a second, wired, earpiece. It is, unlike the a regular AirPod, quite secure and tight in the ear. And — here’s the killer — it has transparency mode. Transparency mode uses the AirPods’ inbuilt microphone to pipe external sound through to your ear, while still playing your music etc. For our uses, it’s a lot better than regular mode, because it balances the external noise with the spoken directions. The AirPod is still sealing out external noise, so it can achieve a perfect balance, with nothing too loud, or too drowned-out. The result is full awareness of traffic noise, along with perfectly-clear spoken directions.

I prefer to wear the single AirPod Pro in my right ear, so it’s less visible to passing cars. Even though they’re probably unable to hear anything over their own car radios — or through their closed windows and sound-sealed cabins — drivers tend to get angry when they see a cyclist doing, well, doing anything. So, I keep it hidden. And if a cop does stop you? Keep the AirPod in while you talk to them, and explain what you’re doing.

What app gives the best bike directions?

Apple’s Maps app still doesn’t do bike directions1. The otherwise-excellent excellent Citymapper doesn’t give spoken directions. Google Maps may be good, but I prefer not to use anything from Google that can track my location. And while lots of apps do give bike directions, they are often too sparse, or just repurposed car directions.

The best app for bike directions is Komoot. It’s an app built for outdoor activities — hiking, cycling, running, even mountaineering. In and out of the city, its maps are absurdly detailed, and it can even tailor a route to your abilities and experience. Komoot also has the best turn-by-turn directions for cyclists that I have used. They are clear, timely, and they are repeated at intervals suited to the speed of a cyclist. Have you ever been a few kilometers into a straight stretch, and wondered if your directions are still working? Komoot will occasionally remodel you just to keep going straight.

Not only are the spoken instructions perfect for cyclists, the route’s themselves are better. Komoot knows about bike lanes. It knows when a street is one-way for cars, but bidirectional for bikes. And in some cities, it even knows about spine-rattling cobbled streets, and avoids them where possible.

The app isn’t ideal for city navigation though. Because it’s geared towards planning longer trips and tours, it likes to make you save your routes, or share them, forcing you to do a lot of futzing at the end of a trip, just to switch off the navigation. But it’s worth using anyway, because it’s so good. And if you ever do decide to plan a long bike tour, or just to ride to the lake instead of driving there, you’ll be covered.

Downsides

I love satnav for helping me get around my city. I can just keep on riding, paying attention to traffic, and riding safely and confidently, because I always know exactly where I’m going. The downside is that you can get to rely on it, and not actually learn any routes. In previous cities I’ve lived in, I got to know my way around really well, only using the map for the last few streets for places I’d never visited before.

With Komoot (or any other turn-by-turn navigation aid), it takes me longer to learn routes, and I don’t connect up different routes in my mind. That means I don’t build a mental map of the city. Still, it’s not really much of a downside, compared to the extra safety and convenience of knowing where you’re going, and not having to get in a car.

  1. Although they’re coming to some cities in iOS 14.

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