How city planners are using Strava data to tell them where the bikes are

Strava Metro
Screen capture Strava Metro heat map, New York City

It is evidently Global Bike to Work Day, sponsored by Strava, the makers of cycling tracking software. This was a bit of a surprise, since many cities and countries already have scheduled Bike to Work Days and it seems confusing to have yet another.

But millions of people use Strava, described on their about page as “the social network for athletes….From Olympians to weekend warriors, we’re out there on the road and trail, all over the world, day after day.” Strava, like other trackers, uses the GPS on your smart phone to plot where, how far and how fast cyclists or runners go.

In fact so many people use Strava that they are selling the data they collect to cities with Strava Metro. Peter Walker of the Guardian describes it as “an inadvertent tech business spinoff and a similarly accidental urban planning tool, one that is now quietly helping to reshape streets in more than 70 places around the world and counting.”

Michael Horvath, a cofounder of Strava, explains why it is so useful to planners.

One of the things that we learned early on is that these people just don’t have very much data to begin with. Not only is ours a novel dataset, in many cases it’s the only dataset that speaks to the behaviour of cyclists and pedestrians in that city or region.

As one who commutes by bike and uses different software, I wondered how useful data from “Olympians and weekend warriors” would be. Walker does too, writing:

There were two obvious limitations to the idea of Strava Metro. The userbase is a small sample of all cyclists, and the app’s emphasis on competition tends to make them more likely to be Lycra-clad enthusiasts rather than everyday commuters and meanderers. The company initially had the same worry. However, when authorities started buying the data and comparing it against their own information, they found Strava tended to capture a solid 5-10% of all bike movements. Moreover, they discovered that, especially in cities, those with the app tended to ride the same routes as everyone else.

That surprises me; I don’t usually see the MAMILs in the bike lanes downtown. But it is a big data set in a field where there are not very many sources, and some data are better than no data, so 76 cities are now using it.

The Bike Snob NYC is not convinced that it is representative of all riders either, writing:

What will become of those of us who still choose to ride unconnected? Do we not matter? If you cut us off do we not give you the finger? If you puncture our tires do they not deflate? I mean what are we anyway, chopped liver?

It would be nice if, in the interests of science and urban planning, that all these programs would talk to each other, so that my MapMyRun would share info with Strava and they would get a bigger, perhaps less competitive database. And it would be nice if we didn’t confuse people about Global Bike to Work Day either.

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