The Nickel Tour: Transit planners who want to build more bicycle infrastructure often lack sufficient data, but private sector apps may offer the data they need to make good decisions.
Transportation agencies around the world have two big problems related to cycling: they do not have enough data to pinpoint or draw meaningful conclusions from popular bike routes. They also haven’t found a way to make cyclists feel safer.
Without knowledge of where people are using bikes—on city or state roads, for instance—and where they are not, it is hard for planners to know how and where to build infrastructure that both meets demands and helps keep riders safe.
But a few recent private data projects could pave a better path forward for urban planners trying to improve bike grids in their cities.
“It’s a chicken-and-egg problem: The city doesn’t invest if people don’t cycle. People do not cycle because it’s not safe. We believe that design and technology can fix that,” Michael Volkmer, founder of a design firm based in Wiesbaden,Germany, told Fast Company.
After Weisbaden was declared the worst city for cycling in Germany, Scholz and Volkmer developed a GPS-enabled app for cyclists called Radwende that tracked users’ bike routes and then drew attention to the mapped results through public art displays. Between May and August, cyclists provided data on nearly 3,000 rides. A robot traced the rides onto a map each day; the lines for common routes became thicker daily.
The maps and the robot were on display at a local art museum for six weeks, drawing additional attention to the effort.
“The exhibit was a six-week window, producing one piece of art every day,” Volkmer said. “But the process of getting safer bike lanes is much longer. We will collaborate with other organizations in the city to get more and more people to ride, use the app, and get more and better data.”
More than 5,000 miles from Weisbaden, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has partnered with an existing cycling app, Strava, to use its data to help inform decisions about bicycle infrastructure.
“We were really deficient on the cycling and walking side of data,” said Margi Bradway, the active transportation lead at ODOT in an interview with Bike Portland.
The Strava data will help fill that gap. ODOT came to an agreement with the private app company to pay $20,000 to have access to Oregon user data for a year.
There are limits to the usefulness of the data from Strava, most notably the fact that most of the users are active cyclists who use arterials and rural roads. That means Strava offers ODOT just a small sample size, but a small sample size is better than nothing at all.
“Right now, there’s no data. We don’t know where people ride bikes,” professor Jennifer Dill said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “Just knowing where the cyclists are is a start.”
Both Radwende and Strava have received inquiries from other cities and states about obtaining user data to help with bicycle infrastructure planning. Strava has agreements with other cities, too, including London and Orlando.
It seems two wheels and a GPS-enabled device just might solve transit planners’ chicken and egg problem.