Urban Cycling

How Strava Changed Bike Infrastructure Planning Forever

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Urban planners everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief. Gone are the days of bike lane planning largely through guesswork or antiquated studies. No more counting how many cars and bikes go by at certain points in the day.

Thanks to apps like Strava, city planning has never been easier. An app with more than 68 million registered users and in excess of four billion journeys, designed to help you track your routes for various forms of exercise including running and cycling, it has rendered those old methods a thing of the distant past.

The Strava app shown on an iPhone with a bike behind | Flickr

Through ‘Strava Metro’, planners can access thousands upon thousands of data points showing how, where and when cycling really happens, which in turn can help them plan the next best urban cycling routes in their area.

How have they done it, you ask? Let’s take a look:

The Birth of Strava Metro

Like any good 21st-century tech company, Strava possesses an enormous amount of data. It knows much – if anything, too much – about who cycles where and when all over the world.

Every so often, the company would hold a ‘Strava Jam’, whereby employees are free to let their imagination run wild and brainstorm potentially revolutionary ideas for the company. It was at one such event that a plan was posed, which would ultimately help propel to Strava to being one of the market leaders.

“Engineers at one Strava Jam came up with the idea of building heat maps – overlaying the bike data onto digital is to visualise the numbers riding.

“‘At the time it was really we didn’t really know what to do with it,’ admits Mark Shaw, chief technical officer. ‘So we just released it to the street plans to visualise the cool, but we didn’t really know the company’s chief technical officer public on our website.’

“‘Most of those who saw and played around with the early heat maps were just curious to see where people rode in their own town or city; one Strava user browsing the heat maps worked for the department of transportation in the US state of Oregon.

“‘A thought struck. Could this be useful for planning bike infrastructure? Collecting data on cycling use had previously been pretty basic, recalls Sheila Lyons, head of cycling projects at the transportation department.‘”

‘Bike Nation’, Peter Walker (2017, pp. 190-191)

In 2013, Lyons’ department bought a year’s worth of cycling data for the state of Oregon, which ultimately set the wheels in motion for a supplementary business of sorts in Strava Metro.

How Strava Metro Works, and Where It’s Worked

In essence, Strava Metro tracks its users’ movement data so as to assist planners in their own work. Its ‘Global Heatmap’, updated monthly, shows data and distance aggregated by recorded exercise activities, making it far easier to see where and when pedestrians and cyclists are going.

Unsurprisingly, it’s facilitated planning work all over the world. In Seattle, for instance, Strava Metro flagged up trends that eventually caused 14,000 more cyclists to use the city’s bike lanes. In Queensland, Australia, it was used to calculate the effects of a new bike path on cyclist behaviour, and in Scotland, it collated data for Glasgow’s GoBike cycling campaign on a street previously considered unused by cyclists.

In Portland, Oregon, meanwhile, Strava Metro’s maps showed that rides frequently rode at least a mile out of their way to cross the Willamette River which cuts right through the heart of the city. Partly with this in mind, Portland’s Tilikum Crossing bridge opened in 2015, and was hailed for being the US’ first major bridge to ban cars.

And in New York City, 100 miles of new streets for cyclists and pedestrians opened earlier this year after Strava Metro discovered an enormous its changing mobility patterns from July 2019 to July 2020 and found a monumental rise in active transportation. These streets also facilitated social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There were 81 per cent more people completing at least one bike trip, and 80 per cent more cycles in all. So far, the scheme appears to have been a great success: Crescent Street and 34th Avenue have seen a 38 per cent and 181 per cent increase in bike trips respectively.

“It’s really hard for us to understand origin and destination, and also how long those trips are, because if we’re doing point-source data collection, then we’re missing the rest of the picture.

“It’s replacing anecdote with data.”

Heidi Goedhart, active transportation manager, Utah Department of Transport

Why Are Innovations Like Strava Metro Important?

Make no mistake, cycling infrastructure across the globe has come on leaps and bounds thanks to data unearthed by services like Strava. It efficiently gathers ‘deep data’ to give an invaluable cross-section of where, when and how people are exercising across cities and towns.

Indeed, many cities’ administrators consider an improvement in facilities for pedestrians and cyclists as a key part of their sustainable development plans. It’s simple, really – more people cycling means a healthier population, a less congested, polluted region and a more prosperous environment.

Especially now, as the coronavirus pandemic appears to have caused a worldwide cycling boom and ‘pop-up’ bike lanes to start sprouting up everywhere, data provided by apps like Strava Metro has arguably never been as indispensable as it is now.

What Does The Future Hold?

Strava have cornered this market by offering a straightforward, fun way of digesting how much good exercise has had on your body and by gathering its Global Heatmap designed to serve the every need of urban planners. But once you’ve got to the top, how do you make sure you stay there?

For starters, Strava Metro, the largest active travel dataset around, has been made free of charge to urban planners, city authorities and safe infrastructure advocates as of September 2020. Since its creation in 2014, partners had previously paid an annual fee to use their aggregated data, but no more.

Primarily, this appears to be down to the boom triggered by COVID-19. According to Strava Metro, cycling has increased by 162 per cent in the last year, with May 2020 representing the peak of the year-on-year growth trajectory in many cities – at the same time as when the of pandemic’s enforced lockdown restrictions were most severe.

On top of that, 62 per cent of American employees worked from home during the pandemic and with many more people taking up running, walking and cycling in particular, Strava Metro only became a more pivotal resource by the day.

“We always believed there were special ways in which the Strava community could contribute to the world at-large. Strava Metro was one such way.

“And given the growing need for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, we felt Strava Metro was too valuable and important not to make available to any organization attempting to make a difference in designing the cities of the future.”

Mark Gainey, Strava co-founder

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