Cycle to work? How data is discovering the routes you didn’t know you needed

Activity-tracking app Strava has plenty of useful data that city planners can use to improve cycling infrastructure. Transport for London, for one, is trying to make the most of it.

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To improve the 730,000 bicycle journeys made every day in the capital, Transport for London (TfL) has just renewed its contract with the popular activity-tracking app Strava, demonstrating at the same time that big data holds the answers to many an urban planner's questions.

For another four years, therefore, TfL will use Strava Metro to plan for better cycling infrastructure. The city's transport organisation initially sealed the deal with the San Francisco-based app in 2016. 

Metro, which some have called Strava's move "into the big data game", is a platform that sells aggregated and de-identified information to city authorities and advocacy groups about where the app's users ride bikes or go running.

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According to Strava, one in seven adults in the UK uses the app to track their activities. In London, about 10,000 "active commutes" – that is, going to work by cycle or walk – are logged by users every day.

The app's data, however, only represents about 10% of cyclists in London, according to Louise Hall, analysis lead at TfL. "It's a great pool, but it's not as representative as we would like it to be," she says.

"Alongside Strava, we need to have a fleet of manual data pooled throughout the year so that we can capture the whole cycling population."

The app claims that "several independent academic studies" have shown that the travel patterns and route choices of Strava members are representative of the overall population".

Hall nevertheless explained that an additional team of 100 enumerators is deployed to the streets of London to count "pretty much anything moving" and build up a model that has more reliable numbers.

The UK capital has been ramping up efforts to push more commuters onto bicycles as part of its "healthy streets" initiative launched two years ago to improve air quality and reduce congestion.

"Strava's data came along at the right time, as the healthy streets initiative has a big focus on cyclists," said Hall. "As an organisation, all the decisions we make are data-led and have been for some years now." 

She explained that planners in London use the information provided by the app and by its enumerators to speed up bike journeys, by adapting signal timings and reducing waiting times at busy junctions.

The partnership is only one part of TfL's larger plan to make data central to its strategy for cycling infrastructure. The Strategic Cycling Analysis published in 2017, for example, explains how data is used to estimate how much "cycling potential" the UK capital has.

The report identifies the cycling routes in London that could serve the greatest demand, and assesses where Londoners are most likely to switch to cycling based on population growth and expectations of employment.

The outcome of the research comes in the form of a map showing where the cycling routes most likely to be in demand are located. According to the analysis, around eight million trips made in London each day could "easily" be cycled.

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The outcome of the research comes in the form of a map showing where the cycling routes most likely to be in demand are located.   

Image: TfL

Alex Longdon, who worked on the report, told ZDNet: "As we try to get more drivers to cycle, we've been readjusting our focus to plan for behaviours that aren't currently happening. We have to plan ahead – and that's why a data-led approach is crucial."

In the two years since the Strategic Cycling Analysis was published, he continued, the organisation has been working on creating schemes to meet the demands anticipated by the report. 

Last summer, for example, three consultations based on the analysis took place to discuss the construction of cycle and walking ways in east London, and another seven kilometer-long route in Barking. 

At the same time, TfL released the Cycling Infrastructure Database, which it suggests is the world's largest cycling database containing the location of 240,000 pieces of infrastructure in London, as well as data on 2,000 kilometers of cycle lanes and 146,000 cycle parking spaces.

The organisation has been using the database to inform how it will spend a £2.5 million investment in new cycle parking, and is inviting developers to come up with innovative apps that use the data to improve cycling in the capital.

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One such app has already been released last month. Aktivli is experimenting with an service that lets cyclists find bike parking spaces in London in real-time.  

"It's an exciting time," said Longdon, "because the quality of our tools are increasingly matching the need for focused policy-making."

The capital, however, is not a front-runner compared to other cities in the UK. New data released by Strava Metro shows that Bristol is the cycling commuting capital of the UK, with almost 30 cyclist commuters for every 1,000 people.

Although London has the most cyclist commuters in total, it is only sixth on the list, with about 12 commuters riding their bikes to work for every 1,000 people.