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Could your ride data be making the roads safer?

Michael Donlevy
20 May 2019

Transport authorities are increasingly interested in knowing where you’re going when you ride – but Big Brother isn't all bad…

Do you use Strava? If so, do you ever wonder what – beyond sitting somewhere below the leaderboard – is happening to your ride data? And do you ever use a bike-sharing scheme, such as Transport for London’s Santander Bikes or one of the dockless e-bikes springing up around the UK’s cities? If so, did you know that they are recording your journeys, too?

It sounds like a Big Brother scenario in which the government and local authorities can track your movements and can tell where you are whenever you’re on your bike. Because even Strava – which is used voluntarily – is working with local councils to show who is riding and where, right now.

But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This could help make the roads a safer place for you and every other cyclist.

Desire for change

The simple fact is that cycling data can be used to help town planners make decisions about our roads that aim to increase safety and encourage more people onto bikes.

This is key given that increasing congestion and pollution are encouraging authorities around the world to prioritise cycling as an environmentally friendly and healthy way of commuting, making short journeys and delivering goods and services.

There are three types: historical, predicted and live data. The latter is relatively new but, thanks to bike sensors and GPS tracking, is already a valuable tool.

‘To use traffic-management speak it’s about “desire lines” – what routes are being used and where is the potential for new cycling routes to be developed?’ says Phil Ellis.

He is COO, head of policy and head of product at Beryl, the company that began by supplying bike lights but now also provides data-gathering sensors for the Santander Bikes.

‘We’ve invested a lot of time and money in developing a tool that helps traffic planners make informed decisions about infrastructure, about cycling volumes and routes, and about a long-term strategy for moving people around a city,’ he adds.

‘And even if that data comes from bike-share schemes, the aim is to improve road safety for the normal, everyday cyclist who rides their own bike – because there are quite simply a lot more of them than there are using those bike-share schemes.’

Until recently, authorities have relied on historical and predicted data for making planning decisions. In London, the Department for Transport has its Propensity to Cycle tool, while TfL has its Strategic Cycling Analysis. These use Census ward data to track postcodes and map journeys.

There is also Cynemon modelling data, which surveys Londoners about their last journey to work.

‘It can identify people who are making short trips, with no heavy loads, no passengers and in daylight hours,’ says Simon Munk of the London Cycling Campaign.

‘All this data is being used by City Hall to identify potential corridors and zones where we can increase the level of cycling. Combine that with tracking data and it’s changing the way London is planning its cycle network.’

You have a role to play, too. ‘There are gaps in the data that can be filled in part using cameras or counting machines, but there will still be gaps and having data doesn’t always mean councils make the right decisions,’ says Ellis.

‘That requires analytical ability and experience, plus the voice of regular cyclists to highlight new dangers.’

Just remember you are not alone. Local authorities now have many data-gathering tools, such as pothole detectors on waste and recycling lorries. These are actually even more useful for councils than cyclists reporting potholes because bin lorries, between them, go everywhere.

‘There are many data sources that can be used together to make roads safer,’ says Ellis.

Planning for the future

If bin lorries making roads safer for cyclists sounds like a paradox, maybe we should come back to the bicycle.

‘There is the potential to add more sensors in the future,’ says Ellis. ‘For example we could incorporate accelerometers or sensors that measure road conditions.

‘Sensors could be used to send alerts about crashes or danger spots, but we have to be careful – cities are complex and there’s also potential to set off false alarms, especially if a sensor mistakenly believes there’s been a crash. There’s still a lot of development to be done.’

There’s change on the horizon too, notably with the increasing use of e-bikes.

‘They have the potential to attract new cyclists because of course the in-built motor makes it easier to go up hills,’ says Munk. ‘And they have the potential to collect data easily because they’re already geared towards technology.’

But e-bikes can also complicate matters. ‘They can go faster but are also heavier than regular bikes, so the data they generate may be very different to the sort of data you see on an app such as Strava,’ says Ellis. ‘There may be routes that are safe for cyclists but not so safe for e-bikes, for example.’

And Strava creates its own issues. ‘Many people who do cycle at the moment are fast, fearless and fit, and their data doesn’t correlate to those who might cycle if the road conditions were better,’ says Munk.

‘Most Strava riders care about their times, their fitness – they’re not the majority of people who cycle in countries where cycling is a natural thing most people do.

‘The data from London’s Cycling Superhighways also reveals that most people ride fast. These people tend to be experienced cyclists.’

There is a way around that, says Ellis. ‘Councils have to take into account the type of people who use Strava, and maybe deflate their average speed to account for cyclists who don’t.

‘They can overlay cycle hire data, so if people using bike-share schemes ride at 6mph and those using Strava ride at 12mph, a council can work out the average.'

We are watching you…

‘Big brother is a factor, and we have to take it seriously,’ says Ellis. ‘From our perspective we track each bike as an “asset”, and we track the bike only, not a user’s GPS from his or her phone.

‘Local authorities are interested in data purely because of what it can do to help road users,’ he adds. ‘That data can be used to help answer two questions: is their investment effective? And what should they be investing in as well as or instead of what they’re already doing to improve road infrastructure?

‘How they answer those questions will influence whether or where they introduce segregated cycle lanes or design and engineer junctions.’

Still Beryl has to have internal policies for managing and sharing data, says Ellis. ‘Data is all part of working with cities to develop long-term strategies for cycle planning and cycling safety.’