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How Cities Are Using Biking Apps to Understand Travel Patterns

Biking apps like Ride Report and Strava are being used by transportation planners to determine where biking infrastructure should be focused.

by / June 1, 2018
Biking apps like Ride Report and Strava are being used by transportation planners to determine where biking infrastructure should be focused. Shutterstock/connel

In dozens of cities across the country, biking apps like Strava or Ride Report have become in-depth sources for data, informing planners where cyclists not only want to be riding, but where they feel safe.

These partnerships between public transportation departments and private technology firms are taking the place of manually counting bicyclists, surveying riders or even outright guessing, leading to the sort of data-based decision-making around areas like the placement of bicycle infrastructure, non-motorized master plans and other forms of transportation public policy.

The Seattle Department of Transportation began partnering with Strava Metro, Strava’s public partnership division, in 2015 to provide rider data to offer insight into where the city should plan cycling infrastructure. Strava launched in 2014.

“Seattle uses the volume data, which can be broken down into different time periods,” explained Craig Moore, traffic data manager for Seattle Department of Transportation. The city paid $9,882 for one year of data; however, Moore noted Seattle is no longer purchasing the information.

“We also receive aggregated origin and destination information by census block group,” Moore said, though added this was not as helpful as the volume data. All of the data, regardless of the source, was crunched to reveal the number of trips and riders per street and intersection. City officials noted that they were not able to track a single rider or specific trip.

Similarly, following “complete streets” legislation in Louisiana, Rapides Parish in the central part of the state began the process of developing a first-ever bicycle and pedestrian plan. It’s a region where only 0.2 percent of workers commute by bike, according to U.S. census statistics. Incidentally, the Strava data revealed most cyclists are much more interested in recreation than commuting, according to the Rapides Parish Long Range Transportation Plan.

In Florida, transportation planners looked to Strava data to determine where it should send street sweepers. In the area that includes Orlando, Ocala, Daytona Beach and Palm Bay, transportation officials knew they couldn’t send street sweepers to every road, so they used Strava data to see where cyclists were most common, and then prioritized these routes for more frequent sweeping.

Colorado, Utah and Texas also partner with Strava Metro. In the last three years the company has made anonymous cycling and pedestrian data available to more than 130 organizations and governmental agencies around the world, according to Strava officials.

Bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure spending has increased from a mere $5 million in the late 1980s to nearly $1 billion today, according to Strava documents. The increased spending has ushered in the construction of more cycling infrastructure, making cities more attractive to not only recreational biking, but actual commuting. In Seattle, 3.8 percent of workers commuted to work on a bicycle in 2016, according to U.S. census statistics. This is up from 2.6 percent in 2009.

In Portland, Ore. — regarded as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country — some 6.5 percent of workers biked to work in 2016, up from 5 percent in 2009. In 1990, only 1.1 percent of Portlanders biked to work.

In April, the Portland Bureau of Transportation announced a partnership with local technology company Ride Report, a similar cycling app that tracks users’ rides via smartphone app. This one — as opposed to Strava — works in the background, which means riders do not have to physically launch the app. Ride Report also tracks other travel modes such as bus, train, walking or auto.

Portland cyclists have logged more trips via Ride Report than any other U.S. city, according to a press release from the municipal government. Since 2016, riders there have logged more than 400,000 trips adding up to more than 1.2 million miles.

“This partnership is a win-win. Ride Report is a great tool to help people track their rides and it gives us great information about where people like to ride,” said Transportation Director Leah Treat in a statement.

Regardless of whether a city contracts with Ride Report, anyone with access to the app can see helpful rider data such as “stress maps” showing the best and worst routes in each city. 

“Our paid product is a dashboard tool that takes the raw GPS data and puts it in a useful format for city staff at varying levels of technical expertise,” said Michael Schwartz, director of transportation planning at Ride Report.

In addition to Portland, Ride Report has partnered with Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Beaverton, Ore.; Oakland, Calif., and Raleigh, N.C.

“With a few clicks of a mouse, staff at one of our partner cities can compare weekday route and comfort ratings versus the weekend, or look at changes in travel patterns before and after a critical piece of infrastructure is constructed,” Schwartz explained. “The dashboard tool also performs a second, equally important, task of aggregating the data to a level that protects Ride Report app users' privacy and anonymity.”

In the end, local government officials look at tools like Strava and Ride Report as a window into cycling that did not previously exist, and have helped cities become more bike-friendly.

“The Strava data combined with count data has proved magnitudes better than our previous land use and facility-based estimates of bicycle volumes,” said Moore.

Stylized smartphone apps like these — along with top-end bikes and gear — would seem to appeal to a particular demographic of rider. And as city officials use technology to make cities “smarter,” they also want to use technology to make them more equitable, so that residents — regardless of socio-economic status — do not get left behind. So if cities base cycling infrastructure decisions solely on who’s using these apps, might certain segments of communities, or demographics, get left out of the equation?

“We did have some concerns about the bias in the Strava data,” said Moore in Seattle. “To counteract this bias, we combine the Strava data with data from bike-counters across the city, which count all users regardless of their socio-economic demographics. Using the combined data, we can see the Strava ‘penetration’ at a specific location.

“For instance, one location may show that Strava users represent 4 percent of all the trips we count. At another location we may see that Strava users only represent 2 percent of all the trips we count. Using these percentages, we can extrapolate a rough number for total bicycle volume that accounts for the differential use of Strava across the city,” he added. “This doesn’t eliminate the bias in the Strava data, but it helps.”

Schwartz, at Ride Report, admitted that concerns about under-reporting certain cyclists, “is an important issue.”

“First, we would never promote Ride Report as the only tool a city should use to make policy and infrastructure decisions,” he added. “We know our data provides insights that other sources can’t. In the same way, some other modes of data collection provide insights and deeper understanding that ours can’t.”

To get a true holistic view into who’s biking, it takes more than one data source, said Schwartz, who noted that based on age and other data collected by Ride Report, the company has concluded that many of its users tend to skew younger and upper income.

However, through the company’s partnerships with cities and community organizations, Ride Report “plans to do targeted outreach where the app may be underrepresented,” said Schwartz. 

“One of our dashboard tools shows staff where the app is being used on a census tract basis so they can compare with census survey data to understand if the trips and users are representative or not. If the answer is no, then we need to do more outreach,” he added.

Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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