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Cities Turn To Data Sharing From Strava To Improve Bike Infrastructure

How do cyclists move through cities? Why not ask the app that is tracking them all the time.

[Photo: Flickr user Dave Fayram]

Strava is one of those apps that lets users track their travels, workouts, bike commutes, and steps—and compete with others on the same routes. But it also has a division, called Strava Metro, that gathers together the anonymized data from millions of bike rides and uses it to find patterns on how, when, and where people ride. Now it is sharing that data with transportation departments in cities around the world, with the goal of improving street infrastructure.

The most relevant data is from city rides, and that’s what Strava Metro is sharing with city councils. "Billions of data points have given us a unique perspective on how cyclists and runners move through urban areas," says Strava marketing VP Gareth Nettleton.

According to Strava, last year 5.3 activities were uploaded to the service every second, which is over 300 billion data points so far. The data is heavily skewed towards commuting, which makes it more valuable. Over 70 city DOTs have signed on so far to access that data.

Strava Labs

Cities and organizations must pay to use the data, but some is available to the public via Strava Labs. You can view anywhere in the world on a global heat map, or compare 2014 and 2015 heat maps just by sliding a bar across the on-screen map.

In 2007, Seattle set itself a goal to triple bike ridership in 10 years. Until 2015, it relied on manual counts (people standing in downtown areas for two hours a day) and, later, automatic counters at tens of locations. In 2015, the SDOT added Strava Data. "The combination has really proved valuable because it’s allowing us to say things about parts of the network we didn’t have any data on," said SDOT’s Craig Moore in a case study.

For example, the data helped city officials see how many cyclists switched from other streets to use a new bike lane. It also helped them understand their own data better: Intersections with a lot of collisions might not be more dangerous, they might just be very busy, thanks to heavy bike and vehicle traffic.

Queensland, Australia, also used Strava's data to justify spending on bike infrastructure. Coincident with adopting Strava data, Queensland reopened the Riverwalk, a floating bike and walkway in the middle of the Brisbane River, which was swept away by floods in 2011. The data showed that before the reconstruction, cyclists diverted onto a busy street to get downtown. After, there was a significant increase in cycling on the safer route.

"A damaged link in Brisbane’s bicycle network had been fixed, and the Metro data showed just how much local residents were glad to have it back," the case study says.

Flickr user Heather Harvey

As our devices gather and share more data, partnership programs like Strava’s Metro will surely become more common. Apple’s ResearchKit, for example, allows people to enlist in medical trials, sharing their movements and vital signs throughout their waking hours, just by wearing an Apple Watch.

Trust plays as big a part in this as the data itself. You need to trust that Strava is anonymizing your data, but it’s something that doesn’t really seem to bother most people until something bad happens. But it’s one thing to share your biking and running routes, and quite another to share your every step and heartbeat. As the utility of this data increases, so will its value, both as a tool for change, like Strava’s Metro data, and as a revenue generator for companies that collect it.

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