Advocacy / Commuting / Urban / Urban Planning

Biking with Big Brother

Bike APPs

Bike APPs

It is nice out, the snow has melted, and it’s time to get on a bike and represent. There are a couple of ways you can have a voice in the infrastructure arena while also enjoying your ride.

Firstly, you can let the League of American Bicyclists, CyclePhilly, and Strava collect your riding data. Why? Since bikes are not registered or licensed and don’t consume gas or wear out the road it can be hard for transportation agencies to understand the needs and numbers of cyclists. The government can tell how many cars are using the road, and it’s obvious when the road wears out. Driver’s yearly mileage is documented when vehicle registrations are renewed. Traffic planners and engineers perform Origin/Destination studies to determine driving patterns. But how are cyclists and pedestrians using the roadway network?  The government knows that there are more people biking today than there were 20 years ago, but there is little data to help them understand where to put the funding or plan infrastructure. I often feel invisible on the road to car drivers but I also feel invisible as a road user to my local planning and government funding agencies. Joining the League of American Bicyclists’  National Bike Challenge or using apps like CyclePhilly, and Strava are great ways to advocate for cycling and become visible to your politicians and planners.

The National Bike Challenge is a way to advocate on the national level while also having fun. Through the Challenge, the League is collecting a rider’s location, occupation/school, gender, and miles, as well as asking you to opt into further communications from the League. I reached out to the League of American Bicyclists because I wanted to know how they use the data they collect. The League is more interested in getting people on bikes and encouraging ridership than collecting detailed data. They know riders location by zip code and the League has asked challenge participants to opt in for email alerts.  Liz Murphy, the communications manager at the League said, Getting more people on bikes is good for everyone and the more connection we can make between all the riders, the more power there is to advocate for cyclists’ needs. We’ve seen the Challenge act as a powerful tool for local advocacy organizations, too, as a way of getting folks on bikes for the first time and also as a way to energize the ones who’ve been riding for many years. The League is interested in getting people on their bikes in big numbers.

Once you have a population on bikes they can use apps like CyclePhilly which collects bike data specific to Philadelphia region under the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC). I reached out to Corey Acri, who brought the idea of the app to Code For Philly. Corey and Greg Krykewycz, of the DVRPC, responded to my questions about how the data is used. They don’t have a precise sense of how many riders they will need using the app to get a good sampling until they start to see how many trips are reported for various trip types and they know that smart phone users are not a purely representative sample of bike riders. The DVRPC will use the data, along with things like Census data and the DVRPC’s bicycle count program, to give a better understanding of bicycle trip-making in the region and as a baseline for ongoing comparisons over time. The data is already being used even though the app was just launched a few weeks ago. You can go to the site and look at the map tab. DVRPC is still determining how the data will be used for infrastructure investing choices. Greg said the app data will, make all of our planning partners more aware of where people are biking, how often, and why, and this will naturally inform planning and project development choices. Also, even if people just upload a trip or two and call it a day, that’s still helpful for us. No one needs to stay invested for years unless they’re so inclined.

Using the app is a way to advocate on the local level. I think Corey said it best, The CyclePhilly team just made it ridiculously easy for every cyclist in the city to make their voices heard all they have to do now is push a button on their phone and their personal cycling preferences recorded and presented visually on our website.

Strava is a great mapping app and messaging tool. This is how Philly Pedal’s Editor-in-Chief Steve Taylor wished us a happy new year.

We are also seeing other riding apps enter the infra planning area too. You may have heard that Oregon DOT  bought data from Strava, a popular cyclist app. Even if you don’t live in Oregon you can participate in Strava’s heatmap of biking on a global scale.

Would it be better to use Strava instead of CyclePhilly and hope that the city or state will buy data from Strava at some point? CyclePhilly hopes people will be enthusiastic about volunteering their route data since this is built in Philly for Philly. Also, the cost of buying Strava’s data is about $20,000 a year, and Strava data is heavily skewed toward exercise and recreation trips. CyclePhilly wants to get a well-rounded picture of bike activity: trips to work, school, trips using biking with public transit, as well as recreational and exercise trips. CyclePhilly was designed to collect data for our region specifically to support our planning.

Should we be worried about Big Brother watching us ride our bikes? I don’t think the data collection can harm riders. I asked the guys at CyclePhilly if they could see bad bike behavior like running lights or riding against traffic and they said it would not be immediately apparent but they could figure it out it they tried. Greg clarified, Users should not worry that illegal or dubious behavior will be linked to them or reported — it will not be.  As usual, just don’t be a jerk is the order of the day.

Big Brother might turn out to be a friend to cyclists, so get out and let Big Brother tag along on your ride — but most of all get out and have fun.

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