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Friday, May 23, 2014

Strava's Map Porn Makes it Easy for Policy Makers to Improve Bike Routes

Posted By on Fri, May 23, 2014 at 7:15 AM

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Not only are these pretty maps, they're incredibly useful pretty maps that combine literally billions of data points. This is great news. As I lamented, last week, the seeming impossibility of the Vanhook Vanguard, or whatever, actually accumulating enough data to provide useful information for anyone, Strava has been quietly amassing exactly this kind of data for years. Their stores are thrown open to all of us by way of these crude heatmaps -- but for a price organizations or governments can take a look at more detailed information.

This is cool.

Strava has been offering what they call heat maps for a while to their premium users. When the feature came out, it didn't seem particularly useful. Sure, it's kind of cool to see all the places you've ever ridden highlighted on one map, but it's also kind of creepy and depressing, especially if you're like me and tend to ride the same loops over and over again.

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But it turns out that the heat map thing wasn't really designed to be a stalking tool. In the name of big data, Strava has been crunching these numbers to sell off to those who can actually use them. An organization, like the SF Bike Coalition, or the SFMTA, could kick Strava some cash, and they'd get access to "about 220 billion total data points" representing a total of "77,688.848 rides and 19,660,163 runs" worldwide. But for the rest of it we can just enjoy the map porn.

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For the organizations that do bike infrastructure and advocacy, these aren't just pretty maps, they're the tip of an iceberg of valuable data. Of course, the usage data for sale doesn't include personal information -- it's hard to imagine why a bike policy wonk would want to know who has the King of the Mountain on the Wiggle or anywhere else. This is the kind of data that most organizations just can't get -- and here Strava has convinced millions of people to just surrender it freely. Remember that $70,000 bike counter on Market Street? It only measures traffic going one way. This is data for everyone who has recorded a ride on Strava anywhere ever.

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Based solely on the heat maps you can easily see what the most popular roads are for cyclists. You can see that Market is popular, Golden Gate Park is popular, Embarcadero is popular, the Wiggle gets a lot of traffic, etc. While this data may skew toward the recreational rider rather than the commuter, it does still provide evidence for what roads are better to ride on. And while these maps might make a busy biking street just look like a bright line, with access to the data behind them you can find out how many cyclists and runners used the street, when, and which direction they were going.

When making bike infrastructure decisions policy makers can look at what's working on some streets and adopt those policies for other streets and help make a more complete biking city. We can also look at the streets that aren't getting any traffic and try to figure out why.

While this data won't replace bike counters and other measurement methods -- not everybody has a smartphone or turns on Strava on the way to work or the grocery store -- it will help augment that information that comes from more traditional means. If you ask me, I think it's cool that Strava is offering this data up -- even for a price. It might help make cycling better for everybody.

Leif Haven is a writer and cyclist living in the Bay Area. He can be spotted dragging himself up a hill -- literally and metaphorically.


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About The Author

Leif Haven

Leif Haven

Bio:
Leif Haven is a writer and cyclist living in the Bay Area. He can be spotted dragging himself up a hill — literally and metaphorically.

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