Strava's heat map of bike/walk activity in Midland shows the popularity of that city's recreational trails--but surprisingly little bike/walk access to the major employment center.

Strava’s heat map of bike/walk activity in Midland shows the popularity of that city’s recreational trails–but surprisingly little bike/walk access to the major employment center.

Fitness tracking app Strava recently began offering its data—millions of walking, jogging, and cycling trips around the world—to cities and transportation agencies. For a price, of course: this is a revenue stream for the app developers…so what’s in it for the public agencies? As Gizmodo explains, bike/walk traffic data is traditionally much harder for agencies to collect than traffic data, but, with apps like this, “we’re all walking sensors now:”

Strava’s first customer, Oregon’s Department of Transportation, paid $20,000 for data from nearly 20,000 cyclists in hopes that it might help them figure out how to handle the steadily increasing bike traffic in cities like Portland. “Right now, there’s no data. We don’t know where people ride bikes,” Jennifer Dill, a professor and urban planner at Portland State University, told The Wall Street Journal. “Just knowing where the cyclists are is a start.”

This type of data can support placemaking efforts, especially as we look to support walkability and offer residents a range of transportation options: knowing where people choose to walk, jog, and bike—and where they don’t—helps us diagnose our community’s streets and target improvements.

Know your data’s limits—and leverage them

This can’t be done without some caution, though. As many commenters on the Gizmodo piece point out, the Strava dataset includes two biases that we need to consider in our planning.

The first issue is a self-selection bias: since the data is collected by smartphone users using the app, it only measures the habits of people whose income, age, and comfort with technology lead them to seek out and use smartphone apps to track their travel. Also, as the app is targeted at “fitness” users, it will likely be skewed to those trips, and include a smaller sample of people who are walking or biking to work, school, shopping districts, or other destinations. Even those app users who are tracking their bicycling commute are likely to be biking by choice—rather than being forced to because they lack access to an automobile. The app data will be less useful in identifying the travel patterns and needs of low-income residents and others who walk and bike out of necessity.

The second concern is a confirmation bias: because of that skew in who the users are and why they are traveling, they are more likely to have the luxury of choosing routes that already work well for biking and walking. This data will point to heavy activity on the scenic rail trails and state park trail loops, while overlooking the people who brave dangerous freeway interchanges on foot to get to work, or the road that could deliver recreational cyclists into downtown, if only it had a bike lane.

Strava's walking heat map shows the already high-quality rail trail near EMU's campus, while completely overlooking the more hostile, but still heavily used, Huron Street / I-94 interchange.

Strava’s walking heat map shows the already high-quality rail trail near EMU’s campus, while completely overlooking the more hostile, but still heavily used, Huron Street / I-94 interchange.

Because of these, planners should therefore be double-checking the Strava data against conditions on the ground. While the data might point to highly-traveled routes that need some improvements, in many cases, the outcome should actually be to improve the biking and walking experience on routes that Strava users are NOT recording.

If on-site observations or neighborhood engagement show that certain streets are critical walking and biking routes for day-to-day essential travel, but the travelers using fitness apps are avoiding those routes, then planners should be asking why: what’s wrong with those routes that causes travelers with choices to avoid the, and how can they be made better for those travelers with no choice? Not only will this use of the data serve a broader segment of additional residents, it will also help extend the attraction of a community’s downtown districts and other major nodes by bridging current barriers.

Share and share alike: supporting virtuous cycles

In many cases, privately developed apps rely on the availability of public data to function, either directly or implicitly. Transit app Ototo, for example, wants to tell transit planners what people are searching for, so they know where people want to go, but it can only serve metro areas where the transit agencies have published open data sets. By providing ready access to public datasets, local communities (and state agencies) can support the private development of apps, which can then feed data back to the communities on how people are using the apps—and, by extension, how people are interacting with the places around them.

Several efforts try to help public bodies shorten this cycle even further: organizations like Code For America, or events like the National Day of Civic Hacking (coming up May 31-June 1!) bring motivated software developers together to design, prototype, and build new applications for public data. In order to have the greatest benefit for communities, though, these efforts need access to both data and the public sector staffers who know the subject matter.

As mobile apps continue to grow in popularity and capabilities, cities should continue to look for ways to leverage the data generated—and to support the process with data of their own. Even though the field of mobile apps is only a few years old, cities and states that have engaged effectively are already benefiting.

luna pierDuring the week of June 21-28, 2013, the PALM XXXII bike tour gave me the opportunity to experience bikeability issues in Michigan literally from the ground up. Now that the ride is over, I’d like to talk about how PALM itself affects bikeability, and all the ways it has been helping to make Michigan a more bike-friendly state for the past 32 years.

Back when the ride started in 1982, pretty much nobody in Michigan was talking about bikeability or Complete Streets, and certainly not about how those things can enhance placemaking.

The first annual PALM ride, from Berrien Springs to Detroit, was sponsored by the Great Lakes Bicycle Council with the help of Metropolitan Detroit Council of AYK, Southwestern Michigan Regional Planning Commission, South-Central Michigan Planning Council, and the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.

tecumseh1The goal was to promote bicycle tourism in Michigan, raise public awareness for safe bicycling, and encourage bicycling as an everyday mode of transportation. Those goals haven’t changed over the course of 32 years, said current PALM chair Kevin Novess Sr., but plenty has happened to impact them.

Urban sprawl has put a lot more commuters and commercial development on formerly quiet, rural roadways.

“It’s gotten more difficult to find routes. Some roads that were suitable 20 or 30 years ago aren’t anymore due to the increase in traffic,” said Novess. “On the other hand, thanks to Complete Streets legislation we’re starting to see more and more communities putting in bike lanes and such. But there’s still a big, big difference between what you see in the towns, and what’s out there in the townships in between.”

freeportThanks to the efforts of the League of Michigan Bicyclists, better legislation is making its way into state and local law to protect cyclists and make the state’s roadways more bike-friendly. That includes everything from local Complete Streets ordinances to the recent introduction of Vulnerable Roadway User bills in the State House of Representatives.

“PALM has been giving $1 from every rider registration to LMB for as long as I can remember because they’re right there in Lansing at the courthouses and the Capitol with their finger on the pulse of what’s going on with bicycle laws and legislation,” said Novess. “There’s all kinds of stuff they’re working on that we’re not always aware of. We rely on them.”

charlotteAwareness of the need to share the road is also growing among both cyclists and motorists, said Novess. Every night during PALM, LMB certified instructor Al Lauland holds free classes on topics ranging from basic bike maintenance to safe riding tips.

“Cyclists in general are more educated than they were. LMB plays a good part in that to educate cyclists and motorists to share the road, and we try to do that too,” he said. “And it’s a two-way street. For example, legally you can ride two abreast but we know motorists are already a little bit upset when they encounter several hundred bikes in a row, so we encourage single-file riding to promote some goodwill.”

Living an active, healthy lifestyle has also become more popular among all age groups and demographics. The first decade or two, it was difficult getting 500 riders signed up even after months of promotion and open registration. In 2013, registration filled in one day with 825 riders ages nine months to 91 years.clinton

Ultimately, PALM’s biggest impact is the sense of empowerment it gives to every participant. By heavily promoting the ride as a family and age friendly event, PALM sends out a loud and clear public message that bicycling is accessible to everyone. And those are not just empty words. Daily optional add-on routes allow more riders of various athletic levels to participate without cramping the style of faster riders. The PALM committee makes sure special needs are addressed with a minimum of fuss. Each year’s century ride (a one-day, 100-mile optional route midway on the tour) is dedicated to the memory of Kevin Degen, a faithful PALM rider with cerebral palsy who was a prominent and popular role model and fund raiser for those with special needs until his death at age 52 in 2010. On this year’s ride, I saw young people with autism and Down’s Syndrome, two blind cyclists, hundreds of seniors on various styles of recumbent and tri-wheeled cycles, and countless families pedaling with an array of baby trailers, youth trail-a-bikes, and even multi-rider tandems. Free children’s activities are offered at the end of each day’s ride. A tireless army of 50-75 volunteer PALM staffers are patrolling the roads, staffing closely spaced rest stops, and preparing each night’s site accommodations so that even those completely new to multi-day touring feel safe and confident about pedaling hundreds of miles across the entire state.

leslieAnd when all those cyclists hit the road, PALM is Placemaking on Wheels.

“It’s a way to see parts of Michigan you would never see and towns you would never stop in driving your car,” said Detroit engineer Erice Rainer, who was on his third PALM tour. “Before I started riding PALM, I would’ve said where is Dansville and what the heck is Paw Paw? It takes me away from the city and shows me all these beautiful old downtowns that are just so peaceful and unique. Even if you’ve lived in Michigan your entire life, you always learn something new.”

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