Strava vs. The European Cycling Challenge
One of the difficulties of providing safe and appropriate cycle provision for cyclists has been to actually know where they want to cycle. It may seem a relatively simple task to map cycle desire lines, but there are many 1000’s of possible routes and resources to conduct definitive road-side surveys are limited. In recent years, however, with the near universal adoption of mobile phones and their inbuilt GPS tracking, it has become possible for cyclists to download and run apps that make their movements available to central servers, their travel data aggregated and maps of cycle activity created.
An inherent problem with such systems is which group(s) of cyclists use them. To date the most widely used mapping app is Strava which is primarily focussed on the sport/health sector of cyclists, i.e. those who want to measure their speeds along certain sectors of road, or want to log their cycle activity as part of a fitness regime. Nonetheless, Strava users ride on the same roads as everyone else and are confronted by the same choices that all cyclists have to make, viz., “I am here, I want to be there, what route do I take?”. The aggregated tracks from Strava users definitively show that in the Glasgow area they prefer to use direct radial routes following the main roads into and out of the city centre http://labs.strava.com/heatmap/#13/-4.25850/55.84759/blue/bike. A number of off-road cycle routes also show high levels of usage on Strava, for example the cycleway along the Broomielaw on the north side of Clyde.
I have previously reviewed the Strava cycle data for Glasgow covering the year of 2014(*) and presented my conclusions to various groups. Whilst the trends they show are unambiguous, I receive frequent objections that the data are biased to a particular set of cyclists: they are men of a certain age and mind-set and do not represent cyclists as a whole, despite the fact that the Strava usage correlates well with (limited) road side surveys (see **). Men do indeed comprise 88% of Strava users in Glasgow, but as men are documented as being 3-4 times more likely to cycle as women the disparity is not as gross as the raw number might suggest.
As a way of getting independent verification of cycle activity, Glasgow Council recently signed up to the European Cycling Challenge (ECC) which encourages cyclists to download and install their app. This is nominally a competition to see which European city can get the most cyclists on the road, but significantly a means to gain cycle track data for cycle traffic planning. The cycle heatmap for Glasgow is available at http://www.cyclingchallenge.eu/gps-data-collection?teamid=56fa9c9788c53745287aaac0. Intriguingly, the overall cycling preference shown by the ECC data is also along main radial roads into and out of the city, though the ECC data also reveal higher levels of usage on certain off-road cycle routes and in the city centre than Strava does.
One can question, however, are users of the ECC tracking app any more representative of Glasgow cyclists as a whole than Strava users? Users of both apps are self-selecting, one from a sports/fitness perspective, the other from perhaps a more altruistic perspective. Whilst the sex breakdown of the ECC app users is not available, the names shown at http://www.cyclingchallenge.eu/classifiche/classifica-principale/ (click on Glasgow) show that users are likely to be about 75% male, i.e. similar to the 88% Strava usage by men. What is clear, however, is that the direct (radial) routes into and out of Glasgow city centre show as strong desire lines in both the ECC and Strava datasets despite the (apparent) disparity in the motivation of users.
As a conclusion, what should the Council(s) be doing to fulfil the needs of cyclists? The desire to travel along direct routes from the suburbs into and out of the city centre is shown on both datasets. Should Glasgow City Council and neighbouring authorities prioritise these for installation of safe and segregated cycle routes? In my humble opinion, yes. These roads are where the current cyclists wish to go so it is reasonable to assume that someone new to cycling would want to make similar journeys, and thus be hugely encouraged to get on their bike if the preferred direct route minimised their interaction with motor traffic. Both datasets also show that good-quality off-road routes are popular, so further installation of these should be encouraged. What we do not want are routes that try to divert cyclists off the direct main routes and onto convoluted back-street “facilities” that start nowhere in particular and have no definable destination. We already have too many of these.
The Council(s) now know where cyclists want to go. I ask that they use this information wisely.