Talk about mass transit. On the second Tuesday of this month, almost 80,000 people around the world electronically logged their cycling commutes as part of Strava's first Global Bike to Work day.
The event was in some ways a celebration – and an advertisement – of the broader uses of the information being gleaned by the GPS-based app founded by two tech entrepreneurs in the US some seven years ago.
Strava is well known to sports cyclists as a resource where you can log your rides and compete against other riders in a virtual environment.
But in the past few years the company has been looking at ways to use that data to increase our knowledge of cycling movements.
Launched in 2014, the company's Strava Metro offshoot has worked with some 78 organisations, large and small, around the world – including Transport and Main Roads in Queensland, where the data is being used to study the changed behaviour of cyclists as new infrastructure is built.
How Strava works
I've been "on Strava" since late 2011, when I bought a Garmin cycling computer to monitor my sports and recreational riding. The company also has slick iPhone and Android apps that use the GPS settings on your mobile device to track your movements.
Once uploaded, the data is used to create a route map of your journey with information such as distance covered, elevation gained and average speed. As such, it's great for keeping track of weekly and annual totals, while its social media aspect – you can follow and be followed by other users – has an added motivational effect.
For those with the need for speed, there are also "segments" created by other users, where you can measure your times against other riders – or your previous efforts. Basic Strava membership is free, while Premium users get added functionality for about $6.50 a month.
And, increasingly, data is being anonymised, aggregated, and used to create resources that can tell people about human-powered movement in their cities.
"Metro data enables deep analysis of cyclist activity including popular or avoided routes, peak commute times, intersection wait times, and origin/destination zones," says Strava's Simon Klima.
In Australia, Strava has chosen Melbourne as a Metro project. The raw data has been filtered and analysed, hence the detail on the map above – you can see a larger version of the map here, or request an interactive version of the sample data here.
Brisbane is a live case study – see the map below, and read about it here. While there haven't been any official Strava Metro projects in Sydney, heat maps from general run and ride activities still give some interesting insights, such as the most popular areas of the city.
Out for the count
One of the great things about the bicycle – its unfettered, unregulated freedom of use and movement – is also a disadvantage of sorts, because it has always been hard to measure and evaluate bike usage.
Traditional tools include regular "bike counts" conducted by clipboard-wielding humans, electronic traffic monitoring stations, surveys and census data. All these methods have their strengths and weaknesses – and many are only sporadically conducted due to the logistics involved.
"Strava does provide these nice maps," says Dr Kristi Heesch of Queensland University of Technology, who is working with Transport and Main Roads. "But behind these maps are raw data counts and what's really exciting is looking at usage changes after new infrastructure has been put in – how improvements may change cycling behaviour."
A TMR spokesman told me that the information was being used "as one indicator of the current usage of a route and surrounding routes/links, and to examine changes in Strava user behaviour when new infrastructure is built. For example, movement from surrounding roads to dedicated infrastructure as it is opened."
Part of the process involves factoring in the strengths and limitations of data drawn from the maps.
"One thing is that Strava does not capture data from every cyclist," says Heesch, "and cyclists who use it don't use it for every ride."
Moreover, people who use the app tend to be "the Lycra-clad males who are doing it for fitness … you're not getting the casual cyclist on shorter trips. So when you look at the data you have to remember you're not representing the whole cycling population."
'Arrive safely and sensibly'
Still, Strava's Klima says the app's global audience is growing at a rate of 150,000 new members per week globally and 7 million activity uploads a week, "so we're finding our audience is becoming more representative of wider society - and not just serious athletes".
"When authorities started buying our data and comparing it with what they already had, they generally found that Strava captured 5-10 per cent of bike movements in that area," he says.
"They also found that those who used Strava tended to ride the same routes as everyone else; ultimately when people, regardless of background, ride in cities, their goal is to arrive safely and sensibly."
Another plus is that the GPS information contains entire journeys – not just counts at certain points. Strava also has ways of determining if a trip is a commute or a recreational ride. A user can click the "commute" button when they upload, but there are also algorithms that study the nature of journeys – for example, if they are from A to B, with a long pause before the journey is reversed.
If you build it …
While data can motivate the need for better bike lanes, the purest approach is to build it and encourage the people who aren't yet riding to use it.
As I mentioned in my last blog, the determination and cost involved in building cycling superhighways in London has been spectacularly rewarded as novice and veteran commuters flock to use them.
But all manner of information can help to drive these decisions. "Strava data is just one of several data sets, tools and techniques the department uses to understand how cyclists use the transport network and to inform planning and investment," says TMR.
As Heesch puts it, "it's one tool in the toolbox" for those who study cycling.
Even if you're just looking for your weekly totals, your highest climb or are chasing that elusive "King/Queen of the Mountain" title.
Do you use Strava? Are you happy for your ride data to be passed on to planning authorities? Let us know in the Comments section.