● Track your rides with Strava to help plan bike infrastructure – good or bad?

Late last year it was announced that the Cities of Ottawa and Gatineau were going to use data from Strava to help plan bicycle infrastructure and to better understand the pattern of trips made by cyclists.

So what is Strava? It’s a company that offers a website and app that allows people to use their smartphones or dedicated GPS units to time and record their rides for a particular route, and then upload the information to the Strava website. It was conceived as a fitness and training tool, and in some quarters, there’s a lot of competition among cyclists to post the fastest times for certain routes (or segments, in the vernacular of Strava).

Recently, Strava has started compiling all their data to produce maps that show the most popular cyclist routes throughout the world. The brighter, or thicker the line, the more popular the route. Because of their appearance, Strava calls them “heat maps“. For a fee, the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau will get even more detailed information than what is presented in the heat maps for the region.

I think the Strava heat maps are very interesting, and I wrote about them in an earlier posting and refer to them in some of my articles. It’s neat to be able to zoom out to see all the cycling hot spots in the world, or zoom in to see some of the more popular bicycle routes in your neighbourhood.

Although anyone can sign up with Strava, by its very nature, there can be little doubt that its heat maps and data is biased to individuals who use their bikes for training, or cyclists who like to use GPS technology to time, record, and analyze their activities. This doesn’t include a lot of people, especially casual cyclists and those who tend to use their bikes for basic transportation.

In order to counteract this bias, the advocacy group “Citizens for Safe Cycling” is now encouraging all cyclists to map their routes and upload the data to Strava when going out for a bicycle ride. This way, the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau would have a more balanced view of when and where people use their bicycles.

This makes sense to a degree, but personally, I have a problem with it. This arrangement means that in order to have your needs, and the type of cycling you do, taken into account when the city plans bicycle infrastructure projects, you are going to have to sign up with a private company, agree to their arduous “Terms and Conditions” and “Privacy Policy“, make sure you have the necessary (and expensive) smartphone or dedicated GPS device, take the trouble of recording all your rides, and then upload all the information on a regular basis. I think the onus is on government to find other ways to take into account the needs of its citizens.

The Cities of Ottawa and Gatineau may well say that the Strava information they are paying for will only be used to provide a picture of what’s happening with one portion of the region’s cycling community. But this doesn’t explain why Citizens for Safe Cycling feels it is necessary to encourage the wider cycling community to record and upload their information to Strava. What’s worse, by encouraging all cyclists to use Strava, Citizens for Safe Cycling may be legitimizing the use of Strava data as being representative of the larger cycling community.

Much is made of the fact that people can sign up and use Strava for free. There are two problems here. First, while you don’t have to pay any money, people do end up paying “in kind“, by providing lots of valuable information. So it’s wrong to say it’s free.

Secondly, it is often argued that if you aren’t a paying customer, you don’t have a basis to complain about services offered by a corporation such as Strava. According to this logic, if you don’t like the free service, don’t sign up. The problem here is that when governments start to rely on data from corporations such as Strava to plan for the future, the so-called free service is transformed into an important conduit through which citizens influence government priorities and decisions.

I say that if the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau want to pay a reasonable amount to Strava to learn more about the needs and trip preferences of athletic cyclists, fine. But the data should not be used for anything more than this. Above all, the larger cycling community should not be expected to sign up with Strava just to facilitate government use this data as being representative of cycling needs in general.

1 Comment on ● Track your rides with Strava to help plan bike infrastructure – good or bad?

  1. I like the idea of the city taking GPS data from cyclists to improve infrastructure, but I don’t like the idea of taking it from one location… its like facebook, everyone is going facebook now a days which gives one company way way way too much power… power corrupts. I’ve seen this happen time and time again, we love our monopolies in ottawa and canada (big telecom giants, big box stores, big banks, big government, big corporations…) – big leads to corruption, complacency and contempt eventually. Thus, I hope they take their GPS from a number of areas and not just one… and, I hope cyclists post their data to a number of areas not just one. With web services now a days, one can keep their data in one area then use web services to post/view their data on various sites… don’t keep your data in just one area!!!
    Good initiative though… I just hope they use multiple feeds and not just favor one company….

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