If They Won't See The Light, Make Them Feel The Heat
Strava; a tool for speed-freak wannabe elitist knobs, or a useful tool for the everyday rider?
And why would a novice rider with a whopping TWO commutes under her belt give a rats about Strava anyway? Why should you?
My TL:DR version would be that as a rider, I sincerely hope that my local or even federal governments are using data generated by people like me to plan better bike infrastructure for us all, so more of us cycle more often.
Strava (or ‘Starve’ as my spell-check insists on changing it to every time) is a free online tool and app (with a paid premium version) that allows runners and cyclists to map their activity. It records your times, exact routes, and all sorts of other data like power output, cadence and heart rate, which you may or may not care about. You have a nifty visual record of all your runs and or rides, and you can feed that into your FitBit or Up band devices, share it with friends, use it to compete against complete strangers using the same routes or you can keep it completely private and just keep track of your improved fitness and better health.
Where the ‘Heat’ of the title comes in, is that advocacy groups such as Bicycle NSW can get free, high level data on the total number of riders over certain routes (aka Heatmaps) from Strava Lab, but government and planning authorities can pay for more detailed information from Strava Metro; not just the number of riders on a route, but which directions they were travelling and by the minute breakdowns of rider activity as well as other metrics which show the true picture of a class of commuters. There's no data on individuals, it's all been made anonymous, so there are no Big Brother overtones.
I've seen references to using Strava data (and other similar applications) in the “Transport WA guide to developing bike plans”, but at the moment no other Australian government transport plan I have yet read* suggests using Strava or anything like it as a data source.
[Perhaps that’s because every other Australian government transport plan was actually written 15 years ago, and is only brought out and dusted off occasionally. It’s infuriating to see the resources allocated to bike paths more than 10 years ago WHICH STILL HAVE NOT BEEN SPENT.
For example a certain long planned key bike route, the construction of which was promised by NSW Premier candidate Mike Baird, with an approximate cost of $130 million was cancelled after Baird won the election AND YET the WestConnex motorway project so beloved of Baird and the Minister For Cars Duncan Gay, has its budget officially increased to $15 billion, up from the original $10 billion proposed in 2012. Just six weeks worth of additional spending on WestConnex would have been sufficient to complete an entire bike path. The College Street cycleway actually ripped up, and the Castlereagh cycleway - the first to traverse the Sydney CBD, postponed for 4 years. Don't get me started on the financial mismanagement of the Tibby Cotter Bridge fiasco.]
Planning bodies overseas have jumped on these Heatmaps, shortly after Strava Metro was announced, the Oregon Department of Transport, encompassing the bike nirvana which is Portland, paid a mere $20,000 for a year’s worth of data on cycling patterns to help them plan even better bike infrastructure than they already have. That’s probably the monthly WestConnex biscuit budget. Oooh BURN !
There are a few other applications similar to Strava, at the time I tried a few others, and found they either had too many bugs, crashed unexpectedly – the last thing you want to discover at the wrong end of a 50km ride - or their data simply didn’t integrate with my wearable fitness device.
There's no one simple way to capture all the data needed to accurately map the activities of a city; not all cyclists have Garmin or smartphones, and numbers suggest that 90% of cyclist using these devices are men. As a gadget and tech loving woman cyclist, I know plenty of regular riders of both sexes who can't be bothered with devices on their rides. I love ‘em. The handlebars of my bike look like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.
In the US especially there are concerns that Garmin and Strava and MapMyRide are not used by a large number of bike commuters; those simply too poor to have an alternative means of transport. They're referred to as "Ghost Commuters" because city planners know they exist, but no smart phone or expensive device is going to capture their numbers; you'd need to go back to putting people with counters back on street corners. And they’re not necessarily going to the same places as the more affluent riders, so you can’t just extrapolate captured data.
Strava has also perhaps unfairly been targeted by anti-cycling bodies as an example of everything wrong with cyclists.
Did a MAMIL overtake you a hair too closely on your Sunday morning walk? Did a cyclist take too long to ascend a winding hill and slow you and your car down by two minutes? Are bike riders using roads as racetracks and imperilling the lives of pedestrians, dog-walkers, and motorists through their anti-social behaviour?
Well, all of the above is likely true to some degree. Strava does post challenges, encouraging riders to log a certain number of kilometers per month, or climb X elevation in a given time frame; and you can compete in these challenges against other riders from all over the world. Or you can again, I dunno, ignore them.
Recently a cyclist hit and killed a pedestrian in New York, and the outrage has been loud and long. It’s certainly a horrible situation for the pedestrian and her friends and family, and my sincere sympathy goes out to them. And a bit leftover to the rider who has killed another human being. How awful must he feel now too, to have caused the death of another person?
New York is another city with a nasty attitude towards any transport option other than a car, and that rider has of course been condemned as a Strava Warrior, blinded by his need to compete, and driven to reckless behaviour in a shared pedestrian/cyclist area. Predictably cyclists are being called out for all sorts of dangerous and anti-social riding activity; social media was calling for bans on riders and a temporary switching off of Strava. I haven’t read enough about the situation lately to giving my opinion on what happened – there’s a lot out there to read without my under-informed two-cents worth.
I’m also not going to go down the path of bringing up every unjust cycling death or injury that goes un-investigated, or perhaps worse, investigated and unpunished, written-off as something cyclists should have to deal with or even deserve for having the audacity to be on the roads. Reading comments on social media or even the old school letters to the editor really makes you wonder about your fellow humans and why they’re such a bunch of self-entitled sociopathic arseholes.
What I will say is this; like almost any useful tool created, someone will inevitably come along and find a way to abuse it and use it to annoy and eventually kill others. How many days after the release of affordable 3D printers for home use did some utter dickhead release plans for a 3D printed gun on the internet?
So do think about using Strava or your preferred equivalent for the beneficial reasons many of us do. For encouraging you on your journey towards a healthier lifestyle, for making cyclist numbers count toward improved infrastructure planning, for using the free heatmap to figure out the best route into a town new to you while avoiding main roads, for checking that the newest rider in your commuter group has made it safely to her destination.
Maybe NY could use Strava data to determine safer pedestrian/cyclist route sharing options.
*On my to-do list; continuing to track down the most up-to-date version of each local transport plan. Edit; The Queensland Government has purchased Strava data to check on the usage of a new bike path they recently constructed.