Public Space Technology: Is it time to Strava your commute?

By Ollie Gaskell

Strava is a cell phone app which tracks your ‘athletic activity’ via GPS. It is mostly used by cyclists and runners as a way of documenting their efforts; either as a fitness aide or to beat their goals. There are a number of similar apps out there, including MapMyRide, Endomondo and Runkeeper, however, Strava is making moves to be more than just a fitness app and its new ventures may help our public spaces.

As with most apps, Strava has two levels of participation. As a free user you get access to the software and can see your efforts mapped in real time. As a premium user you also get access to a goal setting trainer and you get the ability to see your ‘heatmap’. This heatmap shows exactly where you have been over a given period, glowing brighter on routes you use regularly. I decided to demo Strava Premium through the month of June, Strava-ing every bike ride I took around the city.

As you can see from the heatmap, I mostly use my bike for commuting to and from my home in Mt Pleasant and my work in Kerrisdale (the heavier Red and Pink lines on the map). It also shows the other routes I took through June, mostly on bike routes, throughout the city. For one person, this data is fairly innocuous, however, as Strava note on their StravaMetro website, there are millions of GPS tracked activities uploaded every week and in urban areas ‘nearly one-half of these are commutes’. When you aggregate all of this data, you can create a data set which shows all commuter routes in an urban area taken by bike or on foot. This data can then be used by the Department of Transportation for your city, or by advocacy groups, to help enhance the cycling and pedestrian experience in cities.

This kind of data could be invaluable to groups such as HUB, Vancouver based bicycle advocacy group, who are looking to UnGap The Map – this data can help provide definitive data on which routes are the most popular with users. City Planners can also use it to assist with upkeep or find anomalies in their bike path network. A great example from the town of Lancaster, UK was the routing of the university bike path up one of the largest hills in the area, a fact which put most riders off the route and had them using alternative roads on their commute to the university.

For those worried about their privacy Strava claims to process the data in order to remove personal information linked to the user so that your privacy is protected. You can also set privacy zones through the app regardless of whether you have Strava or Strava Premium. These privacy zones are set at 500m which encompasses roughly 8-10 city blocks around your place of residence or place of work.

In a world where there is no longer just one ‘app for that’ as Apple has long reminded us, it is exciting to think that these apps are able to start working for us and helping us effect real change, in this case just by riding your bike. The data is out there, it is now up to city planners and advocates to find and use that data to improve our public space.