Cycling is a very good thing. It’s good for us as individuals; it’s good for the environment; and it’s good for the economy.
The health benefits of cycling – particularly in increasingly sedentary societies around the world – are substantial, not only boosting health and fitness for their own sake, but also helping stem the ever-increasing healthcare costs of treating obesity-related illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and stroke. The environmental benefits of cycling are possibly even greater: cycling has a huge part to play in helping reduce climate change. And if that isn’t enough, cycling to work and school can significantly boost productivity, reduce stress and decrease absences due to illness.
But the really great thing about cycling is that you don’t have to dress head to toe in florescent Lycra, straddle a $3000 mountain bike, and head off to the glens of Scotland or canyons of the Western United States to produce all these benefits. You can just build biking into your everyday life: cycle to work, to school, to shops, to the train. It’s as simple as that.
So with all the obvious benefits, what is stopping us all (quite literally) from getting on our bikes and riding them more?
The urban (cycling) jungle
Frankly, when you’re on a bike, it can be scary out there, very scary. I say this with significant personal experience: I am a daily cycle commuter, and I’ve been lucky enough to bike to the office in my home country of Scotland, in London and in New York City. While I have experienced huge health and financial benefits from cycling to work over the years, I’ve also had too many close calls to mention. The simple fact is that, unless properly managed, bikes and cars are not always happy partners.
The obvious answer is to build more cycle lanes, segregated crossings and other dedicated urban cycling infrastructure, as seen in countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands. However, in much of the developed or developing world, this would be a very expensive proposition, one that has to be borne now, well before the economic benefits emerge.
Safer cycling… through analytics
This is where analytics can help significantly. With access to more data and use of advanced analyses, cities can plan better traffic management flows between cars and cyclists. They can also analyze traffic patterns to determine where to make infrastructure investments that spur the safe growth of urban cycling. Perhaps even more important from an urban perspective, they can analyze the combined usage of public transport and cycling infrastructure, since a mix of the two is often the ideal solution for many urban journeys.
Then there is the question of where planners can get the data to support this type of analysis. Here’s where there is more good news.
Over the last few years, we’ve all witnessed the proliferation of smart phone apps that allow riders to monitor and record their journeys in a plethora of ways. To date, this data has mostly been used by cyclists to monitor their physical performance or compete against others by publishing their data. But now, application providers like Strava are making the data they gather available commercially to urban planners. Strava “Metro” provides a myriad of aggregated, anonymized data on cycle usage patterns.
In addition, rapid adoption of everyday “wearable” tech such as smart watches will increase the flow and scope of these kinds of data streams and reduce the self-selecting bias that currently limits the scope of this data to enthusiasts. When such sources are combined with data across the entire transportation system, cities can develop the insights needed to plan and build the right infrastructure to encourage urban cycling.
The bicycle – one of the greatest inventions of the 19th century – will hopefully play a major part in helping us address some of the most pressing challenges of the 21st. And if we capitalize on the current opportunities presented by big data and analytics, we can accelerate that process.