The founder and CEO of Strava has defended the company against accusations that the social networking and ride-logging app encourages users to take risks and ignore the law. His comments come as a San Francisco cyclist who collided with a pedestrian who later died, with the rider claimed to have gone through red traffic lights as he attempted to set a fast time using Strava, must stand trial on charges of vehicular manslaughter.
In an interview with the BBC, Michael Horvath, a former rowing crew captain at Harvard and economics lecturer at Stanford University who founded Strava in 2009 – although his idea dates back nearly two decades – insists the company encourages cyclists using the app to ride responsibly.
"Our people are active," he explained. "I am sure that there are people in their families who say they are obsessed about cycling.
"But we are not making them more obsessive, what we are creating is a place for them to tell their story. They have these habits anyway and we're giving them the place to present it in a way that's meaningful to them.
"We're certainly not trying to polarise," he went on. "We can communicate, 'Don't be that guy, use good judgment. Remember that there are other people on the trail.' And I think we spread that message."
Some might view Horvath as perhaps being a bit disingenuous, however, given that it is use of Strava on the road rather than on trails that has seen it come under particular scrutiny as riders strive to post the fastest times to become KOM of specific stretches of road, or ‘segments’ as the company terms them.
One high-profile case involves California cyclist William “Kim” Flint, killed in 2010 when he crashed while braking to avoid a car, apparently as he sought to reclaim his KOM position on a descent.
A lawyer for Flint’s family, which is suing Strava, says that the company should bear some responsibility for Flint’s death as a result of it having fostered a "Wild West culture where that is encouraged and rewarded with no warnings about the risks".
Strava itself has since flagged that segment as being hazardous to ride, and users can likewise flag segments as being unsuitable to ride due to hazards including “road construction, stop lights, dangerous intersections, school zones, bridge crossings, and pedestrian-only trails, among others,” according to the company.
Earlier this year, Strava users in London came under the spotlight following a Sunday Times report that some were ignoring red lights and clocking speeds of up to 41mph on the South Circular Road, although there are disputes about the accuracy of the app when it comes to logging speeds over short sections of road.
The newspaper’s report said that the site "is encouraging recklessness on the roads and inflaming tensions between cyclists, pedestrians and motorists," but the article was criticised for failing to acknowledge that smartphones using GPS signals are inaccurate when it comes to logging actual speeds.
There is also the point that in the UK, cyclists cannot be convicted of breaking the speed limit, which only applies to motor vehicles, although they can be prosecuted for “cycling furiously” or “wanton and furious driving.”
Most recently, a court in San Francisco ruled last week that a cyclist who rode through an intersection and collided with a pedestrian who would later die of his injuries, with prosecutors claiming the rider was trying to set a fast time on Strava, should stand trial on charges of vehicular manslaughter.
Chris Bucchere, aged 36, was reported by eyewitnesses to have ridden through two red lights and a stop sign before riding through another red light at the junction of Castro Street and Market Street, where he collided with 71-year-old Sutchi Hui in March last year.
According to a report on Bloomberg.com, Bucchere’s lawyer claimed that a speed of 32mph recorded by Strava as he rode through the intersection was innacurate. However, the exact same speed was independently claimed by prosecutors, who had studied video footage and traffic light data to reach their conclusion.
Two fatalities involving cyclists who may or may not have been attempting to chase Strava KOMs, and that some users may be breaking the law in attempting to set fast times needs to be set against the likelihood that the majority of users are likely to be law-abiding, and Horvath insists that Strava users who run risks in an attempt to become KOM of a specific stretch of road are the exception.
"I spend no time looking where I stand on the leader boards - I look at how I am doing relative to my previous performances," he maintained.
"You realise that there is always going to be somebody faster than you. Surely you weren't thinking you were the fastest cyclist in your neighbourhood.
"So that maturation of the athlete on Strava is something I think that we'll see more clearly."
While Horvath said that he was not able to discuss issues directly related the the Bucchere case, he did say that the company aims to encourage users to ride responsibly.
"We certainly understand that we're operating in a consumer space where the potential for legal matters to arise exists, and it's something that we have to plan for and be prepared for and we certainly are," he added.
Speaking about the background to Strava, he said: "We first had the idea back in 1994. It would have been manual entry instead of uploading global positioning system (GPS) data, it would have been emails going out to friends about what kind of workout you did. It would have failed."
The app, launched four years ago, has proved to be a success despite the controversies that surround it, and Martin Gibbs, director of policy and legal affairs at British Cycling, told the BBC that while there are clear benefits in the data Strava provides, equally there is a duty on cyclists to use it responsibly.
“Some of my colleagues here at British Cycling use Strava and other GPS products and its certainly getting them into the office earlier and more excited,” he said.
“The instinct to go fast and compare your times against personal bests and other riders comes pretty naturally to a lot of people and we've had bike computers and timing devices for years. Strava and similar products are an extension of that desire for performance stats.
“Whether its dangerous depends on the person using it,” he continued.
“Clearly we all have a responsibility to obey the law and ride safely. We repeatedly hear from our members that they want an improved culture of mutual respect on the roads and on trails and we'll only get that if people ride properly.
“We're involved in campaigning for better provision for cycling, and policymakers will be more willing to work with us if we also recognise we have responsibilities.
“So we'll be keeping an eye on how these apps evolve and listening to our members to see if there are issues developing.”
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.