Strava founder and CEO insists company encourages responsible riding

Michael Hovarth's comments come as court rules rider who killed pedestrian must stand trial for vehicular manslaughter

by Simon_MacMichael   March 12, 2013  

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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.”

54 user comments

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It comes down to responsibly. Strava isn't making anyone use their app. It's choice and accountability. Use wisely.

cannondalekid's picture

posted by cannondalekid [9 posts]
12th March 2013 - 21:17

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mikeprytherch wrote:
The Rumpo Kid wrote:
No, but they are selling a product which encourages racing on public highways. Not everyone will use it irresponsibly, but some will, endangering themselves and others.

And car makers encourage speeding by making cars that can exceed the speed limits, ...


But they do not give a title to the person achieving the highest speed. Would you not agree it would be irresponsible of them if they did?

posted by The Rumpo Kid [590 posts]
12th March 2013 - 21:25

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Strava as a training app is good, but as a feature that gets in the way of a ride then it's not so good, although I suspect many of us use GPS devices to monitor speed/heart rate/record ride details without it causing any unnecessary sprinting for imaginary awards. The ability to compare your ride with another person is the issue here, and some people are more 'competitive' than others, it's perhaps a flaw in human psyche that makes us like that, which is also why strava is so popular, it allows us to indulge in competition without even meeting your competitors.

But even without strava, people will compete against the clock or their previous effort, Garmin GPS devices offer exactly this feature.

There's nothing wrong with trying to achieve a good average speed along a road where your speed with respect to other road users is trivial, however in many situations people have to make sure that their heads aren't getting in the way of riding carefully and safely.

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posted by the_mikey [146 posts]
12th March 2013 - 22:29

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I think if Strava had any sense, they'd block any records set within metro areas. Get out on the road, fine, but in areas full of people, crossings, lights, it's mad that people are out there trying to get KOMs and PBs.

posted by drmatthewhardy [299 posts]
12th March 2013 - 22:34

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What a bunch of sado's if you want to race why not do it properly and not in a virtual world. Sad bunch of wan@ers!!!!

posted by Krd51 [20 posts]
12th March 2013 - 22:56

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It's sad that that there is so much 'blame and claim' and not enough personal responsibility in today's society.

There will always be sad muppets who blast down the local pan flat shared use path Strava or no Strava (I hate the term cycle path 'cos that makes them sound like cyclists have exclusive use). If there was no Strava they would just come up with something else to justify riding like a cretin.

Velotastic !

Too many hills, but too little time.

badback's picture

posted by badback [264 posts]
12th March 2013 - 23:26

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I'm pretty sure I saw people racing bikes on public roads before Strava came out.

@rich22222

posted by rich22222 [108 posts]
12th March 2013 - 23:30

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The Rumpo Kid wrote:
mikeprytherch wrote:
The Rumpo Kid wrote:
No, but they are selling a product which encourages racing on public highways. Not everyone will use it irresponsibly, but some will, endangering themselves and others.

And car makers encourage speeding by making cars that can exceed the speed limits, ...


But they do not give a title to the person achieving the highest speed. Would you not agree it would be irresponsible of them if they did?

OK you got me on that one Smile

posted by mikeprytherch [211 posts]
12th March 2013 - 23:43

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So if Strava removed the KOM feature would that save it from the abuse ? I mean after that it would just be a recording system that you could compare your times against, perhaps that pleases most people ?

I for one have never got anywhere near a KOM, I'm too fat to go up quickly and too scared to go down quickly, however I do like comparing myself against what my friends are doing, so for me the KOM has no value anyway, but I guess some people its their main goal.

posted by mikeprytherch [211 posts]
12th March 2013 - 23:47

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tinfoil hat for mercuryone...

posted by andyp [812 posts]
13th March 2013 - 0:01

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Doctor Fegg's picture

posted by Doctor Fegg [131 posts]
13th March 2013 - 1:56

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Aren't USA company CEOs required by law to maximise the financial worth of their company?

So a CEO saying their company is innocent is about as useful as a serial killer's mom as a character witness.

posted by a.jumper [681 posts]
13th March 2013 - 3:09

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"I spend no time looking where I stand on the leader boards - I look at how I am doing relative to my previous performances ... 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."

With the best will in the world, that's utter bollocks, isn't it? The leader boards exist, so to imply that responsible riders don't bother with them is to imply that there is at least a little irresponsibility in using them, and this in turn implies a little irresponsibility in providing them as a feature on the site. And to say "there's always going to be someone faster" is just bonkers.

"Surely if these people are going to criticize/sue Strava then the same can be said of MapMayTracks, Endomondo and Garmin Connect all of which work in a similar manner."

AFAIK none of those use segmenting with leader boards for outright speed over that segment, so they're quite different.

"So, do car manufacturers get sued for providing vehicles that are capable of speeds far in excess of the permitted maximum?"

That's not really a valid analogy - that would be analogous to suing Trek or Specialized or whoever for building a bicycle with no speed limiter.

A valid analogy would be a website that had leaderboards for people driving from A to B as quickly as possible. Which I'm sure would be seen as outrageous by cyclists, equestrians and other road safety campaigners.

For all that I've said above I don't think Strava is culpable as such, but I do think it's a little hypocritical in what it does (promoting competitive speed) and how it presents itself (promoting responsible riding). For the vast majority of users there's no issue, but I don't think it would be unfair to say that in the cases of a very few individuals it would be the tipping point into behaviour that they might not otherwise undertake. More than anything I think cases like these just some curious questions at the thin end of a wedge: as above, what would we say if there was a similar site for drivers?

To my mind it would make a world of sense to simply filter the segments such that the public leader boards included only climbs, not flat or downhill segments, because they're all about fitness and very unlikely to result in reckless riding - but then what do I know.

Bez's picture

posted by Bez [370 posts]
13th March 2013 - 9:55

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You know I saw some chap jump a red light on his fixie the other day. No Garmin or other device. Just did it because he had no regard for the laws of the land....seems like people do these things with or without Strava.... Thinking

posted by Colin Peyresourde [1092 posts]
13th March 2013 - 10:09

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Ultimately, it all comes down to personal responsibility. I’m a self confessed Strava lover but I put my safety and those in my environment above any PRs or KOMs attempts.

Perhaps I am in a minority but I use Strava to measure my performance on segments against my previous times. I only ‘race’ on segments, and for that matter create segments, that are safe e.g. if there is a traffic light half way along a road, then the segment ends before the traffic light. Any other segments intersected by a junction, I don’t bother with. It’s just not worth the risk and in my view is plain common sense.

Does Strava encourage bad behaviour? Of course not. Unfortunately, there are idiots everywhere. Some happen to cycle, some cycle with Strava. It’s up to us all to take personal responsibility and ride sensibly and safely.

Road cyclist, mountain biker and single speed urban commuter. I love push bikes and blog at http://everythingvelo.com/

posted by sam_everythingvelo [11 posts]
13th March 2013 - 14:20

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Strava is surely one of the greatest recent cycling innovations & its free. Never mind the leader boards, if you've had a Garmin for a few years & cycle the same routes on a regular basis... you've built an effective & searchable record of your training & fitness, comparison between different bikes over the same route etc.

Whether you agree with me or not, please don't mess with it or let the tabloid type Press build a story which isn't there !

Timsen

posted by Timsen [32 posts]
13th March 2013 - 14:49

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In summary.........
If you want to race do it properly, posting times over dubious "segments" is not racing. It might be fun to see how well you can do, but that's it.
Riding in a reasonable way is everyone's responsibility. I have a moto and car both of which can travel at over 2ookph, which does not mean that there is a need to use that performance, and so they are always performing well within capability.
If people want to run red lights and generally ride like lunatics with a suicide wish, they will, Strava or not. But possibly the application might be seen as encouraging some of the sillier to do dangerous things just to get their name on a website. Please, it's not important, staying alive and helping the image of the sport is important.
All it takes is a bit of common sense, which at times can seem to be in short supply in a culture where no-one is ever responsible for what they do, it must be someone else's fault for "encouraging" them.
"Where there's blame there's a claim" has a lot to answer for.
Looked at from a mature stage of life, you could just think the world is a bit crazy!

Doc

posted by doc [167 posts]
13th March 2013 - 15:54

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A lot of Strava fans/apologists on here, but I guess that's the nature of the site.

Getting to work is not, and shouldn't be, a race. Sure, get some pace up on a clear straight but not through a congested part of town in the rush hour.

How would people feel if drivers were trying to get a best time and beat other drivers into town. The analogy doesn't hold up because it's not possible to drive in the same way that Lucas Brunelle & co cycle. I bet he could get some good times on urban Strava segments, but personally I wouldn't be impressed.

posted by pmanc [115 posts]
13th March 2013 - 17:17

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Agree with Sam; I like Strava and am at an age when acheiving better times than last year is quite an achievement; also I suspect that some of my best Strava times were actually done by my son when he borrowed my Garmin. Living near the sea, I find that some flat sections are now Cat 4, possibly because they go below sea level (though not under the actual sea of course). Would never put a Strava PB ahead of safety.

New Forester

posted by Forester [82 posts]
13th March 2013 - 17:27

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The world seems to be moving further away from personal responsibility and the 'where there's blame, there's a claim' culture, which sickens me frankly. Blaming strava for the irresponsible (or downright stupid) behaviour of a user is disingenious to me. Strava does not make me go out and jump red lights, ride the wrong side of the road - it doesn't make anyone, nor does it encourage anyone to do so. Sure it fosters a sort of competitive spirit and makes training the same routes more fun - trying to better my time up a climb i regularly ride makes me put the effort in and the element of competition (real, online whatever) makes that easier to do. But Lets face it, if you are stupid enough to go barrelling down a crowded road and through 3 red lights to try and 'win' a segment or whatever then you are a funkin idiot, Strava can't change that.

posted by md6 [156 posts]
13th March 2013 - 17:51

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Strava - Encouraging people to cut corners on MTB trails and ruining them since whenever.

Municipal Waste's picture

posted by Municipal Waste [190 posts]
13th March 2013 - 21:27

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Ducci wrote:
Random thought. So, do car manufacturers get sued for providing vehicles that are capable of speeds far in excess of the permitted maximum? No, individual drivers are prosecuted for the speeding offence. If riders choose to run red lights etc that's their lookout.

Quite. I can understand a car having say, 100mph top speed despite the legal limit being 70mph (here) because it gives a little leeway if you need to overtake on the motorway for safety reasons. But why is a car allowed to have a 150 or 200mph capability?

I had Strava for a little while last year when I bought a smart phone, and I even got a Garmin Edge 800 which has been used about 3 times (it's for sale if anyone's interested) but I quickly got spooked about people knowing where I ride and things as it would show what my commute to and from work was each day, and you know those stories about gangs lying in wait etc.

All I really wanted the App for was to personally track my own goals and things, where nobody else can see my times or rides. So if anyone knows how I can do that I'd be much appreciated.

Municipal Waste's picture

posted by Municipal Waste [190 posts]
13th March 2013 - 21:37

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Municipal Waste wrote:

All I really wanted the App for was to personally track my own goals and things, where nobody else can see my times or rides. So if anyone knows how I can do that I'd be much appreciated.

just make all your rides private when you upload them. garmin connect is good for that, you can set goals and default new activities to private

Dave Atkinson's picture

posted by Dave Atkinson [7263 posts]
13th March 2013 - 21:56

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Log in to connect then go

[your username at the top] > settings > privacy

set "Who can see your new activities?" to "only me"

et la

Dave Atkinson's picture

posted by Dave Atkinson [7263 posts]
13th March 2013 - 21:58

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you can do it in strava too but i think you need to select 'private' against each new activity when you upload it.

alternatively, log in, go to

[your username at the top] > settings > privacy

click 'enhanced privacy mode' and turn it on

then your rides are only available to your followers. so if you don't approve any, no-one will see your rides

Dave Atkinson's picture

posted by Dave Atkinson [7263 posts]
13th March 2013 - 22:00

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Cheers Dave, I'll give it a go.

Municipal Waste's picture

posted by Municipal Waste [190 posts]
13th March 2013 - 22:45

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I'm one of those Strava apologists, simply because Strava was a big part of getting me into cycling.

I'd been commuting for years, ruining a perfectly good Allez whilst getting burnt out running/weight training; was looking a new challenge without knowing it. A mate in work turned me on to Strava last year as a way of tracking data, and I was hooked.

I'm now at the point where I've been out on club rides, looking at an A4 licence and have discovered an ability for suffering (first club run was 75 miles at 18mph - went out with the A group, and held my own on the sprints/hills). I've also racked up a few KOMs (quite a few where there are over 200 others listed on the segment) and it makes the commute a lot more fun.

Like everything in life, common sense rules. Strava - great training tool. People who jump lights to take a segment - knobs.

posted by Steven_L [48 posts]
14th March 2013 - 11:32

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Bez wrote:

To my mind it would make a world of sense to simply filter the segments such that the public leader boards included only climbs, not flat or downhill segments, because they're all about fitness and very unlikely to result in reckless riding - but then what do I know.

Then... Somebody dies of a Heart Attack whilst trying to beat an uphill KOM, Strava to blame for that also ?

Where does it end ?

posted by mikeprytherch [211 posts]
14th March 2013 - 15:42

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mikeprytherch wrote:
Bez wrote:

To my mind it would make a world of sense to simply filter the segments such that the public leader boards included only climbs, not flat or downhill segments, because they're all about fitness and very unlikely to result in reckless riding - but then what do I know.

Then... Somebody dies of a Heart Attack whilst trying to beat an uphill KOM, Strava to blame for that also ?

Where does it end ?

Valid point.

Si

posted by sim1515 [137 posts]
14th March 2013 - 16:49

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Tin foil hats for a fair few of us it seems. Real racing or TT beats solitary web racing every time. Big Grin

Silly me. You're probably right....

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posted by MercuryOne [1031 posts]
14th March 2013 - 18:11

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