In what's being claimed as the biggest ever cycling survey, London-based software company TravelAI has released an app that will track the routes cyclists use in order to provide data for authorities planning to build cycling facilities.
The iPhone app, WeCycle, aggregates the routes taken by all its users into a "community canvas" that its makers hope will inform the construction of new bike lanes and paths. An Android version is currently in beta testing.
Unlike Strava, which recently announced it planned to sell the aggregated data from millions of bike rides to planning authorities, the data from WeCycle will be given away, as long as planners promise to act on it.
Andreas Zachariah, CEO of app maker TravelAI, told us that at a recent Future Cities project he'd uncovered a universal lack of data around walking and cycling. He said: "We will give the aggregated, anonymised data to [planning authorities] for free of charge in return for pledges to act upon."
Zachariah and TravelAI's belief is that transport authorities don't know where people ride, and are therefore going to struggle to know how to spend the money that's been allocated to providing cycling facilities.
He believes data from people actually riding is better than the alternatives.
He said: "What we want to avoid is transport planners deciding where cycle routes should be based on traffic counts from fixed automatic traffic counters or people standing at corners with clickers. It might explain some of the terrible routing, but sucks when so much money and goodwill is being (mis)spent."
Two objections raised when Strava announced that it was aiming to provide data to transport planners are that the data only reflects a certain demographic and only tells you where people are already riding, not where they would ride if better facilities existed.
As one wag in the road.cc office put it: "The results will be skewed by all those iPhone users going to their local independent coffee shop."
The planned Android version should deal with that, and Zachariah is sure the data will be useful to planners.
"Whether they are avoiding popular routes, joining the fracas or hostages to road diversions - we’re interested," he said.
"There are people far more qualified than us to extract these insights and devise the appropriate strategy to bring about desired outcomes. But our firm belief is that without the data in the first place, these transport planners are hampered in their quest to be effective."
Zachariah says he realises one of the problems is that UK commuter cyclists tend to be sporty males aged 20-50, a far cry from the spread of ages and equality of gender seen among riders in countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands.
"We worked with the European Space Agency for over a year out of the Netherlands and saw first hand how right the Dutch have it," he told us. "It's a continued source of inspiration and their amazing levels of participation across all classes and ages is just one of the pillars to their success."
"We recognise there is going to be a bias so we ask [WeCycle users] to volunteer some demographic info. But we’ve gone to considerable lengths to make the appeal broader and consequently suspect that our data will contrast itself against that collected by other sporting/cycling apps."
"We hope cyclists who might otherwise not feel compelled to install a cycling app and remember to start and stop it each time, will appreciate how effortless we make gathering cycling and commuting behaviours."
As well as aggregating travel data, WeCycle provides you with a diary of your travel, and automatically detects how you're getting around. In that regard, it's a showcase for TravelAI's main product, a set of developer tools for travel apps that can tell whether you're walking, riding, on the train or sitting on the sofa.
It's always on, but uses some clever algorithms so it doesn't hammer your battery, TravelAI says.
It's not a substitute for GPS-based ride logging apps such as Strava, but rather aims to provide a bit of useful information for you in return for you leaving it on so it can contribute your travel data to the general pool.
As reviewer pedro-o-o on iTunes puts it: "It works, which is quite magical - I'm still trying to figure out how it knows whether I'm on a train or tube or whatever. However, it can't tell the difference between car and bike yet (you have to set that in settings). When they sort that out, it'll be a solid 5*."
John has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.
He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.
Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc founder Tony Farelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.
John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.
He joined road.cc in 2013. He lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.