Strava is a social media app for athletes. It allows users to log their runs or cycle rides, automatically giving them information about speed and distance. When other users run the same route, the app can show you how you’re performing against others.
As the app caught on, commuters began to use it too. I have a couple of friends who cycle to work along established routes. The app allows them to compare their rides to other cyclists, and it turns the commute into something of a game.
That’s all good competitive fun, but the app is actually gathering really useful data in the process. And it’s a lot of data: 5.3 activities are logged on Strava every second around the world, half of which are commutes. That’s a goldmine of information about how people get to work, how long it takes them, and the routes they choose. Transport planners began to take notice, especially once Strava started making ‘heat maps’ of people’s journeys. As more and more transport departments got in touch to request access to the data, the company eventually created a separate service, Strava Metro.
Strava Metro anonymises the app’s data and makes it available to departments of transport. The detailed statistics can then inform transport planning and strategy. Runners, walkers and cyclists all use the app, but it’s the latter that has proved most useful so far. A number of cities are using Strava Metro to improve their cycling infrastructure.
Take Queensland in Australia, for example. The city has ambitious targets to get more people commuting by bike, and it has invested in cycle paths. In the past, someone would have to go out and stand on a path, manually counting how many people were using it. Now a significant proportion of those cyclists are logging themselves voluntarily through the app, saving a huge amount of staff time and covering far more of the network than was previously possible.
Planners can also see the routes taken. Overlay that with a map of cycle paths, and you can spot gaps in the network, under-served areas or places where a bike path or a bridge could provide a shortcut. You can compare bike travel with car travel and spot dangerous routes, helping to prioritise and make best use of cycling budgets. Seattle carried out a risk exposure study by mapping Strava data with accident reporting to identify the most dangerous junctions. The city can now work to improve those junctions or channel cyclists around them.
If a city acts on this sort of data and adds a new path or cycle lane, planners can monitor it and see if it is being used. They can tell how the new path affects cycle traffic on other routes, and whether more people take up cycling now that their route to work is safer and quicker.
Around 70 cities are now using Strava Metro. Florida is using it at the state level. The more people sign up to Strava and use it regularly, the more useful the service becomes. And the more money the company can make selling the data of course. Paying for that data is well worthwhile if it leads to better infrastructure and more people choosing to walk or cycle, lowering carbon emissions and urban air pollution along the way. Not bad for an app that was originally intended for sports.