Analysing Volunteered Geographic Information through Place and Plexus
In the first study using over 53,000 miles of bicycling data contributed by users of a smartphone app, researchers are starting to understand where people bicycle for fitness, resulting in new knowledge that could be used to improve urban planning and health policies. Traffic counts are regularly conducted for vehicles, but this study demonstrates a new way to understand bicycling, limited to users of the Strava smartphone application.
Using anonymous bicycle trip volumes sampled from routes in Travis County, Texas, the researchers developed a mathematical model that explained variation in bicycle volumes on streets and paths by looking at variables associated with the place (density and diversity of jobs and residences, hilliness), and bicycling routes (bike lanes, off-street paths, and roadway shoulders at least four feet in width). Not only are bicycle accommodations associated with crash reduction, but they may play a role in encouraging bicycling for fitness as well.
The United States Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommends adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise spread throughout each week for substantial health benefits including lower risk of premature death, coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and depression. This study helps us understand which routes are most important for exercise, and this leads to implications for places that lack the infrastructure to support bicycling for health benefits. Transportation and health policies should serve the broader community, not just where people are already bicycling in relatively high volumes.
Previous studies have focused on bicycling for transportation, and they tend to show bicyclists seek flat terrain and short routes to destinations, in addition to bike lanes.
“This study adds to the fundamental knowledge of bicycling behavior that riders choose routes differently when they are riding for fitness”, lead researcher Greg Griffin describes. “They are more likely to ride longer distances and in hillier areas, but they still tend to choose routes with bicycle accommodations. Policies that support bicycle infrastructure development have a role in meeting public health goals as well.”
Using new, crowdsourced data like this can help fill gaps in understanding of travel and health that may be less expensive than traditional traffic monitoring methods. However, there are limits to data from smartphone apps, such as how well the users represent the population. In addition to lagging smartphone use among some demographics; the dataset includes many more men than women—but there are no reliable local datasets for the cycling population at this time for comparison. The limitations and opportunities of this bicycle volume data need to be explored more in combination with transportation agency practices in other locations to improve planning for safe and healthy communities.