"Green commuting" — traveling to and from work without a motorized vehicle — is a growing trend across the U.S., yet far too few cities are truly friendly to cyclists and pedestrians. Treacherous roads without bike or walking paths and dangerous intersections with high crash rates are still common, effecting motorized commuters as well as cyclists and pedestrians.
At the same time, vast amounts of travel and location data are being generated every day; much of it coming directly from cyclists and walkers themselves through mobile fitness apps and mapping software.
Would it be possible to use their data to create safer commutes for everyone?
Portland's vision of ZERO traffic fatalities
After the city's tenth pedestrian and/or cycling fatality of the year occurred in May, Portland officially adopted the Vision Zero policy, aimed at eliminating all traffic-related deaths and serious injuries in the city by 2025. The Portland Bureau of Transportation is collecting crash data as part of the program, focusing on those accidents involving serious injuries or fatalities.
Photo Credit: NearlyKilled.Me
To capture additional data, engineer Nathan Hinkle created a site where cyclist and pedestrians can self-report near-misses and minor accidents in Google Earth. The site, called NearlyKilled.Me, has over 500 reported incidents so far. Although the PBOT does not yet collect or map this data, the agency says they are interested.
Strava is an app commonly used by cyclists tracking their fitness and seeking the apps coveted King of the Mountains award. Although the award has generated some controversy, with some circles blaming it for reckless cycling, the data uploaded by riders has been helpful in creating maps of the most frequently used cycling routes — many for commuting. These maps are now available to the public.
Photo Credit: Strava
Photo Credit: MapMyRide
All this data from MapMyFitness and apps like it, could be invaluable to solving the problems associated with an increasing number of cyclists and pedestrians sharing our roads.
If the data could be compiled and shared effectively:
Pedestrians and cyclists could find the most common — and safest — routes.
Providing that a representative group of cyclists or pedestrians uploaded their daily routes, and that the data from different apps could be gathered into a single GIS map, pedestrians or cyclists new to an area could find the quickest routes to various locations.
The data provided by cyclists actually using the routes would take into account a variety of factors that affect their rides in real-time, and could usurp the data from other sources such as Google Maps, which primarily uses distance and the availability of trails to suggest routes.
In addition, sites like NearlyKilled.Me could let all commuters know which intersections are the most hazardous. Pedestrians and cyclists could alter their routes to ensure safety, and drivers might be more alert at those intersections, decreasing risk.
Drivers would know where cyclist are most frequently, potentially increasing awareness.
Not only would drivers be more aware of problem intersections, but they could be informed through both traditional media and signage in intersections where cyclists and pedestrians are most often present.
While there are no guarantees, driver awareness programs do seem to help, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offers grants to communities to help with pedestrian safety programs. Signage, at least, causes drivers to slow down, decreasing the number of accidents in which speed is the primary factor.
Photo Credit: Ada County Highway District
City planners would know where infrastructure, like bike and pedestrian lanes, would be most useful.
Despite the growing popularity of green commuting, 89.4% of Americans still commute by car, and most commute 12 miles and take 25 minutes each way. Many could complete their commute in the almost exactly the same amount of time by walking or biking. But many areas lack bike lanes and pedestrian walkways. Developing these where they would be the most useful increases the incentive for commuters to exercise (pun intended) non-motorized solutions.
So why aren't we seeing cyclist and pedestrian-generated data being put to more use?
Gathering data from different apps and programs in one database is problematic. Although users share data willingly, providing that data, even anonymously, to a third party could raise additional concerns about what data fitness trackers really reveal about us.
“The potential downside to storing fitness data in a cloud is the information can be revealed to insurance companies or other organizations. Individuals may not want their insurance or health providers to access this type of information,” says Andrew Boyd, MD, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Secondly, an organization or individual municipalities would have to curate the data and make it available to other organizations. Programs like NearlyKilled.Me would have to be added on an individual basis as data became available.
Another issue is that self-reported data is often misleading. Other data, like the Vision Zero information, has shown that minorities and low-income users are underrepresented, and that minor accidents and near-misses are underreported in their neighborhoods. This could result in false positives — the creation of routes listed as safe that are not — or other potential hazards if the data is not correlated with other publically available information.
So despite the fact that maps of the most-used cycling and walking routes could make everyone's commutes safer, we may still be many years from seeing the data put to good use.