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How a fitness app for cyclists is reshaping city planning

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Strava started as an app to help map your rides. Now, its data is being harnessed to transform the urban landscape.

People ride bikes down a path on a striking white bridge with dramatic spans and views of evergreen-studded hills in the distance.
When building a new bridge for the city, Portland, Oregon planners used Strava data to show cyclists had to go over a mile out of their way to cross the Willamette River.

How do you build a case for better bike lanes? Traditionally, urban planners have manually counted cyclists, tracking ridership numbers and identifying routes that might need improvements. But in the age of the smartphone and fitness app, that approach is fast becoming obsolete.

Strava, an app first designed to help runners and bike riders track their routes, is fast becoming a valuable data source for city planners eager to demonstrate the impact of new and improved paths and bike lanes. The company even created a spin-off—Strava Metro—dedicated to mining users’ movement data for the benefit of planners and alt transit advocates.

In Portland, Oregon, the app’s data supported the instincts of the Department of Transportation when it was looking to build support for a new bridge across the Willamette River. Strava Metro’s maps showed that riders often went a mile or more out of their way to cross the river, which cuts through the middle of the city and separates the established downtown area from an up-and-coming rezoned district. Portland’s Tilikum Crossing bridge opened last year to much fanfare for being the country’s first major bridge projects to ban cars.

"Few data approaches have given this amount of visibility to what’s going on in a city or area," Strava co-founder Michael Horvath told Curbed. "We have data going back three or four years, so we give planners a lot of information about what’s happened over a range of time."

Strava’s “heat map” shows the multimodal paths of users through cities.

Today, Strava Metro is working with more than 85 cities and planning groups all over the world to harness the power of their data for smarter urban planning. In Seattle, the company’s route maps helped inform changes that spurred an additional 14,000 cyclists to take to the city’s bike lanes.

It’s true that Strava users make up just a small slice of a city’s overall ridership, but researchers are able to combine this data with other sources to get a fuller picture of cyclist and pedestrian behavior. The company is also working on building out visualizations of the flow of cyclists and pedestrians, in addition to predictive modeling capabilities that would let clients see the impacts of adding a bike lane or altering an established route.

"[Planners] have questions of equity and fairness," explained Horvath. "Are all the major areas of the city coverable by bike? What happens if we put a bike lane in? Our data can be used to answer those questions."

Strava’s primary aim is still to help riders and runners measure their progress and record their routes. The company claims to have 7 million uploads each week, with an ever-expanding user base.

But it’s clear that the case of Strava—a consumer-focused app capable of generating large-scale insights—is a harbinger of greater things to come. The widespread use of smartphones is on the verge of fueling a dramatic shift in the landscape of information and analysis, one where vast troves of personal data will drive changes in almost every corner of our lives.

"If someone said, ‘I’m going to create a crowdsourced bike and pedestrian planning tool,’ it would be so hard to get this quantity of data," Horvath told Curbed. "But by building this social network that people around world love, we have the opportunity to deliver this [planning data] as well."

By leveraging the data of its users, Strava Metro is helping to inform the infrastructure of cities.