Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Social Network For Athletes

http://www.citylab.com; November 7, 2017


Hello Everyone:

The social network has irrevocably changed the way we interact with each other.  Face-to-face contact with "friends" has been replaced by posts and tweets.  Whenever an important event happens, the first place we look is our social media accounts.  In short, the social media has replaced mainstream media as the primary source for news and information.   How about using the social media for transportation planning?  This is the subject of Benjamin Schneider's CityLab article "The Social Network That Helps Planners Understand Pedestrians and Cyclists."

Mr. Schneider writes, "Pedestrians and cyclists are notoriously difficult for transportation planners to count and map."  However, this situation is starting to change thanks to the fitness-themed social media.  Think of it as Facebook and Twitter for fitness-minded users; instead of posting selfies, this fitness oriented social network tracks where the runners, bikers, and walkers congregate and how they travel.

At the end of October, Strava, a social network for athletes, re-launched its Global Heatmap (labs.strava.com; date accessed Nov. 28, 2017) with additional data and improved graphics.  The site offers an interactive map illustrating over 1 billion trips taken by Strava's million users, "80 percent of whom are from outside the United States."  All of the data comes together in a very detailed map of journeys undetaken by foot, by bike, and other means of transportation.  Transportation planners have taken not and being put to use.

Mr. Schneider reports, "The Global Heatmap provides a fairly blunt sense of the busiest traffic corridors, but it's the public face of a trove of data about how pedestrians and cyclists get around."  The first version of the Global Heatmap resulted in a flood of calls of planners and activists that the company created a data toolkit-Strava Metro (metro.strava.com; Nov. 28, 2017).  "Today the toolkit is used by 125 organizations around the world, including departments of transportation in Colorado, Utah, Florida, New Hampshitre, and Vermont."

Strava marketing lead Brian Devaney told CityLab,

A lot of transportation and planning departments reached out to use saying that they don't have very much data on bike and pedestrian behavior.  They need to do a deeper dive into what the heat map shows in order to lobby for better infrastructure.

Heidi Goedhart, an active transportation managerof the Utah Department of Transportation, and Joseph  Santos, a safety engineer at the Florida Department of Transportation shared Mr. Devaney sentiment.  Ms. Goedhart told CityLab,

It's really hard for us to understand origin and destination, and also how long those trips are, because if we're doing point-source data collection, then we're missing the rest of the picture.

By presenting completed trips, Strava information provides a more sophisticated snapshot of pedestrian and cycling behavior than the typical data sources available to planners.  UDOT, one of Strava Metro's partners as of this past March, has already altered some of the roads and intersection designed based on the new data.  Ms. Goedhart continued, It's replacing anecdote with data.

Most planners and policy types tend to drift towards the pedestrian and bicycle data, however, the Global Heatmap also presents trips taken on snow or water, "representing a far more diverse range of activities with far fewer data points."  In this respect, the map can be viewed as depicting travel by method, rather than mean.  For example, "The leg filter...doesn't distinguish between walking and jogging.  The water filter depicts all manner of aquatic sports, including swimming, sailing, and kite-boarding.  And the snow filter highlights ski and snowboard hotspots liked the Sierra and Alps..." Although, for some mysterious reason, downtown Los Angeles shows up on the snow filter as well.

The map's designer, Drew Robb, told CityLab that this and other glitches would be straighten out with some machine learning types.  If you would like to learn more about the map's technical features, please go to medium.com and read Mr. Robb's November 1st blog post "The Global Heatmap Now 6x Hotter."

San Francisco's water map give us a glimpse into what sports are being enjoyed along the peninsula.  Benjamin Schneider speculates, "The big bright spots just north of the peninsula probably represents a large number of swimmers and sailors."  Surfers congregate along the popular Pacific coastline spots of Ocean and Bolinas Beaches.  The interior waterways of Marin County, just north of the city, are a popular place for kayaker so and paddle boarders.

Moving across the United States to New York City's West Side Highway, "America's busiest bike route" and the site of the heinous terrorist attack this past Halloween (citylab.com; Nov. 1, 2017; date accessed Nov. 28, 2017), we find the map is lit up in bright white.  So too, are many of Manhattan's pedestrian thoroughfares which have become popular with cyclists as well.  No shock that Brooklyn streets show more bicycle trips on Strava than the rest of the outer boroughs.

 Since the data is gleaned from a social network geared toward athletes, who tend to be more affluent and tech savvy, there glaring omissions in the map.  "Large low-income neighborhoods, like South L.A., Chicago's South Side or the Bronx-to say nothing of countless non-urban areas-have far fewer data points than wealthier neighborhoods."  The transportation planners that spoke with Mr. Schneider were quite aware of the discrepancies.  The Florida Department of Transportation's Joseph Santos determined that "10 percent of bike trips taken in the state are recorded on Strava, which a is a small, but not insignificant number."  It is quite a different story in Utah, where a thriving recreational bicycle culture means a lot of Strava data points, resulting in transportation planning adding new sensor to streets where the data might not reflect ridership in a more accurate manner.

Heidi Goedhart said,

We have to be aware of the social equity component of what the data is telling us.

In most cases, the places with the fewest data point might be the very places that require improved bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

While transportation planners ponder these deep questions, map aficionados can navigate their way around the Global Heatmap and check out all the great workout places they could be using instead of sitting idly in front of a screen.  Andrew Vontz, communications lead at Strava,  considers the map a form of digitizing motivation, one of the social network's most potent attributes and its important feature:

It's just kind of fun to see people getting after it and getting stoked all over the world.