Informing better streets

Informing better streets


Ford, the company that is as interested as any in putting as many of their cars on our roads as possible, is interested in figuring out gathering data to inform them, and us, on how to get better streets.

According to Ford, the experiment is as follows:

Develop sensor kits for bicycles to gather information about how bikes are used today to meet existing urban transportation needs.

So maybe it’s not about cars, then (though I’ll maintain a bit of skepticism as a backup…), but about “urban transportation needs” in general. It should be no surprise that a transportation company as large as Ford isn’t complacent about the future and is planning for what to do if, or indeed, when, car sales decline and urban transportation modes begin to shift in larger numbers than they currently are. Indeed, the last few years have been a wakeup call to the motor industry, as fewer young people are bothered about getting a driver’s license, and car sales have been more difficult to come by.

Just as oil companies like Shell and BP are investing in alternative energy sources in order to still be relevant when oil runs out. It’s not necessarily that they taking the moral high ground (though I have no doubt that there are surely at least some individuals in these businesses that really do care), but rather as a financial necessity. If you don’t stay ahead of the curve in business, you will be left behind. It’s that simple. So, Ford is investigating how people use roads so that they can figure out what products to sell them, and how to go about doing it.

So we get this:

And things like this:

From CityLab:

“The reason that we are making it is to show and demonstrate a point,” says Aich. “We are not in the business of selling a bike accessory. Our positioning is going to be mostly to help us solve some of these urban challenges we have around bicycling.” Those challenges include, he says, the age-old conflict between bikes and cars. “Ask anyone who rides in the city the top thing they are mindful of, it’s a car,” says Aich, who himself commutes to work by bike sometimes but also drives. “That in itself is potentially a huge opportunity. Now, bike companies aren’t thinking about cars, and car companies aren’t thinking about bikes.”

Alright, so even if it’s economic self interest rather than a strong corporate desire to see the world become a better place, car companies are interested in figuring out how to get better streets, and that’s a good thing (I think).

Here’s the thing, though – with a company as large and influential as Ford, you’d think they could get on top of this project and get it figured out in no time, but I don’t get the impression that they really feel this to be an important issue for right now. Again, from CityLab, “Aich is reluctant to predict what form the Info Cycle project will ultimately take, although he hopes it attracts a community of active users as it rolls out over the next few years.”

So, there’s no particular goal in mind, and they don’t really have a significant number of active users collecting data. Hopes to have a useful group of users in a few years?

Hmmm… could there be a better way to do this?


Ever heard of Strava?

If you cycle, you probably even use it. If you don’t but know a cyclist, you’ve probably heard way too much about it. Basically, it’s an app that you voluntarily use to track your every movement on the bike (or run), as well as all kinds of other information, and surrender all that data to a company to do with it what it wishes.

Sounds pretty zany, right?

Actually, it’s been a pretty big hit, if you’re unaware, and the 6-year-old company has massed enough data that cities all over the globe have turned to it to gather data on how they can design better streets for their citizens rather than their drivers. Sorry Ford.

So, in 2013 Strava created Strava Metro, after inquiries from transportation planners made it realize what a gold mine of information it was sitting on. Here is some back-story on that.

Ford may be getting a fair amount of detail from its bulky device, but Strava’s not short on detail, uses something a cyclist is already carrying with them (phone or cycle computer), and if you really want environmental data, you could easily cross-reference weather data for any set of data you might want it for.

Kind of makes Ford’s project sound a bit redundant, no?

Next question: how is what we know about cycling not already enough to make better streets? Pedal speed? Ambient air temperature? Please. It’s no secret what makes better streets. All we have to do is look to places that have demonstrated what makes better streets, and have been doing so for decades. Sorry. It’s cliché to start holding up certain places in Northern Europe as the ideal, but it’s true. Some people get it. Not only that, but they’re doing it.

So, while we know how to make better streets, data sources like those from Strava can tell us where to put them in order to maximize their benefit.

Now if we can just get the general public and our political leaders on board, we’d be there.

Is there an app for that?


Header image: source