SF Transportation Authority Launches iPhone App to Track Cyclists

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (TA), the city’s congestion management agency responsible for modeling transportation and development patterns, has released its new bicycle route data application, Cycle Tracks, for iPhones and GPS-enabled iTunes players at the iTunes store. Like similar applications that give information such as speed and distance traveled, users of the TA app can map their bicycle ride, but the data they collect will be aggregated anonymously in the TA’s server so that it can be applied to their SF-CHAMP modeling and travel forecasting tool.

map.jpgImages: SFCTA

"This app will help the cycling community help itself," TA Executive Director José Luis Moscovich said in a statement. "The data they log will contribute to better planning of bicycle facilities, and they’ll also have a record of their personal cycling history. I’m sure it will be very popular."

Billy Charleton, Deputy Director for Technology Services at the TA, explained that SF-CHAMP doesn’t currently have concise and reliable trip data for cyclists, but that they rely on static counts at various intersections conducted once or twice a year. Without understanding the entire length of a trip, nor the trip purpose, the agency is unable to analyze what cyclists prefer in terms of street characteristics, including
average auto speed, presence of on-street parking, medians, slope,
number of lanes and existence of bicycle facilities.

"What we have are counts at individual intersections, peak hour in the mid-day. We have lots of hunches on these things, but we don’t really have any information on the paths and routes through the city that cyclists prefer," said Charleton. "The bicycle plan was done with basic counts… educated guesses and opinions on what cyclists prefer."

Charleton said the data collected will put San Francisco in the forefront of modeling in the U.S. "One of our hopes is that this helps put some data behind new infrastructure going forward," said Charleton. "If we see in the data lots of people bicycling on streets without
facilities it will help us identify what streets cyclists are using and
we can look at the characteristics of those streets to understand why
people are biking there instead of somewhere else."

Users of the application can enter as much or as little demographic information as they prefer, though the TA would obviously prefer as much detail as they can get. After the user finishes a ride and saves the data, the information is stored anonymously on the TA’s servers and compiled with the extensive data they have on car and transit trips. In theory, the program can also be used to enhance pedestrian modeling.

"San Francisco hasn’t done a much better job than any other city or
county in America for measuring bicycle movement and patterns," said San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) Program Director Andy Thornley. "Until
now, what we’ve had for data collection is one or two times a
year standing at 32 intersections and counting cyclists. It’s going to
be a huge jump forward."

Thornley had several reservations about the application, however, cautioned that the technology divide of cyclists who have advanced phones could lead skewed data. "One concern is that it might be over-reporting affluent folks with tech backgrounds and missing old folks like me who don’t have iPhones." He also suggested that refined data wouldn’t change the situation for cyclists on the street overnight. "These will not be blue lanes on the streets, you will not be in Copenhagen."

Despite these limitations, Charleton said the bar is pretty low on bicycle data, so the improvement to their model will be considerable and will have important ramifications for refinements to the Bicycle Plan and its subsequent iterations. Development of the application was funded by a Caltrans State Planning and Research Grant. Each person who downloads the application and uses it at least once will be automatically entered into a drawing for one of four $50 iTunes gift cards. The Authority is coordinating with cycling groups throughout the Bay Area in an effort to promote use of the application.

"Everyone knows the city is a couple years behind and a lot of people want to do something to help," said Charleton. "This is a way that people out there on bicycles can be part of the solution. For the future, this data is going to be useful for prioritizing new projects that aren’t in the works yet."

Leaving aside his reservations about the program, many of which he assumed the TA would factor into their models, Thornley was upbeat about the potential for user-generated data to help improve the city’s plans for cycling.

"In the bicycle community, there is an impulse by a lot of people who
ride bikes that they want to make it better and they want to raise the
acceptance of bicycling as a transportation mode," he said. "People are aware
that bicycling isn’t recognized and this is a way to help be recognized."

Cycle Tracks can be downloaded for free at the iTunes Store or directly on iPhones, and it will be regularly updated as users provide feedback. 

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  • patrick

    Wow! Despite it’s limitations this sounds like a very good thing.

  • Mikesonn

    Downloaded. But who do I Appologize to for being a 20-something white male who likes to bike?

  • Chad Armstrong

    Downloaded – I can’t wait to commute home.

  • @Mikesonn: No points off for being a young white iPhone-enabled male who likes to bike, I’m just jealous, of your iPhone and your youth — pedal often and send all that great data to the SFCTA to make biking better for us all . . .

    And to clarify my Copenhagen remark — this app and the data it harvests ~will~ move us closer to Copenhagen, in the sense that CPH bike planners know not only how many people are making bike trips, but how far those trips are and where they go and for what reason — the SFMTA’s August bike counts only measure bodies going through a certain intersection, no distance or purpose, but with Cycle Tracks feeding the SFCTA’s database we’ll start to have some of that richer info on distance and purpose, very nice . . .

  • the greasybear

    This kick-ass app is incompatible with first-gen iPhones, apparently. I’m bummed!

  • I was being sarcastic. I just feel like every corner I turn people are down talking the fact that the majority of bikers in this city are young white males – as if this makes biking a less important transportation alternative.

    Just got home from using it and it was very spotty on what it picked up. The “blue” line was only visible on less then half of my route. So I hope that still gives the SFCTA the data they need, but I’ll keep doing it to/from work as it is really easy to use and doesn’t put me out any time loading it up and clicking go.

  • good_idea_bad_implementation

    looks very glossy and shiny, but from what i’ve seen in practical use, the accuracy of the GPS on these devices leaves a LOT to be desired. it is often spotty or off by blocks.

    i’m all for gathering more data and doing journey studies, but this is just a gimmick.

  • While we’re talking about powerful improvements in measuring bicycle traffic in SF, let me put in a plug for the SFMTA’s automated bike counter initiative, profiled here back in February:

    http://sf.streetsblog.org/2009/02/25/mta-begins-its-first-automated-count-of-bicyclists/

    These counters will be pumping out bike counts 24/7 from 17 locations (to start with, more added later) giving us scads of new information on bike traffic volumes over days and weeks. Together with the data coming in from Cycle Tracks users, we’ll be able to learn much more about the state of bicycle transportation in SF, and measure the effect of a beefed-up Bike Network as we start to make long-stalled improvements all over the city . . .

  • Billy Charlton

    SFCTA employee here. Just FYI we did extensive testing before release, and the data is definitely good enough for us to use; we don’t need every data point at 100% accuracy. This is not a gimmick!

    It’s true that sometimes GPS chips pick up better tracks than at other times. If you *really* want to ensure the best data, tap “Start” a few moments before you actually begin riding. The first minute of data is usually the weakest as the GPS needs time to lock onto multiple satellites.

    Thanks for trying it out, every little bit helps!

  • zsolt

    In the white neighborhoods, sure. In District 11 most bikers are Asians and Latinos. I doubt they are iPhone users, though.

    I disagree about the GPS. My iPhone GPS is perfectly adequate for something like this. The vast majority of the time it has no problems placing me on the map.

  • Techi

    As a white male iPhone user, I’m all for shadow riding less affluent areas to hella represent

  • foldingbiker

    This is awesome. But I commute to work so my map route so all the information you need from me would be done in one day. The obvious facilities many cyclists need are often in and around public transportation hubs, bridges, tunnels and there seems to be very little materialization of these projects no matter how high-tech we get. More Caltrain access, more BART access and bike ramps, bike lanes on the Bay Bridge, bike racks. Hopefully the data will provide proof we need to fund these projects.

  • Sean

    Too bad they developed this on Apple’s closed ecosystem.

  • This is amazing, and I hope other cities do something like this.

    The downside is that iphone owners are not a good sample of the general population. I hope that limitation is taken into account. Further, the people who download this program will generally be those more active in the cycling community. Your average citizen has no interest in finding this ap.

    In LA for example, many cyclists are migrant workers who have no other form of transportation available. They certainly do not own iphones, and if they did, would probably not know about the availability of this ap.

  • I think the SFCTA is fully aware of the limitations of this data. Obviously it won’t get the non-iPhone demographic, but it will provide some data, any data, more data then what is currently available. And they will have to take it with a grain of salt.

    So far out of my two trips, one only half recorded my route and this morning it recorded nothing. I’ll keep using it though as it’ll show the SFCTA that I bike every day. This isn’t a one time, there is my route type deal – they need to be told not only where you bike, but how often.

  • Okay, I downloaded this app and will try to remember to keep my phone charged up enough so I can use it. (My phone is often below the 20% mark.) Given my age and gender, I should be a nice outlier data point.

    In a year and half of iphone use, this is only my second app. The other is an electronic metronome. My children think I’m pathetic.

  • Jerome

    The problem is that no tracking app on the iPhone has been really useful so far: they draw the battery too much.

  • dopatch

    i downloaded the app last night and used it twice this morning. once for an errand and once for the commuter. it was easy to use, quick to upload data, and the blue route wasn’t too spotty. i like that it locks itself while you ride so you don’t accidentally stop it.

    i think there should be an option to add how many riders you see on your route since there were three other riders on my commute (which is common). i didn’t ask if they had iphones…

  • dopatch

    i will say too that its way easier to use than mapmyride

  • dogpatch, good idea. I have seen another guy ride down Stockton with me to the Caltrain the last couple days. And totally agree about mapmyride, I used it for a couple weeks and the hassle was just getting to be too much.

  • Billy Charlton

    I’m glad we’re getting so much interest!

    @jass – this is for developing a model, not for the “direct” data. Without getting too technical, that means we’ll be able to extrapolate route-finding behavior to locations that are picked up less frequently in the sample.

    @Techi – this is quite different from the bike counter program: we’re not counting bicycles, we’re measuring what routes bikers use. So ghost-riding in neighborhoods you don’t live in won’t help us. But I’m guessing you were just making a funny. 🙂

    And yep, we know we’re only tracking iPhone users, which is one more reason it’s important that people fill out the user demographics. Personally I’m not too worried that iPhone users like/dislike hills or parking lanes more than your average biker, but we’re going to keep an eye on those demographics just in case.

  • @greasybear would love to support 1st gen / 2G iPhone users – I was a longtime user myself – but an application of this nature really requires GPS data. The 2G iPhone is only able to estimate your location via cell tower & wi-fi triangulation which simply isn’t of sufficient accuracy.

    @Jerome battery life was a concern of the development team as well – that’s why we took steps to minimize battery usage, remind you that the app’s running and ensure that we don’t drain your iPhone to unusable levels. There should be plenty of juice in there to track your rides!

    @dopatch, @mikesonn glad to hear you found CycleTracks easier to use than some of the other options out there! We definitely spent a lot of time streamlining the user experience 🙂

  • This is great, I can’t wait to use it. I am glad that Andy voiced his concerns about the demographic data. While I’m sure that no individual person at the TA is interested in compromising bike trips, institutions have a worse track record (no pun intended). Just look at how an EIR was used to slap an injunction on the Bike Plan.

    I wonder if they considered using a service like EveryTrail, similar to MMR. I noticed that REI was able to develop their own app from the EveryTrail API. It would give users with any GPS device the ability to upload and share trip information. I think you can even draw your trip online, further increasing accessibility. Perhaps in a future collaboration?

    This reminds me of a Berkeley Transportation study that used cell phones to track traffic habits. I can see how that type of technology wouldn’t work for street travel. The under 30m radius you get with iPhone GPS is perfect. Besides, as ground breaking as that study was, the tech behind it is already dated.

    At any rate, good job Andy & the TA guys.

  • Jym

    @mikesonn – I don’t think it’s “down talking” to be concerned about cycling reaching one demographic disproportionately more than another. Some of my white male cohort from 20 years ago are still getting around by bike, but far too many are under the impression that they “grew out of it.” Plus, you know, 5/6ths of us are fond of female companionship (race unimportant) when we ride. ;^)

  • tim

    Is there an android version of this, or alternatively some source code that could be ported over by enterprising geeks?

  • commuter40

    This is great, can’t wait to try it. One question though, in relation to the iTunes gift cards — obviously you can identify whoever has downloaded the app from the iTunes store, but how will you know if they use it once if the data you’re collecting from it is anonymous?

  • i like the idea that this app could catch me and everyone else salmoning up 4th street from the Caltrain station — should help us two-way these streets, or at least get us a contraflow lane.

  • juliapangolin

    This app seems cool, but it’s completely unnecessary. If the CTA wants to improve conditions for cyclists, I can tell them all the need to know (with no young white male bias): implement the bike plan, improve pavement quality on the most heavily trafficked routes (wiggle, valencia, market, etc), ticket drivers who block bike lanes and otherwise endanger cyclists, and improve bike facilities on BART and Caltrain.

  • @Commuter40 – If you want to win the iTunes gift card, then you do have to enter your email address into the Personal Info tab. For the raffle we will query emails that have entered an eligible trip. We wont spam you, try and figure out who you are, or follow you around town…it is simply a way for us to contact you to give you your prize if you won. If you don’t want to be entered in the contest, then the email is completely optional. For a full list of contest rules please visit http://www.sfcta.org/content/view/668/379

  • Tom

    WILL THEY BE TEXTING WHILE CYCLING? Risky business. Motorists aren’t allowed.

  • Joe

    I wish there were a Blackberry version of this app. Anyone who cares about making the world a better place wouldn’t do business with AT&T (the exclusive offerer of the iPhone). They give tons of $ to right wing politicians who obstruct cyclist friendly legislation. I am a proud CREDO Mobile customer and have their Blackberry – they are 100% green and based in San Francisco. (ATT is based in TX).

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