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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