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Making Cyclists Visible: The Case for New Data in Cycling

by Aaron Coulter March 06, 2019

Making Cyclists Visible: The Case for New Data in Cycling

Through a new series of articles we’ll be looking at the health of cycling in the UK, what can be done to make it safer, more convenient and more enjoyable for everyone, and the role data and See.Sense will play in all this. The below is the first in this four-part series and looks at the invisible cyclists currently on our roads.

Cycling is booming. In the UK alone the cycling industry was estimated to generate at least £5.4 billion for the economy in 2017 and, since 2000, cycling has been identified as the fastest-growing form of transport in London.

This growth in popularity has seen cycling move up the political agenda in recent years. Conversations at local government level have slowly matured to move beyond advocates making the case for cycling, towards talk of identifying infrastructure schemes, methods of delivery and, crucially, opportunities of securing funding.

In England, for example, councils are now even being prompted into action by Central Government through the adoption of the Cycling Walking and Investment Strategy (CWIS) and the necessity of preparing Local Cycling and Walking  Investment Plans (LCWIPs) in order to be eligible for central government support.

Due to this upswing in momentum, a renewed focus is being placed on providing a safe environment in which to get from A to B for everyday and utility bicycle use. And where investments are being made, such as through the Mini-Holland initiativesin several outer London Boroughs, evidence of improvements in cycling uptake are being seen.

Francis Road - part of the Mini Holland Initiative in Waltham Forest. Source: Enjoy Waltham Forest

However, exemplar schemes aside, conditions for day-to-day cycling in the UK are far from perfect. We’re light-years away from the much lauded Danish and Dutch cities where cycling has been part of the status-quo for generations (modal share for cycling in Copenhagen is currently 41% compared to 2% in London). In truth, it has taken these cities over 40 years of incremental improvements to achieve their rightful status at the top of most urban cycling advocates wish lists.

41% of all journeys made in Copenhagen are made by bicycle. Source: Cycling Embassy Denmark

 If we are to realise the full potential of urban cycling in the UK, we simply don’t have the time to wait a generation. We need to start looking beyond the traditional ‘poster cities’ of urban cycling to those who are rapidly making the changes needed to capture cycling’s potential. To the cities who are disrupting the status quo and using 21st-century tools and techniques to do so.

In southern Spain, Seville saw an increase in cycling’s modal share from less than 0.5% in 2006 to around 7% over the course of a decade. This was achieved through the creation of an interconnected network of Dutch-style cycle lanes covering over 80 miles of the city’s streets alongside the introduction of a 2,500-bike hire scheme. The first 50 miles of this network was delivered during the first year of the initiative as the team behind the project knew they had to act quickly less political support began to ebb.

The growth of Seville's infrastructure Source: People for Bikes

 Yet, when we look at the processes behind the decision-making that informs how our cities in the UK are built and managed it’s clear we are in for a bumpy ride.

Traditional forms of transport planning tend to fall back on modelling techniques based on data sources which present a snapshot of a moment in time and often only serve to further reinforce pre-existing patterns of mobility.

With the rise of new forms and types of transport data (the ‘Transport Data Revolution’) enabling cities to measure, monitor and plan more effectively, questions have arisen about the compatibility of current modelling techniques but also about how traditionally ‘data poor’ modes of transport, such as cycling, are represented in a new era of transport planning.

We have therefore reached a unique scenario whereby more people are cycling but increasingly, beyond count-based data, we know little about the journeys being made and the reasons for doing so. Compared to the wealth of data being generated by cars, particularly with the rise of CAV technologies, people choosing to travel by bicycle are becoming increasingly invisible in this new data-led world.

As will be covered later in this series, it is this imbalance that See.Sense is addressing - using our technology to not only improve the visibility of cyclists on our streets but to also increase their presence within the decision-making processes at various government levels.

See.Sense data showing popularity of routes in Dublin

Towards boom and bust?

As anyone who has spent any length of time in the saddle will know, cycling is a momentum game and this is no more true than in the world of policy, planning and city governance.

If our end goal looks anything like the cities of Amsterdam, Copenhagen or Utrecht then we simply have to get there quicker. To avoid a boom and bust scenario we should follow the examples set by cities like Seville, who have acted quickly and achieved results. To do this we must be innovative in our approach, learning from other sectors by harnessing the power of technology and capitalising on this hard won momentum to create the conditions which will support and sustain cycling in the long term.

Aaron Coulter


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