The latest Deloitte Insights report says that 3 million people a week will move into cities around the world. By 2050 this means that there will be 2.5 billion more people living in cities than today. Clearly, moving all these people around our cities will put huge strains on our existing transport solutions, and will have impacts on congestion, pollution and health.
These figures can almost sound so large that it can be hard to fathom, but last week I visited India for the first time, and I saw first-hand the impact of population growth. We visited Bangalore, where the population has increased from 7 million to 12 million in only ten years. Bangalore is now rated the most congested city in the world in the latest Inrix report and it is understandable that any city would struggle to keep up with their infrastructure development in light of such rapid population growth.
Cities must start designing for cycling to help cope with the huge changes coming, not only for congestion, but pollution, as well increasingly important need to link transport with health - ‘active travel’. So many of the journeys currently taken by cars in the cities are for short journeys - in Greater Manchester for instance, 30% of journeys less than 1km are made by car. It’s quite a shocking figure, it also points to a huge opportunity to convert people, and the associated impact this can have on our cities.
But how can we encourage more people to cycle? We know that the biggest barrier to getting more people to cycle is safety. People need to feel safe when they ride. But in addition to safety, people also need a network design that takes them to where they want to go - it must be safe, convenient and attractive. In Copenhagen for instance, which has some of the highest cycling rates in the world, people say they cycle because it is actually the fastest way to get where they want to go.
The conditions achieved in places like Copenhagen and Amsterdam have been brought about over decades of investment in cycle infrastructure. But what of other cities that now need to get there quickly - not in decades? They are faced with the need to reallocate space to accommodate other forms of transport including bicycles. They know that investment in cycling has a great return at £5.50 per £1 spent - but yet cities struggle to make the investment in infrastructure needed to transform cities.
Part of the issue is that cities need better data to know where to prioritise infrastructure investment and inform policy. But collecting data is difficult - it's expensive to deploy and maintain sensors, and existing methods of data collection such as census data and even counters don’t provide all the information needed. In a world where cars, buses, trains and other forms of transport already provide ‘connected’ data, bikes as analogue machines have become the ‘cinderella’ of the transport data world. And the worrying thing is that without cycling data being included in the mix - it will be easy for cycling to be left out as cities transform into the ‘smart cities’ of the future.
The good news is we can learn from the cyclists who already cycle to help design networks for everyone - what are the challenges they face on their existing journeys, and if they are avoiding roads that would be the most obvious routes, why?
But before I discuss too much more on crowdsourced data, I would like to tell you a little about our company See.Sense our interest in this area. Our story began in Singapore, where both Philip and I held corporate jobs. Philip was working in technology for an investment bank, and as a busy executive with little time for the gym, he was cycling as a way to keep active and to see the city in a different way. It was really enjoyable, however, he quickly became fed up with the near misses from road traffic and started looking into solutions to improve his safety. He began by researching relevant cycling statistics around the world and a report from RoSPA really stood out to us that said that most cycling accidents happen during daylight hours and near road junctions. The problems of riding at night are already well-established, but we also saw a need for daylight visible bike lights and the existing ones on the market tended to be big, heavy and expensive.
Our initial idea focused on a bike light that could change its own brightness based on the environment. For example, the light would flash fast and brightly at a roundabout or junction with a daylight visible level of brightness. The intelligent use of power means the light could also have a long battery life, yet be lightweight and ideal for a commuter cyclist to carry it with them. But we quickly realised that the technology could do so much more. The light’s in-built bare metal edge processing monitors its environment 800 times per second and sends feedback on what’s happening - gathering never before seen insights on factors such as the road surface condition, braking, swerving and collisions. Initially this data was used to make the light flash rate change on its situational context, but it became clear that these never before seen insights went far beyond the crowdsourced data provided by an app, and that our lights were generating data that could be very useful to local authorities when making decisions on cycling infrastructure. So we started thinking about how as a business we could help cities design more efficient cycle networks or adapt existing infrastructure, as well as facilitate that behaviour change and encourage more people to cycle.
It was at this point in 2015, that we decided to make all our products connected - allowing riders to choose to join the See.Sense community to unlock app features for free and contribute aggregate, depersonalised ride insights that will allow us to work with cities. Our launch of ACE on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, saw it become the most backed bike light of all time and our lights are shipped to more than 70 countries around the world and used by more than 70,000 cyclists - showing the balance of having products that customers genuinely love, while being able to provide data insights and at the same time.
Since 2017, we’ve conducted city-wide pilots in Manchester, Dublin and Antwerp, and we’ve found that cyclists are very receptive to participating in the projects. While getting access to a high quality See.Sense bike light at a subsidised rate surely had appeal, the overall driving factor was that cyclists want to see their aggregated data insights used by cities to design safer, better infrastructure and improved conditions for cycling. We’ve also been very encouraged to see that the project participation has had strong appeal to commuter cyclists, women and riders of a wide range of age and different bike types.
The aggregated data insights are provided to cities with a user-friendly dashboard, and can also be provided as an API allowing the near-real time data feed into a cities data hub to look at cycling data alongside other transport modes.
Our solution is rapidly being adopted by cities in the UK, Ireland, Portugal, and Singapore, who wish to accelerate cycle infrastructure planning with evidence-based decision-making. The data insights we generate have also led to us partnering with British Cycling and Cycling Ireland as both official bike lights supplier, and official crowdsourced data insight suppliers. In addition, we are beginning to work with bike share scheme operators who wish to use the data to more effectively manage fleets. Our first client is Co-Bikes who run UK’s largest electric bike share scheme in Exeter. We have also begun a new employer program with companies including Amazon AWS, who wish to use data insights to support their corporate sustainability programme.
For too long, the cycle industry and cycle advocacy have had a siloed approach. The cycle industry has a huge opportunity to come together and advocate for better cycle infrastructure and conditions for cycling. At See.Sense we are doing this through our work innovative work in data, but also as members of Cycling Industries Europe where the industry can come together to advocate. By helping to transform cities for cycling we will see more people cycling, which is not only great for us all in the cycling industry but for everyone.