Wednesday, November 18, 2015

To Strava or not to Strava?

The City of Ottawa just announced that it's partnering with to collect cycling data over the next two years. (In case you're one of the non-cyclists reading this, Strava is a training app for cyclists and runners that tracks your activity using a GPS device or the GPS on your smartphone and posts it to an online community.)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a "cycling gold medal" city in pursuit of better cycling infrastructure must be in want of data. You need to know where people are riding, what routes are heavily used, where people have to take awkward or roundabout paths to avoid hazards, what their destinations are. You need to know what people are actually doing on their bikes if you're going to find ways to make it easier for them to do it.

There are a bunch of ways you can try to collect this data. They used to put students on street corners to count traffic. Now there are the ride counters that have been popping up all over town since the first ones went up in 2009. The City had a goal of 30 counters on major routes by the end of this year: not sure how close they are to that goal. There are also occasional bike audits being done, like the Cycle In project I was involved in this fall, in which people ride their usual commute and note where problems are. 

But all of these are complicated or expensive or otherwise a hassle, compared to having Strava do it for you. This information will just be generated by local cyclists as a matter of their daily lives, harnessing the power of every GPS device that's hooked up to it. It will be uploaded and aggregated and anonymized, and it's automatically free to use by the terms of the end user licensing agreement no one reads. 

Sounds great, right? Yeah, it kind of is. It's going to give the City much better data than they had, just based on the fact that bike counters only track people passing a particular point, and this tracks larger behaviour and patterns. But there are a couple of things that bug me.

One: Strava's whole culture is athletic. It's a training app for people who (primarily) cycle as a sport. Go to the splash page: you're invited to "join a worldwide community of athletes and train like never before." Leaderboards and challenges encourage you to set goals and to go further and faster and train harder. Members' profiles are "athlete profiles." You can get a "vanity URL" with the path:[yournamehere], as though you were part of some stable sponsored by Strava. Rides are tracked on distance, speed, and climb. Automated emails from Strava are ego-patting, motivational silliness.

"Whoa, you're kind of a big deal! X is now following you on Strava. Click to follow X back. Let's show him/her what you can do."

Generally, then, its target demographic is a specific subset of cyclist: those who go fast and far, who are generally confident, fit, and very accustomed to riding. They won't be avoiding main drags by ducking along winding side streets. They probably also don't haul trailers, or have shopping panniers on back racks. They're probably not riding cargo bikes to the corner store through downtown streets, they're not Strava-ing their trip to pick the kids up from school, and their activity feeds aren't crammed with 15 km/h rides to the library, with frequent stops for intersections. 

This skewed representation isn't lost on Ottawa bike folks (well, the ones I keep in touch with, who are quite the most entertaining), and they are, perhaps predictably, queering the whole process. Soon after the City's announcement, quite a few cyclists (yes, including me) signed up, specifically in order to track the kind of riding we do and make sure it shows up against the sea of Spandex. And we started encouraging others to do the same, shouting "We are here! We are here!" like the Whos in Whoville. There's an #ottbike Strava club now (yes, I joined) to remind people to log their short, slow, urban trips, to generate the kind of data we want generated. But that takes me to the second thing that bugs me.

Two: Strava's making money off this, and off us. They're not just sharing this data out of the goodness of their bikey hearts. I don't know how much Ottawa's paying them, but in 2014, the Oregon Department of Transportation paid them $20,000 for a year's worth of Portland's cycling data (the first agreement of this kind between Strava and a state transportation agency). In fact, Strava wins two ways here: they get money from the City, and they get a whole bunch of new people signing on to the service (yes, including me) and using it actively because they want their data to be counted. This boosts their numbers and activity, which in turn encourages advertisers, which is their main source of revenue.

But then, the amounts we're talking about aren't really massive amounts of money for a city or for an internet data corporation. And users don't pay for the app, so it's no shock at all that big data companies are making money off the information we give up to them. That's their business model, after all. That's how it works, from Google to Facebook to Pinterest to Strava. Welcome to the cyberpunk age: information actually is power and currency in the virtual world we inhabit.

So, am I just being an old man yelling at a cloud when I'm a little uncomfortable that we're being forced, if we want our cycling patterns to count, to sign on to a specific data collection site and hand our data over to them? That you have to change your habits and patterns to fit Big Data? That this data won't include people who don't have smartphones or Garmins, who can't afford the data plans to upload this stuff, who aren't online and connected to the cycling community and won't have gotten the memo? 

Yeah, maybe. I'm already on Facebook; I can't really complain about the Big Data end of it. And at least, in Portland, they submitted the data with the caveat that Strava users were not representative of cyclists at large, and I can hope they take those factors into account here too. And, it's a way to provide the City with information it does need to make changes to infrastructure. So here I am, on Strava, logging my ride to the gym, or to my office, or to my evening meeting.

I can hope that if information actually is power and currency, I'll get some of my investment back in infrastructure improvements and benefits to me as a cyclist: and that's the best way one of these data-mining relationships can work out. 

Besides, the cyclists who've signed on for Strava in spite of its sportsiness, and because they want people to know that not everyone on a bike is training for a century, are having some fun with it. They're giving the rides they log sarcastic names. They're making a point of the ordinariness of their ride to get cat food or toilet paper or bagels. They're speculating on whether, at some point, an engineer at Strava will stop and wonder why there's suddenly been this spike in slow, short, meandering, un-athletic trips in the Ottawa area.

It's the curse of the Web 2.0 cohort that we're constantly using applications that weren't exactly designed for what we want to do with them. We make DropBox work as a wiki; we sneak private conversations onto Google Calendar Invites to circumvent office blockouts on email; we make WordPress try to be a website when it was (really, let's face it) meant to be a blogging platform. And we just might turn Strava into a tracker for workaday commuting, quaxing, going to shows, and meeting friends for coffee. 

We are here! We are here! We are here! YOP!!!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Safer (paradoxically)

People I'm connected with on social media and the like probably know by now that I was in a fairly spectacular car accident this week. It was pretty dramatic, and both vehicles were absolutely totaled, although, amazingly, everyone involved walked away (gratitude is due to crash test engineers). 

So, that happened. I was fine: no real injuries, no whiplash even. But I didn't get on my bike for a couple of days because I was being careful in case my stiff neck was something worse, and because I hurt my left hand enough that I didn't think I wanted to squeeze brake levers with it for a bit. I did drive (my car wasn't the one that was wrecked) and observed that although I didn't consciously have a problem with it, I did have some slight physical symptoms of anxiety walking to the car with the keys in my hand. 

But I rode my bike downtown for a meeting yesterday. I was kind of interested to see how I'd react. Riding a bike, especially near my apartment where the roads are big, wide and fast, usually feels vulnerable. I'm usually on alert, and on a bad, jumpy day my trip can be hellish in spots. I wondered if, having just been through a car crash, I would have any problems. 

Short answer - no. I felt relaxed, almost relieved. In part, I think, because I was only going about 10 miles an hour. That feeling of being less trapped on a bike? Yeah, there was that, too. I was far less tense than I'd been driving the day before.

It wasn't like it was a breeze, but it was all the normal stuff. A guy decided to squeeze past me two abreast with another vehicle, without slowing down, on Heron, and made me shout. A woman merging onto Bank rolled slowly forward, not looking at me, as I zipped by in front of her with my hand up in a "stop" gesture, calling out "whoa, whoa, whoa." On my way home, some idiot crossing Bank from a side street in a sedan exhibited all the signs of "bike blindness" as he started to cross the street just as I passed in front of him. A police car (sigh) ignored my signal that I was moving left to avoid parked cars, and just cruised on past me, cutting me off between the parked cars and his lane. 

All normal. I yelled when I had to, to get the dude in the sedan's attention (he stopped). I shouted "asshole!" when I was startled by the old guy in the station wagon who buzzed right past me as I was nearly on the Billings Bridge (I also rolled up beside him as he was stopped in traffic at the bridge, glared in the side window at him, and caught his eye - but stopped short of tapping on the window and starting a conversation.) All normal: the everyday startles and shouts of my regular commute.

In fact, being on my bike was comforting. I was going at a reasonable, human speed. I felt less trapped - by the road, by the vehicles around me, by my momentum and vector. If I needed to stop, I could: right at the side of the road if I had to. I don't think I've ever before really appreciated the way bikes can just cruise along at the edges of that stream of cars, without having to be caught up in it. I felt totally in control. I felt safe. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Lights on Bikes - 2015 edition

Got this photo from the @BikeOttawa Twitter feed.
In only two hours this afternoon, the City of Ottawa, Citizens for Safe Cycling and Safer Roads Ottawa set up on the Somerset side of the Corktown Footbridge and handed out something like 450 sets of bike lights - 900 or so lights in all, and that's not counting the taillights donated by one of CfSC's members, and the pedestrian and dog lights that were also given out.

I was there as a volunteer with CfSC, and I might have been the first person to get bike lights, in fact, because I was there on my spare bike, one I'd spent a couple of hours getting roadworthy the night before, and it didn't have any lights yet.

(Mike, you see, is getting to be downright unsafe. I discovered recently that his brake cables were distressingly frayed, his back brakes are seized up, his handlebars appear to be corroded . . . anyway, I wasn't really willing to ride him very far in his current condition, and there was no way I was driving a car downtown to volunteer for Lights on Bikes. That would just be tacky. So, I had done a quick tuneup on my spare bike, an unnamed Nakamura Profile (who I think, now, will henceforth be known as Akito), but didn't have any working lights. So, Akito may have been the first bike to get little blinky red and white lights strapped on to his frame.)

Felicity, from CfSC, at right, talking with a passing cyclist.
It actually amazes me how many people are riding around with no lights. Even leaving aside that it's illegal not to have lights, it just freaks me out to go anywhere without lights after dark. I guess when I first started riding, I thought having lights blinking away on my bike was kind of dorky. But a few years on the road has driven that right out of my head. Now, I can't face the idea of riding home along South Bank Street if I know my taillight is out. I will get on the sidewalk.

In part, it's because I've been riding a while, and I have a much better idea of what is involved in riding in traffic. I have also been driving more since getting my first car a couple of years ago, and I have seen first hand how invisible a cyclist is if they don't have any lights. It's frightening to be driving along (especially if, like me, you're also a cyclist) and have someone in a black hoodie on a bike with no lights, and maybe a couple of half-assed, dirt-encrusted, dim reflectors, suddenly emerge from the dark at the side of the road. Or, worse, cross the road in front of you, or pop out from the sidewalk at an intersection.

Seriously, how do people ignore how invisible they are?

So I was happy to flag people down - lots and lots of people - and ask them if they wanted some free lights. A couple of people just said "nothanksIdon'twantany," the way you do when you think accepting the free gift will then end up with you signing up for some mailing list or getting roped into something else you don't really want. Most people, though, stopped, and said, "What? Free lights? Yes, please! Mine just broke down," or, "Someone stole my lights yesterday, I'd love some!" or "Absolutely, thank you, this is amazing!"

I was particularly happy when the people I was handing lights to seemed like folks who might not otherwise have spent the $5 or so that these lights cost. People who would have had to think, "yeah, so. . . bike lights? Or an extra meal today?"

It's something to seriously think about, actually. A bike is just about the cheapest mode of transport you can have, other than your feet, and once you have one you can ride it for years without having to put much money into it. If $5 is going to make or break your daily, or weekly, budget, you're not going to buy lights for your bike - and what exactly will you do when you get a $100 ticket for not having lights? We're giving people free safety. I kind of wish we could do another blitz to give out bike lights in specifically targeted, low-income areas. Somehow find the people who wouldn't buy bike lights because they have to pay rent and buy food instead, and give them lights. There's got to be a way to do that.

That's part of what pissed me off about the one and only belligerent person I encountered: a guy on rollerblades who completely lost it when I hesitated after he asked if he could have a set of lights for his wife, who, he said, rode her bike every day. (See, we'd been told that we could only give out lights to people with bikes - no extra lights for a person's whole family, no lights for someone with a bike somewhere else.) He got angry right off the jump, and before I even knew what was going on, he was shouting. "My wife is an executive," he said, "she rides her bike every day, and she doesn't get off work at 4:00 like these people," and he indicated everyone else on the path, "she's very busy. Are you working with the City? Do you work for the City? Do they subsidize this? We pay taxes! Do you have a manager, someone with some sense I can talk to? I go just as fast on these rollerblades as any cyclist, and my wife's life and my life are just as important as these people's . . ." Honestly, I'd tuned him out at that point - in fact, well before that point, as soon as I realized he was actually going into a full-blown entitlement temper tantrum over a $2 set of blinky lights. I mean, seriously: if his wife is some hotshot executive, surely, surely she can actually buy her own bike lights. Nicer ones. Bigger ones. And probably already has.

Yup, that's Somerset Ward Councillor McKenney
in the blue jacket. She's cool. 
Aside from Ranty Rollerblade Man, who I suppose must just have been having a really bad day or something, pretty much everyone else responded to, "Hey, would you like some lights for your bike?" with a hearty, "Absolutely, hell yeah!" It was amazing how much happier people were after you'd flagged them down, stuck a couple of lights on their bike that they didn't have before, and waved them off on their way.

And after a while, we actually started to run out of lights. By 5:30, when we were due to stop anyway, there were only a handful of lights left. Since we had 1,000 lights to start with, and some of them turned out to be duds, we figured that was about 900 lights, or 450 sets, we'd handed out over a couple of hours. Not bad. Not bad at all.

The police officer who was on site for the event, putting a collar light on a Yorkie who happened by. We also put a lot of lights on dog collars, joggers, and pedestrians this evening.