Transportation Techies: Telling better bike stories with contextual data

Kate R, MVJ web

Bicycling in Washington, D.C. continues to rise in popularity as a commuting and recreational option. However, many residents remain wary of how safe this mode is. Helping people contextualize cyclist safety and security may help get more of them onto a bike.

In December’s installment of Mobility Lab-sponsored Transportation Techies, Bike Hack Night IV at 1776 in Crystal City, engaging potential riders with data and security emerged as a dominant theme among presenters. Using these approaches, they hope to provide important information that encourages more potential riders to consider cycling.

Brooks Robertson, of Esri, has worked on providing open data for advocates seeking to understand and improve cycling throughout the District. After noting the lack of publicly available bicycle crash data, Robertson submitted a FOIA to the District Department of Transportation and shared that in Esri’s Open Data site. Using this, Robertson pointed out that the annual rate of bike crashes continues to increase, averaging 428 per year from 2006 to 2013.

But crash data by itself doesn’t communicate much to advocates and agencies. To engage this community and encourage safety improvements, Robertson demonstrated a mapping tool that allows users to easily pull together multiple layers of information from Open Data in order to examine and communicate potential correlations. The tool, called Mundi, requires only a GitHub account to use and is easily shared. Robertson presented a Mundi map laying out crashes, Capital Bikeshare stations and bike lanes. This provides users a visual sense of potentially safe or dangerous areas to bike, and other factors we should consider in those results.

Mundi screenshot

Anybody can use this data and share the maps they create. Robertson hopes that providing open data on this information will help the public analyze and pull information from it. This way the community can visualize and “articulate bike-related data that aren’t immediately apparent” to “build a compelling narrative” to engage people in cycling throughout the District.

Kate Rabinowitz, author of the blog DataLensDC, used the same crash data as Robertson to hone in on the context of how bike crashes relate to the rise in cycling in the city. (In fact, she was surprised to discover Robertson was her “anonymous hero” behind the crash data FOIA.) As the overall number of incidents has increased consistently over the years, she said, it is tempting to think that cycling has become more dangerous in the region.

To give this the per-capita context it lacked, Rabinowitz compared crashes to DDOT’s annual bike counts from 2008 to 2014. DDOT has measured bicycle commuting, in part, by sending counters to specific locations once a year at peak hours, to measure ridership numbers and demographic data. While the data is an approximation, it provides an important context for other pieces of information, such as crashes.

Only one spot saw a decline in bicycle use, while every other location saw increases, some topping more than 400 percent. Ridership growth was strongest near bike lanes, which also indicated a greater proportion of female riders. Rabinowitiz noted that she was surprised that gender differences were more a product of geography, with more women riding in upper Northwest, than result of changes over time. So while there are more collisions, there are also more bikes, especially in areas with infrastructure improvements.

Routing information can also be a barrier to new cyclists. Dave Nesbitt of MapZenshowed how the company’s Valhalla system is working to address this problem. Using OpenStreetMap and other open-data sources, Nesbitt and his colleagues are laying the foundation for software and apps that will assemble sensible routes for cyclists.

They acknowledge a diverse array of people who use bikes, from those training for races to commuters to leisure riders. As a result, they look for a wide array of metrics, such as traffic speeds, hills and even road surface, to “bake in” to their programs. This way the service can create different routes, particularly the safest, in order to optimize them for all types of users.

Mapzen, MVJ web

Nesbitt (above) said he wants the public to develop cool apps, using Mapzen’s services, which would make bicycling more accessible to as many people as possible. Having such a map tool should definitely “help other people do cool stuff,” in the words of Techies’ organizer Michael Schade of Mobility Lab.

Rob McPherson introduced Baas Bikes, which he founded on a similar concept as Car2Go, but within a system that will use a wide selection of bike styles.

The idea is to use regular bikes that can be locked to any public rack. However, without the protection of bike docks and the distinctive branding that makes bikeshare bikes less attractive to thieves, security becomes a greater concern.

McPherson described Baas Bike’s risk assessment using a running-from-a-bear attack analogy: they don’t have to be the most secure, but certainly have to be better than the least-secured ones on racks. With that in mind, he hopes the combinations of locking methods on Baas Bikes make the bikes safer from thieves and, specifically, more unappealing.

First, Baas’ locks will cause the bike to “cease its utility” to anybody who takes it, by making the bike tough to resell or immobilizing it when it has been taken illegally. McPherson’s solution involves using a Dutch-style lock integrated into the frame, which, if removed, would likely permanently damage the bike. Additionally, Baas could use verification via mobile to ensure that the frame lock itself has been engaged. Once locked, the bike lets the phone know it’s secure via Bluetooth connection, and the Baas app then gives a virtual thumbs-up to the system.

Though just one aspect of Baas’ unique bikesharing model, the logistics behind improving security will make them more affordable and appealing to potential customers, as well as contribute to getting more people onto bikes throughout the region.

Photos: M.V. Jantzen, Flickr.

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