Cyclists riding past a bike counter in downtown San Francisco Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Long neglected in transportation planning, popular jogging and biking routes are getting more attention thanks to new data collected by Strava.

Pedestrians and cyclists are notoriously difficult for transportation planners to count and map. This is beginning to change, though—not because of some quantum leap in surveys or sensors, but because of fitness-themed social media.

Last week, Strava, a social network for athletes, re-released its Global Heatmap with more data and better graphics. The interactive map depicts more than 1 billion journeys undertaken by Strava’s millions of members, 80 percent of whom are from outside of the United States. All of that data makes for a detailed global map of trips made on foot, by bike, and by other alternative modes of transportation. And all that info is starting to be put to work by transportation planners.

Walkers and joggers in London, where Hyde Park and Regents Park are popular recreation areas (Strava).

The Global Heatmap provides a fairly blunt sense of the busiest traffic corridors, but it’s just the public face of a trove of data about how pedestrians and cyclists get around. The first iteration of the Global Heatmap yielded so many calls from planners and activists that the company parlayed that research into a data toolkit called Strava Metro. Today the toolkit is used by 125 organizations around the world, including the departments of transportation in Colorado, Utah, Texas, Florida, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

“A lot of transportation and planning departments reached out to us saying that they really don’t have very much data on bike and pedestrian behavior. They need to do a deeper dive into what the heat map shows in order to lobby for better infrastructure,” says Brian Devaney, marketing lead at Strava.

Both Heidi Goedhart, active transportation manager of Utah DOT, and Joseph Santos, a transportation safety engineer at Florida DOT, echoed that sentiment. “It’s really hard for us to understand origin and destination, and also how long those trips are, because if we’re doing point-source data collection, then we’re missing the rest of the picture,” Goedhart says. By showing complete trips, Strava data provides a much more sophisticated view of pedestrian and cycling behavior than other data sources usually available to planners. UDOT, which only partnered with Strava Metro this March, has already changed some road and intersection designs based on the new information. “It’s replacing anecdote with data,” Goedhart says.

Most planning and policy types will gravitate toward the pedestrian and bike data, but the Global Heatmap also depicts journeys made on water or snow, representing a far more diverse range of activities with far fewer data points. In this sense, the map could be said to depict travel by medium, rather than mode. The legs filter, for instance, doesn’t distinguish between walking and jogging. The water filter depicts all manner of aquatic sports, including swimming, sailing, and kite-boarding. And the snow filter highlights ski and snowboard hot-spots like the Sierras and the Alps, although it also shows some errant journeys in places like downtown Los Angeles.

The map’s designer, Drew Robb, said those kinks would be ironed out with “some machine learning type corrections.” (For those interested in the technical features of the map design, see Robb’s blog post).

Water activities around San Francisco (Strava)

San Francisco’s water map provides an opportunity to speculate as to which sports are taking place where. The big bright spot just north of the peninsula probably represents a large number of swimmers and sailors. Along the Pacific coastline, Ocean Beach and Bolinas Beach are major surf spots. Meanwhile, the interior waterways of Marin County, just north of San Francisco, are popular with kayakers and paddle boarders.

Popular bike routes around New York City (Strava)

On the bike heat map above, New York City’s West Side Highway, widely known as America’s busiest bike route, and the site of October’s vehicular terrorist attack, is lit up in bright white light. But so are many of Manhattan’s streets, as this famously pedestrian-friendly city becomes more popular with cyclists as well. Rather unsurprisingly, Brooklyn sees a great deal more rides on Strava than the rest of the outer boroughs.

Because this data is coming from a social network for athletes, which would tend to attract wealthier, tech savvy folks, there are some glaring holes in the map. Large low-income neighborhoods, like South L.A., Chicago’s South Side, or the Bronx—to say nothing of countless non-urban areas—have far fewer data points than wealthier neighborhoods. The transportation planners I spoke to were very aware of these discrepancies. FDOT has determined that about 10 percent of bike trips taken in the state are recorded on Strava, which is a small, but not insignificant number, Santos says. In Utah, where a robust recreational biking culture translates to a lot of Strava data points, transportation planners are adding new sensors to streets where the data might poorly reflect actual ridership.    

“We have to be aware of the social equity component of what the data is telling us,” Goedhart says. In many cases, the places with the fewest data points might be those most in need of better cycling and pedestrian infrastructure.

But while the transportation planners navigate these heady questions, mapheads can cruise around the Global Heatmap and think about all of the great workouts taking place while they sit idly in front of a screen. For Andrew Vontz, communications lead at Strava, “digitizing motivation” is one of the social network’s most powerful attributes, and also an important feature of the Global Heatmap: “It’s just kind of fun to see people getting after it and getting stoked all over the world.”

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