Strava App Data Maps Rides for Planners, Too

strava logoReader Brent Bigler recently forwarded our way a Strava heatmap that shows the frequency of rides through Beverly Hills. Riders use Strava’s mobile app to track rides and training performance. And the data collected by the app in the aggregate is extremely useful to riders and planners alike. Let’s take a closer look at the heatmap and talk with Strava’s data jockey to learn more about what the data mean.

Everybody in Los Angeles, driver, walker and biker alike, has a favorite route to recommend. Riding Mid-City to Santa Monica? Take 3rd street, snake through the Civic Center parking structure, and you’ll pop out on Rexford Dr. near Santa Monica Boulevard. (Eastbounders take the Civic Center Drive turnoff at City Hall and then turn right to reach 3rd). Riding Beverly Hills to Venice? Try Beverwil south to National, then west to Overland and south again to Venice.

But you don’t need to take our word for it with Strava’s app-generated data. One look at the heatmap (filtered for bike data) shows that many riders take these recommended routes.

Strava Beverly Hills heatmap

Of course the most popular routes are through streets like Santa Monica, Wilshire, Olympic boulevards and Burton Way. But secondary streets get a lot of use too, and using Strava data could be a transformational tool for city transportation officials when identifying safe bike routes as our 1977 Bicycle Master Plan recommends.

Remember that when City Council a year ago approved limited  bike lanes and sharrows under a pilot project, they didn’t heed the advice of riders, who identified Beverly Drive, Santa Monica Boulevard, and Wilshire alternatives Charleville Drive and Gregory Way as the best routes for bike-friendly treatments. We also suggested that Elevado (rather than the staff-recommended Carmelita) offers good crosstown connectivity. These recommendations are supported by the Strava data.

Backbone missing piece map

Beverly Hills is the missing link in our regional bike route network.

Not to mention the need for class II bicycle lanes on Santa Monica Boulevard. That was a proposal upon which a Council majority has frowned. Yet our Beverly Hills segment of this regional corridor begs for officials to close the gap in the Westside’s ‘backbone’ bikeway network.

More About the Heatmap

The Strava system uses a mobile app to track runners and riders via global positioning system (GPS) satellites. The GPS  “pulses” triangulate rider location (each pinpoints a user in space and time) and that data is then collected by Strava and aggregated to map the individual rider’s route as well as route popularity more generally. Strava at HQ maps the data points and out pops a heatmap of ride frequency.

Of course it’s not quite that simple. We asked Strava’s GIS lead, Brian Riordan, how the heatmap is generated. The data for the heatmap is displayed dynamically on demand. So that each time the map is resized, the ride data is redrawn and “re-normalized” at the scale of the regenerated map. Instead of merely moving the same data around in the browser, it is re-plotted to show subtleties in the relative popularity of displayed routes.

Strava map redraws according to zoomWe can see this from the screen capture at right (cropped to show only Beverly Hills). We begin with a broader view including West Los Angeles. When we zoom into BH, changing scale, differences emerge in the relative popularity of the secondary routes. We see it in the subtle color changes on these routes.

There are some caveats to the Strava heatmap, however. It’s not a real-time metric; the data is current only through October. And there is little the user can do to dice-and-slice this data: the heatmap only allows limited color tweaking and no capacity exists for the user to fiddle with thresholds to dynamically distinguish more heavily-traveled secondary routes from less-traveled secondary routes. Is the ratio of rides on Santa Monica relative to Carmelita only 2:1, or do SM trips greatly outnumber Carmelita trips by as much as 10:1? We don’t know. Likewise with Elevado and Carmelita: they visually they rank more or less the same, but is one more frequently ridden? A threshold slider might help us dynamically tease out the difference.

More About Strava

More important as a caveat is the data itself. Where is it coming from? Strava is embraced as a training tool or fitness tracker and so naturally appeals to sport-minded riders. We’d like to see the app find a representative user base including commuters and recreational riders too. San Francisco-based Strava is reaching a wider audience, Brian says, given the incorporation of smartphones into exercise regimens. So Strava data will likely be more representative (and more fine grained) going forward. (Check out the Strava engineering blog to see the uses to which the app’s data can be put.)

And what about all that good data? How can we make good use of it to create safe and practical bike routes? Strava offers a ‘Metro’ product to local governments like Beverly Hills and the County of Los Angeles (as well as advocacy organizations):

Using Strava Metro, departments of transportation and city planners, as well as advocacy groups and corporations, can make informed and effective decisions when planning, maintaining, and upgrading cycling and pedestrian corridors….Strava Metro data enables DOTs and advocacy groups to perform detailed analyses and glean insights into cycling and running patterns dissected by time of day, day of week, season and local geography. – Metro website

Needless to say, there is value to digging into the aggregated data especially a regional level where scale gives us a much broader picture of routes taken. Forget route recommendations: Strava essentially crowdsources the best routes!

What Does the Heatmap Say About Beverly Hills?

Looking at the mapped data for Beverly Hills, a few things are immediately apparent:

Santa Monica Boulevard is a regional connector. We knew it was. So why not designate and improve it as such? Today it is a dangerous ride, so dangerous, in fact, that Beverly Hills councilmember Nancy Krasne called riders there “organ donors.” Of course she refused to consider a separate bike lane there, calling it “unsafe.” But we see improving safety on this defacto regional connector a no-brainer.

Crosstown routes rule. Even major crosstown boulevards like Wilshire, Santa Monica and Wilshire see frequent riders despite these corridors being intimidating for all but the more experienced road-warriors. As for secondary routes, several come to the foreground. To the north, Elevado emerges as a favored route. Why not? It connects Sunset to Santa Monica via a handy shortcut through the Hilton property (via Whittier and Merv Griffin Way). To the south, Charleville appears to be a favored alternative to Wilshire (it also connects three schools) while Gregory, wider and less congested than Charleville, is a favored alternative to Olympic.

Beverly Drive is a favorite north-south route. Not only because it’s a commercial spine, but also because it connects to Beverwill and Culver City beyond. Unfortunately, Council refused to consider Beverly Drive for bike-friendly improvements. Surprisingly, Beverly Glen and Coldwater also see riders, but we expect given the grade in the canyons that these are spandex folks.

What’s most remarkable is that none of the most frequently-chosen routes in Beverly Hills at least as displayed by the Strava heatmap have received a single bike-friendly or safety-improving treatment like a lane, sharrow, or signage (except Burton Way). And yet they’re all popular because they take riders where we need to go. Of course that’s why many of them are congested with vehicles too. The difference is that City of Beverly Hills welcomes motorists but not riders despite our own Sustainable City Plan’s emphasis on multimodal mobility.

Santa Monica Blvd Recap & Update

Recently we spoke with Aaron Kunz, Deputy Director for Transportation, about Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction and what to next expect in the process. Recall that back in March, the Council majority seemed unwilling to concede an extra foot of width to accommodate them. But the ballooning cost estimate stalled the project, and the Council deferred action pending more information about costs and traffic mitigation.

Santa Monica Boulevard: Quick Recap of the Timeline

The reconstruction of Santa Monica Boulevard has proved to be a much greater challenge than expected when the project was put on the city’s agenda in September of 2010. Back then, construction was anticipated to begin mid-2013. But that timeline began to slide in early 2012 when, prior to distribution, the draft project RFP  was referred back to staff because it specified no ‘complete streets’ measures as part of the project.

(The inclusion of complete streets principles is entirely discretionary, yet, as we recommended to the city, would be forward-looking. In 2009, a new state law directed localities to include complete streets principles in plans and policies by 2011. The intent was to ensure that making streets ‘complete’ or safe for all users would guide local transportation planning and infrastructure construction. But Beverly Hills got under the wire with a general plan update in 2010, and of course our city has passed no local complete streets ordinance to mandate such safety measures.)

Beverly and triangle intersections compared

Crosswalk across Beverly Boulevard (at SM) needs a bit of TLC compared to the triangle’s upgraded streetscape.

As a result of our own inattention, complete streets treatments (like continental crosswalks and traffic calming measures such as curb extensions) are rare in Beverly Hills anywhere outside of the polished diamond of the business triangle.

When the draft RFP came up for Council review, then-Mayor John Mirisch argued that complete streets principles should frame expectations for this key transportation project and Council agreed. But even with that revised RFP, the project contract wasn’t signed until a full year later.

What should tomorrow’s corridor look like? City Council in the fall of 2013 appointed a Blue Ribbon Committee to consider conceptual design options. The committee’s work concluded in January of 2014. Between the Blue Ribbon and City Council meeting in March of this year, over 200 members of the public commented in support of bicycle lanes…public input which the Council majority seemingly opposed to lanes simply waved away. Since then, the entire project has been (figuratively) parked.

What’s next?

Backbone Bike NetworkWhile city staff & consultants prepare traffic mitigation options and revised cost estimates, Council is pondering the politics of boulevard widening and the prudence of dual-phasing the project with the western segment coming later. As we earlier observed, the problem for riders is that the lanes option could slip away unless we keep our focus on the project as a larger piece of the regional bicycle backbone network (right); and that much-needed safety improvements to the Santa Monica-Wilshire intersection may be deferred indefinitely.

On September 23rd the project comes back to City Council. Will Council then address the bicycle lanes question? Aaron Kunz from Beverly Hills was not committal; he described the agenda item it as more of a discussion about cost and traffic mitigation. But the traffic mitigation issue is directly related to the bicycle lanes question: if Council decides to unduly limit the width of tomorrow’s boulevard (to 63 feet or less, for example) it will forever preclude bicycle lanes for Santa Monica Boulevard.

In effect, Council could decide the lanes question simply by choosing a specific mitigation option that boxes out the possibility, without ever directly addressing the merits of a bicycle lane.

We’ll know more about the contours of the Council’s discussion when the staff report is released the Friday before.

BH Chamber GAC logoBefore that Council meeting, however, the Beverly Hills Chamber has scheduled an August 21st government affairs committee meeting to discuss the bike lanes option. As presented in the announcement, the Chamber will receive pro & con positions on the lanes, with high-profile NIMBYs like Robert and Bob Tanenbaum and Thomas White speaking out against them. You are urged to attend. More information can be found in our earlier post.

Don’t you can email members of City Council to remind them that you ride in and around Beverly Hills and that safe passage along this corridor is not discretionary – it is an obligation for the city to provide. Use our handy contacts cheat sheet and remind city officials that bike riders matter too.

Beverly Hills Chamber Addresses SM Blvd Bike Lanes

BH Chamber GAC logoThe Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce’s Government Affairs Committee is inviting for a discussion debate representatives from the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, the pro-bike community, and northside neighbors opposed to lanes for tomorrow’s Santa Monica Boulevard. Scheduled for August 21st at 8am, the GAC meeting will also fold in a discussion of this fall’s ballot propositions. But the sparks will likely come from the pro and con views on the bicycle lanes. We hope you can make it! Scroll for details.

Because proposed lanes would negatively affect no businesses, and because park ‘preservation’ is not generally on the Chamber’s agenda, we’re wondering why the Chamber would make this issue part of its government affairs meeting. After all, the Chamber is not taking sides on the issue, according to Andy Sywak, Director of Economic Development and Government Affairs for the Chamber.

We’re presuming that lane opponents in City Hall called on the Chamber to help marshal influential business opposition to lanes before Council hears the issue again in September (update: likely 9/23). We recall that a similar preemptive statement was included in the Beverly Hills Municipal Club’s newsletter just prior to this issue going back to Council in July (where nothing substantive was decided). That same newsletter promoted the Muni League’s membership meeting, which seemed to give the City Hall imprimatur to the League’s anti-bike lane viewpoint (at least we thought it did).

Bike Lane Issue Background

Recall that this past winter, the Santa Monica Boulevard Blue Ribbon Committee, which was appointed by City Council to advise on boulevard design options, gave the thumbs-up to incremental boulevard expansion.  The committee (to which the Mayor appointed yours truly to represent the pro-bike interests) also OK’d a striped bicycle lane as part of the corridor’s reconstruction. And that really rubbed neighborhood NIMBYs the wrong way. And they gave Council an earful in March.

Since then there hasn’t been much action on Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction. As of that last March meeting, there has been no Council decision on final boulevard width or the question of bicycle lanes. The project has fallen way behind schedule as faulty cost estimates from staff, and intimations of less-than-good faith from Council, bedeviled its progress. In fact, reconstruction hasn’t even gotten off the design table yet. (Read more about the process on our own project page because the city’s project page hasn’t been updated since March!)

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t yet be surprised. Council in September  could very well provide direction to our consultants to plan a boulevard too narrow in width to include bicycle lanes. So instead of joining existing lanes in West Hollywood and Century City, we’d be the ‘biking black hole’ of the Westside. The upcoming Council meeting in mid-September may well decide the issue. (Read more about the project itself in the city’s presentation.)

Squeezing out lanes appears to be the opponents’ strategy. And they already count as a success the defeat of Metro tunneling for the Westside extension a generation ago. They also helped to put the kibosh on once-proposed Beverly Hills freeway. Now they are gunning for multimodal mobility even though our own city’s Sustainable City Plan (2009) calls on us to bike more. Moreover, our own Bicycle Master Plan (1977!) envisions Santa Monica Boulevard as a key bike corridor.

But you’ll hear nothing in support of bicycle lanes from our transportation division officials. They’ve come out against striping bike lanes for tomorrow’s SM Blvd. And our advisory Traffic and Parking Commission seems too busy with tour buses and parking permits to actually discuss the safety implications of a major regional connector without lanes. Indeed when a Council majority essentially waved away the comments of more than 200 lane proponents and leaned against giving bike lanes the nod in March, there was no voice internal to City Hall that could remind councilmembers that our neighboring cities do support multimodal mobility.

See You on August 21st

Meeting details: Chamber at 9400 S. Santa Monica Blvd. 2nd Floor. Note that the Chamber requests registration (which appears to be no-cost once you proceed through the process). And two hours of free parking is provided, but you’ll wisely ride in and avoid that hassle. For further information contact Andy Sywak, Director of Economic Development and Government Affairs for the Chamber. The Chamber’s GAC meeting won’t be definitive by any means, but we’ll at least have a chance to make our case and sense the wind currents before the next Council meeting.Chamber GAC meeting notice

City Disses Cycling, Promotes Sham ‘Heart Healthy’ Event

Beverly Hills Healthy City

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The Wrong Signal to Send

It’s bad enough that drugstore chains like Rite Aid, Walgreens and CVS long have turned their back on the community. As in literally turning their back on the public sphere by building impenetrable facades at the sidewalk but facing entrances toward a parking lot. Yet many communities have gotten wise to that kind of defacement and today demand sidewalk entrances and real windows. Regardless, the chains, often headquartered out of the cities and off the coasts, maintain a suburban-style mindset. That mindset pushes back against public health efforts to get folks moving under their own power. For example, behold another misguided Rite Aid newspaper promotion that goes out of its way to encourage people to drive instead of walk a … Continue reading