Data flows and fine tuning bicycle networks

My university has a new vice chancellor, who is not talking about overhauling the management structure according to the latest theories pertaining to management structures. She is speaking rather of small changes, closely monitored for their effect, that could then either be turned up, or turned down, depending on whether they have been seen to be working. Next I hear on the radio, this morning, Catherine Caruana-McManus, a Smarter Cities Executive at IBM, talking about capturing real time data, that tells, moment by moment, how alterations to traffic conditions impact congestion in Brisbane.

Then I think of that annual church fete in Australia, the Super Tuesday Bike Count, where volunteers follow sketchy directions from the organizing body, Bicycle Victoria, who are completely out of their depth when it comes to gathering data. They have counterparts in Portland, who again send retirees in floppy hats out to glean numbers, that no serious researcher would touch with a barge pole. We’re left with what we are given from census bureaus, on whom we wait 5 years at a stretch for responses to what must be the world’s silliest question: how did you travel to work on this day? God help our bike modal stats when it’s pouring with rain. To my knowledge, Copenhagen is the only place in the world, gathering real time data on bike use, and even they only lay monitoring wires across main bike lanes, not narrow routes that locals might use as a short cut.

What we really need are cities that immediately show us cause and effect. We want to know how every intervention, no matter how small, improves bicycle flows, minute by minute, and route by route. If a strategy shows signs of working, it can be strengthened, until it looses effect, then we can focus our efforts elsewhere. The timing of traffic lights, new kinds of signage, traffic rules, policing, rubbish collection regimes, advertising campaigns etc., all could be constantly tuned to optimize cycling. A group at MIT had the idea of making every cyclist a generator of data, carrying this stupid thing around on their bikes. To my mind, the answer is trip wires, everywhere, though I’m certainly keen to hear better suggestions!


  1. The ubiquitous surveillance cameras can be used to monitor and enumerate bicycle traffic too. For example, offers this capability.

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