Main content

How data is winning the race to improve cycling and active travel

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth July 3, 2023
Bike data justifies investments, health benefits and culture change for UK local authorities

Image of a person cycling through the mountains
(Image by David Mark from Pixabay )

In April, data experts The Alan Turing Institute received funding from government body Active Travel England. Those funds are dedicated to developing data tools that local government bodies can use for cycling and active travel projects. This funding is a recognition that if the UK is to tackle its road congestion, poor health and the climate crisis, active travel needs good data and data technologies. 

Active travel, in particular cycling, risks being punctured by the “culture war” against change and the climate emergency, but data has the power to sidestep those arguments, as data, technology and local political leaders tell diginomica. 

The Alan Turing Institute will use its Active Travel England funds to develop data tools that bring existing data sources together into an evidence base that can be used for funding, planning and delivering infrastructure for cycling and walking. That evidence base is essential to resolve gaps in data that active travel currently suffers from. Adam Tranter, Cycling and Walking Commissioner for the West Midlands, says: 

The Alan Turing Institute funding is on the right lines. Government agencies have a history of amassing data and not doing much with it, but Active England is very much about delivery.

Data need 1 - Justification

Unlike road building or rail upgrades, active travel tends to be paid for by a wide range of funds, both from the public and third sector. Essex Pedal Power, launched in June 2021, is a typical example. Administered by Active Essex, part of Essex County Council, the £3m programme provides 1300 bikes, helmets, locks, pumps and lights to its citizens with disabilities and long-term health conditions and provides an  enhanced seafront cycle route linking Clacton and Jaywick Sands. Active Travel Strategic Lead at Essex County Council Julian Sanchez explains the funding challenge: 

Funding for Essex Pedal Power is not from a single source and included the South East Local Enterprise Partnership, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), the London Marathon Event Charitable Trust for Ride London, Sport England and the Integrated Care Board of the North East Essex NHS Trust.

Each of the bikes that are part of Essex Pedal Power features a GPS sensor from Northern Ireland’s See.Sense. This enables Active Essex to provide accurate data and analysis back to its many stakeholders, Sanchez says: 

The data infrastructure is a direct result of the funding mechanism. It provides the evidence base of what works and what is effective, so we can achieve further funding for projects because we have a rich insight into the behaviours of the participants.

Each stakeholder is then able to look at the outcomes and ensure the result fits their remit for funding the programme. For the South East Local Enterprise Partnership, will be able to see that the funding increased access to jobs and employees.   

Data need 2 - Better planning

If the UK government is to achieve its objective of 50% of short journeys being made by walking or cycling, then new infrastructure will be required. Cycle lanes and Low Traffic Neighbourhoods are considered to be significant changes to streetscapes. Across the UK, public bodies in Exeter, Glasgow and London are using data to improve the planning of active travel infrastructure. Until recently, urban planners had little data to use when mapping active travel infrastructure. Now, tasked with doing more for cyclists than painting a line beside the gutter and calling it a “safe” cycle lane, planners are turning to data to build the quality of infrastructure the Danish and Dutch are used to. Irene McAleese, co-founder of See.Sense says: 

Cycling data is quite limited compared to other modes of journey. Local authorities tend to use census data, which is 10 years old, and the last census was during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Travel surveys are costly and time-consuming, and app data from the likes of Strava, although useful, can be skewed by the people using it.

Strava, the tracking and social media App for cyclists, tends to provide data on sports cyclists, who, like this author, may ride to work or the shops but predominantly ride for sport and, again, like the author, tend to be white, male and middle-aged. Strava data, therefore, does not present a realistic picture of cycle lane usage. Planners need data that depicts the entire community, as McAleese explains: 

We help local authorities to do a deep analysis of the data by filling in the gaps in cycling data with insight into when riders have to swerve around a hazard, how they brake to stay safe, routes and road conditions and what their dwell time is in locations. This helps planners understand the experience of cyclists, so it is a rich layer of data.

Essex plans to use the insights from Essex Pedal Power to improve cycling infrastructure for all types of travellers, Sanchez says: 

The data gives us origin and destination data points, which can shape infrastructure investments. For example, we have just been awarded funding from Active Travel England to use data to deal with pinch points, which we will pass on to our transport designers. They can then design infrastructure that is more accessible, fairer and equitable, so then we can attract more users.

If you can get the infrastructure right and it makes it more comfortable, coherent and direct, then more people will use it, that then takes the pressure off of the road network. You then increase the happiness of another cohort, those that absolutely have to be on the roads.

Although the UK is behind its European cousins in providing safe infrastructure for active travel, See.Sense is in discussions with the leading cycling nation, the Netherlands, as they look to use data to optimize cycle traffic flow and parking. 

Data need 3 -Healthier society

Better cycling infrastructure will not only reduce traffic levels but also make the nation healthier. Sport England found in its first post-COVID study that inactivity levels are higher than before the pandemic and reported: 

Women’s activity levels have recovered slower than men’s…We can also see the gap between most and least affluent continuing to grow, and significant inequalities between the physical activity levels of some minority ethnic groups have widened.

One in six deaths in the UK is down to physical inactivity. Fortunately, there is growing awareness of how this is damaging the health and productivity of the nation. 

England’s Chief Medical Officer, Sir Chris Whitty, who became famous during the COVID-19 lockdowns for appearing beside the Conservative Party Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is on the advisory board of Active Travel England. Tranter says: 

We need more people like that, and we need to get over the short-term focus. Public health has to be taken seriously.

Sanchez at Essex adds that health often suffers when inflation is high: 

Affordability is one of the biggest barriers to health, so to help people during a cost of living crisis by providing independent, active travel is so important, and now we have the evidence from the data.

Data need 4 - Change management 

Building cycle lanes and infrastructure stirs emotions and can challenge political leaders and councils. However, data is providing the leverage advocates of active travel need. Cycling and Walking Commissioner Tranter says: 

Winning hearts and minds is so important, so having good data is essential.

Sanchez at Essex agrees: 

It gives you the opportunity to bust some myths; for example, there is a widely held perception that people don’t walk or cycle much. The challenge for us is getting the message across, as we are not anti-car - that would never work. We can use data to get the message across, as we want people to think about the travel mode they use for each trip.

Data is also improving internal communications and change management, Sanchez says: 

We have used Essex Pedal Power as a platform to engender deeper collaboration between Active Essex, sustainable transport, economic development teams and local councils and the NHS. If we are to tackle some of the wicked challenges that certain communities face, we can only do that effectively if different agencies come together to use the data.

See the light

Central to the ability to use data to power active travel is the ability to collect data. See.Sense has been a leader in this field, as the company provides bike lights with integrated sensors. Founded by financial services technology leader Philip McAleese and his wife Irene, who explains the story: 

He’s an electronics and software engineer that ended up in investment banking IT, which is a high-pressure job, so he cycled to and from work. But when we moved to Singapore, he felt unsafe on the bike but didn’t want to give up cycling.

What followed was the realization that riders needed a daylight visible light for safety, and the light should be integrated with the mobile phone McAleese carried. This gives a bike light “situational awareness”, McAleese says. Having shared the idea with banking peers, the McAleese’s returned to Northern Ireland to found a startup in bike lights and data. She adds: 

We realized that the level of data was so granular, so we can aggregate all of this and look for patterns such as when a rider has to swerve.

The See.Sense business went from being a cycling accessory maker to also a data services business. Today See.Sense works with local authorities and bike and scooter operators using both their connected bike lights, as well as their SUMMIT device, which is an integrated GPS and sensor data tracker, sending data to the cloud over low-power wide area networks. 

Tranter says that as local authorities become more data centric, there are opportunities to combine cycle data with other data sources: 

What I would like to do is use Mastercard and Visa data to show the economic activity, as three-quarters of retailers over-estimate the number of people that arrive by car.

My take

The bicycle and active travel is a vital component in creating economically viable and sustainable communities, see the move in Paris to develop a 15 minute city. The UK’s public sector now has access to the data to demonstrate those benefits. It is time to use the data and improve the life cycle of communities. 


A grey colored placeholder image