Pedal-Powered Data

By Daniel Curtis • October 14, 2015

Urbanites, strap on your helmets and secure your bike horns because we are rolling into the age of the urban cycler. More and more city dwellers are swapping out their car keys for the cheaper, healthier, and cleaner two-wheeled alternative—and local governments are taking notice.

Cities and states around the world are beginning to gather data from their bikes in a range of ways in an effort to harness the benefits of this growing trend. Fewer drivers on the roads means improved traffic flow, less air pollution, and more active citizens. Studies have even shown that people on bikes are more likely to spend money at local businesses. For these reasons, local governments everywhere are adding bike-friendly infrastructure like bike lanes, biker-friendly traffic lights, and bike-share programs.


The city of Portland, Oregon, which has one of the most pedal-friendly populations in the country, wanted to ensure such investments were made based on data. The city purchased low-cost 200 bike-counting sensors and an accompanying app, Ride, to tally cyclists 24/7, which will be a vast improvement in data quality from traditional pen-and-paper counting methods. This information will help officials steer the city’s biking future.


In bike share systems, which are popping up in cities all around the country, the bicycles track themselves. For each trip, Chicago’s bike share, Divvy, records the time and location of check out and drop off, and if the rider is a yearlong pass holder, it also notes their age and gender. Whereas traditional bike counts track the number of commuters and their locations at a given point, bike share data goes further, showing who they are (at the basic demographic level) and where they are going. Chicago crowdsources insight from this data by publishing it on Divvy’s website and challenging the public to create visualizations from it. Chicagoans responded with hundreds of entries that span a wide range of applications. One displays the differences in travel times between Divvy and Chicago Public Transit by route, helping commuters pick the right mode of transport for them. Another presents the frequency of bike traffic between every neighborhood in Chicago, highlighting routes that need biking infrastructure for city planners. One applicant even created a dating application showing where and when bikers of a certain age and gender are most likely to be!


The city of Dublin, Ireland looked beyond measuring the locations of bikes, and instead, used them as a means to learn about the city’s air quality. In November of 2014, the city fitted thirty bikes with GPS-equipped air sensors that measure carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, smoke, and particulates. In this trial, these bikes traversed the city for three days, gathering data that was then studied and mapped by research labs across the country. This information can be used not only for biking’s sake (e.g., to show bikers the cleanest routes to take throughout the city) but also to identify neighborhood-level problem spots for activists, scientists, and city officials working to improve city pollution

However, the possibilities do not end with air pollution. A study like this, which uses bikes as vehicles for neighborhood-specific environmental sensing, should inspire cities to dream bigger. By incorporating sensors into bike-share programs, cities could gain real-time, year-round neighborhood-level data on environmental factors like temperature, humidity, light, noise, and a number of others that can help government better target their services.

The growth of biking within cities has inherent value in its various health, cost-saving, and traffic-reducing benefits, but is also in important new source of data — making it a trend worth promoting.

Photo credit istock/visa-vi

About the Author

Daniel Curtis

Daniel worked as a Research Intern for the Data-Smart City Solutions project. He is a graduate of Amherst College.