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BikeMaps.org uses “citizen science” to improve the urban cycling experience

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Chris and Melissa Bruntlett Jun 25, 2016 1:19 am

It was a (relatively benign) altercation with an aggressive motorist while pedaling to work in early 2014 that motivated Dr. Trisalyn Nelson to apply her skill set to a greater cause.

Nelson, a Geography Professor at the University of Victoria, waltzed into her department that morning, and announced they would be creating a “Flip the Bird” map, in a (semi-serious) attempt to crowd source incidents from her fellow staff and students, and locate the various “hot spots” for cycling around the city.

Image: UVic Photoservices

Image: UVic Photoservices

“A lot of what I teach is about using maps to identify patterns, and convey important information,” explains Nelson.

But, after an impromptu telephone conversation with University of British Columbia Professor Kay Teschke, she decided to take her idea a lot more seriously, and start thinking beyond her hometown of Victoria. “Kay convinced me such a tool would fill a huge gap in existing road safety data,” she recalls.

And so, with a tiny amount of funding from existing research grants, and a large amount of guidance from Teschke, Nelson worked closely with a graduate student throughout the summer of 2014 to develop the beta version of BikeMaps.org. The site was officially launched on Bike to Work Day in September 2014, with their very first financier secured shortly thereafter: the Canadian Automobile Association.

Image: BikeMaps.org

Image: BikeMaps.org

Since then, Nelson has built a small team of 15 graduate students and full- and part-time staff to expand the BikeMaps platform across a number of cities, and help spread the word in a variety of creative ways.

In addition to being quite active on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, the BikeMaps “street team” also distributed thousands of seat covers and microfiber towels emblazoned with their logo across Metro Vancouver, to encourage locals to log in and report their crashes, near-misses, hazards, and thefts.

Image: BikeMaps Team

Image: BikeMaps Team

To date, BikeMaps boasts a data set of 2,792 incidents in over a hundred cities around the world. They are more than happy to share these records with any interested party. “If someone would like to promote BikeMaps.org in their own city, they can contact us and we’ll set them up with a ‘starter package,’” offers Nelson.

According to Nelson, the success of BikeMaps can be attributed to the growing “citizen science” discipline, which recognizes data collected and volunteered by the general public is a valuable resource.

“We provide a platform that allows people to have a voice in the urban planning process,” she suggests. “One thing we hear constantly during our outreach is ‘thank you for providing a venue to be heard.’”

Image: BikeMaps Team

Image: BikeMaps Team

For the entire BikeMaps team, the most challenging part of the process is ensuring the figures they compile will turn into some kind of concrete action. “It’s our job to make sure the people that are making decisions have access to this data,” Nelson claims.

In addition to providing data for SFU students to utilize in their thesis projects, BikeMaps have partnered with Transportation Planners Bunt & Associates on bicycle infrastructure projects in both Vancouver and Victoria.

But most prominently, and perhaps most excitedly for Nelson, BikeMaps data was recently used by the City of Victoria and Urban Systems to select the routes for #Biketoria: their ambitious protected bike lane network due to roll out between now and 2018.

Image: Urban Systems

Image: Urban Systems

Nelson is keen to acknowledge all SFU and Vancouver work is led by Dr. Meghan Winters, and outreach is funded by the generous support of the Bullitt Foundation.

Having recently secured a $929,738 grant from the Public Health Agency of Canada, BikeMaps will be expanding nationwide, with Edmonton and Ottawa identified as their next destinations.

Image: BikeMaps.org

Image: BikeMaps.org

Nelson, however, will be overseeing operations from south of the 49th parallel, having just accepted a position running a department combining her passions of urban planning and geographic science at Arizona State University.

With so much accomplished in such a short period of time, it would appear there are few limits to the growth and the impact Nelson can acheive. But, one thing is for certain, she doesn’t want her work to send the wrong message.

“Cycling is a perfectly safe activity,” she states categorically. “I do it all of the time with my children. We’re just looking for ways to make the urban cycling experience even better.”


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Chris and Melissa Bruntlett
Chris and Melissa Bruntlett are the co-founders of Modacity: a communications and marketing firm focused on inspiring healthier, happier, simpler forms of urban mobility through words, photography, and film.

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