• Urban Mobility
  • Smart Infrastructure
  • Big Data
  • smart cities

The Bicycle’s Crucial Place in Smart Urban Mobility

Grant Samms
Sep 26, 2019


When discussing what urban mobility options fit the smart city vision, talk often trends toward highly technological and highly exciting options, like automated parking garages and self-driving buses. However, meeting the mobility needs of a smart city does not necessarily require high tech to be in the foreground. In many cases, seemingly mundane technology applied in innovative ways can achieve even the loftiest mobility goals of a citizen-centered smart city. To meet these goals, a growing number of cities are using big data to revisit an old friend, one with two wheels and handlebars

In many cities where better cycling infrastructure would help meet mobility goals, lack of safety is often cited as a barrier by would-be cyclists. When potential cyclists feel unsafe, they are more likely to take short distance trips by car that could have otherwise been taken by bike. British Cycling polled its members in 2019 and found that two-thirds of riders were concerned about their safety on roadways. 

The Dutch Example

Safety and mobility were the goal in Utrecht when large-scale cycling investments started in the 1970s. Nearly 50 years later, the city spends $55 million annually on building and maintaining world class cycling infrastructure in a city where 98% of households own at least one bike. Elsewhere in the Netherlands, the construction of an 11-mile bike super highway aims to facilitate mobility improvements as it links two regional towns together. Copenhagen is aiming to optimize its traffic signs, reducing commuting times for cyclists by 10%.

For today’s smart cities, this in an opportunity to learn by example that expansion of cycling-specific infrastructure sends a message that cycling is valued, viable, and a safe way to get around. The need for smart cycling infrastructure is an excellent opportunity to examine the relationship between smart cities, technology, and the outcomes we desire. Protected bike lanes, complete streets, and cycling paths may not involve the type of highly visible technology that one initially associates with a smart city, but technology does have a role in planning and optimizing this mobility infrastructure. 

Big Data Helps Plan Humble Infrastructure

In 2014, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) signed a data analysis deal with the fitness tracking app Strava—the data collected through the Strava app from individuals tracking their rides is aggregated and anonymized to show transportation planners how cyclists behave on the road. The agreement with the ODOT has helped guide new investment in cycling infrastructure and put weight behind non-automotive road use policies. Since then, Strava has gone on to form similar partnerships with over 300 public agencies worldwide. The Seattle Department of Transportation inked a deal with Strava in 2015 for just this sort of planning. A host of communities in Florida have used the data to prioritize roads for sand sweeping; a process that ensures safe traction for cyclists in beachfront communities.

The role of data, used intelligently, is central to the vision of the smart city. But even more crucial is the citizen-centered and accessible nature of the programs in a smart city’s portfolio. For mobility issues, cities everywhere are sitting on an elegant and easily accessible solution, as demonstrated by efforts like those in Utrecht. City planners can benefit from large datasets like the one offered by fitness and commute tracking apps. Informed by these emerging sources of data, the smartest mobility option a city can reach for is one that is tried, true, and easily accessible.