Bike to the Future: New Tech Makes City Cycling Safer

Dana McMahan Writer
woman riding bike

How smart bike technology is making cities smarter and safer for commuters on two wheels. 

With the ever-growing implications of climate change, a world crawling with motorized vehicles, and urban centers bursting at the seams, cities around the world are looking for ways to get people out from behind the wheel and on two wheels instead.

From Detroit to Dubai, cities are working to address the dangers inherent in putting slow moving, human-powered transport alongside heavy, speeding metal objects. Infrastructure improvements include building bike paths and greenways, placing physical barriers between bikes and cars, launching bike-sharing programs, and educational campaigns designed to remind motorists to share the road.

bike rack with bikes

“The bicycle makes sense in cities. Investment in bicycle infrastructure is a modern and intelligent move for a city to make,” according to the Copenhagenize Design Co, a consulting company that helps cities build bike infrastructure and culture. Their data, which tallies commute time, accident risk, and health benefits shows that for each kilometer cycled, the societal profit is 24 cents while for each kilometer driven in a car the societal loss is 84 cents.

Bicycle improvements also have a positive impact on local economies. Matt Benjamin, leader of the active transportation planning practice at Fehr & Peers, points to a New York City study called Measuring the Street. It found that the reallocation of road space for cars to bicycles led to an increase in sales for local businesses and a decrease in vacancy rates along those streets.

Despite the clear benefits, challenges still face would-be cyclists.

According to a BBC report on the future of biking, the primary barrier to increasing cycling rates in many cities is that most people are not comfortable sharing space in streets with fast-moving cars and trucks. This is because, said the study, most modern cities are designed for the car.

bike path in downtown Portland
Cities like Portland, Oregon with a robust cycling infrastructure make bike communing easy.

That said, many barriers can be overcome. Cities like Portland, Ore., a paragon of bike-friendliness, boasts a thousand sets of wheels in their bike-sharing program, a bicycle commuter rate of more than 7 percent, and a city mandate that new road projects have protected bike lanes.

Even cities not known for embracing a bike-centric lifestyle are taking big steps. Next year Chicago will offer downtowners the nation’s first network of fully protected bike lanes, and San Francisco will beef up its bike-sharing program to offer 4,500 bikes in the city and seven thousand across the Bay Area.

How Tech Helps

In addition to hard infrastructure changes, technology is boosting efforts in many cities to make safer, more accessible roads for cyclists.

In Detroit, biking is taking off on the city’s wide roads and its pathways, where city officials needed to address safety concerns, said Todd Scott, director of the Detroit Greenways Coalition. To address those concerns, a wired system with digital cameras and callboxes were installed on the popular downtown River Walk, and future plans include a system upgrade that will provide Wi-Fi along the way, Scott said.

The Motor City is also looking at adding a wireless security system along the length of a 26-mile greenway around the city that takes in the Dequindre Cut (a rails-to-trails program), along with several Detroit neighborhoods and trails. Other ideas like Chicago’s Green Wave allows cyclists to hit all green lights at intersections.

The city also installed automated counters to track data on bicyclists and pedestrians.

“When numbers started coming in people were blown away,” by the amount of cyclists said Scott, noting that the data is helping to spur further investment in improving the cyclist infrastructure. “It was a real eye-opener.”

Gathering data on bike locations is key in any city hoping to become more bike-friendly. “Some larger cities are doing big data work to pinpoint the safety problems, so they know where exactly to direct resources,” says Ken McLeod, State and Local Policy Manager for the League of American Bicyclists.

Keeping Cyclists Safe

Technology can also help keep cyclists safe around moving vehicles. In Chattanooga for example, police officers on bikes use a mounted ultrasound device to measure the passing distance of motorists. When cars veer into the three-foot buffer required by law, the officer will catch up to them at the next light and issue a warning.

MindRider, a head-based wearable first developed at MIT, tracks a cyclist’s engagement and stress throughout a ride. Collecting this data from users – like the company has done in Manhattan – provides a snapshot of the city’s bike-riding experience. Since the level of stress recorded on routes sometimes maps to a city’s congestion, cyclists can refer to that snapshot and choose what they think would be the best route for them.

bus with blind spot ttechnology
Blind Spot photo courtesy of Future Cities Catapult.

Meanwhile in London, design lab Future Cities Catapult is looking ahead to the near future. Through its Connected Streets research project, Catapult works to examine the role connected technologies may play in the streetscapes of the future.

Learnings from one experiment spurred the development of several carefully researched and developed prototypes that could help reduce barriers to cyclists.

In one of their experiments, two cyclists were given the same route: one person was familiar with the area while the other was not. Anastasia Vikhornova, a designer-researcher with Catapult, explains the objective was to measure things like how long it would take the newcomer to complete the route as well as how many times they’d refer to a navigation system.

The rider new to the area looked at his Google map repeatedly, and at one point gave up on the navigation system entirely, and looked instead for visual clues. It took him almost an hour longer to complete the ride.

To address problems like those faced by the newbie in this experiment, two of Catapault’s prototypes offer navigational “heads up” that augment current navigation tools, built into glasses or a visor. The first gives directions that adapt based on traffic, while the other guides the cyclist using landmarks rather than street signs.

Route Rectification
Route Rectification photo courtesy of Future Cities Catapult.

“The idea is to use something that won’t distract you from the action of cycling, won’t make you stop and get off your bike,” said Vikhornova, “… [something that] would guide you and show you the shortest path.”

Other prototypes include Sensing Cities, which helps guide riders away from areas with the heaviest pollution. Another helps warn cyclists of vehicles’ blind spots, still another helps build navigation into bike-sharing stations.

While infrastructure changes must accompany new tech, when combined they can make for cities that are safer and more welcoming to travelers in all modes of transport.

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