During the pandemic, cities scramble to expand cycling infrastructure: Big Data can help

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Photo: Secretaria de Movilidad de Bogotá

The coronavirus (COVID-19) and containment measures have created immense challenges for urban transport. But they are also an opportunity for cities to rethink the future of mobility. Cycling, in particular, is receiving renewed attention. This is not surprising, as the bicycle offers many advantages that make it an attractive mode of urban transport during and after the pandemic: bicycles can ease the pressure on public transport systems, allow easy social distancing, contribute to better public health and reduce air pollution.

Yet we still have a long way to go before the bicycle becomes a common transportation option for city dwellers. Motorized transport is often the default choice, even to destinations easily accessible by bicycle, and most observers fear traffic will return once the virus is gone.

A major obstacle is infrastructure… or the lack of it. Even in cities that have actively promoted cycling, such as Rome, Paris or Bogotá, cycling networks are often fragmented, forcing cyclists to take busy and dangerous roads. Over the past decade, Bogotá has built 500 km of cycle paths, known locally as the ciclorrutas. These have contributed to a sharp increase in daily bicycle trips, from 421,000 in 2011 to 635,000 in 2015. Despite this investment, network gaps and maintenance problems continue to affect the use of the trails and the overall mobility of inhabitants.

If we are to truly harness the full potential of cycling, it is essential that cities address these issues and link disjointed cycle paths into cohesive and user-friendly networks. But where to start ? With limited tax resources, which parts of your city should you focus on to develop cycling infrastructure? How to ensure that investments in cycling benefit as many people as possible?

To answer these questions, planners traditionally rely on online or household surveys. But these are slow and expensive, and often take months or years from the initial data collection to the planning phase. However, recent advances in digital technology are creating new ways of collecting and analyzing data. Information gleaned from anonymous cell phone data is particularly promising.

In our latest research in collaboration with the Secretaria de Movilidad de Bogotá and UC Berkeley, we used Bogotá as a case study to show how cell phone data can improve our understanding of mobility patterns and inform planning for new infrastructure. . We first tapped into data from a local fitness app called Biko to analyze how cyclists move around the Colombian capital and identify the biggest gaps in the ciclorrutas. We also extracted data from cell phone towers to get a better picture of overall mobility in all modes, including passenger cars, public transport and walking. We found that there are 4.1 million short to medium-length trips across the city every day that could be made using a bicycle instead of a car. This clearly shows that the potential demand for cycling in the city is well above the 635,000 average trips in 2015.

Cyclist in Bogota, Colombia.  Photo: Secretaria de Movilidad de Bogotá
Photo: Secretaria de Movilidad de Bogotá

Our analysis found a clear link between the presence of bike lanes and the number of bike trips tracked through Biko, while the inclusion of data from cell phone towers highlighted how the gaps in the ciclorrutas impacted the volume of potential bicycle trips. We also noted that the cycling situation varies considerably from one neighborhood to another depending on the socioeconomic context: this is particularly evident in low-income neighborhoods south of the center, where cycle paths are less frequent and where cycling is less frequent. represents a smaller proportion of trips. facing its potential. Therefore, the document recommends prioritizing investments in infrastructure in the southern zone and in a series of specific links across the city to meet potential demand, where many short journeys well suited to cycling take place.

Already a champion of cycling in its region, Bogotá is now better equipped to design a more comprehensive cycling network that would meet projected demand and provide city-wide connectivity. In an ideal scenario, this means that cyclists could travel safely and transparently without having to leave a cycle lane.

More broadly, our research shows how cell phone data can help better understand mobility trends and anticipate future needs. If used correctly, big data can lead to better decision making, improve development outcomes, and help decision makers respond quickly and effectively to unexpected challenges such as COVID-19. And of course, as more and more people have phones in their pockets, the approach we piloted in Bogotá can easily be replicated elsewhere.

Whatever the post-COVID reality is, it’s safe to say that data-driven planning will become an integral part of our new normal. We’re excited to see what big data has in store for urban transportation, and we’re ready to help cities get the most from it.

Do you want to know more about our methodology and our conclusions? Please refer to our article, “A data science framework for planning the growth of cycling infrastructure”(Transport Research Journal, Volume 115, June 2020). It was written in collaboration between the World Bank, the University of California at Berkeley and the Secretaria de Movilidad de Bogotá.


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