Just around the corner from Nesta’s HQ in the City of London is a bicycle painted white, bunches of flowers, and a message taped to a lamp post. I pass it every day. “I cycle past here every day. I will pray for you every time I come past here. RIP fellow cyclist.”
German postgraduate student Janina Gerlau was cycling along Farringdon Street on 17 October when she was hit by a left-turning heavy goods vehicle at Ludgate Circus. She was the 10th cyclist to be killed in a collision in London in 2014, and the second at that junction.
The tragedy is a reminder of just how vulnerable cyclists are on the UK’s city streets. It also came during a furious debate about new segregated cycle lanes through the heart of London – including one right through Ludgate Circus.
Over the past three months, I’ve been profiling civic technology tools and apps for Civic Exchange. Two of them set out to improve streets for cyclists – giving traffic planners valuable insights to what life’s like on two wheels.
Ask some councillors to improve life for cyclists, and they’ll narrow their eyes and grumble about people riding on pavements.
This doesn’t happen in Hackney, which dubs itself “London’s premier cycling borough”. With back streets cut off to through motor traffic and on-street bicycle pumps, it’s proud of its record in promoting cycling.
Its Cycle Hackney smartphone app, launched this summer, is almost the anti-Strava. While you can record your journeys on it, it’s not there to test your speed – although you can see how many calories you’ve burned off. Instead, you’re recording your journeys for the council’s benefit – and giving its traffic planners a wealth of data about who’s cycling in the borough and where they’re doing it. You can also use it to report potholes and other street issues.
When I visited them in August, Hackney’s cabinet member for neighbourhoods Feryal Demirci and senior transport planner Kevin Burke had some of its early data to show me.
Blue lines showed male users of the app cycling down the borough’s main roads, while pink lines showed women making their way along back streets.
Hackney recently released more data from the app’s 600 users, which it says shows that women tend to stop biking in middle-age while men continue to ride on into later life. Women were more likely to restrict their riding to commuting, with men keener on using their bikes for social trips.
It’s early days for Cycle Hackney, but data like this is invaluable for transport planners. If only a minority of the population fancies chancing it on an urban A-road, then it’s clear something needs to be done to get more people choosing a healthy, active form of transport.
Yet what about when something does go wrong? Civic technology specialists mySociety have pitched in with Collideoscope, a web app which invites cyclists to report accidents and near misses, from the horrific to the merely scary.
“I was cycling in the blue bike lane heading west on Mile End Road towards Whitechapel,” reports one cyclist of a route awaiting a desperately-needed upgrade. “A white van passed me so close I could almost feel it brush my clothes.”
mySociety says it doesn’t want to take sides in the debate – it simply wants to collect evidence to inform that debate. The reports are passed onto councils, while campaign groups and others can subscribe to get details of reports in their local area.
The site’s first sponsor is the Bespoke Study, a project looking at cycling collisions which is based at Barts Health NHS Trust, whose Royal London Hospital is on the route mentioned above. Over the past decade, its medics have seen a 400% rise in the numbers of deaths and serious injuries from cycling. “Notwithstanding the relative increase in the number of cyclists, such high incidence of death and serious trauma is unacceptable,” it says.
The Bespoke Study is using Collideoscope data alongside its own study of cycling injuries to identify hotspots and ways to improve facilities for riders, not just in London, but across the UK.
A perfect use for civic technology
Civic technology’s a slippery field to define. But community collaboration usually sits at its heart.
Cycle Hackney and Collideoscope may have emerged in different ways – one’s from a local council, the other from a group with its roots in activism. But by asking people to actively assist in gathering data for them to help reduce injuries and save lives, they’re both perfect examples of how civic technology can make a difference.
If we’re to cut the death toll on our roads, then policy-makers must take note of the actions and experiences of vulnerable road users.
These apps enable them to do just that. They’re an important step in enabling men and women of all ages to travel happier, fitter - and without fear that their next ride will be their last.
Listings image: Roman Koester on Unsplash