Cycling has shot up the political agenda in recent years – but how can cities keep tabs on what riders need to keep them safe? London’s Hackney Council has developed an app to give it an insight into what life on two wheels is like in the borough.

“We wanted to see where people were going – but more importantly, where people weren’t going,” explains Hackney’s senior transport planner, Kevin Burke. “Why don’t people take the most direct route?”

The Cycle Hackney app helps riders report problems and plot their routes through the capital – but it also allows the council to study the routes they’re taking, and to target the areas that need safety improvements.

“You can give instant feedback,” he adds. “People might want cycle parking, to complain about a pothole, there’s a gate in the way, or if traffic speeds are too much, then they can get onto us and we can see it more or less instantly.”

It was built by CycleStreets – best known for its UK cycle journey planner - and based around open source code, in particular, the code behind US app Cycle Atlanta.

“You can get journey planners, or apps where you time yourself – that’s what we didn’t want to happen, we didn’t want people saying ‘I’ve done this in 46 seconds, now I want to do it in 44’,” Burke explains.

“But for utility cyclists – such as people going to work – there wasn’t really an app for them.

“We used code from Atlanta and San Francisco – one of our Shoreditch town centre managers has good links with those cities – and we asked CycleStreets to adapt the code. So we did it relatively inexpensively.

“We spent less than £3,000 scoping it with a local business in Shoreditch to see what was out there and to see the kind of stuff that we’d need. Then we went to tender for about £10,000.

“One of the criteria was that it had to be open source. We didn’t want somebody owning the data and us paying for it. We eliminated some companies because they wouldn’t agree with the open source.”

'Best cycling borough'

Putting Cycle Hackney in place required no system changes for the council, and less than two months after it launched, the council already has data from its first 1,000 journeys to chew over – showing hundreds of routes across and beyond the borough.

Hackney’s cabinet member for neighbourhoods, Feryal Demirci (pictured right with Burke), is a keen advocate.

“We’re the best cycling borough in London, and we’re always looking for different ways of promoting cycling facilities,” she says. “This gives us a lot of great information that helps us design routes that are fit for cyclists.”

Among the maps produced from Cycle Hackney data so far is one showing the different routes men and women take. Big blue lines show men taking on the traffic on one of the borough’s main trunk routes, the A10, while a clutch of pink lines indicate women opting for quieter routes in the back streets – a gender divide the council is hoping to investigate further.

Furthermore, you can also see where cyclists are choosing back streets that differ from those on London’s proposed network of “quietways”, routes aimed at cyclists that don’t want to do battle on main roads.

“This intelligence is brilliant for local authorities who don’t have a lot of money at the moment,” Cllr Demirci says.

“Funding is scarce, so if you’re looking to invest into cycling or road infrastructure, this sort of information is critical in terms of prioritising where you’re targeting.”

The app’s not just aimed at people who live or work in Hackney, residents in other areas are welcome to contribute their own data for the borough’s planners. But the launch has been kept low-key so far. “We want to see how it’s working so far before we step it up,” Burke says.

Helping prioritise funding

“Can you imagine doing this London-wide?,” adds Cllr Demirci. “It’d be great for boroughs in terms of prioritising where you put the investment.”

Possible improvements include linking reports of problems to an email address where the council can respond to users, and allowing users to report accidents or near misses, providing more data about cycling for experts to study.

Hackney residents will soon be able to borrow bikes for £10 per month, and the council hopes to broaden the range of people using its app by encouraging participants to use Cycle Hackney to record their experiences.

The council’s consulting on a 10-year transport strategy, which aims to see one in four Hackney residents cycling on their way to work each day. Cllr Demirci says: “They’re very ambitious targets, so Cycle Hackney’s just a part of achieving some of them.

“There’s a lot of attention on cycling across London at the moment. We’ve been the best cycling borough, and by coming up with ideas like this, we can maintain that place.”

Cycle Hackney is available on the Apple App Store and Google Play.

Photo from MarkA used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.