What if new technology was used to make cities more cyclist friendly?
The hype about autonomous electric cars seems long ago now. Once touted as the future of urban mobility, with claims of zero emissions and reduced congestion, the reality didn’t work out like that. Roads were as congested as ever as travellers were tempted into autonomous vehicles for even the shortest of trips. Tailpipe emissions ceased, but brake dust and tyre wear still generated particulate pollution.
While driverless cars did well at navigating city streets, they were less capable of getting around obstacles like people or cyclists. Much like the modernist visions of the 1960s, some argued that people and cars should be separated to prevent accidents and improve traffic flow. Katerina, however, saw this would just lead to yet more cars, and to all the progress made by cycling and pedestrian campaigns being reversed.
As a lifelong cyclist, Katerina had personal experience of the fallibility of autonomous vehicles. Three years ago she was hit by one. Luckily, neither was traveling fast and she wasn’t severely injured, but the crash was a wake-up call.
Working at an augmented reality studio, Katerina decided to explore the potential of the technology to help cyclists. Wayfinding with a GPS map was irritating. It either required frequent stopping and starting, or taking her eyes off the road even if only for a few seconds. Moreover, Katerina wanted to go beyond wayfinding; she imagined a network of virtual cycle paths criss-crossing the city, with cyclists directed from place to place through simple visual information overlaid onto the world through projections onto riders’ glasses.
She presented her ideas at the next local AI for Social Innovation meetup. It was the talk of the evening, so she set up a working group to develop the new vision. As cyclists themselves, and through speaking to cyclists online and in person, they realised that cyclists felt safe in numbers. Cycling as a mass provided security and they were more likely to be noticed by autonomous vehicles and human drivers. The existing cycle lane infrastructure was better than it used to be, but it didn’t always go the way they needed to go. Besides, different cyclists had different needs: some rode fast, others slow; some were confident, others wary. They needed to be directed down different routes.
The team developed their wayfinding platform, FreeWheel, using open-source AI software, and tried it out with different cyclists. James, who was new to cycling, was directed down quiet backstreets where he could ride slowly and get used to riding his bike. Louise, by contrast, was happy to ride at high speeds with her recumbent through busy traffic. The users liked the platform, but for Hannah and her team there was more to be done.
By incorporating data gathering tools into the platform and putting sensors in bikes themselves, they could measure riders’ speed, acceleration, deceleration, sudden stops and so on. FreeWheel could therefore assess the suitability of different roads for cycling. Sensitive accelerometers and pollution sensors collected data on road surface quality and particulate levels respectively. The virtual cycle routes became dynamic, changing depending on traffic, pollution or road quality.
FreeWheel also assessed desire lines, noticing that sometimes riders would disregard its instructions to take another route. These desire lines were incorporated into its wayfinding algorithms too, allowing on-the-ground experience of cycle routes to be incorporated into the wayfinding.
Finally, Katerina and her colleagues linked up with the local cycling group to see if they could benefit from the data. It turned to be a highly valuable resource for their campaigning aims: showing where pollution was worst, the places where cyclists faced the most risk, and the routes where permanent cycling infrastructure could be installed.
For Katerina, who came from a background where tech was often seen as the answer, she realised from the start that technology was just a means to enable an analogue solution. In place of autonomous vehicles and AI enhanced cyclists, her vision was for a city with as little traffic as possible. A cycle friendly city where riders could take whichever route they liked, looking at the architecture and the people around them rather than expending all their energy with one eye on the cars and one eye on the screen.