A mobile sense of place: Methodology to study urban cycleways

Smartphone with attached Giroptic iO 360-degree camera. Photo: Dr Andreas Wesener.

A Building Better research team has developed a user-centred methodology for collecting, categorising, visualising, and interpreting data on urban cycling infrastructure and related cycling events using smart phones to measure accelerometer, gyroscope, speed, and global positioning (GPS), and 360-degree cameras to record audio and visual data.

The team has collected data on eight recently built major cycle routes in Christchurch, and they are now using the data from one of the routes to examine future research opportunities and potential applications of the methodology to support efforts to advance the planning, design, and implementation of urban cycleways around New Zealand.

Lead researcher Dr Andreas Wesener, a senior lecturer in Urban Design at the School of Landscape Architecture at Lincoln University, says the promotion of active transport, including cycling, is an important aspect of sustainable urban design.

“Using bicycles where practical, instead of cars, to move around a city reduces greenhouse gases, noise, and air pollution. Bicycles take up little space compared to cars and don’t add to congestion. They are relatively cheap, and they provide a variety of health benefits. Next to walking it is the ultimate zero-carbon environmentally-friendly solution for personal transport.”

However, Andreas says that the uptake in towns and cities in New Zealand is low compared to many European and Asian countries due to a number of deterrents.

“There is the real or perceived risk from motorists, particularly on busy or high-speed traffic routes, even if these roads have dedicated cycleways and bike lanes. People also often don’t like hilly environments or steep uphill or downhill grades. Badly maintained streets including rough and pot-holed surfaces, glass and other debris, and humps and kerbs are another deterrent, as is long distances, the time it takes to bike, and adverse weather conditions.

“But despite these concerns, or rather because of them, there is a place for well-designed, and well-maintained bicycle infrastructure networks, separated from the main traffic, noise, and pollution, close to people’s homes and leading to desired destinations to encourage cycling. Previous research has shown routes with scenic beauty or visual interest also motivate people to cycle,” says Andreas.

Andreas says that where there is reasonable weather, relatively flat topography, and a network of route options for the time poor, a city should be well positioned to make cycling more popular and increase the share of active modes of urban transport.

Fellow researcher, Dr Suzanne Vallance, Director of Planning at Lincoln University, says there are additional issues to rolling out cycleways despite the obvious benefits. Urban authorities can face criticism from sectors of the public when budgets are used for cycling infrastructure or when that infrastructure affects them adversely.

“The term ‘bikelash’ describes angry community opposition to new cycling infrastructure. Such opposition comes mainly from retailers, conservative voters and residents, but also – perhaps surprisingly – from cyclists who feel that they have not been properly consulted,” says Suzanne.

“To address the bikelash phenomenon, bottom-up community engagement and ongoing consultation with cyclists that treats them as key sources of technical expertise on the design and implementation of cycle lane projects can go some way to addressing any problems before they arise.”

Suzanne says cycling can be a visceral experience, with visual and non-visual inputs.

“Compared to car drivers, cyclists are exposed to a more direct, richer, and broader sensory landscape. Cycling is not about the distant observation of landscapes that fly past. It is a continuous and active bodily experience within evolving landscapes where cyclists need to pay particular attention to road surfaces and obstacles that would be irrelevant for car drivers. However, experiential-qualitative aspects of mobility have often been ignored in the travel and transport literature. We wanted ways of capturing data on such experiences. Our research is about exploring a novel method for data collection and interpretation that will help increase our knowledge about how cyclists perceive urban cycling infrastructure.

“This is relevant for planning and design decisions as much as for the improvement of existing cycling infrastructure. We wanted a user-centred methodology to gather different types of data in situ about the cycleways, something that responds to stakeholders’ feedback and related concerns about negotiating engineering, landscape, and urban design, planning and policy elements in a way that addresses cyclists’ needs.

“It was absolutely fantastic to see the mobile app and cameras that combine infrastructure monitoring and perception data collection tested in a pilot study on eight major cycle routes in Christchurch. We used data from one of the routes, the Papanui Parallel Major Cycle Route, to further explore methods of data categorisation, visualisation and interpretation. Based on the results of the pilot study we’ve made some methodological changes or additions,” says Suzanne.

The data collection has turned up some surprising results, for example, the researchers have found that the green paint used to delineate cycleways in various places can hide bumps and other imperfections in the surface – an unexpected hazard for the cyclist.

The stakeholder involvement process allowed the researchers to tap into the knowledge of relevant stakeholders. The low-cost use of compact mobile devices meant that bicycle-based data collection could be carried out not only by professional researchers but also volunteers and regular cyclists. This community-based research or citizen science where amateur researchers help collect and analyse data helps to bridge the usual detachment between professional researchers and concerned citizens and could become a pedagogical opportunity for social learning for volunteers and researchers.

“Many people already own a bicycle and a smartphone, and the appropriate software to read and export sensor data is freely available. Therefore, the low costs make the methodology potentially accessible in environments where funding is very limited. The costs of 360-degree cameras are still high, but this continues to fall as the technology evolves. Overall, bicycle-based data collection could become more widespread than it is today,” says Andreas.

“However, one of the challenges we encountered in the previous project was that the use of predominantly manual methods to analyse, synthesise and visualise the data has been time-consuming. This needs to be improved in order to become suitable for larger-scale applications.”

Andreas has teamed up with Lincoln University applied computer scientists for a new research project with the goal to automate previously manual analysis processes. “We expect to use both existing data from the previous project as much as newly collected data. The project aims to develop ways of collecting field data that can be easier analysed without the need of manual adjustments.”

The researchers say the methodology could also potentially be extended beyond cycleway performance research with opportunities to develop similar approaches for other types of infrastructure.

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Date posted: 27 July 2021