It’s Bike To Work Day 2010 in San Francisco, a city where people take their biking seriously. As famous as San Francisco is for its bicycle-friendly attitude, transportation planning for the city remains a highly contested issue. Bicyclists always want more bike lanes, while the opposition will go to court to prevent painting new “sharrows” on the streets. For city policymakers, proving things like the demand for new bike routes is not as simple as it sounds, which is where mobile location-based technology comes in handy.

The San Francisco Country Transit Authority (SFCTA) launched an app called CycleTracks on the iPhone and Android platforms last November. Designed and developed by Mopimp, the application is used to record a user’s bike trip. Like many other such apps for smartphones (iMapMyRide or CycleMeter, for instance), it collects data on the distance, actual route and time spent on it using the phone’s GPS technology. Users get information on the distance they traveled, the time it took, and their average speed, and they can view their trip by having it projected onto Google Maps on the smartphone. And then they can tag their trip as “Commute”, “Work-related”, “Exercise”, or any other option before uploading the data to SFCTA. As a result, the organization gets valuable data on popular bike routes in the city at certain times of day or week. (Any personally identifiable information, such as gender and email addresses, will be kept confidential, says SFCTA.)

All this is of great use to SFCTA when planning and improving bike routes, and traffic management in general, says executive director José Luis Moscovich (pictured below). Having worked with SFCTA for 18 years, Moscovich is a man on a mission: He wants better design for better living in an urban environment.

Moscovich took me on a bike ride Wednesday morning from the Mission district to Middle Market and all the way up to Patricia’s Green on the corner of Octavia and Hayes Streets. Early on our trip, we stopped under the I-280 overpass, next to the Caltrain tracks on the corner of 16th and 7th Streets. Pausing CycleTracks, Moscovich explained to me that University of California San Francisco’s Mission Bay campus on 16th, for instance, draws great numbers to the area daily using different modes of transportation.

“Now, if we see that a lot of people take 16th Street to make their daily commute on the bike, we can plan for it and improve the experience. Right now, the street doesn’t have a bike lane all the way. If our data shows demand for a bike route, it is far easier to try to make that change with this evidence.”

Since it’s launch, around 6,000 trips have been recorded with the application, which is a significant amount of data, says Moscovich. There are 450-500 registered CycleTracks users in the city of San Francisco, and this number only represents a fraction of all of the city’s bicyclists — according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, there are 120,000 regular bicyclists in the city. Small sample and voluntary use may obviously produce skewed data, as active bikers who are also tech-savvy may be represented disproportionately. Still, this is far better than the traditional way, which is to have people standing on street corners with clickers counting the number of bicyclists they see and handing out questionnaires to bikers. And considering CycleTracks cost the city under $20,000, such an app is a cost-effective way to gather such data for as long as people keep using it. It’s at least a step in the right direction.

Heading up to Market Street on 7th, I forget to resume my recording of the trip, which is something that happens quite often with my trips. Moscovich says the system has ways of disregarding data that is obviously incorrect — say, a three-block trip that took three hours — but for the user this is inconvenient. One way to improve the user experience would be to use the smartphone’s accelerometer so that the phone will automatically register whether or not the user is in motion and pause and resume recording accordingly. (Some applications have this option, such as the Sports Tracker, which is available for Nokia handsets.) Some users have had issues with the battery drain that happens when running GPS on a smartphone, or inaccuracies with the GPS positioning, which can throw off the actual distance traveled. SFCTA has been thinking about these and other improvements, too, such as suggesting popular — and flat — bike routes to bicyclists unfamiliar with San Francisco, maybe co-operating with an existing service like Google Maps, which brought bicycle routes to the mobile version of the application recently.

Still, CycleTracks is a tool designed first and foremost to help city authorities manage traffic. While it is fun to use, at least this version is not heavy-duty enough for people wanting serious data on their exercise (for which there are tons of other applications, such as the RunKeeper, covered earlier on VentureBeat), but lightweight enough to keep everyday commuters engaged. But, while the number of bicyclists in San Francisco is high, says Moscovich, there are many more “latent bikers” who could be encouraged to ride bikes, cutting back on automobile traffic.

“This is all connected, transportation is not an island,” Moscovich says in Patricia’s Green, where our trip has come to its end. Octavia Street is an example of successful traffic planning that revitalized a section of the city after tearing down a freeway. Now, the area has a boulevard that provides space for cars, bikes and pedestrians alike, and the businesses on Hayes Street are bustling with activity.

“I do believe that the city is the best place for people to live. This park, like the agora of Ancient Greece, is where citizens can meet and communicate with each other. This is where arts and science happens, and it leads to social acceptance, to a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society,” Moscovich muses, gesturing at the park.

The city’s CycleTracks project is funded through the end of June, which means the study SFCTA is conducting with the app is drawing to a close. Some of the things that CycleTracks has provided data on are obvious, such as the fact that Market Street, recently adorned with green bike lanes, has lots of bicycle traffic (no need for an application to point that out). But more complex patterns need more data and more time to completely stand out. As the project wraps up, it’s unclear whether users will be able to go on using CycleTracks to contribute to SFCTA data, but the organization is very happy with the project and may conduct some sort of follow-up.

[Photos by JP Manninen]

[This story is part of a weekly series on location-based services, written by VentureBeat’s JP Manninen. If you have an idea for a story you would like to see in this series, drop a line at]

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