Design Thinking, Technology

Smart cycling in the city

Pim Verbij | 01 February 2017

As a distributed team between three very distinct cities; London, Belfast and Utrecht, we are quick to recognise what works (or doesn’t) on each other's doorstep. Living, working, and moving between each place gives us an intuitive understanding of the challenges our cities face; transport, energy, healthcare, community, environment.

These are challenges that impact the function of our cities but just as importantly the quality of the lives it supports. As designers and technologists we see it is increasingly clear, and possible, to address these large scale problems on a day to day level with technology that fits into people's lives.

Smaller and cheaper sensors allow for a global trend in the way we measure more of the world around us, even our internal bodily processes. Just look at Fitbit, Strava, Apple Health, Google Fit and many more health and fitness measurement tools. A similar thing is happening in our cities.

Apps like the smartcityapp combines data from many public sources into one dashboard to help us weave our way through busy London; weather, public transport, emergency services, gas, water, electric, geographical, social and social media data, all made accessible to map your day. The data from our days fed back to us in real time, allowing us to make real time decisions.

In Dutch we have a saying: ‘Meten is weten’, or ’Measuring is knowing’. In order to gain insights we first have to gather data. In Utrecht this is best seen in the commitment to becoming the best cycling city in the world.

Every day, between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., over 125,000 cyclists ride to their work, school, university, public transport, shops or home through the city centre. The bicycle is given precedence in the mobility policy of the municipality of Utrecht. To make sure the traffic flow is optimal, sensors track the average ride time between traffic lights to create a ‘green wave’ of lights. 

All these bikes need to be parked somewhere, Utrecht has built many state of the art bike parking garages, and in 2017 it is opening the largest one in the world accommodating 12,500 bikes. Each bike rack is fitted with a sensor so bikers can get real time bike parking info – along the approach roads to the city centre 25 digital signs inform cyclists of the number of free parking places in the nearest bicycle parkings and indicate the route. These are the reasons why 43% of all journeys in Utrecht, shorter than 7.5 kilometres, are made by bicycle and Utrecht is consistently voted as the 3rd best cycling city in the world.

But if you compare a glide along a well defined cycle lane in Utrecht to the winner-takes-all race along the traffic dominant streets of London or Belfast, you can see that there is a major difference in the culture of city cycling. That is where opportunities lie for using data as an evidence base that can change attitudes. For example, having seen significantly increased usage statistics, Belfast City Council have extended their public bike hire service. While it has a long way to go to catch up with Utrecht, a healthy feedback of information like this allows for informed decisions and a stronger influence on how infrastructure is planned.

As our technologies become smarter, so must our cities. We can design solutions that bring our day-to-day lives closer to the big issues that we face as a society and make our cities work for us.