Using GPS to Understand Bicycle Traffic

As bicycling increasingly becomes a viable transportation mode for commuting and not just a recreational activity, it is necessary to plan ahead and identify new and existing routes that can be seamlessly integrated into the transportation network without adversely affecting other modes, such as walking, transit, and driving.  By better understanding which routes bicyclists choose, and how those routes are chosen, city planning agencies can establish a new bicycling network that promotes safe and convenient transportation.

Part of Philadelphia’s Bike Network on
Ben Franklin Parkway
(Photo Courtesy of the Bicycle Coalition)

A recent study from Portland, Oregon used GPS trackers to identify the routes in the city that were taken by bicyclists.  This created a detailed network showing which specific roads were preferred by bicyclists, as well as the roads that were avoided.

The results show a few trends. First, bicyclists generally choose the shortest route unless that route has high levels of automobile congestion, many turns, or a high slope.  This means that bicyclists prefer traveling out of their way in order to avoid busy streets and streets with frequent signalized intersections.  Moreover, the study shows that bicyclists prefer using off-street bike paths or traffic-calming bike boulevards compared to roads with standard bike lanes, further suggesting that bicyclists prefer to avoid automobiles.  Finally, the results show that streets with bike lanes are more attractive than streets without bike lanes, but a high volume street with a bike lane is no more attractive than a low volume street with a bike lane.

The GPS technology provides a more accurate image of how the streets are being used, but identifying routes chosen by bicyclists is only one part of creating a safe and convenient traffic network in the city.  In fact, GPS trackers are already used in New York City in order to identify times and day and days of the year with the high levels of congestion.

A corresponding study would benefit Philadelphia by identifying which routes drivers, transit users, bicyclists, and pedestrians prefer.  For instance, if bicyclists in West Philly traveling to City Hall prefer using the bike lane on Spruce Street, then the city can plan appropriately by improving connections to that bike lane.  Similarly, if drivers prefer using Columbus Avenue to reach the WaltWhitmanBridge, Philadelphia can plan to separate the bicycle and pedestrian lanes to improve safety.  This type of study is dependent on using GPS that provides us better insight to each mode’s traveling behavior.  This technology will allow for creating a better network that promotes safety and convenience for everyone.

Which routes in the city do you think are most used?

Want to know more? Check out:

Portland Study – Where do cyclists ride? A route choice model developed with revealed preference GPS data.

Atlantic Cities Article – What’s the Best Way to Find Out What Bikers Really Want?

The Wall Street Journal – Decoding Traffic in a Jammed City


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