“Stravandals”: the Strava safety police and their “hazardous” own goal

How self-appointed safety police are doing much more harm than good

Over on CCE, someone posted a link to a fascinating Strava heatmap showing to-the-second recorded rides for a huge number of UK cyclists.

It’s worth emphasising that this kind of information is virtually unprecedented. For the first time planners, policymakers (and everyone else) potentially has access to aggregate and individual cycling behaviour on a second-by-second basis.

heatmap

Just as a taste, you can actually see that nobody (who uses Strava) cycled along the Quality Bike Corridor at the same time that the much bigger (parallel) Minto St / Gilmerton Rd was seeing heavy traffic. You can see that large numbers of cyclists are using the nasty 40mph A702 to enter Edinburgh but you can also see that they don’t like it (because a significant majority divert onto Braid Rd at the first opportunity).

It’s taken years for Edinburgh Council not to fit bike counters that, once rolled out, will still not really tell us much about cycling patterns, let alone give us the ability to examine the rest of their route.

Enter the Stravandals

Unfortunately, Strava is becoming increasingly compromised by “stravandalising” – the vexatious flagging of stretches of road or path as “hazardous” by self-appointed internet policemen (or women, in fairness, etc. etc.).

While I’m not unsympathetic to the views of people who think comparing speeds on any public thoroughfare is intrinsically wrong, they seem to fail to appreciate that there’s no objective assessment to make. By this I mean that while speeding or drink driving are nice and objective, the “hazard” flag is a purely moral judgement, and as I see it, one that is rarely being made wisely.

Strava’s apparent fear of bad press has led inexorably to the point where my own commute now has fewer sections which are apparently safe to cycle than those which are not, and I suspect things are only this “good” because other users are re-creating segments as fast as they can be deleted.

Why anyone would pay a monthly fee for something which anybody with a free account can delete in moments is quite beyond me – I made the decision long ago that I wouldn’t pay for Strava under those conditions.

15mph_hazardous
A “hazardous” 15mph… 5mph below modern path design speed.

In terms of the market, the issue of “stravandalising” segments promises to be quite interesting. Strava users who feel they’re paying for a service which they don’t receive are easy pickings for rival services that offer a better proposition.

You’d think Strava would be desperately concerned that someone’s going to do a Facebook on their MySpace – it’s not that hard to imagine.

Strava: a priceless safety resource?

Few people will see it this way, but let me make the argument:

I find it pleasingly ironic that people who claim to be motivated by safety seem hell-bent on destroying pretty much the only centralised record of realtime cycling behaviour that’s ever been gathered. Talk about taking the short view.

When you look at “hazard” segments in detail the picture that is painted is often not one of road rash, mangled kittens and dead toddlers at all, but this demands the wisdom to look beyond any distaste at the headline element, something Stravandals clearly lack.

Researching this piece, I looked up the leaderboards of two classic Edinburgh “hazard” routes that have long since been expunged from Strava: the Union Canal and the Roseburn Path.

I hear you gasp in horror. But what does Strava’s leaderboard actually reveal?

The maximum segment speed reached by any cyclist on the Union Canal this month is 16mph, while the maximum reached by any cyclist descending the Roseburn Path is 21mph. (As you’d hope, these speeds reflect that while both are very quiet during most hours of the day, the canal is only wide enough for two cyclists to ride abreast, while the Roseburn is the width of a road).

I’m not interested in arguing about whether 16mph is too fast on a deserted towpath.

I don’t even feel like pointing out that the original Strava segments both time-shifted cyclists to quieter hours of the day (last summer I left an hour early and avoided almost all pedestrians, but with no segment, I may as well ride the same way in rush hour) and discouraged rapid progress across the Slateford viaduct (because the segments were at either side of it, it wasn’t timed).

I *agree* that there’s a moral argument that says this is all wrong, but based on the actual casualty stats, I also believe that any objective assessment of the risk would find that it’s relatively trivial.

I people watch well over a hundred miles a week and the fast riders are almost never the bad ones. Want to see near misses? It’s the two-tings-and-a-prayer brigade that are doing the damage, and they’re hardly the Strava stereotype…

What I think is much more interesting is the argument that brushing this under the carpet, hiding the data in the hopes that cyclists will all start dragging their brakes, is both a failure in terms of safety and actually a retrograde step – if people are dispersed from Strava to rival services who take a stronger line for their users this resource, which really seems to exonorate cyclists more than it condemns them, could be lost.

Strava speed = not necessarily that fast

The 85th percentile speed for the Roseburn Path this year is only a hair over 20mph – the design speed for modern shared cycle facilities. And that’s counting each individual’s *fastest effort* with the prevailing wind behind them – for a true picture you then need to drill down further: I show on the leaderboard at 18mph but my average is 15mph…

Isn’t this actually rather reassuring? Worrying about the KOM alone is like making road safety decisions based on the fastest speed any single car has ever travelled at, ignoring the question of how fast people drive from day to day.

It would require more data gathering than can be managed in retrospect to see whether the removal of segments has actually led to a reduction in speeds (I wouldn’t expect so, but I’m only guessing).

Let me finish with this question: if motorists were voluntarily publishing personally identifiable GPS records of their speed and route, can anyone seriously argue that we should hide that data, bury our heads in the sand – or would we be falling over ourselves to access the lessons that data contains, and reassure ourselves that people just aren’t driving all that fast (or are they?)

The sad thing is – there are objectively hazardous locations and the most popular Strava segments invariably grew to be the ones which didn’t include them. What we have now is the old school “how fast can I do my entire route, traffic lights and all” – is that actually safer?

Whew. If you stayed with me through that, you deserve a badge…

18 Comments

  1. Name

    What does flagging a Strava segment have to do with the Strava heatmap?

    Answer: nothing

  2. Dave

    Bit of a skim reader, huh? :)

  3. also that heatmap isn’t realtime… 😉

  4. Dave

    Good catch. Buzzword over-exuberance.

  5. Jim Avery

    I’m sorry but you lost any credibility with me when you chose to label another subset of cyclists ‘brigade’.

    I don’t use Strava, and neither do many perfectly competent and safe cyclists like me who prefer to enjoy the ride at a moderate speed. If you find the way I ride in any way unsafe, then you really need to slow down and take the time to anticipate the behaviour of everyone else who shares the road with you. Who knows.. you might actually find riding more enjoyable without the pressure of being faster all the time.

  6. iain

    David: I don’t know who you mean by “two-tings-and-a-prayer brigade”, can you be explicit?

  7. Dave

    Iain, my experience on the Union Canal is that all my near misses are with nominally “proper” cyclists (that is to say they don’t go very fast and ring their bells) – the problem is that they substitute “two tings” for any apparent thought for others around them (hence the “prayer”).

    It’s a stereotype for sure, but I’ve had so many near-misses with people who are merrily ringing their bells while they should be braking, or who seem to think that ringing their bells guarantees nobody will be in the way and they don’t need to slow down, or that it’s somehow OK to push past someone *because* you rang your bell.

    But- these guys no doubt think of themselves as responsible citizens and (in my head) are having a good old moan about the devil that is Strava…

    In contrast, while I can go pretty fast on an empty towpath with no junctions, I go under the bridges assuming that there’s someone there and am happy to wait behind people if necessary. I know a lot of people personally who I follow on Strava and none of them are bad riders, unlike many of the respectable “two tings” guys that are criticising them.

    The link between Strava and dodgy riding is specious – it’s just a convenient scapegoat to avoid admitting that however people travel, a proportion of them have a shortage of empathy.

    (Of course, it’s true that I’m just as bad for implying that everyone who goes around “two tinging” people is an iffy rider – obviously they’re not. But I bet the proportion is *exactly* the same as the proportion of Strava riders.)

    Edit: now I’m writing this reply I see that the canal folk have long since ditched “two tings”… we must just be behind the times in the provinces

  8. Dave

    Jim – clearly that rubbed you up the wrong way. It’s almost like I wrote this in frustration that Strava is associated with dodgy riding and in turn you’re annoyed at my claim that dodgy riding is just as (if not more) common amongst non Strava riders?

    Groups and out-groups. It’s like the car vs bike debate in microcosm :)

  9. iain

    I get you now. Ironic since I have two bells on my handle bars!

    I’ve had the dilemma of the pedestrian being annoyed by a bell or being annoyed by no warning. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. There’s also cultural differences; Germans tend to perceive bells as an emergency warning and quickly jump out the way.

    Ultimately the problem is the Union tow path is too narrow. So you get conflict by design, http://conflictbydesign.wordpress.com/2014/01/23/union-canal-into-edinburgh/. There wouldn’t be so much of a problem if we had a path like this; http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2011/10/resurfacing-canal-cycle-path-in-assen.html.

  10. Ross

    Who really cares, it’s only Strava, nothing really too important. If you want to race then join a cycling club and pin a number on your back and see how good you really are.

    If the flagged segment is so concerning can’t you just recreate the segment again?

    It would be a good idea for authorities to use Strava heatmaps to help plan cycling future infastructure

  11. Dave

    There are races you can fit in on the way to and from work? Who knew…

    Strava is pretty neat for racing too (for instance, you can do a local TT and look at your results by age group or whatever without any need for the club to provide that info). But that’s not really the point – just as 90%+ of people don’t ride a bike at all, 90%+ of cyclists have zero interest in formal competitive riding…

  12. Dave

    Yesterday I rode against the current UK hill climb champion.

    I didn’t actually join a club and pin anything onto my kit, I just rode against his PB on Strava, so I suppose it doesn’t count to the purist 😛

  13. Ross

    Yes but with Strava you’re not always comparing apples with apples. So many variables. Different conditions on different days, could have tailwind one day and massive headwind the next. Some people do it in a bunch, some people do it solo. Some people do it on MTBs while others do it on 6kg carbon roadies while others do it on recumbants and some even use electric assist bikes – and some even “cheat” and drive a car or motorbike.

    Then there’s the inaccuracies of Strava and GPS data.

    Not being a Strava hater, I use it, but I don’t take it too seriously, it’s just a bit of fun and a rough guide at best. I just find that a proper race is a better gauge of your performance and fitness. Same day, same conditions, similar bikes and theoretically more accurate measurement of time and distance.

  14. Dave

    It’s certainly true that you can go a lot faster in a race setting. If I go to Park Run there are people going well under 20 minutes for 5k and although I have no hope of catching them, there’s always someone a little bit faster than me to try and cling on to.

    There’s no way I can go as hard when I’m on my own (Strava segment or not).

    Your point about equal conditions is good – I’d say that most on-road Strava segments which aren’t up a steep hill are pretty useless, because they’ll have been set by a chaingang with a strong wind behind them. However, even if you turn up to a TT or a hill climb, you’re not comparing like-with-like because someone will have £2k wheels or a much lighter frame.

    I probably take a perverse pleasure in riding segments where I am way under-gunned (on my commuter instead of a drop bar bike, say). It would be socially awkward to try the Saturday morning club run on that bike :)

  15. Ross

    Saw this article and thought it might be relavent to the conversation;

    http://blog.evanscycles.com/other_stuff/are-you-a-stravaite-a-stravaddict-or-a-stravanot/

  16. Becky

    Some segment in a recent ride of mine was flagged by someone. I was quite pleased; it may be because I did about 55mph down a hill. In hindsight of course, Strava should have realised right at the outset what Big Cycling Data might offer ‘the world’ in a practical sense, with a competition element in there for those who like that sort of thing.

    An equivalent exists on Flickr, whereby one can judge popularity of a city’s scenery or attractions—or indeed, reconstruct whole street maps—simply by aggregating the geotag information (I say ‘simply’, without any real clue of the coding tools required to achieve it).

  17. scott

    I was pretty sure strava will clear the “hazardous” flag if you ask. I have done this with one or two segments near home. the original segments were back up in two days or so. that was a year or so ago, so maybe something’s changed. hope not.

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