Balancing Urban Infrastructure: Perspectives from Valencian Cyclists
A tolled elevated cycleway connecting Pasadena and South Pasadena in California at the turn of 21st century, along present-day Edmondson Alley. (Image: public domain)
The history of cycling as a means of transportation is one of ebbs and flows. Bikes started to resemble the ones we know today in the late 1880s with the surge in popularity of the safety bicycle. This was one of many “bike booms” through the years, but it was the one that arguably cemented bicycles as a means of transport. Pneumatic tyres, the bicycle chain, and wheels of equal proportion created a vehicle a lot more practical than the penny farthings that seem so comical to us today.
In the days before the motor vehicle, having such an accessible, manoeuvrable vehicle (that didn’t require food or excrement shovelling) was a pretty attractive option. The arrival of the car, however, created competition between the different modes of transport. Pedestrians, bicycles, horses, trams, and cars were all competing for space and infrastructure spending.
There is always a balancing act to create safe and efficient infrastructure for each mode of transport, but governments and the citizens who rely on them are getting pretty creative in their approach. In Valencia, Spain, citizens and the city council are working together to create a better environment for cyclists. PhD student Fernando Benitez has been driving this initiative, using his experience in the study of volunteered geographic information (VGI) to encourage local participation.
A city made for cycling
Fernando describes Valencia as a city with a lot of the fundamentals necessary for cycling. The weather averages a pleasant 18°C year round and the terrain is very flat with gradients up to only 2%. Nonetheless, there is still a long way to go to increase the safety, efficiency, and popularity of cycling. Luckily, the local government is already taking proactive steps with funding and infrastructure:
- The bike sharing scheme, Valenbisi, is growing in popularity.
- A circular bike path known as Anillo Ciclista has been established around the city centre, functioning as a ring road for bikes.
- The regional administration (Generalitat Valenciana) has recently allocated 4.5 million euros to improve cycling infrastructure. This funding will be allocated by a new department focused on sustainable mobility, with cycling front and centre.
There is also an effort to improve the flow of information between the government and citizens:
- An Opinion Barometer for citizens to elevate the issues they feel are most important.
- Valencia al Minut—a real-time dashboard highlighting weather and air quality information, the status of public transportation, and the availability of public bikes.
- An Open Data portal that allows anyone to analyse data collected by the city, and build applications that improve decision making.
Street-level imagery is one way to improve this information exchange. Having a visual reference of an area and access to derived map data gives officials a more accurate representation of cycling infrastructure throughout the city. With this, they can make better decisions when it comes to the allocations of funds.
Visualising the situation
The first phase of the project has aimed to create a visualisation of Valencia’s cycling routes that both government and citizens can access. The participants focused on the central part of the city and used #CompletetheMap to track their progress.
Across three days, participants learnt how to collect Mapillary imagery and edit the map using this imagery as a source. In this short time, they collected 39,000 images covering 217 km of cycling routes using smartphones mounted on their bicycles.
This gives the city council the opportunity to embed Mapillary imagery into their existing tools such as ArcGIS and public-facing web maps. When a citizen wants to raise an issue on a particular part of the bike network, the city council officer can see the area in question and discuss it with colleagues.
A common example is an area where the bike lane merges with traffic in a way that creates a hazardous situation. It’s not always immediately obvious on a map that there is a hazard, so street-level imagery allows officials as well as citizens to judge the conditions and tag the location of the hazard.
Extracting fresh map data
Visualising the area is the easy part though. The more challenging aspect is using both computer vision and human input to translate the contents of the imagery to map data. To ensure the safety of cyclists, it is crucial to make accurate information available for features such as:
- Surface type (are you going to be riding on cobblestones or asphalt)
- The direction of travel (many cycleways are only designed for one-way traffic flow)
- Allowed access (are cyclists allowed to share a particular road with other vehicles)
- Bike parking (where can cyclists expect to find a place to park their bike or pump their tyres)
- Bike rental (where are pick-up/drop-off facilities located in the city for bike rental schemes)
Fernando highlights another consideration that is crucial for cyclist safety. Many of the routes designated for cyclists require shared access with motorised traffic. The speed limits of these routes and the difference between bicycle speed and motor vehicle traffic have a significant impact. Speed limits need to be reduced and enforced simultaneously to minimise incidents.
With Mapillary integrations available in two popular OpenStreetMap editors, iD and JOSM, it’s easy to use the imagery as a basis for map updates. Here, Valencia can find inspiration from Bike Ottawa, who have created a brilliant schema that shows you how to use Mapillary images for bike mapping, and used it to make close to 400 map edits.
Furthermore, with help of computer vision technology, Mapillary automatically identifies features such as speed limits, bike racks, and bike lanes throughout the city. A city official or citizen can extract this data with the Mapillary API and use it to improve OpenStreetMap or any other geospatial dataset they might be using.
Collecting imagery and subsequently map data improves the quality of information available for decision makers. Together with other initiatives, it contributes to making sure that the 4.5 million euros are invented in the best possible way to make Valencia into a safe, bicycle-friendly role model for other cities. In fact, Fernando is already organising a similar series of events in Barcelona so we hope to have the cycle routes of another major Spanish city mapped soon.