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Using big data to understand trail use: three Strava tools

May 26, 2016, Jacob Herrero (MEDes.), TRAFx Research

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Summary:

  1. Big data—billions of data points—for trail planning, management and advocacy purposes sounds both futuristic and unattainable. In reality, however, it is here today in the form of three mapping tools, two of which are online, free and easy to use. These tools utilize crowdsourced GPS tracks.
  2. Strava is a software service (website and app) used by people who bike, run, walk, etc. to track themselves, using GPS-enabled devices (e.g., iPhones, Android phones, GPS watches, Garmin, etc.), for fitness, training, social and other purposes. In 2016, Strava Inc. claimed to have a database of over 1 trillion GPS points globally; over 5 million GPS trips are added weekly by Stava app users worldwide. Strava Inc. currently dominate their field.
  3. In this article I introduce three Strava Inc. software tools relevant to those who study, manage or advocate for trails and trail systems. Two are free (Global Heatmap and Clusterer), and one is fee-based (Strava Metro). First, I explore the opportunities and limitations associated with the two free tools, using trails in Canmore, Canada, as an example, while recognizing that the primary use of these two free tools is to help people who bike, run, etc. identify “popular routes”. I then discuss Strava Metro.
  4. Strava Metro, which targets the needs of government organizations, is a fee-based data licensing service that provides aggregated, 'de-personalized' Strava user data for a particular area, including activity type (bike, run, etc.), direction of travel, user volume, gender, age, speed, duration, and routing. It is suitable for larger networks of (a) bicycle-oriented routes, paths, and trails; (b) multi-use paths and trails used by people who ride and run; and, (c) mountain bike trails.
  5. The percentage of Strava users varies from trail to trail (est. 1 to 12%). Therefore, for accuracy, and to gain the confidence of the public and decision makers, it is necessary to use trail traffic counters at a sufficient number of locations, for a sufficient duration of time to 'truth' the Strava Metro data.
  6. Lower-cost ($500 range) volumetric counters in combination with 'smart' Strava Metro data, and survey data, create the potential to provide richer and more complete data (use type, direction of travel, user volume, gender, etc.), over a wider area and for a lower cost than traditional methods.
  7. It is unlikely that any one source of trail data will replace all others. Instead, the different sources (crowdsourced GPS-based, trail counter, survey, etc.) have the potential to complement and strengthen each other.

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Summary table - Three Strava offerings useful for understanding trail use

Strava product Identifying regional hotspots Identifying trail networks Choosing trails to count Partial Counts Trail use type Direction of travel Speed GPS Data for GIS
Global Heatmap (free) tickmark tickmark tickmark Red X Red X* Red X Red X Red X
Clusterer (free) tickmark tickmark tickmark Red X Red X* Red X Red X Red X
Metro (paid) Red X tickmark tickmark tickmark tickmark tickmark tickmark tickmark

*limited