The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Heat maps show where people bike... or at least, where affluent people exercise by bike

A global cycling heat map from the fitness app Strava shows where people are exercising by bike. It's a useful tool to chart the most popular bike trails, but the data skew heavily towards wealthier recreational cyclists and away from transportation and less affluent areas.

Strava cycling heat map for the DC region.

Strava is an exercise app for smartphones that uses GPS to track users' cycling and jogging routes. Fitness enthusiasts use it to chart their running or cycling times, and measure performance over time. Since the company has billions of data points from users all over the world, it was easy to plot it all onto a map.

The resulting global heat map is a fascinating look at the most popular trails. For our region, it's easy to see long-distance regional trails stand out, especially in Fairfax, Arlington, Montgomery, and Howard Counties.

But while this is interesting stuff, it's unfortunately not very useful for urban transportation planning. Since 100% of Strava users care so much about speed that they've downloaded an app to measure it, and are wealthy enough to have a smartphone, the data skews seriously in favor of recreational cycling among affluent populations.

On the flip side, it seriously undercounts cyclists who bike as transportation simply to get from point A to point B. Likewise, it seriously undercounts lower income populations.

To prove the point, merely compare the trails on the west side of the DC region to those on the east side. Or compare the bright blue suburban trail network in Columbia, MD with the much more limited cycling apparent in central Baltimore. The places affluent people bike on the weekend stand out, while others sink to the background.

So this is neat info, beautifully presented, with practical applications to regional trail planning and parks planning. But for urban bike lanes, it's no substitute for hard local data.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post


Add a comment »

It is disconcerting to see how many Freds are using the Capital Crescent Trail in their efforts to win Cat 6 glory. For the non-cyclists, a Fred is someone dressed up to look like a pro cyclist. Actual bike racers bottom out at Cat 5 - there is no Cat 6 - with Cat 1 being for world class racers.

Don't get me wrong, the CCCT is fabulous as a commuting route and for recreational cyclists to ply their trade. But anyone who uses Strava and is logging their lowest time from Bethesda to Georgetown needs to get a life.

by fongfong on May 12, 2014 12:10 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure that owning a smartphone is an indication of wealth, but I think recreational cycling is an indication of wealth. Also I would imagine that the people who use the Strava app most likely have above-average incomes relative to the average smartphone user.

by Scoot on May 12, 2014 12:28 pm • linkreport

Please stop asserting that "100% of Strava users care so much about speed". Yes, I understand that there are serious problems with using Strava's data for urban transportation planning purposes, but I'm pretty sure I'm not the ONLY person who uses Strava on every ride just because I think it's fun to map (just like this heat map) the places I go by bike. In fact, if my trip to DCA to catch a flight shows up in Strava's data package, I'll be happy to know that someone, somewhere might get a clue that there are people who bike to the airport for flights and who need long-term, secure bike parking.

Please stop denigrating Strava as a completely useless tool for FREDs and think about what uses it COULD have. Even those FREDs want a safe way to get from the regional trail to their front door safely. Look closely at the data and you might see where better infrastructure is needed... for ALL people on bikes.

by KG on May 12, 2014 12:39 pm • linkreport

@KG: "Look closely at the data and you might see where better infrastructure is needed... for ALL people on bikes."

Agreed. For example, look at how the data for the CCT shows hardly any traffic east beyond Rock Creek to Silver Spring. The data clearly shows the CCT is very ineffective as a connection between Bethesda and Silver Spring, and a much better trail is needed east from Rock Creek.

by Wayne Phyillaier on May 12, 2014 12:57 pm • linkreport

This data has some value for sure, but I think Dan is right that it needs to be discounted a bit. Smart planners will know how to use it.

by David C on May 12, 2014 1:13 pm • linkreport

An interesting thing about the map: Take a look at the Netherlands, where utility cycling outweighs recreational cycling by a longshot. I wonder if Strava is some kind of fad in NL - teenagers linking it to Facebook to see where their friends are hanging out, perhaps? No lack of data on all kinds of bike trips there.

Maybe Strava should market to different user groups (e.g., Facebook's users) as a fun thing to do for reasons other than earning KOMs in segments... especially they want the data to be more valuable to American planners.

by KG on May 12, 2014 1:31 pm • linkreport

I agree it's not useless, it just needs to be used in context, say with Capital Bikeshare data and bike counts at all times of day not just 8-6.

by BTA on May 12, 2014 2:08 pm • linkreport

On a different context - unfortunate to see some of this heat map data showing bike usage along walking only trails in sensitive environmental areas.

by Lord Baltimore on May 12, 2014 2:10 pm • linkreport

How does strava differ from apps like runkeeper? I try to get a bike ride in every weekend for some physical activity (usually just in loops around my neighborhood in Alexandria). I use runkeeper to keep track of my rides and distances. I had never heard of this app until reading this.

I think that there is probably more to gain from using usage derived data. Even if the riders are a subset of the total population of riders, it provides some information that was not provided before. Wouldn't it be better to try and either design an app that captures more information (not sure what else you would want personally but I have not given this much thought/am no expert), or encourage more people to use this app, instead of shoot it down?

by AVA lifer on May 12, 2014 2:19 pm • linkreport

Many Strava users are just logging their miles, not competing. The data, even skewed toward athletes, are very useful to point out to the clueless that people actually do ride in our area, even out in the suburbs. You may have to zoom in a bit to see, compared with Hains Point, but it's really helpful.

We actually need more commuters to log their rides to help even out the heatmap.

by Greenbelt on May 12, 2014 2:29 pm • linkreport

This is very handy for finding new ideas for bike routes. I'm also finding comparisons with other cities to be interesting. Relatively few cyclists go on recreational rides to the suburbs in NYC for instance. In Boston, far more riders seem to go on rides on local roads while in the DC area outside the beltway, with the exception of a few roads in Montgomery County, everyone mostly stays on the bike paths.

by alex on May 12, 2014 2:36 pm • linkreport

I think people use it for jogging as well so they probably aren't mostly biking where not allowed I would hope. That probably also calls into question it's use for bike planning.

From their website: "Track all your runs and rides, set personal records and beat your friends' times."

by BTA on May 12, 2014 2:37 pm • linkreport

@BTA: The heatmap allows users to toggle between cycling/walking/both. Granted, there's probably a bit of error in the data since users will occasionally mis-label their trip modes.

by KG on May 12, 2014 2:42 pm • linkreport

I use Strava to track rides just so I can see where I go. I don't use it for the segment tracking or leaderboards or any of that stuff.

But yes, I am mostly using it on longer rides and not a quick ride to the store or something short.

I think one of the big questions this data brings up is - what kinds of tools can be developed that can help transportation agencies collect bike trip data from people to fill in the gaps in Strava data?

by MLD on May 12, 2014 2:43 pm • linkreport

This map correlates very highly with Favored Quarter and Favored Quarter-adjacent places in both the D.C. and Baltimore regions. Why is that?

by Cavan on May 12, 2014 4:23 pm • linkreport

Tip: Switch to heatmap style yellow. I think it's much easier to read.

by alex on May 12, 2014 5:37 pm • linkreport

Looking at some of the areas near me, at least some of the users are not Freds and are people tracking regular trips (see along Telegraph Rd and Richmond Hwy). Cheers!

by Thad on May 13, 2014 9:31 am • linkreport

Uh oh, City of Frederick is going to have a sh1t fit about all the "unofficial" trails in the Frederick Watershed being mapped out like this. First rule of riding in the 'shed is, you don't make a map of the 'shed.

by joe_bloe on May 13, 2014 11:53 am • linkreport

I'm surprised that the upper Rock Creek trail isn't used more. The "heat" fades to almost nothing north of Garrett Park Road. Maybe there needs to be a connection to the roads/trails in the Olney/Laytonsville area, which appear more heavily used.

@ joe_bloe - Melodramatic much?

by Frank IBC on May 13, 2014 2:27 pm • linkreport

The map shows no activity at all, on the 5-1/2 mile, paved Henson Creek Trail, down in Fort Washington, MD. Doesn't that get any use?

by slowlane on May 14, 2014 11:59 am • linkreport


If you zoom in you can see it.

The colors are all relative to the highest-use place visible on the map.

by MLD on May 14, 2014 12:16 pm • linkreport

The data could be processed by color-coding the blue traces to be an indication of the average speed along short segment of the route. This would tend to indicate speedy 'fitness' areas vs. slower (in general) commuter areas.

by RD on May 15, 2014 10:42 am • linkreport

Strava posted up a faq about the Strava Metro product:

From what i can tell this is not just racers. i think ill give it a go.

by Causal_rider on May 15, 2014 3:30 pm • linkreport

Im a recreational cyclist with a carbon fiber road bike and all the gear and have been unemployed for awhile now so no we aren't all rich just not addicted to drugs or alcohol

by Sam on Dec 3, 2014 1:12 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

We are switching over to our new website. Commenting on the old site is now disabled. Thank you for your patience and pardon our dust!

Support Us