blog | 29.04.2020 | David McArthur

Using crowdsourced data to monitor trends in cycling during the lockdown

The spread of COVID-19 has had a profound effect on mobility patterns.

Perhaps the most noticeable impact has been the overall drop in travel demand. Unsurprising given that people are required to avoid non-essential travel. The disruption will not go on forever, but a temporary change to our travel habits could turn into something more permanent (Fujii et al., 2001; Fujii and Kitamura, 2003). This presents challenges and opportunities in the move towards a low carbon transport sector.

Will any increase in active travel be a temporary trend?

Encouraging more active travel would generate several benefits including reduced congestion, improved public health and better air quality. There are reasons why the current situation may increase the rate of active travel. Taking exercise once per day is one of the few valid reasons people have to leave their homes. This may have encouraged people to increase the amount of walking they do, or even to take up running or cycling. I wrote a blog recently which suggested that more people are using Edinburgh’s JustEat rental bikes for exercise. People may become accustomed to these new walking and cycling habits.

Once the current lockdown restrictions are eased, things are unlikely to return to normal immediately. Maintaining social distancing on public transport can be difficult, particularly on busy services. People may opt to walk or cycle more to avoid being close to others. Alternatively, people may opt to drive rather than use public transport. Increasing car dependency would be a retrograde step. It may also be less acceptable to the public. Air quality has improved during the lockdown (see our blog), and people may be reluctant to give that up.

There have been numerous calls for policymakers to act quickly to support walking and cycling: for example, the open letter signed by over 100 transport experts. Data will be crucial in understanding what is happening to travel patterns as the lockdown begins to ease. We have already blogged about monitoring motorised traffic and pedestrian numbers. Monitoring cycling will also be important.

How can we use crowdsourced data to monitor cycling activity?

One valuable source of cycling data, which has global coverage, is the Strava Metro data: crowdsourced cycling data gathered from the activity-tracking app Strava. Data for Scotland is available from the UBDC’s data service. Currently, we have data up to the end of March 2020. Below, I have plotted the volume of cycling (both commuting and leisure) for some of Scotland’s local authorities. Although not all cyclists use Strava, there is relatively good correspondence between counts derived from Strava and manual counts (Livingston et al., Forthcoming).

Image of charts showing relative cycling activity in selected Scottish local authorities: Aberdeen City, City of Edinburgh, Dundee City, Glasgow City, Stirling

The patterns are relatively similar across the different areas. In general, there is quite a lot of inter-day variation. I have smoothed this out somewhat by using a moving average, though some variation is still apparent. The vertical red line shows when the lockdown was implemented.

Even before the lockdown, we can see a decline in the volume of commuting. People had been asked to work from home, if they could, in the week before the lockdown, so this may help explain the pattern. Post-lockdown, commuting reduces to very low levels. However, there has been a large rise in the volume of leisure cycling. This supports the idea that people are turning to cycling for their daily outdoor exercise time.

What will happen when restrictions ease?

As restrictions on mobility ease, it will be important to monitor trends in the data. Will volumes return to pre-lockdown levels? This will depend to an extent on what happens to overall travel demand. A downturn in the economy will tend to depress demand. Another important question is to what extent people will work from home after the lockdown. Many individuals and organisations have adapted rapidly to home-working and have demonstrated that it can be effective. Even if overall travel demand is reduced, a higher share of journeys may be made by bike in part due to the desire to avoid people and in part due to new habits formed during the lockdown exercise periods. Only time, along with data, will tell.


David McArthur

Dr David McArthur is the Associate Director for Training and Capacity Building at UBDC and is a Senior Lecturer in Transport Studies at the University of Glasgow.

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