Cities across the United States are beginning to use data collection apps to build safer streets and bike paths, NPR reports. In the past, urban planners struggled to collect data on actual bike path and sidewalk usage, but now, route-tracking apps allow urban planners to make changes based on the real experiences of bicyclists and pedestrians.

Apps like Strava Metro and CycleTracks work like many workout trackers, allowing bicyclists and joggers to chart their routes and workout progress—but they also collect, anonymize, and aggregate data, sending it to local transportation departments for analysis. The apps collect data on which bike paths are the most popular, and which routes people are most likely to take when they jog or bike. In this way, they allow urban planners to ensure that the most popular bike paths are safe as well as identify routes that need work.

In recent years, the increased popularity of bicycle commuting has inspired many cities to work to make their streets bike friendly. While some have introduced bike-sharing programs to make bikes more accessible, others have turned to cutting edge-technologies. Rotterdam, for instance, has begun installing traffic lights with rain sensors, to cut down on bike commuters' traffic stops on rainy days. Apps like Strava Metro and CycleTracks, meanwhile, are some of the first to use mobile app data collection for urban planning.

NPR explains that Strava Metro helped city planners in Portland, Oregon analyze pedestrian and cyclist usage of the new Tilikum Crossing bridge. By studying the ways in which actual cyclists and pedestrians were utilizing the bridge, the city was able to identify the best places to build pathways. "Before you can make changes, you have to know what is going on," Strava Metro co-founder Michael Horvath told NPR.

While Strava Metro and CycleTracks are still relatively new resources for urban transportation departments, many are hopeful that they will help transportation planners to make changes that reflect the real needs of city dwellers. Alex Dodds of the advocacy coalition Smart Growth America told NPR that apps like Strava Metro are providing much-needed information on bicyclist and pedestrian habits.

"It was really hard for us to get answers because so few transportation agencies collect information about what happens after you added a bike lane," Dodds said. "There is just not enough data out there about who is biking, and where they are biking, and where they walk."

[NPR]