How representative are Strava bike commuters? Lessons from Santa Clara
The Metro team is often asked if the folks logging commute trips on Strava are representative of average bike commuters. After all, our community contains some professional athletes and cycling enthusiasts as well as commuters.
Several studies comparing electronic bike counters to Strava Metro data have shown a strong correlation between the two, suggesting that Metro data can be a valuable sampling tool in understanding what’s happening.
But an important reason Metro customers work with us is in order to analyze where new infrastructure is needed, and one of the ways they do this is by looking at where people choose to ride, and where they avoid. Since bike counters aren’t free, they can’t be installed in every seldom-used corner of a city or state, and many of our customers use Metro to understand the places counters can’t reach.
This analysis is only helpful, though, if Strava commuters ride similarly to the average commuter.
So we wanted to ask the question — do Strava users commute differently? Does a person who has chosen to join a community of athletes feel more confident on the road, take the fastest possible route regardless of conditions, and therefore have less need for safe bike infrastructure?
We analyzed traffic patterns in Santa Clara County — the largest Bay Area County at 1.9 million people — to find out what types of road Strava commuters choose to use, ranging from dedicated multi-use paths to roads without bicycle facilities, and compared this to national trends.
How “Stressful” is This Ride?
Many communities use a Level of Traffic Stress (LTS) ranking of 1–4 to determine the suitability of roadways for cycling, based on characteristics such as car traffic speed, the type of bicycle facilities and intersection controls.
A roadway with a LTS ranking of 1 is considered to be a route that would comfortable to bike riders of all ages and abilities — usually a separated bike lane or a multi-use path that is a paved path with its own right-of-way. Conversely, an area with a rating of LTS 4 may have no bike facilities and high traffic volumes.
This kind of analysis matters because as many researchers — such as Jennifer Dill at Portland State University — have found that the majority of people are much more likely to ride a bike if they had access to safe infrastructure.
Dill divided people into four categories, and found that most people fell into either the “Interested but concerned” or “enthusiastic and confident” category, and could benefit from better infrastructure. Only 7% of people fit into a category called “strong and fearless”, who would ride regardless of infrastructure, while 31% were people were classed as “no way no how” because they either did not have the physical ability to ride a bike or would not consider it under any circumstances.
So what kind of riders are Strava commuters, and what does that tell us about infrastructure needs?
How Strava Users Ride in Santa Clara
We analyzed Strava activities in Santa Clara County in July 2018 to see if Strava users favored low or high stress routes, and how that compared to the stated preferences of people across different metropolitan areas.
Santa Clara, which includes the City of San Jose, is the largest county by population in the San Francisco Bay Area with over 1.9 million people, and about 1.7% of residents commute by bike, according to the American Community Survey. It’s worth noting that the area has invested a lot in low-stress network connectivity as part of the Valley Transportation Authority’s long range bicycle planning.
LTS 3 & 4 (High Stress)
On the highest stress routes, Strava users tend to correlate fairly closely with the national numbers. Only 12% of Strava users tend to use roads with little separation from vehicles. Where the national survey differs from observed Strava usage is in the LTS 3 category — a busy road with a narrow bike lane or shoulder — with 28% of the total Strava users for July on a road with LTS 3 where nationally only 8% of people prefer this type of road. This may be because this type of bicycle facility is the second-most available type (13% of the total network).
LTS 1 & 2 (Low Stress)
The largest category of bikeway in Santa Clara is a road with a wide or buffered bike lane (74% of the network) or LTS 2, and was used by a third of Strava users. Santa Clara County has an extensive trail network of LTS1 multi-use paths, which are trails completely separated from roadway traffic. About a quarter category of Strava users at 26% take advantage of these facilities, which is surprising given they represent only 6% of the total network.
Although Strava users skewed towards the much more widely available LTS 2 facilities, 59% of Strava users chose to ride on either LTS 1 and LTS 2 facilities, which maps closely to the 51% of cyclists identified by Dill as being willing to cycle but highly influenced by the availability of facilities.
Of course, it’s not a perfect comparison because the national survey asked people about their willingness to ride based on the theoretical availability of facilities, but Strava users can only ride on what already exists.
Nevertheless, the analysis suggests that like most people, most cyclists on Strava would prefer to ride on bike facilities that are safer and more accessible for everyone. It also suggests that if Santa Clara county were to make investments in some of its LTS 3 & 4 facilities, more people would use those facilities and more people would likely cycle overall.