Cycling in the city

After nearly a year of workshops, community consultations and research interviews, MyPlace researchers finalised their ‘Cycling in the City’ report. The main aim was to explore the potential of digital tools for those new to cycling in Newcastle upon Tyne. Rachel Clarke, Wilbert den Hoed and Pete Wright report on the use of social technology to increase confidence among new cyclists and the discovery of new routes.

The report outlines two phases of a design study to explore the potential for digital technology to support local cycling knowledge for new cyclists within the city of Newcastle upon Tyne. Our purpose was to understand how new cyclists describe particular preferences for routes, their technology use and how they plan journeys to support confidence when choosing rides.

We found perceptions of route finding were part of a much wider ecology of activities involving formal and informal training and confidence building. All cyclists described the desire to find new routes, as driven by changes in circumstance, including ageing, health, family and retirement. The impetus to explore was important for people to continue to cycle but depended on geographical, embodied and technical knowledge to guide decision- making. The technology used to support such activity included a range of devices and platforms but focused on connecting and compiling information to build confidence in dealing with issues of safety, complexity and uncertainty. While some people also described their use of fitness tracking devices, others reported using technology to aid distraction and curate the sensory and social experiences associated with cycling. Technical and improvised work-arounds to connect, compile, make-sense of and accommodate the lack of specific localised knowledge of available routes were also reported.

We conclude with possible ways to further develop integrated mobile phone and web platforms, that capitalise on local grass-roots knowledge and sharing of places and routes while respecting the diversity with which new cyclists experience routes. We suggest connecting with existing platforms that support social rides and route discovery to encourage opportunities for curation around a broader set of search terms such as feelings of freedom, views and satisfaction associated with wellbeing rather than searches determined by efficiency, safety and fitness could support greater confidence for new cyclists.

For more information please contact Wilbert den Hoed. This post was originally published on the MyPlace website, where you can also view the full report. MyPlace is a project to explore issues around mobility and place, with a particular focus on age friendly cities, and fits within the wider digital civics theme of digital local democracy and community.

Technology, transport and town hall meetings

As well as being Labour’s MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, Chi Onwurah is interested in both transport and digital technology. The intersection of these two areas falls within Open Lab’s digital civics research, and the potential for technology to transform transport is enormous.

Cycling in Newcastle

Having recently started cycling again, Chi is keen for Newcastle to become more cycle-friendly. She praised the efforts of the Council to promote cycling in Newcastle, and pointed out that the city is steep compared to many others in the UK, making it more difficult for cyclists.

However, in addition to more cycle lanes, and cycle lanes that do more to protect cyclists, Chi would like more awareness around cycling, such as bike maintenance and safety, explaining: “people are still quite astounded when I turn up on a bike, and I think normalising it would help.” This is perhaps an area where digital technology can help,

“I’d like to see better and clearer cycle routes, which are enforced, so you don’t get cars parking in them all the time,” she continued. “I don’t know why they often stick bollards in front of cycle routes, but it feels like you’re negotiating an obstacle course sometimes.”

Digital planning

Another obstacle course that needs negotiating is the planning process. In August Chi organised a Town Hall meeting in Gosforth to discuss the Council’s plans for Blue House roundabout, which were dropped after significant public opposition.

This meeting highlighted Chi’s point that people are most engaged with planning decisions when they disagree. She speculated that digital technology could offer a way of engaging people without first making them angry.

Making meetings inclusive is also important: the people who attended the Blue House roundabout meeting in August “didn’t have childcare or other care responsibilities at that time, and who knew about it, because we put out a few fliers, but I mainly tweeted about it.

“You need to have different ways of engaging with different demographics: those who work evenings, those who have childcare responsibilities, those who aren’t on the internet or don’t use it that much.”

Opening up an online platform for discussion of planning issues could help to balance the difficulties people may face in attending physical meetings, but this is then dependent on internet access. “I think there’s the potential for digital technology to play a really important role in engaging people,” Chi said, adding that she hadn’t yet “seen any really engaging or compelling applications that really do help us out”.

One example of success in this area of engagement is the games industry – “nobody ever has to pay people to play games” – and Chi hoped that this level of engagement could also be achieved in apps and platforms that encourage people to get involved in planning and local decision making.

Whether through games or anger, getting local people involved in planning decisions is a key aim for both Chi and Open Lab’s digital civics researchers. The Blue House roundabout controversy showed the crossover of planning, transport and technology that Chi feels so passionately about.