The NGO With The Bicycle Referendum & Its Big Data Relevance

This post is also available in: Deutsch (German)

Have you ever felt so scared to cycle on the streets and wonder how other people are brave enough to do so? Have you ever wished that your city is safe enough for cycling without the risk of being hit by a car? In Germany, there is a sustainable mobility NGO called Changing Cities that aims to change that. The phrase “Do we have the courage to rethink the city?” (in German) is the first thing you see on the homepage of Changing Cities. Hence, this article aims to ride through what Changing Cities is all about and what it has to do with Big Data.

Who is Changing Cities?

Changing Cities eV (eV refers to a registered voluntary association in Germany) is a well-connected, independent organisation that promotes liveable cities, safe cycling, good mobility and traffic transition through its campaigns and projects in Berlin and nationwide.

“A human-friendly city is not determined by traffic noise, offers air that we like to breathe and places that invite you to linger. Mobility in this city is available to all people in the same way. Mobility must not endanger health or life. It is safe, comfortable, climate-friendly and barrier-free.

This also means restrictions on motor vehicle traffic in order to create more space for us humans. The liberated public space is then again available to all residents of the city for playing, celebrating, living and gathering. The good city for everyone is not a distant utopia but rather feasible and necessary.”

The mission statement of Changing Cities (translated from German).

The organisation emerged from the Netzwerk Lebenswerte Stadt eV, which successfully organised the bicycle referendum. Within a few months, cycling became a major topic in the Berlin election campaign thanks to the efforts put into creative actions, a strong voice in the media and the collection of over 100,000 signatures.

The NGO claims that Germany’s first cycling law and the allocation of €600 million to expanding cycling infrastructure by 2030 are a testament to its efforts.

Their campaigns and projects for bicycle-friendly cities

As an organisation that aims to protect the most vulnerable road users, Changing Cities has been holding vigils for cyclists and pedestrians who were injured or killed in traffic.

As part of their bicycle referendum initiative, in March 2016, they held a vigil to commemorate a jeep driver killed by so-called KuDamm speeders. In July 2016, they held the first vigil for a seriously-injured cyclist, and a month later, the first vigil for a killed cyclist took place.

With these vigils, together with the AFDC eV (General German Bicycle Club), they have been commemorating all the cyclists who have been killed in Berlin, giving relatives their condolences and calling on politicians to act immediately.

Until now, Changing Cities has been organising campaigns and supporting Berlin-wide as well as nationwide projects including the Fahrrad Initiativen, which is a networking platform for bicycle associations and experts to tackle the traffic transition in Germany.

#BundesRad to make bicycles safer to use

Among the recent campaigns done by Changing Cities is #BundesRad. It is an alliance of bicycle associations with a common goal to make cycling safer and more attractive for everyone, and thus to improve the quality of life in cities and municipalities nationwide. Through this, Changing Cities represents almost 700,000 citizens who have so far supported the bicycle alliance with their signatures.

On 10th September 2020, the alliance presented its four demands to Gero Storjohann, founder and chairman of the bicycle parliamentary group in the German Bundestag. These demands were also posted on town halls in over 20 municipalities nationwide. Their demands are:

Priority for pedestrians, bicycles and public transport

This demand calls for space and funds to be primarily allocated to pedestrians, bicycles and public transport (the environmental and affordable transport network) instead of motorised individual transport. The public space should be designed to suit the needs of pedestrians, bicycles and public transport users.

Seamless network

A seamless infrastructure is needed to create alternatives to motorised individual transport since the environmental and affordable transport network should be prioritised. The guideline of any traffic planning must be to reduce the number of road deaths and serious injuries to zero through a seamless infrastructure.

Encouraging sustainable mobility through funding

Mobility-related financing policies should be in line with the continent’s climate goals, like the European Green Deal. The direct, indirect and consequential costs of automobility as well as subsidies should be taken into account in all measures.

It’s hard to achieve sustainability in mobility without the support of the legal system. Legislation that acts in favour of sustainable mobility adds pressure for governments to act. Luckily, there seems to be some progress on this side of the movement. A case in point is Tübingen’s Lord Mayor Boris Palmer claiming that his city has increased subsidies for the purchase of new pedelecs (pedal electric bicycles) by €200.

How Big Data rides the bicycle

To enhance the work of protecting cyclists in particular, there are some ways Big Data can help:

Bicycle navigation

Cycling GPS tracking data, crowdsourced cyclist feedback data and on-bike sensor data combined with satellite and weather data provide a whole host of opportunities for Big Data analysis. Referred to as behavioural data, these data are cleaned, normalised, merged and distilled into a data-driven cycling behaviour model, which captures how, where and when cyclists ride.

Bicycle navigation algorithms are not the same as car navigation algorithms because car navigation algorithms are designed to only consider time and distance as criteria for route optimisation. Instead, bicycle navigation algorithms are multi-criteria optimisation algorithms, maybe similar to the multi-dimensional approach in time-series data analysis in the sense that multiple factors are considered. In this way, not only will the bicycle navigation algorithms recommend routes based on distance and time but also based on personalised cycling experience.

And also, it’s very difficult to hold the phone while cycling, so AI-based voice processing would be a great help for cyclists who want to find the best routes without typing.

Designing bicycle-friendly cities

Anonymised mobile phone data can be used to tackle this issue of inefficient data collection and analysis to find out whether cities have disjointed bicycle paths to connect and the issues surrounding bicycle-unfriendly infrastructure. The World Bank teamed up with the Secretaria de Movilidad de Bogota and UC Berkeley to study how mobile phone data can give insights about mobility patterns and inform the design of new infrastructure:

  • They used data from a local fitness app called Biko to analyse bicycle movement in Bogota and identify the biggest gaps in bicycle paths.
  • They mined data from cell towers to further understand overall mobility across all modes of transport including private vehicles, public transport and walking.

The results of this study include:

  • 4.1 million short- to medium-length journeys that could have been ridden using bicycles.
  • A clear link between the presence of bicycle paths and the number of cycling trips tracked through Biko.
  • A link between the gaps in bicycle paths and the number of missed cycling opportunities.
  • The cycling situation varies significantly from one neighbourhood to another in the socioeconomic context. The low-income neighbourhoods cycle less since bicycle paths are less common there.
  • This study concluded that infrastructure investment in the low-income areas and in places with many gaps need to be prioritised.

Why is this such a big wheel deal for us?

Because we believe that people have the right to travel safely and we know that many public transport users are subject to the risk of road travel danger every single time they move between destinations. Moreover, it’s common for cyclists to use public transport while holding their bicycles.

Most cities are not cyclist/pedestrian-friendly to the extent that Changing Cities has a phrase on its website saying, “Yes, we are the ones with the bicycle referendum”, which reflects the dire need for more cities to fulfil the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users. Perhaps, this organisation and the big data use cases mentioned above will serve as inspiration for other countries to rethink their cities too.

In addition to this and how much we value sustainability solutions, legal compliance is also in line with the way we work. Big Data application without compliance is counterproductive to the success of Big Data-driven sustainability projects. However, there seems to be an unspoken thought in many advocacy circles that legislation and governance are not always in favour of a progressive world and it’s very likely that this thought motivates advocates to keep up their advocacy.

If you remember watching Joaquin Phoenix’s acceptance speech at the 2020 Oscars, you’d have heard his wise words describing humans as capable of finding a solution to every problem, especially when driven by a mission to make the world a better place. These words might come in handy in this case.

“… human beings, at our best, are so inventive and creative and ingenious, and I think that when we use love and compassion as our guiding principles, we can create, develop, and implement systems of change that are beneficial to all sentient beings and to the environment.”

an excerpt from Joaquin Phoenix’s 2020 Oscars speech.