MIT Media Lab Developing Cycling App 

This week I was a research participant in an MIT Media Lab project with the Persuasive Urban Mobility team of the The Changing Places Group. A key goal of the research is driving adoption of environmentally friendly behaviors in cities through persuasive environmental and social factors as well as through technologies that make adopting these behaviors easier. One of the key researchers on the team, Agnis Stibe, describes the concept of persuasive cities in depth in his recent TEDx Beacon Street talk. One example of environmental and social persuasion that he uses in his talk involves posting stats about bicycle commuters crossing the Harvard bridge. If you knew that 2,500 bikers crossed the bridge today (instead of staring at the 5 bikers out your window), that might persuade more car commuters to give biking a try. Commuting by bike would then be viewed as a more normal activity and not something that a weird minority engages in.

The project I participated in was about testing a mobile app protype that hopes to turn skittish / reticent cyclists into more confident urban cyclists through a voice-based coaching app. Eager to improve my own cycling and to mix up my kickscooter routine with some bigger wheels, I signed up to test out the prototype. Project team member Matthias Wunsch greeted me outside the Media Lab and handed me a smartphone and some basic Apple headphones. At first, the coach told me to practice rapid braking. Once I had mastered this move, I was ready to start my urban ride on the busy streets of Kendall Square.

My coach spoke to me at about a frequency of once per minute or so either to remind me about an important safety practice or to let me know that I was doing a good job. You might think listening to a coach while biking would be distracting, but it was not. On the contrary, the expert tips actually made me more attentive than on my ride to the Media Lab. One reason for this is that the app delivers advice dynamically based on the biker’s movements and position relative to vehicles (moving and parked) and pedestrians. The app will be driven by sensors. For the prototype, Matthias was acting as the sensor.

At the end of the session, I did feel an increased level of confidence about biking in the city thanks to my new knowledge. One important lesson I learned is to stay away from parked cars (by at least 1 meter) and to make this a priority on narrow streets, even if it means riding in front of a moving car. Car drivers also need to be reminded and trained to give cyclists their space. Another important tip is reminding cyclists to be careful around pedestrians. I suggested providing even more specific speed instructions when bikers (or anyone on wheels for that matter) come close to pedestrians. Us wheel-based citizens harm ourselves when we scare too many pedestrians; we certainly don’t want the law to restrict cycling in the city further.

I look forward to keeping in touch with the researchers as their prototype progresses. Check out the blog in the future to find out when the Urban Cycling Coaching app will be available for download.

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