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What can Bike Share data tell us about Toronto?

Toronto Bike Share users have made 285,384 trips so far in 2014, criss-crossing the city via a network of 80 bicycle docks. In June alone, they pedalled 237,723 kilometres — burning an estimated six million calories in the process — and offset more than 100,000 pounds of carbon.

The numbers are courtesy of Alta Bicycle Share, the U.S. firm charged with operating the city's now-public Bike Share program. Alta recently released a treasure trove of data about how the entity formerly known as Bixi is being used.

"We're committed to getting the best experience for the customer," said Scott Hancock, Alta's general manager in Toronto. "And when you give that data to users, they might come back to you with a different perspective."

Contained within the cache is a wealth of information about Bike Share, including calorie counts, trip times and demographic info about riders. Most importantly, however, it also includes the origin and destination for every trip taken on the network.

Whereas other studies count cyclists at a specific point — for example, the city counts the number of bikes at various intersections — the Bike Share data reveals where cyclists are actually going. In other words, it includes Point A and Point B.

Metro delved into the data, looking for trends, patterns or interesting stories. We also shared our findings with academics and cycling advocates across the city.

"It's fascinating. It actually tells us a lot about Toronto," said Dylan Reid, an editor at Spacing Magazine.

The visualization below shows all outgoing trips from each of the city's 80 Bike Share stations. Stations can be selected from the drop-down menu and the thicker lines indicate a higher volume of trips. What patterns can you find?

If any of the visualizations in this story fail to display properly on your device, click here to view them in a new window.

The most common trip made by Bike Share users is between Gould and Mutual streets adjacent to Ryerson University, and the station at Front and Yonge near Union Station. To date, Bike Share riders have made the trip 1,096 times. The reverse trip, from Union to Ryerson, has been made 980 times.

Dr. Beth Savan, head of the Cycling Think and Do Tank at the University of Toronto, believes the data shows users are engaging in "multi-modal transportation," getting off the GO Train or TTC at Union and riding Bike Share to the university. She also speculated that a lack of bicycle parking near Ryerson acts as an incentive for students and faculty to use Bike Share rather than their own bicycles.

"It's super-congested at Ryerson," she said. "It can take 15 minutes just to find parking for my bike."

The fact that slightly more riders go from Ryerson to the Front Street station alludes to one of the more amusing stories to emerge from the data: overall, there is more traffic heading south than north. The reason, according to Hancock, is simple.

"Toronto's got a little bit of a hill," he said.

Another popular route lies between the edge of the financial district and the two Bike Share stations serving CityPlace, a massive new condo development near Fort York.

"What you're seeing there is a large population with overloaded or not-so-great transit," Reid said. "I had a friend who lived in one of those condos and the TTC hasn't increased capacity on the [508 Lakeshore] streetcar."

Reid believes transit woes — CityPlace residents are also cut off from the King streetcar by the former Railway Lands — coupled with the difficulty of storing a bike in a condo may be pushing CityPlace residents to use Bike Share.

The visualization below contrasts the top 10 trips made by registered vs. casual Bike Share users. Registered riders appear to be commuters, moving primarily to and from Union Station, while casual activity is centered on recreational areas like the lakeshore and the Distillery District.

The data reveals far more than just tales of geography. For example, would you have guessed that roughly 15 per cent of Bike Share trips are made after 9:30 p.m.?

"That one shocked us," said Hancock. "There's a third commute between about 9:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. It's larger than we thought and definitely says that the city is busier for longer than we think.

"As the vehicular traffic in the city becomes less, the bikes seem to come out more," he added.

The graph below shows average Bike Share traffic throughout the day, on both weekdays and weekends. The data is for the month of June, 2014 only.

All those interviewed by Metro felt the data made a business case for expanding Bike Share and integrating it more closely with the TTC. Stations near the network's periphery — for example Sherbourne/Wellesley, Trinity/Front or Queen/Ossington — have a high volume of activity and a diversity of destinations, suggesting a demand for the service outside its current boundaries.

"One of the functions it really addresses is diagonal trips across the grid," observed Cycle Toronto director Jared Kolb. "Bike Share can extend transit by filling in those gaps."

Cycle Toronto lobbied the city to assume ownership of the bike-sharing program after Bixi announced it was on the verge of bankruptcy late in 2013. Now that the service is in public hands, Kolb is optimistic about its future.

"If we view Bike Share as an integral part of our public transit system, the conversation changes around whether it needs to turn a profit," he said. "It's not something that needs to be profitable. Nowhere in the world does transit pay for itself."

The immediate future of the Bike Share program does seem bright, as 22 additional stations are planned for 2015, paid for with a mix of Pan-Am Games funding and development charges.

"Open data is where it's at."- David Hurley

To mark the release of the data, Toronto Bike Share hosted a three-day Hackathon from Aug. 15 to 17. The event brought cycling advocates together with programmers to see what they could build using the information.

"The idea was to bring our data forward and see what people can do to get more people riding bikes in the city," said organizer Bianca Wylie.

Entries ranged from a wearable harness that gives directions through haptic feedback to a more sophisticated algorithm for re-balancing bikes between stations.

Coder David Hurley was part of the team behind Cycle Seek, a browser-based app that rewards users for visiting the city's various Bike Share stations.

"It's a great way for tourists to explore the city, or maybe it's a competition between existing Bike Share riders," he said.

Hurley was drawn to the event by the appeal of open data.

"Open data is where it's at," he said. "In a closed system you don't get the same level of innovation."

Bike Share by the numbers

  • 3,919: The number of registered Bike Share members in Toronto.
  • 285,384: The number of trips made by all users between January and July 2014.
  • $18: The cost of a monthly membership under Alta Bicycle Share's new pricing scheme.
  • 486: The number of trips made in 2014 by Bike No. T01472, the city's most-ridden Bike Share bike.
  • 237,723: The number of kilometres travelled by Bike Share users in June 2014.
  • 6,351,682: The estimated number of calories burned by Bike Share riders in June 2014.
  • 100,445: The total carbon offset (in pounds) for Bike Share users in June 2014.

-With files from Jessica Smith Cross

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