Dr Glen Fuller, Pedal Power ACT

8 Feb 2017 - 12:00 PM 

There are Strava advocates and Strava haters. As a cycling enthusiast who commutes every day, I use it to track every ride I do. One of my friends is a keen amateur ultra-endurance triathlete and even though he has a flash bike and all the gear, he is staunchly opposed to Strava. I often congratulate him on big rides when he posts about them on Facebook. Whenever I teasingly ask if he is on Strava yet, he replies he is “NEVER going to use Strava”.

Strava is an activity-tracking and analytics platform that allows users to upload data produced by the Strava smartphone app or a GPS tracking device. The key difference compared to other similar platforms (such as Garmin Connect) is that Strava is also a social platform organised around interacting with other people’s activities and it has a very large user base. Users can give each other ‘Kudos’ (Strava’s version of a ‘Like’) and leave comments. The platform has matured in a number of ways over the years. There is now a more convenient metadata and content-sharing relationships with other platforms.

What is the Problem?
The problem with Strava is that it reproduces a social context associated with hard-core sporting and leisure enthusiasts, and normalises the cultural values associated with competition. Strava has expanded from cycling and running to include a range of sport-based leisure activities that are organised around the effort of users, and framed in the context of previous activities and comparable activities of other users. The targeted enthusiast market will see nothing wrong with this at all. It is a feature, not a bug.

Rides are divided into segments, and users can compare how they have performed in each of their segments with pretty much every other user who has ridden that segment. You can set goals for target times on any of the flat or uphill segments. Strava removed the goal-setting for downhill segments in response to a series of incidents involving serious injuries and deaths.

Premium users can filter the results according to age and weight; what a Strava designer reportedly described as a ‘dad filter’. The ‘dad filter’ revives a sense of competition for middle-aged men, and allows them to perform a form of masculine persona coded with virility and mastery. ‘Competition’ in this context is not necessarily of an organised event or virtual ‘challenge’, but a social relation created between users from the feeling of ‘competitiveness’.

Similar to the way you can ‘friend’ anyone on Facebook, but you don’t necessarily become actual friends with them, Strava users can ‘compete’ without ever really being in competition. Facebook ‘friends’ are a new and very real social relationship, but they are not the same as friendships before social media. ‘Competition’ through Strava borrows a terminology from an established set of sport-based leisure practices (i.e. cycling) to capture a sense of a new cultural activity.

Smart Future of Active Travel
As part of an email exchange about Ride to Work Day a few years ago, a senior semi-professional Australian cyclist suggested to me that creating a ‘club’ on Strava was futile and will not encourage increased cycling participation rates. For that, they insisted, we should join an actual cycling club or encourage colleagues to join Pedal Power ACT. Strava clubs are designed to group together athletes to recreate a localised social context that is more specific than the categories through which premium Strava users can compare their activities (age and weight).

Strava turns cycling into a platform for middle-aged men to experience the satisfaction of ‘competition’. What if Strava or another app turned cycling into a platform for all bike riders, not just the archetype of the middle-aged male cyclist? What if cycling became a platform that was useful for cycling organisations and urban planners to better understand the massive unmet demand for regular bike riders?

The Cycling Environment
First, cycling would be less about the effort of individual riders framed in the context of others and become more about the cycling environment. Bike riders need information about the actual environment; regular Canberra bike riders could learn about smashed glass on roads, overflowing creeks flooding shared paths or trees that have fallen across paths overnight.

Adaptive Scheduling
Second, like adaptive scheduling of public transport timetables, bike riders need to know what the estimated conditions and times based on the actual pathways ridden. Strava’s urban planning package of aggregated and anonymised rides, Strava Metro, attempts to address this niche.

Strava Metro condenses all the problems with Strava. For example, the sample Metro package Strava provided me is from Melbourne and the demographic information provided on the riders counted in the sample was 90 per cent male. It does not help address the core problem with modelling future increased cycling participation on existing sets of bike riding practices. (There is some research to suggest that middle-aged male riders will take the safest paths most of the time, but this is mostly a speculative attempt to adapt a biased dataset.)

A different sense of achievement
Third, a reworked sense of accomplishment. What becomes of ‘Kudos’ and beating one’s own ‘Personal Records’ for segments? How much of an achievement is riding every day to work? If a family can reduce their car ownership to one car and prove this through a documented app tracking all of their non-motorised transportation, should they receive a discount on rates from the government?

Strava has come a long way in its short lifespan, but it still has a way to go before it becomes a valuable tool for all bike riders – not just those who fall within the dad filter.

Dr Glen Fuller is an assistant professor at the University of Canberra, in Journalism and Communications. His research interests include discourse and media events, innovation, and enthusiasm – and, of course, cycling.