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Cyclist's little helper

Graduating geography student develops sophisticated algorithm for routing cyclists to LRT stations

Mark Pfeifer, a geography student who is graduating today with his Masters of Geographic Information Systems (MGIS) degree, has developed an algorithm that promotes sustainable mobility, encouraging commuters to use bicycles and public transit. Photo by Riley Brandt

By Heath McCoy 
November 12, 2015

At a time when the City of Calgary is moving towards accommodating its growing number of cycling commuters with more bicycle lanes — to the chagrin of many — it would seem that geographer Mark Pfeifer has tapped into an issue that is both timely and pragmatic with his innovative master's project.

Pfeifer, who is graduating today with his Masters of Geographic Information Systems (MGIS) degree, has developed an algorithm designed to help city planners identify the potential commuting areas (technically termed commuter sheds) that cyclists might use to access the nearest LRT station. The algorithm can also help different types of cyclists find the routes best suited to them within those commuter sheds.

“My focus was in looking towards the city planning side of things,” says Pfeifer. “I’ve created a tool that planners can use to evaluate alternative cycling routes and perhaps sell the public on those projects. If you can give people a comprehensive map that shows how a theoretical bike lane could improve access for cyclists, it may actually help to get those lanes built.”

The algorithm also promotes sustainable mobility, encouraging commuters to use bicycles and public transit.

The algorithm for routing cyclists in Calgary was first developed by another University of Calgary MGIS student, Andrew Pike, who graduated in 2013. Pike developed it as an alternative to Google Maps and OpenStreetMap, designed for cyclists.

It was Pfeifer’s idea to utilize Pike’s algorithm and modify it so that it was concentrated specifically on identifying the cycling commuter sheds for the LRT stations in northwest Calgary. Pfeifer focused on the city’s northwest quadrant to make the huge scope of his project more manageable as he collected a great mass of data about the various pathways and roads, but the algorithm can also be applied to Calgary’s other quadrants.

Pfeifer believes that Pike’s routing tool is more sophisticated than either Google Maps or OpenStreetMaps, as it factors in far more variables of travel for cyclists. Such variables include the amount of energy it takes to travel along different routes, taking into account factors from the steepness of hills to the challenges of paved versus non-paved roads.

The algorithm even calculates the “safety cost” of being on a bicycle pathway versus a city street, giving consideration to the density of traffic and the speed limit on the roads. It also calculates how long it would take for cyclists to travel on the various routes.

Furthermore, all calculations are specifically tailored to individual bikers, depending on their cycling style. Pfeifer’s algorithm recognizes three different types of cyclists, “fearless, confident and interested.”

“Fearless riders are willing to travel almost anywhere,” explains Pfeifer. “They might be happy biking down Crowchild Trail. They don’t get nervous. They account for about two per cent of Calgarians. Then, there’s the confident, who will cycle on most roads, but given the choice between a pathway and a road, they’ll usually take the pathway.”

Pfeifer notes that about 50 per cent of Calgarians fall into the “interested” category. “Those are the people who will say, ‘Yes, I’d love to cycle to work, but I don’t feel safe given the routes available to me.’ Those are the people who need pathways and cycle lanes.”

At this time, the algorithm is not ready as a marketable product. It was developed in proprietary GIS software and one needs to buy a license to use that software. To do so takes “a fair amount of knowledge of the technology,” says Pfeifer. But with further research and development, the tool could be converted for web use or as an app that city planners and the general public could utilize.

“It has a lot of promise,” says Pfeifer.