AI Used to Map Openness to Cycling as Transport

An AI generated map that indicates openness to cycling as transport in England

Researchers at German advanced computing organisation Forschungsgruppe für verteilte Taschenrechnerkraft have used distributed artificial intelligence (AI) to predict those areas where people are most likely to be receptive to infrastructure plans that facilitate and encourage cycling. The system uses an army of small computers running as part of the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing to build a map from vast amounts of digital data. The darker the colour on the AI-generated map, the higher the probability people will respond positively during consultations. Looking at the entire country, it should be no surprise to see London, Bristol, Oxford, Cambridge, and Manchester are dark blue, these all being cities where cycling is taking off in a big way. On that scale Birmingham doesn't look like a great place to start building for cycling, but neither does Leicester, where much progress is being made. Zoom in on Birmingham (map below), and the AI tool reveals that there is in fact plenty of scope for making progress in Birmingham.

Designing a low traffic neighbourhood or a cycleway with sufficient detail that people can make an informed choice requires a lot of work by highly knowledge people who are in short supply in this country. That work of course implies significant expenditure on remuneration. So to spend a long time designing something that wont get past the consultation stage is a huge waste of resources. This became all to apparent years ago during the Birmingham Cycle Revolution days. The consultations for schemes to the north of the city centre typically just received nothing but objections from private hire drivers, whereas those in the south received a higher level of constructive comments from people who wanted to cycle. This is reflected in the AI-generated map.

It is laudable that the city council would like to build cycling infrastructure evenly across the city, because that would be helping parts of the city where people are in transport poverty and yet suffer the most from air pollution, but sadly that is doomed to be a huge uphill struggle. It would be far better to start in the darker areas of the map, and build outwards from them, sneaking into the areas where consultations will be met with an armed response. I've long been of the opinion that there are places within the city that should be used as cycling infrastructure nuclei, but this AI-generated map shows clearly where those nuclei are. Of the darker areas, Harborne and the city centre stand out. This implies these would be good places to build infrastructure, and it would be sensible to concentrate on linking them. What has actually happened is that Harborne is mostly hostile to cycling, and the city centre has become harder to cycle around over the past few years. Ironically much of the blame for cycling in the city centre lies with the tram obsession, and it is the tram network that is edging its way very, very slowly and very expensively towards Harborne. A cycleway could be built far more quickly and for a much lower cost. One was planned as part of BCR, but never implemented, and now it likely never will be because the tram will block cycle routes has it has done in the city centre. There is an active travel connection via Harborne Walkway and the canal, but it is unlit, unsuitable for women (who in general find these isolated unlit paths threatening), and unsuitable for unconventional cycles (which are often used by people with disabilities).

Look closer at that area of blue to the South-West of the city centre, and Selly Oak, Bournville, Stirchley, Moseley, and Kings Heath stand out as being darker blue. Most of the Push Bikes committee members happen to live in or near Bournville, and the Bournville/Selly Oak/Harborne area is relatively over-represented by measurement nodes on the Sensor Community air quality map (indicating people who are actively concerned about air quality). Selly Oak and Bournville now benefit from two cycle routes between Selly Oak and the city centre, and you only have to go a little further east to Stirchley to find a third option, the venerable Rea Valley route. That suggests a positive attitude to cycling. The A38 cycleway from Selly Oak is significantly more heavily used than the similarly high quality A34 cycleway (which passes through a lighter coloured area on the map). Whilst Bournville was historically built as low traffic neighbourhoods, Kings Heath is home to two of the modern, controversial variety; imagine how much push-back they would have received in, say, Bordesley Green. Oh, wait, isn't Bordesley Green where the council are attempting a half-baked traffic reduction scheme? It badly needs something, but good luck with that! Judging from the map (and my own personal intuition), the plans for Bournbrook, Bournville, Cannon Hill, and Moseley will likely be more warmly welcomed, though given that the the plans generally fall well below the standards set by the A38/A34 cycleways Birmingham City Council have opened themselves to heavy criticism from people who are currently using or seriously considering cycling as transport.

Go to the far north of Birmingham, and you'll see that Sutton Coldfield also represents a significant area of blue, implying that it would be worthwhile building out cycling infrastructure centred on the royal town. Alas in the cycling world it's most famous for that utter pigs ear on Banners Gate Road.

Of course the AI system doesn't capture everything. It does not include the effect of handing out free cycles to lower income people for a few years, as the city council did with its Big Birmingham Bikes (BBB) scheme. However, the city council (hopefully) knows where they went, and they certainly know the effect they had (more people wanting cycling infrastructure). It's possible there is a core of people in Bordesley Green with BBB bikes who would welcome a more cycle-friendly neighbourhood. My own personal experience of Bordesley Green is of cars being driven everywhere, including along the pavement when there was no space left on the carriageway. That car-sickness matches what the map indicates. Reprogramming car-brain will require much gentle nudging.

So what do you think? Do you think Birmingham City Council should be applying artificial intelligence to building for cycling?


Openness to Cycling as Transport in Birmingham

An AI generated map that indicates openness to cycling as transport in Birmingham
The darker the colour, the more likely are people in that area going to be receptive to plans that facilitate and encourage cycling.