Help Make Cycling Better In Boston: Suggest Smartphone Apps

Written by Boston Biker on Feb 28

I was recently contacted by some people who are developing some prototype apps for smart phones. They have the possibility of being released by the city and are going to be cycling oriented, here is the write up.


Your smartphone is a sophisticated, connected sensor platform. The City of Boston is rolling out apps to improve quality of life through its “new urban mechanic” initiative. Through apps like Citizens Connect, we can report graffiti, get streetlamps fixed, and (maybe) even automatically detect potholes. I am working on a project with Nigel Jacob, owner of the mechanic project. As a cyclist, I’m prototyping a mobile app that will make life better for bikers in Boston. If it looks good, his department may invest the time to release it as a production-quality system. This would be a great and low-cost way for the Mayor to follow through on his promise to make the city a “cyclist’s dream.”

Here’s my question for you: What do you want? How can we help? What cycling frustrations could be solved with a mobile app? A few ideas to start the conversation:

  • Need: finding bike lanes. Help with route planning.
  • Frustration: cars parked in bike lanes. Submit photos of offenders? Automatically detect swerving into traffic when in a bike lane?
  • Need: automatic dispatch of police/ambulance after an accident. Detect sudden deceleration followed by extended immobility, message 911 with current location.

How can we use technology and the support of the city to make this a great place for cyclists?


Now Karl makes some good suggestions, but I feel like some of them (the auto 911 calling, and the auto detection of swerving) might be a little hard to lock down, like what if you had your phone in your bag and then threw it down then left it there, you don’t need your phone freaking out and calling 911 for you.

Here are some suggestions I have.

  • A “just crashed” button. Often when people crash they suffer injuries or get damage to their bike that they don’t notice till later because of the adrenaline and the sudden nature of the whole thing. Pressing the button would walk you through a checklist of what you should do after the crash. For instance the first thing is asks you is if you need to call 911, if you press yes it records your location and calls 911 with that info. If you don’t need 911 it walks you through a post crash checklist. Having you take pictures of the scene, the licenece plate of any cars involved, making audio notes of what happened, marking your location, taking pictures of your bike etc, a place to enter the other parties info, etc. It would also send the location of the crash to the city along with a note about what happened so that the city could record what intersections/locations are dangerous and why.
  • A Road issue button., a button you could push that would record your location, and let you take a picture and send it to the city, along with notes about what is wrong. Potholes, poorly places grates, double parking issues, whatever. This would send three bits of info to the city, your gps location, your picture, and your text notes. Could also have pre-configured categories (road/driver/other etc.) to help the city collect data on what problems happen most often and in what locations.
  • A “thank you/like” button. This would be like the road issue button, only it would let you report things you like that the city has done recently. New bike lanes, new bike parking, etc. Besides just telling the city what you like, this could be tied into twitter/facebook/share on blogs etc. It would let you post stuff you like about the city, or things you like the city has done.
  • Submit your route button. Would allow you to record via gps and submit your daily commute to the city/website. This would allow the city to see where people are riding the most, and help them plan what streets might need bike lanes. You could also use the info the help build bike route maps online.

Feel free to leave your own in the comments. Karl will be checking them out and potentially incorporating some of them.

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Posted in advocacy, fun, infrastructure, Mechanical, Questions | 13 Comments »

13 Responses to “Help Make Cycling Better In Boston: Suggest Smartphone Apps”

  1. By h4ckw0r7h on Feb 28, 2011 | Reply

    For photographs of cars parked in bike lanes, has a read-only API that’s published; the developers may have an unpublished read-write API. It would be optimal if this app could publish to, which is already widely used for photographs of bicycle lane violations.

  2. By john on Feb 28, 2011 | Reply

    I would love to be able to find places on the go where I can fix a flat or at least inflate my tires. MIT has a few bike tool stations along mass ave that I’ve used that are open to the public, just tools and pumps chained to a rail. And some bike shops, like Revolution in JP, have a bike pump you can use from the sidewalk. It would be great if this would help encourage the city to install a few of these repair stations.

  3. By Ben on Feb 28, 2011 | Reply

    I think all of BostonBiker’s suggestions are excellent.

    I would second Karl’s proposal of a feature to report cars in bike lanes.

    Similarly, a way to report the license plate, car/driver description, and type of encounter would be great for tracking dangerous/illegal/intentionally aggressive drivers. While I don’t envision police necessarily being able to use this alone as reason for citing or arresting someone, it could be very useful in tracking ‘chronically negligent’ drivers who could then be targeted for increased education by the police/city government.

    Finally, to play off John’s idea, an interactive map with various layers that could be turned on or off would be great. Bike shops, obviously, but also repair stations (like at MIT) and bike rack locations. A really great feature would be a map that shows businesses friendly to cyclists, such as those that accept Bicycle Benefits, have their own bike parking, or even allow bicycles to be brought inside (such as some cafes). Much, if not all, of this data could be user generated, with unverified information labeled as such until verified by a city employee, business owner, a moderator (could be a ‘trusted’ cycling advocate w/ elevated privileges), or enough votes from other users.

  4. By karl on Feb 28, 2011 | Reply

    Good suggestions, all.

    @h4ckw0r7h, that’s good to know about the API. Why reinvent the spoked wheel?

    @john/@ben – I like the idea of aggregating service information for cyclists. If you had a direct line to city hall, would you want to be able to request services in certain places too?

  5. By Ben on Feb 28, 2011 | Reply

    Personally, I probably wouldn’t use a feature like that. I’m pretty self reliant when it comes to cycling and bicycle repair, so actual “services” aren’t things I can see myself requesting.

    But if “services” is broadened to include things like bike racks or bike lanes/sharrows, though, then I would probably find it useful. It’s definitely not uncommon to find yourself in a part of town that’s clearly frequented by people on bikes but that has nowhere to lock up, and crowd-sourcing where to place (at least some of) the new racks would be a best-bang-for-the-buck, win-win situation for both cyclists and the city.

  6. By Jon on Feb 28, 2011 | Reply

    aggressive driver app. snap a pic of a bad driver’s license plate, and have it automatically uploaded and databased to a website. that way when you get to a computer you can look up that driver’s plate and report him / her. If a driver’s plate # has been entered several times, an automatic alert could be sent to the police dept. of whichever jurisdiction the driver’s plate is registered.

    (some of this is wishful thinking)

    Wouldn’t it be nice if after say 3 strikes, the state would make a driver re-take their driving test, or take a share the road / safety seminar… dreaming.

  7. By Joseppi on Feb 28, 2011 | Reply

    Might be helpful if you could comment on places to get the mounting hardware for an iPhone or other device. Anyplace local? Particular recommendations? /THANKS!

  8. By CL on Feb 28, 2011 | Reply

    Real time updates of bike path ice/snow conditions would be useful- thanks

  9. By Peter on Feb 28, 2011 | Reply

    How about red light reporter for the clown who dodges cars while blowing through red lights giving all bikers a bad name!

  10. By karl on Mar 1, 2011 | Reply

    Thanks all for the thoughts. The “new urban mechanic” ideal is to make city services transparent to citizens. Some of the ideas here require the participation of law enforcement – I’ll have to investigate how that group interfaces with the police. Requesting a bike rack, requesting a bike lane, or especially reporting a bad bike rack seems like it’s right up the group’s alley. Let’s see where this goes…

  11. By Peter on Mar 1, 2011 | Reply

    Wouldn’t a bike rack or bike lane request app be a bit of overkill? You can spend 30 seconds sending an email to the city website and it’s available to anyone with an internet connection.

  12. By Heather Galloway on Mar 2, 2011 | Reply

    DriveMeCrazy -A voice-activated app for iPhone to report unsafe drivers by reciting the offender’s license plate into the app – automatically pinpoints your date/time/location. Enter the details and the info is submitted to DMV & made available to insurance companies.

  13. By Homey on Mar 3, 2011 | Reply

    As a guy looking for different options to commute to into Boston from Metro West, I’d love an easy way to find proven, safe riding routes. Guided nav for those routes would be a major bonus!

    All of the other suggestions are awseome as well, this type of app – if done right – could be a fantastic asset!

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