Creator of cycling application, CityCyclist, Tom Taylor stopped by the Rapha office recently to discuss where and how app and devices-based technology works for the cyclist.
Could you give some background on your work?
I’m a technologist and engineer – I make things on the internet, for fun, money, and sometimes even both.
By day, I run a small skunkworks team inventing and building digital products at MOO (http://www.moo.com).
When did you decide to build CityCyclist?
I’ve cycled in London for years and love it. I’d like more people to do it too, and thought an iPhone app that helped people find good routes might aid confidence in a small way. There are a few apps out there for cycle navigation, but they’re often quite fiddly and tricky to use. So I made my own.
Did you have to conduct a lot of research or riding around town?
I’ve been lucky enough to have a small group of friends who’ve helped test CityCyclist. They’ve helped me find bugs, improve the design, and told me when it sent them the wrong way down a one way street (now fixed).
Why should I download it?
If you’re new to cycling in a city, hopefully CityCyclist will help you find some good routes to get comfortable with. If you’re an experienced cyclist, it’ll stop you from getting trapped in the same old routes, and maybe help you learn the city.
Does it work worldwide?
It’s UK and Ireland for now, but I’m hoping to be able to open it up to other bits of the world soon.
Can you give us a layperson’s description of how it works and how you built it?
There’s three main bits to the app: finding places to go, working out how to get between them, and an interface that makes that easy to use.
The app finds places using either a postcode/street address search, or by finding a venue in Foursquare’s database. This means you can type in the name of a pub or restaurant and it’ll probably find it.
The working out how to get between places bit is provided by CycleStreets (http://www.cyclestreets.net), non-profit company dedicated to bike navigation. Their service is the best I’ve found. Under the hood it uses OpenStreetMap (http://openstreetmap.org), which is a bit like Wikipedia for maps. If it doesn’t know about a new cycle cut through near you, just go and add it yourself!
And then the interface is all my own work. I’ve tried to make it as clean and simple as possible.
A small detail is the scrubber along the bottom. It shows a hill profile, but when you touch and drag along it, it zooms into that point on the route. It’s a small thing, but now you can quickly fly back and forward along the route, which helps consign it memory and hopefully get your phone out less.
Obviously cycling is a meeting of human and machine, do you think technology can distract from simply going for a leisurely ride (Garmins and so forth)?
Oh, definitely. But if you don’t want to be distracted, take control of your phone. Turn the notifications off, set it to silent and just ride.
Satellite navigation is everywhere now, do you think there is still a place for a good old fashioned paper map?
I think we have to be careful of over romanticising paper maps. I used to go touring with paper maps and it was a proper pain. Stopping every few junctions to check the turning, or pulling it out to find it got soaked in the last rain shower. When I go touring now I use a crappy old Garmin. It’s been dropped at 30mph a few times but it’s still going strong. There’s no sounds, and the screen is dim enough that it doesn’t distract on the bike, but I can squint at it to check my route without stopping. Which keeps my legs spinning and my head up.
(That said, I’d always take a paper map for a long journey, just in case!)
What technologies will make navigation even more automated?
My friend Tom Armitage made a prototype of a device that sits on the handlebars of a hire bike and always points to the nearest docking station with an empty space (http://tomarmitage.com/projects/columba/). It looks like some other folks had a similar idea, and there’s a raft of Bluetooth enabled direction indicators coming out soon, like Smarthalo (http://www.smarthalo.bike) and Beeline (https://beeline.co). Maybe we’ll see this technology built into bike lights before too long.
What do you make of e-bikes?
I think I’ll appreciate them when I’m 80. For now, I like the exercise.
Would you say being a city cyclist makes you enjoy living in the metropolis more?
I would have left London years ago if it wasn’t for my bike.
London is regarded as a perilous place to ride by visitors, but millions do it everyday. Do you think infrastructure needs to change?
I’m not sure I’d characterise it as perilous! Yeah, there’s bad junctions and nasty roundabouts, but it’s mostly possible to get around London hopping between backstreets and residential areas, if you take your time. Of course, there’s no doubt that improving cycling infrastructure will make it safer and better for all, but cycling in London is already great, which is why so many people have taken to it in the last decade.
For London’s transport systems cycling matters, so as long as people who cycle keep the pressure up, it’ll keep getting better and better.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve got an Apple Watch and the walking directions are pretty amazing: a gentle tap on your wrist when it’s time to turn left or right. I’d love to do the same for cycling. Turn by turn directions that are calm, but make you feel like you’ve gained a superpower.