How Strava, the App for Athletes, Became an App for Cities (Fast Company Design)

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Strava built a popular social network for millions of runners and cyclists. But more than 100 cities and states are quietly working with the app, too.

Every 40 days, a million people join Strava. It’s a staggering number for a niche social network aimed at athletes– but then again, Strava came along at the right time. The company, which was founded in 2009, has grown up alongside a groundswell of new cyclists and walkers in communities around the U.S. By some counts, commuting by bike has grown by more than 60% over the past decade, with walkers also increasing by leaps and bounds. While Strava’s core users tend to be athletes, it actively courts commuters as well: About half of the activities recorded through its app are commutes, rather than workouts.

Four years ago, the company launched a visualization tool meant to engage its users. It was a heat map–a mapping interface of route data that let you explore the frequency of routes taken around the world.

Strava was surprised to find that it wasn’t just users who were interested in the heat map: It was cities and states. “[We] had a lot of transportation departments reaching out to us, saying, ‘Hey, we could actually use a deeper dive into the same data, so we can better lobby for new infrastructure. We need to prove behavior change after new infrastructure is built, and we really need to drill down to [rider] counts, and temporal detail of time of day and day of week,” remembers Strava’s Brian Devaney. Soon, they found themselves figuring out a way to make all that data useful not for its athletes, but for planners and policy-makers. “That really launched us into figuring out, okay, how do we aggregate and anonymize and provide it back in a format that’s helpful for city planners?” Devaney says.

That’s how Strava Metro–tagline “commutes count” – was born. This small branch of the company, which comprises about nine full-time employees compared to Strava’s 140 employees, was created to help cities make use of its massive trove of data about the way cyclists and walkers navigate streets. Devaney is the sales and marketing lead for the burgeoning wing of the app, which has seen similarly exponential growth. Within a year of the heat map’s launch, Metro was working with about 30 city and state agencies and departments to sell its data.

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Written by Long Branch Mike