A cycling advocacy group is urging bicyclists to map their rides with a popular fitness app so that city planners in Ottawa and Gatineau can absorb the data and use it to design future bike infrastructure.

Both cities have entered into a contract with Strava Metro, which collects and analyzes the GPS data accumulated by users of their free Strava app.

"It started out as an athletic fitness tracking diary, but it's actually turned out to have a really neat secondary function, which is to look at where people are travelling in cities," said Heather Shearer, a spokesperson for Citizens for Safe Cycling.

"We can tell where people want to travel. We can also tell how far out of their way they're going from point A to point B."

strava ottawa heat map cycling gps app

A heat map generated by Strava showing how its users travel through Ottawa. (Citizens for Safe Cycling)

Cyclists who have a smartphone equipped with a GPS device can upload their public trips to Strava, which then anonymously provides the data to cities that are part of their network.

The cities of Ottawa and Gatineau have both signed up for two years' worth of Strava data, according to the City of Ottawa.

The data will be used to "help calibrate our cycling network models and provide insights into routes [and] trip distances" as expansions to the local cycling network are considered, said Zlatko Krstulic, senior project manager with the city's transportation branch, in an email last year.

"Depending on how useful this data set proves to be, this or a similar data-gathering mobile application may become an integral part of future travel behaviour surveys undertaken by the city approximately every five years," Krstulic said.

According to the terms of the agreement, the data set cannot be made public, Krstulic added.

'Mundane, everyday trips'

While Strava and apps like it have been embraced by hardcore fitness junkies, Citizens for Safe Cycling wants regular commuters to use it to map their journeys to the library, the grocery store and other "mundane, everyday trips," Shearer said.

Mapping those trips will give planners a better idea of how cyclists — and pedestrians — interact with the urban environment, especially outside of the downtown where cycling counters already exist, Shearer told Ottawa Morning's Hallie Cotnam.

She said its usage will also remind city officials that people don't just use cars to get around.

"It's a great way for us to say there are people out there walking and riding, and they need to be kept in mind."

With files from Hallie Cotnam