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Ready, Set, Action: Using 'Active Lifestyle Cameras' in Planning

Active Lifestyle Cameras are increasing in popularity—allowing for people to capture the moment on camera while in action. Now planners can use active lifestyle cameras to study all manner of activities, from use of parks to commuting.
Jennifer Evans-Cowley | February 17, 2015, 6am PST
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Robert Tadlock

Active Lifestyle Cameras, such as GoPro, Lorex, and Drift, have allowed the everyday person new ways to record their activities—whether riding a bicycle, doing stunts on a motorbike, or skydiving. These cameras are now smaller than pocket-sized and can easily be attached to almost anything. And best of all, the price point makes these cameras quite accessible, with prices from $199 and up, depending on the features desired.

Drift Camera

Active Lifestyle Cameras offer a variety of options for securing to objects. For example this camera can be attached to a bicycle helmet

I wanted to experiment with using active lifestyle cameras for planning purposes and decided to put these cameras to the test to capture bicycle commutes. I knew from my own bicycle commutes that motorists and pedestrians don't always follow the rules of the road, and neither did I. Working on a university campus I would hear my colleagues complaining about the horrible behavior of the bicyclists on campus—you’ve probably heard the same thing in your own community. I wanted to understand: Is it really just the bicyclist, or is it everyone on the road? And how bad is the problem? How often are vehicles passing within three feet of a bicyclist? How often do pedestrians jaywalk? How often do bicyclists fail to stop at a stop sign?

To start, I am asking bicyclists are asked to route their bicycle commutes using RidewithGPS, a free routing tool that allows one to route their commute—without actively mapping using a mobile app. This allows you to plan routes in advance and for our purposes allowed us to see the commutes that each bicyclist takes. This makes it much easier to view the video of the bicycle commute, locate the rider, and to understand the types of bike infrastructure available. For example, the commute below includes travel on a multiuse trail, road with sharrow, and roads with no bicycle infrastructure.

RidewithGPS allows users to map a route in advance, or after the fact.

Next is to ask bicyclists to attach the cameras to their bicycles. Annie-Laurie McRee and I piloted the cameras to see how well they would work for our purposes. To test the cameras, I attached them underneath my bicycle seat to capture vehicles passing on the left. One camera was placed on the handlebars of the bicycle to capture the activity in front of the bicycle. The good news is the cameras are easily secured to the bicycle, and I had no fear that the cameras would come loose. The quality of the video is very good. It is very easy to see the activity on the roadway. It did take a little experimentation, as the first try all the video footage was turned sideways, making the footage a little less fun to watch.

Some very early findings (I will share the full results when the study is complete): Vehicles rarely, if ever signal, when they are passing a bicyclist. Of the 19 times I was passed during a 23-minute commute in the evening, not one person used their blinker to signal they were passing. On a positive note, everyone passed at a safe distance. Pedestrians on my university campus are frequent jaywalkers that sometimes don’t bother to look before crossing the street. I also learned that I can become a safer bicyclist by coming to a complete stop!

Examples of behavior choices by travelers

Vehicle failing to signal

Pedestrian jaywalking

Advice on Selecting a Camera

I reached out to Drift and asked them which of their cameras would be a best fit for what I wanted to accomplish. I told them I wanted to attach the cameras to a bicycle and that I want to capture activity happening to the left and front of the bicycle in order to measure the distance that a car is passing or a pedestrian is jaywalking in front of a bicycle. With that information Drift provided several helpful recommendations. Note that there are many active lifestyle camera brands that could certainly serve the purpose of planners. This discussion of Drift offers examples of the features available that could be useful to planners.

  • They recommended the Stealth 2—the smallest, lightest, most unobtrusive camera, which includes a built-in battery with a three hour recording time and 1080p resolution with 30 frames per second. That's more than enough time to capture a person’s commute to and from the campus.
  • They noted that if I wanted an option to record all day, the Ghost-S allows for changing batteries after 3.5 hours of use.
  • They said that for recording at night, the Ghost-S has a low-light mode that provides optimal night-time shooting performance.
  • As for mounting, there are a lot of options depending on how you intend to use the camera. For my purposes, Drift recommended a fixed mounting point to allow for the consistent measurement of distance. This also means that every time I take the camera on I can clip it in in the same place—ensuring the camera is in the exact same position.

I opted for the Stealth 2 because of the price point and its small size, making it easy for participants to toss the camera into their bags in between their commuting trips.

How Will You Use Active Lifestyle Cameras?

Share with us how you have used active lifestyle cameras in planning or how you imagine these cameras could be useful in your work. We have lots of other ideas. For instance, I'd like to walk through the campus with the camera on my head and capture the actions of pedestrians. For instance, how often do people have their heads down texting while crossing the street? Or how often are people wearing headphones oblivious to oncoming traffic honking their horns? They could also be helpful in observing how people use our public plazas and parks.

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