New app detects bikes before you see or hear them

Made you look. Image: Getty.

In the war between bikes and cars, cars definitely have the advantage. They’re bigger, they’re more dangerous, and they’re able to argue that they “just didn’t see” cyclists hovering in their blind spot.

This last factor, though, could be about to change. Bikeshield, a new app, allows car drivers to detect and track motorcycles and bikes before they’re visible in rearview mirrors. If it works, it could prevent them from swerving or making unexpected turns as a cyclist draws alongside.

Here’s how it works. You tell the app whether you’re aboard a bike, motorcycle, or car. It automatically activates when you start driving by detecting that you’re suddenly moving very fast. Then, it makes a noise five or 10 seconds before a bike or motorcycle passes you to let you know they’re coming. Clever.

The app’s developers decided that audible notifications would be distracting to those on two wheels, however: with cyclists and bikers, it contents itself with warning those around you that you’re there.

The app’s creators hope it’ll make cycling safer, and increase the number of bikes on the road. But there is one fairly big drawback: for the app to work, both driver and cyclist need to have it installed. In other words, its success relies on it being taken up from a high number of road users.

To tackle this, the app will be free when it's released on 12 September; its developers have put together an “ambassador” scheme through which cyclists and drivers spread the word, too They also plan to team up with insurance companies so car users get it as part of an insurance app.

Pere Margelef, one of the app’s designers, told Fast Company that the app is a kind of stop-gap until cars themselves are self-driving or are equipped with their own sensors:

“In 10 years, cars may be driving themselves and preventing accidents. But that's too late. I'm riding my bike and motorcycle now, and I want to fix the problem now."

Considering that Google’s self-driving cars still can’t operate in the rain, we may be needing apps like this for a little while yet. 


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.