Hacking Planning with PocketPedal

A Game of Urban Cycling

PocketPedal is a smartphone game that simulates experiences of urban cycling, bringing together design stakeholders in a positive, intuitive and productive environment. Its purpose is to support participatory design in challenging situations.

The current iteration of the project engages with the challenge of reforming urban cycling along one of the Melbourne’s (Australia) characteristic and intractable cycling challenges, the busy and notoriously dangerous St Kilda Road. For many years, influential stakeholder groups and local government representatives have campaigned for segregated bike lanes and other infrastructural improvements along this route. Despite many serious accidents, typical reasons have stalled progress: objections from the local community, bureaucratic complications, and animosity between stakeholder groups. People who care about St Kilda Road have different values, different objectives and different daily routines. In this situation, design propositions cannot not be supported without trust, understanding and effective communication. This social scaffolding is necessary for the transition from improbable to possible.

To erect such a scaffold, PocketPedal presents complex interactions between cyclists, motorists and road infrastructure as a shared playful experience. This experience is made available in community gatherings that involve road users, designers, planners, health professional, local residents and anybody else with an interest or a concern. In the game, participants attempt to cycle through the simulated road and are awarded high scores when they follow road rules and ride safely. However, on St Kilda Road, safe cycling is an impossible task. Congested traffic, dangerous driving and interrupted bicycle lanes make for a challenging experience.

Constructing PocketPedal

PocketPedal reconstructs the road as an accessible, engaging and interactive assemblage of spatial conditions, the player and non-player road users. A series of statistically weighted events, informed by the real-world conditions of the road, allows participants to experience the psychological complexity of urban cycling without its physical dangers. They must be alert: a distracted virtual motorist might veer into the bike lane, or a car door could open without warning. A double-parked vehicle might block their path, or the bike lane could disappear entirely. Generated in response to local virtual conditions, such events are always different. They can happen at low or high speeds, in different lanes, at straight sections or during turning. To the player, these collisions and near-misses might appear as unfortunate accidents, products of irresponsible driving by the motorists, hard-to-avoid errors induced by the challenging driving conditions, or bad personal decisions. As the game is intended to support short, repeated attempts, players are encouraged to experiment with many methods and approaches that would be much harder or impossible to try on a real road.

Managing Complexity

Cycling is often analysed through dry data such as crash statistics. PocketPedal uses such data but also does much more by exposing players to the highly challenging demands of navigating urban environments by bike: disappearing bike infrastructure, near misses, the need to make choices between similarly unattractive options. More than that, the game allows the people who never cycle to appreciate the stress and fear that accompany this experience. Players can make many attempts during which they can become familiar with the road environment and gain skills that are hard to achieve with other tools or on the real road.

User feedback illustrates that the social interactions triggered by PocketPedal are effective in building rapport and improving communication between stakeholders that, typically, do not encounter each other and are often prejudiced. In contrast to the intense seriousness of many typical consultation meeting, PocketPedal creates a humorous, adventurous atmosphere where intractable challenges are seen as opportunities and encrusted opinions become nuanced and supple.

Sample of conditions

Urban road design and improvement is a complex challenge where traditional design tools often flounder:

  • Urban cycling conditions are not represented well by numerical data. Crash statistics do not portray near misses, the context of accidents or stakeholder behaviours, and can distort the character of events through rigid categorisation. Moreover, it has been estimated that only 1 in 30 non-fatal cyclist crashes in Melbourne are reported. Such observations highlight the need for analysis and design tools that can better engage with urban cycling as a complex situation and a holistic experience. 
  • Roads are experienced differently by different stakeholders. Urban riding conditions are not only stressful for cyclists, who expose themselves to high chances of harm, but also for drivers, who must interact with road users with unfamiliar and potentially unpredictable behaviours. Increasing awareness and empathy can therefore have real-world effects in improving safety between road users. Accordingly, design and consultation tools need the ability to present complexity from multiple points of view, providing experiences that might otherwise be inaccessible to key stakeholders. 
  • Experiences of the roads are habitual, and so perceptions are difficult to change. There is a need for new tools that can communicate complex situation to a variety of stakeholders in an intuitive, memorable and emotionally relevant manner.


Mobile Games for Design

Facilitating communication and cooperation is a challenge for anyone who seeks to achieve change and reform in cities. Mobile games are able to facilitate better communication by acting as immersive and engaging objects. The shared engagement with these artefacts leads to greater inclusion of diverse stakeholders and the development of rapport that is necessary for a deeper understanding of the experiences and needs of others. PocketPedal’s portability and immediate familiarity allows its engaging virtual environment be embedded wherever it is needed.

Ongoing work will explore road-safety education in schools, idea generation in community workshops, street-side engagement sessions exploring planned infrastructure upgrades, and facilitation of engaging, personal online narratives.

To address this challenge, this thesis sets out to redesign the design process itself. The result was the creation and running of a dedicated workshop, amplified by a provocative design toolkit. This workshop tested the ability of games to assist the curation of productive codesign activities, with a particular focus on urban cycling along St Kilda Road, Melbourne.

Applied to the immensely challenging environment of St Kilda Road, the toolkit functioned as a range of metagames of varying fidelity, organised around the custom-built smartphone game ‘Pocket Pedal’. The workshopse metagames can engage participants through play, and encourage a rich, collaborative exploration of issues in stalemate situations.