Testing cycling stress levels on Edinburgh's roads

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Media captionTransport correspondent David Miller takes part in research designed to find ways of increasing confidence among reluctant cyclists.

On a bitterly cold winter's day, I am sitting on a bench in Edinburgh's Inverleith Park having a curious device designed to monitor my stress levels fitted to my head.

I'm already wearing Google Glass and I'm beginning to feel like Scotland's uncool answer to RoboCop. In a hi-vis jacket.

But there's a good reason for my ignominy.

I'm about to take part in research designed to find ways of increasing confidence amongst reluctant cyclists.

At this point, I'm duty-bound to point out that I cycle in heavy traffic in the centre of Edinburgh almost every day.

Most of the time I enjoy my commute or my ride to the shops.

Cycling is quick, cheap and healthy. I miss it when I have to drive or take the bus.

Pedal power

More of us are choosing to use two wheels, rather than four these days.

Despite that, it seems very unlikely that Scotland will achieve the target of having 10% of journeys made by bike by 2020.

However, campaigners point out that Edinburgh, and some other places, are already well on the way towards achieving 10% or an even higher cycle share of journeys.

Encouraging those reluctant cyclists I mentioned earlier to adopt pedal power will be key.

That's why a team of students from Edinburgh University have embarked on the Brains on Bikes project.

The Google Glass I am wearing will be used to record my journey, along with my commentary.

My EEG headset will measure my stress levels by monitoring electrical activity in my brain.

The ultimate aim of the project is to develop a smartphone app giving cyclists information about the potential hazards on their route.

Image caption Kim Taylor says the aim is to develop a smartphone app for cyclists

Researcher Kim Taylor tells me: "It would be an extension to a GPS navigation system able to warn cyclists about getting into the correct lane, or about places where someone may open the door of a parked car."

The test route takes riders from the relative safety of the park and into increasingly heavy traffic, culminating in a journey around the busy Crewe Toll roundabout.

These are roads I ride often and I know what to expect.

Like most local cyclists, I would choose to avoid Crewe Toll, using a nearby bike path instead.

As I ride around the roundabout, I am immediately reminded why I usually pick an alternative route.

Drivers see a gap in the traffic and accelerate quickly onto the roundabout.

If they fail to see a cyclist already on the roundabout, the result could be devastating.

'Big and scary'

Some of the inexperienced cyclists who have already taken part in the research simply chose to get off and walk.

Stella Lander is one of them.

She says: "It's pretty big and scary, so I got off and walked around.

"There were a lot of cars, it was really busy and I just don't know the protocol on a bike."

A few days later and it is time to visit Edinburgh University to see the initial results of the research.

Masters student Michal Wasilewski shows me a video demonstrating the difference in responses between experienced and inexperienced cyclists as they tackle the roundabout.

The experienced riders comment on potential hazards in a seemingly matter-of-fact way, while those who are less experienced express their fears and often swear.

Michal points out: "In many cases, the inexperienced cyclists make very emotional comments and were getting very stressed, whereas the experienced cyclists were just stating the obvious like 'here comes another truck'."

The research is at a very early stage but cycle campaigners have been following the work closely.

Ian Maxwell of the Lothian campaign group, Spokes, said: "We know one of the main challenges in Edinburgh is getting the more reluctant or nervous cyclists to try on-road cycling.

"We welcome this research if it helps to overcome these barriers, although we are slightly concerned that helmet mounted filming always seems more dramatic than the real experience.

"Their footage of cycling on Crewe Toll roundabout might needlessly alarm potential cyclists, given it is one of the worst features in a part of Edinburgh where there are many pleasant and far less challenging routes."

The team of students say one of their goals is to highlight what life is really like for cyclists on the streets of our towns and cities.

They concede a smart phone app is still a long way off.

But their work has already reminded us why campaigners argue it is investment in improved infrastructure which is most likely to encourage more of us to choose two wheels in future.

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