Route planning can be easy if it’s in your neighborhood but a pain when you’re planning for a weekend hike or a run when traveling overseas. But if you’re a Strava user, the fitness platform is rolling out a new route-planning feature that might help. Starting from 8AM PT / 11AM ET today, you’ll be able to view recent photos of a route or trail’s views, highlights, and conditions in the mobile app.
The company is using machine learning to exclude photos that include identifiable faces or gear, and it only includes photos posted publicly in the app. Users who don’t want photos from their public activities shared as part of the feature will have to opt out.
You can find route photos for any sport featured in the Routes section of the app, including running, trail running, walking, hikes, rides, mountain bike rides, and gravel rides. According to Strava, the platform has roughly 2.3 million photos from 200 million user-uploaded public activities in the past year to pull from. It estimates that more than 30,000 photos will be added to the Routes feature weekly from Strava users all over the world. That said, Strava says it won’t use any photos from activities or profiles that have enabled privacy settings.
I got to spend some time with the feature ahead of release, and my inner Type-A planning nerd was piqued. I was curious to see what the results in my neighborhood would be, as I live in a popular running area near several parks. Right away, I was able to see roughly 30-100 photos of familiar sites. Some were labeled as taken yesterday, while others were labeled “in the past week,” “the past two weeks,” and “the past month.”
The photos I saw were, in fact, quite recent. I found a picture of a local event space with a big Valentine’s Day heart. I actually ran past it on February 13th, Valentine’s Day, and the day after. I can confirm that the heart was there on February 13th, 14th, and the 15th. The weather conditions were also on point over the past few days. Another neat perk was seeing what certain areas on the route looked like at night.
That said, I did see one photo of a person sitting on a bench. Their face wasn’t visible as their back was to the camera, but I could see two bikes. I asked Strava why that picture was included, given that identifiable gear isn’t supposed to be included. Rakesh Shah, Strava’s product manager on the Geo team, told The Verge that the image passed through the machine learning features because the bikes didn’t have any visible logos. Except, I could see the word “Rynkeby” on one of the two bikes and “Vestegnen” on the wheel. A Google search told me that there’s a European charity cycling team called Team Rynkeby and that Vestegnen was a suburb of Copenhagen, Denmark. There wasn’t enough to identify the person, but I can reasonably deduce that a current or former Team Rynkeby member was recently biking in my neighborhood.
Granted, Strava is a form of fitness social media. However, it’s one thing to post a photo to your feed and another to find out your photos are being crowdsourced for a feature. On that front, Shah says users can opt out by heading over to Privacy Controls and accessing the new Public Photos on Routes menu. You can alternatively set your activities or profile to “followers only” or “only me” in privacy settings. I wasn’t able to access these settings, but that’s because the feature wasn’t technically live when I tried it out.
I was also curious to see how well the feature worked in other neighborhoods. I put in my grandparents’ hometown in South Korea. There weren’t a ton of routes available, and the selection of photos was much smaller — roughly three to five per route. It was a lot more obvious that some of the photos were reused on multiple routes. That wasn’t terribly surprising, as my family’s hometown is in a province roughly three hours outside Seoul, Korea’s capital and largest city.
Next, I checked out the routes in Seoul, as well as my old neighborhood in Tokyo, Japan. In Seoul, there was a lot more to look at, though many were of popular tourist spots. Still, I was able to visualize just how hilly some of these running routes were in a way that elevation charts can’t. The options in my old Tokyo neighborhood were, again, more limited, probably because I lived in a more residential neighborhood where I never saw many runners.
Strava has put more emphasis on route planning in the past year, including route difficulty for cycling and the ability to share suggested routes with friends. It acquired Fatmap, a 3D mapping platform, last month with the intention to eventually bring more detailed route maps to Strava. On the flip side, Strava has also made it clear that many new features will require a subscription. Subscribers will be able to see photos while browsing route recommendations. However, free members will only see photos on saved routes and any route a subscriber may have shared with them.
I’ll admit: I had fun looking at routes and trails in far-flung parts of the world, particularly in places I’ve never been to. However, the feature was obviously more useful for popular routes and trails — less so for routes off the beaten path. That’s inevitable when you crowdsource photos, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re trying to plan a more remote hike, run, or ride.