Alyson Fletcher counts cyclists on 18th Street.
The need for knowing how many people are cycling in Chicago should be obvious: to plan a good bikeway network that considers where people are already cycling; and to track the progress of the Bike 2015 Plan and other related plans. There are multiple needs to count cyclists in Chicago, for civic planning, academic research, and business promotion. On Tuesday morning and afternoon last week, volunteers at several downtown Chicago intersections were armed with pencil and paper to count people cycling (towards downtown in the morning, away from in the afternoon).
The City’s bike count program is now getting into a groove of consistent and periodic tabulating after a time of sporadic counts in different locations (mostly for single facility analysis). A good bike count program is permanent, counting people at the same times on a regular basis at the same location. The new program, which started in 2011, will count cyclists at the same places in downtown Chicago, at the same time each month. Not only can the City use this information to plan a network (and hopefully more bikeways in the Loop), but it can be used to track the impact of bikeways and cyclists on ridership and traffic, respectively.
I emailed Peter Scales, the Department of Transportation spokesperson, for some additional information on why the city counts cyclists:
We do it to gauge ridership on existing facilities, document the demand for new facilities, and track seasonal, monthly and annual changes in ridership. Going forward, it will also help us gauge the impacts of bicycle infrastructure improvements in the City.
On Tuesday afternoon I talked to a volunteer named Allesandro Panella, a UIC student from Italy studying computer science. I asked in a video interview why he volunteered. He also offered his own suggestion to make a good foundation for bike count programs:
I use my bike to get around the city a lot and I thought that dedicating a couple hours of my time for this would be a good thing to do. Because I care about it; I care about biking services and infrastructure.
Another question would be if these data collection is actually useful to improving services and infrastructure. Well I think that it is something, it provides some figures, but more intensive, long-term monitoring would be ideal to choose and implement the right strategies. But that would require some automated system to measure the amount of bicyclists around the city, and/or a larger amount of volunteers.
Alessandro Panella counting cyclists traveling westbound on Randolph Street past Canal Street.
I have been spreading the message about automated bike counting. Last December I agreed with an architect working on a Bloomingdale Trail access park that a bike counter with digital display should be installed at Milwaukee Avenue and Leavitt Street. Where’s another deserving spot? Oakley Boulevard is already a known north-south bike boulevard, but without the traffic calming features it really needs. Having a steady bike counter here would demonstrate that it should be transformed! Car traffic should be on Western Avenue, one block west, to leave Oakley Boulevard safer for cycling; you’d still be allowed to park and drive, but bike movement would be prioritized.
I also visited with and interviewed Alyson Fletcher, a visiting student from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She is working on a final project to receive her city planning and landscape architecture degrees. I met Fletcher on the 18th Street bridge last Tuesday to know more about her project and to see how she was collecting data. Watch the video to hear that story.
Contributing to academic research isn’t the only purpose for counting cyclists. It can help local businesses, too. A couple weeks ago I met with Jean-Francois Rheault to talk about the bike and pedestrian counting products his company, Eco-Counter, sells. They make a variety of products for all kinds of applications and needs, including devices that update a website with live or previous day information. I helped test one of their pneumatic tube counters for the Chicago Department of Transportation in 2008.
Pneumatic tubes count bicycles and cars crossing over the Ohio Street-Kennedy Expressway feeder ramp on Milwaukee Avenue, in 2008.
When I traveled to Copenhagen in January 2011, I cycled by another Eco-Counter product: the Eco-Totem. It’s a tower with two LED displays in the basic model; one shows the total number of cyclists since midnight, another showed the total number of cyclists that year, and the third display (on the Copenhagen variety) showed the temperature. The Eco-Totem and other products can use built-in cellphone modems to wirelessly transmit data to a website for the public to monitor. There are examples in Ottawa, Ontario, and San Francisco. These devices use a wire buried in the ground to detect metal passing over. (I asked Scales if CDOT was looking to purchase an automated device like this; they aren’t at this time; maybe I’ll start taking donations.)
We talked about more than just products. Rheault had some good advice on how to advance and expand a permanent bike counting program in Chicago. A city can only be its own advocate to a limited extent. He suggested that business associations call for a broader agenda to count cycling, especially in their districts. To get some perspective on this advice, I asked Jessica Wobbekind and Payton Chung for their points of view. Wobbekind is the program manager of the Wicker Park-Bucktown Special Service Area (SSA):
“[Bike counts are] really important for Wicker Park-Bucktown because our Master Plan recommends advocating for bicycle improvements. More accurate bike count data will help support us in this action. I think that many people in the community already know that there is a high bike count here but actual numbers would really go a long way in proving this to the entire community. Businesses or SSAs would be able to use this data to better justify bicycle improvements such as installing bike racks. Additionally, if businesses had actual data on how many bikes pass through their area, they could potentially market to bicyclists and make other changes to become more bike-friendly to increase business. In short, the more data we have, the better we can make the argument for investing in infrastructure improvements that support bicycling and the more supportive the entire community will be.”
People cycle through Wicker Park. Photo by Gabriel Michael.
Chung is a former commissioner on the transportation committee*:
“Better data will help the [SSA] better prioritize funding through a better understanding of how and where our constituents (residents, employees, and visitors) travel. Counts to date (by Sam Schwartz Engineering and by Active Transportation Alliance) have indicated that bike and foot trips are under-counted through traditional means. That’s particularly important for the SSA since journey-to-work data, and extrapolations from the National Household Travel Survey or other sources, often undercount local, linked shopping trips, which are a huge factor in Wicker Park-Bucktown and one that the SSA wants to encourage.”
Chung pointed me to a website that describes the nation’s first bicycle friendly business district, in Long Beach, California. From the website: “Why BFBDs? Bicycling encourages shopping and dining locally.” One of the features of such a district is free grocery deliveries via cargo bike. Chung found out about BFBDs at the National Bike Summit two weeks ago in Washington, D.C., wherein advocates from around the country meet with each other and with Congresspersons. Streetsblog Capitol Hill reported on that panel, titled “Boosting Economic Vitality in Cities” (parts excerpted):
Bikes can mean big business, and businesses are beginning to realize it. At a Bike Summit panel Wednesday on the economic boost cycling can provide cities, speakers highlighted another strong message cyclists can bring to politicians when making their case for investment in bike/ped facilities.
…the biggest reason business owners resist the addition of bike infrastructure is that they’re afraid it will limit parking. Once they realize they can get 12 bike parking spaces for each car spot, sometimes they begin to change their tune.
Cyclists travel at what Portland Bike Coordinator Roger Geller calls a “human-scale speed” that allows them to “stop and buy something.” Besides, Economides said, if you’re car-free you’ve got an extra $6,000 jangling around in your pocket that you otherwise would have spent on gas and car maintenance (actually, $8,776 if you believe AAA).
So what are the Wicker Park-Bucktown SSA and other business associations supposed to do now to get the data they need to garner support for bicycle investments? They could hire local companies to operate the equipment I’ve mentioned, do it themselves with products from Eco-Counter or its competitors, or back an expanded program at the city, perhaps with their own funding.
* Full disclosure: I am on the transportation committee of the Wicker Park-Bucktown SSA.