Tagbike counts

Bike lane mileage is the wrong metric for your city to publicize

Sometimes I tweet things that get pretty popular and then I need to go into more details. Case in point:

Which I followed by tweeting:

Knowing how many miles of bike lanes you have has little importance in determining if I’m going to bike in your city when I visit, or if I’m considering moving there, or if I want to add you to a “bicycle friendly cities” list.

What’s more important is how much the number of people bicycling on those bike lanes has changed. This number will reflect the quality of your bike lanes. Are they still in good shape or have they faded a lot? Do they connect to each other to create a network, or are there gaps that increase the stress of a route? How have you treated the bike lane at intersections, the place where a conflict and crash is most likely to occur?

Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin touched on these points in his recent critique, one of the few worthwhile articles the Tribune has published in the last year about bicycling, by interviewing an organization that tries to make it politically palatable to build unconventional – in the United States – bike lanes.

“Chicago has made incredible progress over the last few years,” said Martha Roskowski, vice president at People for Bikes, a Boulder, Colo.-based advocacy group. But, she added, “Chicago also has a ways to go.”

That’s saying it nicely.

Addressing the gaps in the city’s network of protected bike routes, Roskowski said: “People evaluate a potential bike ride on the basis of the weakest link, the scariest part of the trip, which might be a really busy road you have to ride along or across. People have tolerance for a little bit of that. But if it’s sustained or if it feels dangerous, they just won’t do it.”

Enter Close Calls, deteriorating bike lanes, bumpy pavement, and constant obstacles and you get Chicago’s ridiculously low bicycle commute to work numbers.

Since Emanuel took office in 2011, Chicago has installed 52 miles of protected bike lanes [it’s only installed 16 miles of protected bike lanes], which use a variety of means — plastic pylons, striped pavement markings and non-curbside parking spaces — to separate bikes from vehicles. That brings the city’s total bicycle lanes to 207 miles.

That’s cool that we have 207 miles. How many miles of streets without bike lanes do we have? It’s 4,000 and some change minus 207.

Why doesn’t Mayor Rahm Emanuel talk about how many people have taken up bicycling since he took office, or how many more trips Chicagoans made (and where) because of those 52 miles of new buffered and protected bike lanes?

He can’t say how many people are riding their personal bikes because the city doesn’t track this.

Conversely we can track Divvy bike-share use down to the minute and the company announced that Saturday, May 24, they had their most trips ever. Only to be eclipsed by almost 4,000 more trips on Sunday, May 25 (helped in no small part by the Bike The Drive event where people can bicycle on a Lake Shore Drive that’s closed to vehicles).

In another blow to good data for Chicago, Divvy will only be releasing trip data twice a year, while Citibike in New York City will be publishing it monthly, an improvement of Capital Bikeshare’s quarterly data releases.

If you’re not tracking who’s using your infrastructure, will you be able to know if the people you set out to attract have come out?

Measuring gas prices and bicycling trips

From the Chicago Tribune: Gas prices continued to rise Monday, driven higher for nearly two weeks straight by the turmoil in Libya, with analysts expecting prices to keep climbing.

Active Transportation Alliance asks, “How can we make the gas price bubble permanent?” -Essentially the same topic I write about below.

I was thinking ever since I first read in the Chicago newspapers that gas will hit $4 per gallon this year (it already has in the City) that there’s a relationship between the price of gas and the number of people on bicycling or the number of trips people make on their bicycles.

As the price of gas rises, so does the number of people out bicycling on the streets. As the price of gas falls, bicycling declines as well.

Chart from GasBuddy.com showing average gas prices in Chicago for the past 3 years.

The data available to us doesn’t necessarily support this hypothesis, but the data available* is nearly worthless. Gas prices were over $4 per gallon in 2008. That was when Chicago started seeing tons of people on the street on their bicycles. The local Fox News affiliate interviewed Mike Amsden, a city planner at the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT), about the bike counts (first in five years) in a news segment about the influence of $4.65 and a “major peak, almost 350% in pedal pushers this year.”

Several newspapers published articles about the palpable increase in cycling, including a Time Out issue called “Bike Love” with messenger Jeff Perkins on the cover and interviewing 7 local cyclists inside. All of them published “how to get out and ride”-type articles. But despite the many new riders on the street in 2008, few came back the next year!

This graphic describes my point about gas prices up, bike trips up; gas prices down, bike trips down (but perhaps ending at a rate a little higher than where it started).

2009 came and the gas prices dropped – the modern heyday of Chicago cycling was gone. 2008 saw the highest numbers at 2 of 3 locations also counted in 2003, although the difference in study months makes the comparison suspect. I hope that 2011 is the start of annual and accurate counts of bicycling in Chicago.

But it’s reasonable to expect that some of the new people riding their bikes instead of taking expensive car trips will stick with it the following year, even as gas prices decline. Let’s keep these riders bicycling year after year, encouraging more to stay on the bike path than would normally otherwise with strategies like more urban-appropriate infrastructure (separated and protected bike lanes; secure bike parking at workplaces and train stations; traffic calming/slower traffic) as well as enforcement of laws that protect cyclists.

Let’s concentrate less on the “insane”  numbers of people cycling on Milwaukee Avenue at Ohio Street (3,121 bikes on September 15, 2009) and more on how to raise the number of people cycling on our other streets. Milwaukee Avenue doesn’t need anymore attention (except for its intersections). Getting people off Milwaukee and safely and efficiently onto east-west and north-south routes should be the priority. -Photo shows Halsted/Grand/Milwaukee, just 300 feet southeast of the Ohio count location.

*Available data

The American Community Survey (ACS) 3-year estimate for 2006-2008 tells us that 1.0% of working Chicagoans 16+ took their bikes to work (nevermind the tinny sample size that makes this data near worthless – it’s the only thing we have*). The 3-year estimate before (2005-2007) says 0.9% took their bikes to work. Not much of a peak or increase! For 2007-2009, the data shows 1.1% cycled to work.

Also ignore the fact that the ACS only asks about the mode you spent the most distance on. It does not collect data on multi-mode trips. So if you bike 3 miles to the train and the train is 30 miles to your destination, the ACS would only record “public transportation.”

Free online GIS tools: An introduction to GeoCommons

Read my tutorial on how I created the pedestrian map with GeoCommons. Read on for an introduction to GeoCommons and online GIS tools.

GeoCommons, like Google My Maps and Earth, is part of the “poor man’s GIS package.” It’s another tool that provides (few) of the functions that desktop GIS software offers. But it excels at making simple and somewhat complex maps.

I first used GeoCommons over a year ago. I started using it because it would convert whatever data you uploaded into another format that was probably more useful. I mentioned it in this article about converting files. For example, if you have a KML file, you can upload it and export it as a shapefile for GIS programs, or a CSV file to load into a table editor or spreadsheet application.

After creating the Chicago bike crash maps using Google Fusion Tables, I wanted to try out another map-making web application, one that provided more customization and prettier maps.

I found that web application and created a version of the bike crash maps, with several other data layers, in GeoCommons. I overlaid bike counts and bikeways so you can observe some relationships between each visual dataset. My latest map (screenshot below), created Wednesday, shows pedestrian counts in downtown Chicago overlaid with CTA and downtown Metra stations, as well as the 48 intersections with the most pedestrian collisions (from this UNC study, PDF).

Screenshot of pedestrian count map described above.

How these online GIS tools can be useful to you

I bet there’s a way you can use Google Fusion Tables and GeoCommons for your job or project. They’re extremely simple to use: they can take in data from the spreadsheets you’re already working on and turn them into themed reference maps. With mapping, you can do simple, visual analysis that doesn’t require statistical software or knowledge.

Imagine plotting your client list on a map and grouping them by age to see if perhaps your younger clients tend to live in the same neighborhoods of town, or if they’re more diverse (should you do this, keep the map private, something that you can’t do in GeoCommons – yet).

You may also find it useful if you want to create a route for your salespeople or for visiting church members at their homes. Plot all the addresses on a map, then manually filter them into different groups based on the clusters you see. With Google Fusion Tables, you can easily add a new column with the GROUP information and apply a numbered or lettered group and then re-sort.

Other things you can do in GeoCommons

  • Merge tables with geography – I uploaded two datasets: a table containing census tract IDs and demographic information for Cook County I downloaded from the American FactFinder 2; and a shapefile containing Cook County census tracts boundary information. After merging them, I could download a NEW shapefile that contained both datasets.
  • Make multi-layer maps
  • Symbolize based on frequency/rate
  • Convert data – This is by far the most useful feature. It imports “shapefiles (SHP), comma separated values (CSV), Keyhole Markup Language (KML), and GeoRSS” and exports “Shapefile, CSV, KML, GeoRSS Atom, Spatialite, and JSON” (from the GeoCommons user manual).

Read my tutorial on how I created the pedestrian map with GeoCommons.

You asked for it, you got it – Chicago bike count data

Note: This post doesn’t have any analysis of the data or report, nor do I make any observations. I think it’s more significant to hear the ideas you have about what you see in the map or read in the data.

A lot of people wanted the Chicago bike crash and injury data overlaid with bike counts data.

In 2009, Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) placed automatic bike counting equipment at many locations around the city. It uses pneumatic tubes to count the number of bicyclists (excludes cars) at that point in the street – it counts ALL trips, and cannot distinguish between people going to work or going to school. This is dissimilar from Census data which asks respondents to indicate how they go to work.

Well, good news for you! CDOT today released the bike counts report from data collected in 2009 (just in time). There has been overwhelming response about the bike crash map I published – this shows how rabid the public is for information on their environments (just yesterday someone told me that they switched bike routes based on the crash frequency they noticed on their original route).

The size of the blue dot indicates the bicycle mode share for that count location. Mode share calculated by adding bikes and cars and dividing by bikes.

Get the data

A photo of the EcoCounter counting machine in action on Milwaukee Avenue (this was taken during testing phase, where CDOT compared automatic and manual counts to determine the machine’s accuracy).

How to use this map:

  1. Find a blue dot (count location) in an area you’re interested in.
  2. Zoom into that blue dot.
  3. Click on the blue dot to get the number of bikes counted there.
  4. Then observe the number of purple dots (crashes) near that count location.

What do you see that’s interesting?

What else is coming?

Now let’s hope the Active Transportation Alliance and the Chicago Park District release their Lakefront Trail counts from summer 2010. CDOT may have conducted bicycle counts in 2010 as well – I hope we don’t have to wait as long for that data.

I hope to have a tutorial on how to use GeoCommons coming soon. You should bug me about it if I don’t post it within one week.

Photos of Chicago bike commuters by Joshua Koonce.

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