Well, it’s Bike Counting Season in Los Angeles once again!
Yes, for two whole days every year, the city graciously allows a bunch of people from the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition and Los Angeles Walks to work for free counting cyclists (and pedestrians) during two two-hour stretches on a Wednesday, and one two-hour stretch the following Saturday.
This count will form part of the data that supports funding and directs planning for bicycle facilities.
Which is rather an insult. As my colleague Ted Rogers points out at Biking in LA, “it shouldn’t be up to a pair of non-profit organizations to do the city’s job for it.”
Indeed. The city sends crews to put car-counting devices all over roads and streets large and small to gather millions of statistics on automobile usage—but it has never bothered to count cyclists, or even pedestrians, except when pressured to do so. And then only if we will count ourselves for free.
With a few people standing on street corners counting manually. For a total of six hours per year. And thanks only to heroic efforts by understaffed nonprofits to cadge labor without pay form sympathetic members.
So no wonder it looks as though nobody walks—or rides—in LA!
Of course, LA didn’t take cycling seriously in any way until around 2010, when the burgeoning community of cyclists of all sorts rose up in anger against yet another brush-off bike plan. The result, after months of contention, was a plan finally worthy of the name, and a promise by the administration to follow carry it out—and a promise from an energized and ever-growing bike community to hold them to it.
But we’re still pedaling uphill and against the wind. LADOT has largely gone after what they themselves refer to as “low-hanging fruit,” avoiding projects that might generate the least bit of knee-jerk kickback, or entering into them with great reluctance. (The Fourth Street Neighborhood Greenway still lingers on the far back burner, probably waiting for council member La Bonge to be termed out and replaced—one must hope—with someone who may ride his own bike less but support bicycling more.)
The bike counts, noble efforts though they are, exemplify this new, more complex version of neglect. They are too infrequent and spread too thin to indicate the true extent of bicycle use in our vast city. We can’t even be sure that the volunteers are really stationed along routes that lots of cyclists use. Although we have a vague idea from prior counts and personal experience, we’ve really been trying to make semi-educated guesses as to where people are actually choosing to ride, so that we can try to count them.
There are better ways.
For one thing, Los Angeles should join the ranks of cities offering their cyclists smartphone apps that plot their daily riding routes via GPS and upload the data to central spreadsheets. While these have their flaws—users have to remember to turn them on and off, for one—they are being used in more and more cities, and have generally shown that assumptions about the routes bicycle users choose for themselves are sometimes quite wrong. Here’s are links to several articles about these apps and how they have worked:
As for counting, many cities now use automatic counting devices that can work 24/7 for weeks at a stretch, giving us some semblance of parity with motor traffic counts. Here’s a brief rundown on bicycle and pedestrian counting machines from Alta Planning:
Note that this document was published in 2009, and has not been kept secret.
So you have to wonder why we are huddling in the dark ages of bicycle and pedestrian mode share analysis here in Los Angeles—once, but not currently, the city of the future.