Taking a snapshot of bike, pedestrian traffic

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September 28, 2009 // UPDATED 10:38 am - September 28, 2009
By: Amanda Kushner
Amanda Kushner
// In mid-September, crews counted bikers and walkers traveling the city’s streets //


Jim Howitt was stationed in the grass on the side of the Cedar Lake trail near Royalston Avenue from
4 to 6 p.m. For two hours his job was to count. After each cyclist or pedestrian went by his site line across the trail, he would add another tally mark.

“I’ve seen you guys everywhere,” Dana Rutt called as she biked by. “Thank you.” In her 50 minutes of biking she had passed four counters.

Howitt was one of 48 volunteers working with Transit for Livable Communities (TLC) to count bicycle and pedestrian activity in the Twin Cities earlier this month. From Sept. 8–10 the volunteers were positioned at 42 locations. Then on Sept. 15–17 and 22–24, the city of Minneapolis conducted similar counts to collect data about pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

The TLC dates were chosen in conjunction with National Bicycle and Pedestrian Documentation Protocol, a national count sponsored by the Institute of Transportation Engineers Pedestrian and Bicycle Council.

The TLC counts are initiated to measure the efforts of the Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Project, a federal source of funding for Twin Cities projects aimed at promoting biking and walking.

Tony Hull, evaluation and program specialist with Bike Walk Twin Cities, said the counts provide an understanding of bicycle and pedestrian travel behavior and help plan facilities in specific locations.

Hull said he in unaware of a city that conducts a count larger than the counts done in Minneapolis.

Counts are conducted in September because school is back in session, and Tuesdays and Wednesdays are selected because they are the most representative of other weekdays, Hull said.

When collecting data volunteers keep track of the gender split. While Hull said this is anecdotal, in the past on-street biking is predominately male. Children are also identified in the counts. Then besides noting if a person is biking or walking volunteers tally people using assisted devices including scooters or wheelchairs.

Counters also track how many people ride on the sidewalk and the roads, and Hull said it is five times more dangerous to ride on sidewalks because there are unanticipated conflicts. For example, motorists are conditioned to expect a pedestrian traveling at a speed of around 3 mph where sidewalks cross intersections or driveways, but they don’t expect a cyclist traveling at 10–15 mph. At these higher speeds there is less time to react and avoid collision, Hull said.

Prior to counting, Hull conducts a training session to make sure counters understand what they need to note, and he said there is always something a little more interesting than just the numbers. Also during the counts Hull or his colleagues stop by to check on each counter.

“We want it to be very redundant because we want everything to be consistent,” he said. “As long as we know that everybody is out there doing the same thing we realize year after year all this data can be comparable.”

In 19 minutes of counting pedestrians and cyclists at 6th Street South and Nicollet Mall, Pete Bonk had already filled his pedestrian box with tally marks. This was Bonk’s second count of the day, and he said more people were biking and walking than he expected.

Since the ’60s the city has kept track of pedestrians and cyclists traveling Downtown during a count of Downtown transportation, which was conducted every three to five years until 2003, said Shaun Murphy, the city’s Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Project program coordinator. Then in 2007 the counts became citywide.

“The main reason why we are trying to expand the count is so that we can get a better understanding of the load that bicyclists and pedestrians carry in traffic,” Murphy said.

When the city considers a project, a count can be done before and after to examine change, Murphy said.

About 40 locations will be added this year, and by the end of the count the city will have information on 170 locations including the work of TLC.

Murphy pointed out that Minneapolis has great data about autos and transit, and bicycle and pedestrian counts complete that picture.

The city counts break down the number of cyclists on sidewalks and the street, and some counts are conducted for 12 hours.

Murphy hopes to have the result of the two-week count in the next one to three months.

“Generally I expect bicycling to have more sustainable increases, than walking, walking tends to be flatter trend-wise,” Murphy said.

And TLC and the city do work together to share results. The reason the counts are done separately is because the groups’ needs are different. While TLC examines program measurement the city looks at understanding travel.

“So my priorities really go to locations we have done before or places that we have project investments that are coming in,” Hull said.

He added that Murphy is interested in looking for new locations that the city can use to learn new information.

Hull said for decision-making purposes the data is essential.

“And when you think about how we create decisions for transportation spending it is a very data driven process,” he said. “And so as a result we have some very robust data about motor vehicle travel somewhat about transit trips. So we have a lot of good investments in these two modes. Bicycling and pedestrians we don’t have a lot of data, so what we get are just accommodations.”