Sunday, January 09, 2011

The 2010 Bicycle Count Report: Cycling is peaking in the city

The recent SF Chronicle story on the "City of San Francisco 2010 Bicycle Count Report" buried the real lead under a headline and an introducton that could have been written by the Bicycle Coalition: "Report finds cycling up 58% in S.F. since '06":

Despite San Francisco's famous hills and a court order that halted the striping of new bike lanes for three years, bicycling has increased 58 percent in the city since 2006, according to new data found in the city's 2010 Bicycle Count Report. The Chronicle obtained the report Thursday. It showed the number of tallied bike trips rose from 5,500 when the first count was taken five years ago to 8,713 this year. The manual count, conducted in August, logged passing bikes at 33 locations and is meant to offer a snapshot of biking trends in San Francisco.

But the most interesting information in the report comes next in the Chronicle's story:

While the number of counted bike trips has increased each of the past four years, this year's increase was significantly smaller, at 3 percent. Last year, the annual increase was 8 percent. In the two years prior, the annual increase was logged at 25 percent and 14 percent. The report noted the slowdown but attributed it to the weather, which was slightly chillier than during past counts.

The past two years have shown dramatically diminishing percentage increases in the count: 2006-2007 (14% increase), 2007-2008 (25% increase), 2008-2009 (8 percent increase), and 2009-2010 (3% increase). The 3% increase meant that only 272 more cyclists were counted this year (8,713) than last year (8,441).

On the weather: "This slight decrease[sic] compared to other years may be a result of the unusually cold weather conditions on the count days" (page 9). The weather isn't a credible excuse for the lower increase, since at each location (pages 21-23) temperatures were 60 degrees or above, a typical August temperature in San Francisco. The counter at 3rd and Islais Creek, for example, described the weather as "Foggy/Very windy/Cold," even though he/she listed the temperature there as 64 degrees! Maybe this intern/counter was from out of town and wore a t-shirt that day, but 64 in August is considered a pretty nice day in San Francisco (I'll spare you the Mark Twain quotation).

Table 2 on page 4 provides "Percentage of Bicycle Trips to Work," comparing SF with California and the US in general. In 2006 1.9% of commuters in SF rode their bikes to work, and in 2009---the last year with results---3.2% city residents were commuting by bike, a not-exactly-whopping increase of 1.3% bike commuters in four years. The increases for bike commuting in California (0.7% to 1.0%) and the rest of the country (0.4% to 0.6%) are barely measurable.

On page 7 there's a table that shows the count for all 35 locations in the 2010 survey; 16 of those locations show a decrease in the number of cyclists counted.

Under "methodology" we have this troubling admission:

Conducting counts at multiple locations on the same day may result in counting the same bicyclists at multiple locations. For example, a bicyclist may pass two or three locations when leaving the downtown core. This cyclist is considered a new count at each location. Since the SFMTA has conducted counts at consistent locations since 2006, this effect is normalized into the overall volume numbers (page 6).

In other words, the city has been over-counting cyclists since 2006, but it's okay because they do it every year, which means that the practice is "normalized."

To its credit, on page 11 the survey takes note of problematic behavior by city cyclists:

As San Francisco continues to move forward with planning and constructing a continuous network of bicycle facilities, the bicycle counts reinforce the need to pay close attention to both sidewalk and wrong-way riding. At almost every count location sidewalk and/or wrong-way riding was observed (page 11).

And an upbeat conclusion:

The four years that San Francisco has been monitoring bicycle ridership without the installation of new bicycle facilities provides us with a robust data set by which to analyze the effects of the variety of network improvements to be made in the near future. With the court injunction against the Bike Plan lifted and new bicycling infrastructure being implemented at a rate higher than ever, future counts offer a unique opportunity for the SFMTA to document the impacts of new bicycle infrastructure on ridership (page 19).

The city conducted its first count in 2006, the year the injunction began. Hence, there's been little new bicycle "infrastructure" in the intervening years, the time of the greatest increase in cyclists. That is, the bike fad may have already peaked, even here in Progressive Land. My suspicion has always been that riding a bike in San Francisco has nothing to do with bike lanes or other "improvements."

The city is only now beginning to implement the radical Bicycle Plan on the streets of the city, taking away more than 50 traffic lanes and 2,000 street parking spaces to make bike lanes that, while screwing up traffic and delaying a number of Muni lines, may be used by a small and even diminishing number of cyclists.

The bicycle count report is here.

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