Friday, December 13, 2013

The bicycle count story: Journalism by press release

Reading today's stories on the city's latest Bicycle Count report is a graphic illustration of the poor state of city journalism. All four of the stories in the Chronicle, the Examiner, the Bay Guardian, and Streetsblog include quotes from the mayor, the Bicycle Coalition, and the MTA, the agency that wrote the report. But there's not a single comment from anyone skeptical of either the report itself or the overall anti-car, pro-bike policies coming out of City Hall.

Except for Steve Jones in the Guardian, none of the journalists even try to analyze either the report or the city's numbers, while misrepresenting what the report actually says.

From the Chronicle's front-page story:

The number of people riding bikes has increased 14 percent since 2011 and 96 percent since 2006. That's the conclusion of the 2013 bicycle count taken by the Municipal Transportation Agency in September and released Thursday.

Not true. What the report itself actually says it's about:

Observations at 51 key intersections during the 4:30-6:30 PM peak period demonstrate typical bicycling trends in San Francisco. These counts serve as a sample and do not count all bicycle trips in the city, just the volumes observed at the 51 locations during the evening peak period. The SFMTA is conducting a citywide mode share survey that will provide the bicycle mode share number for all trips for the city as a whole (page 4).

These city reports only count cyclists during commute hours, not "the number of people riding bikes" in San Francisco. The MTA already did an overall "mode share survey" in 2011, which found that only 3.4% of all trips in the city are by bicycle. It doesn't like that unimpressive number, because it realistically reflects the relative insignificance of cycling in city traffic overall. It's nudging it up a little in this report by citing an American Community Survey---which is based on census data---that says that cyclists are 3.8% of all commuters in the city. That doesn't help much, which is probably why the city wants to do another study to get a better result. (My analysis yesterday shows why the city has a serious problem with these numbers.)

The Examiner provides the same distorted account of what the report says:

The number of San Franciscans using bicycles for transport has nearly doubled since 2006, and more riders are wearing helmets and using dedicated bike paths than ever before, according to a new report. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency released its annual Bicycle Count report Thursday. Since the agency began collecting data in 2006, the number of riders recorded has increased by 96 percent.

Like the Chronicle, the Examiner quotes press releases from the mayor and the Bicycle Coalition, along with Ed Reiskin, the head of the agency that wrote the report. That's balance for you! The unwary reader will conclude that, gee, the number of people riding bikes in the city is up 96% since 2006.

Streetsblog is just as bad, but at least it has an excuse for misrepresenting the study, since its whole mission is pro-bike, anti-car (and pro-train, because trains aren't cars):

Despite the slow roll-out of safer streets for bicycling compared to cities like New York and Chicago, San Franciscans are making nearly twice as many trips by bike today as they did in 2006, according to a new count released by the SFMTA. Still, city leaders must significantly increase the paltry amount of transportation funds devoted to bicycle infrastructure in order to reach the SFMTA Bicycle Strategy's goal of 20 percent of trips by bike by 2020, according to the City Budget Analyst.

Even allowing for routine puffery from a bicycle lobbying group, claiming that "San Franciscans are making nearly twice as many trips by bike as they did in 2006" is a lie because Streetsblog knows better. Like the other stories, Streetsblog quotes the same press releases from the mayor and the Bicycle Coalition, throwing in a few pro-bike quotes from Supervisor Mar and a representative from the League of Conservation Voters.

With this deceptive opening paragraph, the Guardian's Steve Jones doesn't do much better:

As anyone who has traveled the streets of San Francisco knows, there’s an increasing number of bicyclists out there. And the just-released biennial bike count from San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency attempts to quantify that increase: 14 percent since 2011.

In the next paragraph, Jones does say that the report is only about counting commuting cyclists. After quoting the same press releases from the Bicycle Coalition and the mayor, Jones raises familiar arguments:

But the reality is that the city is lagging far behind its own stated goals to make cycling a safer and more attractive transportation option, largely because of a severe under-investment in its cycling network. The report notes that the city has invested $3.3 million in its bike network since 2011, but that was mostly playing catch-up from when a court injunction stalled all bike projects in the city for four years. The SFMTA report doesn’t calculate the critical number in terms of how we’re really doing---transportation mode share, or the percentage of overall vehicle trips taken by bike---an estimate it is now working on in a separate study. An American Community Survey in 2012 put SF bike mode share at less than 4 percent, which is a far cry from the 20 percent by 2020 that is the city’s official goal, one it has little chance of meeting without a serious increase in infrastructure investment and other changes. The SFMTA’s own stated goal is 8-10 percent mode share by 2018, the result of the failure to make needed investments, which amounts to an admission that the city’s official goal is little more than political pandering.

Along with me, Jones is the only city writer skeptical of the goofy, unattainable goal of 20% of trips by bike by 2020.

But, like Streetsblog and the Bicycle Coalition, he thinks the amount of money the city spends on bike projects is a big deal, and that of course the city should spend a lot more.

But the real issue on bike projects in San Francisco---on Masonic Avenue and Polk Street, for example---is not money, but about the limited space on city streets. To make a separated bike lane, the city has to take away either scarce street parking or a traffic lane on busy city streets.

This city will always be able to find enough money to do what it wants to do, even when it wants to do dumb projects (e.g., the Central Subway). The real obstacle to the Polk Street project isn't money but opposition in the Polk Gulch neighborhood to removing 200 parking spaces to make bike lanes. Similarly opposition to the Masonic Avenue bike project is about taking away all the street parking on Masonic between Fell and Geary---167 parking spaces in a neighborhood where parking is scarce---to make bike lanes. (Few cyclists now use Masonic, and the city has no idea how many will use it after this radical project is implemented. Like other bike projects, it's based on nothing but the hope that enough cyclists will use it afterward to justify its negative impact on traffic.)

These bike count stories cite the percentage gains on some of the streets counted, even though that's often ludicrous when you look at the actual numbers. The Chronicle's front-page sidebar trumpets an "83% increase in cyclists at Portola and O'Shaughnessy after bike-lane installation." When you look at the actual numbers on page 7 of the report you learn that there were 30 cyclists counted there in 2011 and a whopping 55 counted there this year!

That sidebar also finds that there was a "78% increase in cyclists at Page and Stanyan after bike-friendly traffic-signal changes." Anyone who's familiar with that intersection knows this is puffery. That traffic light is more about helping pedestrians in and out of Golden Gate Park at that part of Stanyan Street than it is about commuting cyclists. The numbers there: 138 cyclists counted in 2011, and 245 counted this year, a 78% gain!

By talking about percentages, these stories help City Hall spread the notion that cycling is increasing dramatically all over the city, though the actual numbers are a lot less impressive.

The most important percentage about bikes in the city is one that City Hall and the Bicycle Coalition don't like much---that cycling makes up at most only 3.8% of all trips in San Francisco after more than ten years of anti-car, pro-bike propaganda from City Hall and the Bicycle Coalition.

None of the stories mentions that, as I noted yesterday, 12 of the 39 locations actually had smaller numbers than reported in 2011.

On  page 4 of the report: "Evaluating bicycle activity is a key component of the SFMTA Bicycle Strategy’s Goal #1: Improve safety and connectivity for people traveling by bicycle."

As the last Collision Report (page 22) shows, more people riding bikes in the city means more people getting injured, and many of those injuries are "cyclist-only" accidents that have nothing to do with cars or bike lanes.

Safety is beyond the scope of this report. It will presumably be addressed in a new, long-overdue Collision Report, which has to grapple with the recent UC study that found that the city has been systematically and radically under-reporting cycling accidents in San Francisco. The city is encouraging people---even children---to ride bikes as if it's simply a green, win-win deal for everyone. Turns out that it's a lot more dangerous. As that reality sinks in, I suspect that what we've already witnessed is the peak of the great bike revolution in San Francisco.

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At 2:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's so much dumb in here I dont even know where to start. Keep up the hard work Rob.

At 2:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are right Rob. But like a cyclist who is run over a car when the car is at fault is "dead-right", you are also "dead-right", in that you won't get your way anyway. It's coming, whether you like it or not. But don't worry, you won't live to see it. Which is a damn shame.

At 2:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rob do you have data that shows a drop in cycling

At 3:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Insightful commentary as always. One thing to keep in mind is that a lot of the huge decline in bicycling is due to young people leaving the city in droves for the suburbs, just as Joel Kotkin predicted.

At 3:28 PM, Anonymous Oklahoma Bill said...

"But there's not a single comment from anyone skeptical of either the report itself or the overall anti-car, pro-bike policies coming out of City Hall."

Ha ha ha... because you're the only one who cares. Dumb fuck, Rob. When are you going to just shoot yourself? You bring misery wherever you go. Shape up or get out of this city.

At 10:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you think the MUNI tunnel under market was a good idea? How bout BART in SF

At 12:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your work promoting bicycling Rob.

At 3:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is so confusing to me about the SFBC and Streetsblog crowd is when you post links to statistics, present facts, show quotes and sources, it all doesn't matter. They will just say your facts are "wrong" but provide no alternative source of information for their argument.
I recently posted Reiskin's comment about 20 to 30% of San Francisco traffic being caused by cars circling looking for parking and was told this was a lie. After providing link to video where he said it, and to SFGate and SF Examiner article which quoted him the Streetsblog crowd said that Reiskin must have been "mistaken".

Now the same thing with these new Bicycle count statistics. If you post links explaining the actual numbers do not show significant growth in cycling, the bike-nuts go crazy. Needless to say, I have given up reading and posting on Streetsblog and other like-minded sites. Thanks again for this blog Rob!

At 1:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bobby you're such a fucking moron nothing can convince you . God speed mother fucker.

At 3:25 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

The anti-car bike trip is a faith-based ideology---BikeThink---a jumble consisting of ideas about peak oil, anti-carism, and the moral superiority of cyclists.

When the city was trying to justify all the new parking meters several years ago (see the Extended Meter Hours Study), it agreed with us that a shortage of parking is a bigger problem than providing adequate parking:

"More parking availability means that drivers will spend less time circling in search of parking spaces. Circling reduces safety, wastes fuel, and increases greenhouse gas emissions. Less circling will reduce congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, and improve the quality of life in San Francisco's neighborhoods (page 27)."

At 10:09 AM, Blogger Rkeezy said...

I thought for sure that when the report came out there would be a lot of silence, not wanting to draw attention to going from 3.4% to 3.8% at the massive cost motorists are paying in lost spots and reduced traffic throughput. But they had the temerity to highlight those numbers by spinning them as "14% gains". Someone needs to collect the statistic of the motorists ability to get from A to B, in terms of "50% increased travel time", "25% increased time looking for parking", etc. Then multiply those losses motorists have suffered by the relative percentage of motorist commuters and bicycling commuters (x8? x10? x20?)

More motorists, bigger losses for each motorist. Few cyclists, and some unquantifiable gain for them. That math just doesn't add up.

The cyclists will incredibly state that this means we should do even more disruption of traffic. What will it take? 8% modeshare, and a 200% increase in commute time? Should my commute from the Inner Sunset to Potrero Hill take 40 minutes? When it takes 20 minutes now and used to take under 15? Is that even fucking fair? The cyclists will tell you yes, and usually end up resorting to "well, Cyclists are better people than motorists so they should get what they want".

Why isn't anyone at the Chron or wherever else highlighting this failure? Why do we have appointed officials in the SFMTA (the 'T' in TRANSIT encompasses us all, not just a few) who blatantly war on the people who drive motor vehicles and ignore the people who take public transit - the vast majority of San Franciscans?

At 11:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rkeezy, we need to make biking as hard as possible so that more people drive instead of biking. Having that many more cars on the streets in front of you will speed up your commute enormously.

At 1:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rob you continue to refuse to offer any solutions to the vehicle traffic problem in SF. What solutions do you have

At 6:03 PM, Blogger Rkeezy said...

Anonymous, I can only assume you are talking about "mode shift". The idea that if we make biking easier by inconveniencing motorists, less motorists will drive, thereby offsetting that inconvenience.

I have news for you - that doesn't work. You only need to look at the report to see that the total number of cyclist commutes went from 3.4% to 3.8%.

You also could look at some relevant data as in the Level of Service for motorists on those given streets. Level of Service is a standard way of measuring time for a motorist to get from a fixed point A to a fixed point B.

If what you hope is true actually is true, the level of service should stay roughly the same. Well as a commuter who takes multiple different routes to work, I can plainly state that they are all unequivocaly worse. To the tune of 25-50% worse. Commutes that took 15-20 minutes now take 20-30. And that's on a motorcycle.

Now, multiply that disparity in Level of Service by the number of people who also are seeing reduced LOS, and you get an aggregate value of increased inconvenience. I.e. idling autos. How does that compare to the aggregate increased convenience of cyclists, who make up 3.8% of the commutes? From what I remember of the SFMTA's report there are roughly 10 times the number of motorists on the road as cyclists (forgetting about people who take public transit or walk or whatever). If all motorists suffer a 25% reduction in quality of commute (i.e. time), then assuming a population of 1,000,000 (again, a rough guess)

(400,000-x) commute units x 1.25 = 400,000 commute units

Where x is the number of people who give up being a motorist to be a cyclist in order for motorists to see the same level of service. Solving for that you get x=80,000. Which means the SFBC needs 80,000 new cyclists who used to be motorists just in the last few years in order to justify their changes, more than double of the current number of dues paying SFBC members.

Level of Service is a useful metric for pointing out the many problems with "mode shift" theory, which is probably why the SFBC has set out to stop SFMTA's use of it entirely.

If you don't have a mathematical or even pseudo-mathematical reason why bike "improvements" are better for traffic, then you should probably rethink your position.

At 7:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If what you hope is true actually is true, the level of service should stay roughly the same. Well as a commuter who takes multiple different routes to work, I can plainly state that they are all unequivocaly worse. To the tune of 25-50% worse. Commutes that took 15-20 minutes now take 20-30. And that's on a motorcycle."

Only if the number of drivers stays the same, which it hasn't - it's grown. Making your commute longer.

At 7:24 AM, Anonymous Gregski said...

Rkeezy, thank you for your insightful and well-explained comments.

In my communications with the MTA I have consistently received the message that the increase in trip times is something this agency takes pride in. It is one of their goals to reduce our average speeds.

For evidence just ask the MTA about the reduction of average travel speed on JFK since the excerable bike lane was built. They consider it a win.

MTA traffic designers do a great job of making our rides more anxious and time-lengthy. I wish they would depart SF and take jobs at Disneyland where the customers appreciate those end results.

At 2:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the tune of 25-50% worse. Commutes that took 15-20 minutes now take 20-30. And that's on a motorcycle.

Clearly you are a shitty motorcyclist.

At 2:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For evidence just ask the MTA about the reduction of average travel speed on JFK since the excerable bike lane was built. They consider it a win.

I do too. JFK is in a park for fuck's sake. Take Fulton you jackass.


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