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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