Bike Counts are Coming

In 2011 the Tempe Bicycle Action Group began an annual bike count culminating in a report full of data collected each April from many different locations, 28 in 2012. To date, this is the only organization that has conducted regular bike volume counts in the Phoenix metro area.

If you’ve ever driven or ridden across those rubber strips lying across the road, those are pneumatic counters and they track motor vehicle volume traversing any given road each day. Almost every municipality and government agency from Avondale to ADOT use these counters to count the number of automobiles traveling on a section of roadway in a given time period. There are other methods and technologies used at intersections to determine if all traffic queued at a light makes it through each cycle, how many people are turning each direction, and the volume of traffic by hour of the day to determine peak demand. The data are used in models that produce future predictions on similar roadways and are also used for current day situations like timing lights and adding an extra left turn lane or determining if a street would benefit from right-sizing. It is extremely important information that determines the type of infrastructure to be built in new parts of town and contributes to decisions within the existing infrastructure.

It is because of the importance of these data in our forecast models that I am excited about the upcoming counts conducted by Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG). To date the models simply assume a percentage of trips will be taken by bicycle (or by foot or transit), but the effects are so negligible in new development because the Transportation Area Zones (TAZ) that are used show almost no demand for active transportation modes. It’s a vicious cycle that starts with poor infrastructure, resulting in auto-dependence, the data from which are used in the forecast model, which predicts auto-dependence in future development. With bike counts, the data may be analyzed to reflect the infrastructure preferences and resulting behavior as the surrounding environment changes.

Beginning September 30, MAG will be conducting four phases of automated bike counts in two-week increments across the Valley. For details on when and where the counts will be conducted, check out slides 13 and 14 here. The rest of the presentation shows where manual counting will take place as well as the methodology used to select the sites. The manual count schedule has not been released at this time. While these counting tubes are in place they will track 24-hour data from cyclists rolling across them. The tubes will be placed in a way that count people on bikes whether they are riding on the sidewalk or on the street.

While the first requirement stated in the site selection indicates the presence of bicycle facilities will be considered, it appears as though some sites on major arterials without a bike lane were selected. These include 19th Avenue and Northern Road (west), 19th Avenue and Glendale (west), 83rd Avenue and Thunderbird (south), and 44th Street and Thomas (north). If these locations have bike lanes or wide shoulders, I’m not aware of them because I’ve been able to successfully avoid riding on those streets. I bring this up because it is extremely important to collect data on all facility types. It may be tempting to place these counters on only high-volume areas to “prove” there is high demand for cycling infrastructure, but planners need to know first of all, what types of facilities are being used most frequently by people riding bikes. Do people prefer to ride on traffic separated pathways, are on-street bike lanes effective, and do streets designed solely for cars preclude bike use? Data from these major arterials can then be compared to similar roadways with different infrastructure to determine the role cycling infrastructure and land use play in whether people bike there or not.

In future model runs this data will be used to supplement the data we have on motor vehicle behavior. The implications are tremendous because it can show where motor vehicle traffic would be reduced with the implementation of facilities for bicycling. These models may also be used to determine which existing streets on which to focus re-design. Historically transportation models have been designed to project consistent and unlimited motor vehicle growth. New models with bike count data will have a greater ability to project appropriate facility design to improve the mode-share split to more favorably affect our air quality (which drives much of our federal funding) and will actually allow our models to produce results that may favor something other than a six-lane major arterial road through every neighborhood.

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