Feature Article - May 2020
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On a Roll

Creating Bike-Friendly Parks & Communities

By Dave Ramont

As the weather turns nice, many of us are thinking about climbing on bicycles that have been in hibernation. But more people are also using two-wheeled conveyances as a year-round mode of transportation, even in harsher winter climates. Bicycling has a lot to offer when it comes to health and exercise, recreation and sport, environmental gains and cost savings. And many communities recognize the benefits of promoting so-called soft mobility or active transportation, and are exploring ways to become more bike-friendly.

Keeping Track

Matt Ainsley is a market strategist for a technology company headquartered in France with subsidiaries in Canada and Germany, specializing in counting cyclists and pedestrians in both urban and natural environments. To date, they've installed 22,000 systems in 55 countries, and Ainsley said that these counts are an important tool to enable data-driven management of public spaces.

"Understanding how and when parks are used is essential for parks departments to capture a baseline understanding of how many people use a park or trail," he said. "Automated counters allow you to understand daily, weekly and seasonal trends, including peak hours and how different entrances to parks are used differently. The data allows park managers to justify park development and expansion, optimize maintenance operations, inform security operations, quantify the impact of changes to the park, seek funding grants and more."

Aside from parks and other public spaces, Ainsley said that many communities—from large cities to small suburbs—are looking for ways to safely increase rates of cycling. "Having the right data on how the bike paths, trails and dedicated cycle tracks are used is essential to planning and maintaining cycling infrastructure."

Using temporary counters, a city with no infrastructure can count for two weeks at a time on different streets to understand how cyclists are currently using the streets, therefore informing where infrastructure should be. Permanent bicycle counters allow planners to capture how the infrastructure is used 24/7. "From justifying the existence of that first controversial bike lane to adding the 150th mile of bike lane because of overcrowding issues, count data is a cornerstone tool for informing bike planning," said Ainsley.

The counters can differentiate between motorized vehicles, pedestrians or bikes, and can distinguish the number of cyclists in a group. Ainsley explained that a particular site will dictate which type of counter is optimal. Permanent counters capture data 24/7—providing long-term trends—and they tend to be discreetly installed under asphalt or soil on a trail. Temporary counters—which are useful for quickly understanding how many cyclists are using one street, trail or park—can be attached to existing park infrastructure, "such as a light post, fence post, tree—you name it and we've seen it," said Ainsley.

Ainsley said they'll assist clients with selecting sites and developing a count program, and they also offer starter kits and best-practice guides. "You don't need to be a data nerd to use the software, it's really intuitive and set up to quickly get the trends from your data." The counters can be connected to existing databases, or there are public web pages where the data can be hosted publicly for free, if a client chooses to share it. "Count data is really great for engaging the local community in cycling. We see bike count data communicated with elected officials, nonprofits, local media and researchers, to name a few."

As an example, Ainsley points to California, where the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) monitors bike volumes and commuter trends using different methods, including 74 automated counters located citywide. The data is collected and analyzed to help inform policy and planning decisions regarding street design. Residents can go to the SFMTA site and look at graphs displaying things like hourly bike counts or average weekday bike volumes for counters by location. Or they could view a 2017/2018 monthly bike comparison.

Many bike advocacy groups at both the local and national levels are working to promote better bicycle infrastructure, bike safety initiatives, trail campaigns, biking equity and inclusion and more. The International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) works to create, enhance and protect great places to ride mountain bikes, believing that everyone should have access to great trails. And Ainsley's firm is excited about their new partnership with IMBA, focusing on success metrics for communities with mountain bike trails. "Together we'll develop and share resources—including best-practice guides—on how to collect, manage and apply mountain bike count data." Those resources will be shared through free online guides, workshops and webinars.

"The cornerstone of the partnership is the new Trails Count Grant Program, which provides assistance grants to jump-start efforts for communities that have the interest and political support to develop trail-use measurement systems but need assistance to get their studies started," said Ainsley. Following a competitive grant process, awardees will receive two pedestrian counters, including the data analysis software, professional assistance and consultation services to set up and manage count programs.