Bikes Count: Pedaling to Better Health
Bikes Count is a regional bicycle counting program sponsored by the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency, the Active Transportation Research (ATR) program at San Diego State University (SDSU), and the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). Beginning in 2012, automated bicycle counters were installed throughout the county. These counters, installed discreetly in street pavements, electronically tally the number of passing bicycles. There are now 54 counters installed at 27 locations in 14 jurisdictions throughout the county, in both urban and rural locations. This makes Bikes Count the largest active-travel counting system in the country. The goal is to have cyclist numbers that can inform future decisions on transportation investments, such as bike paths, in jurisdictions throughout the county.
Bicycling and walking are easy ways to increase daily physical activity to stay healthy and reduce chances of getting a chronic disease. Yet in a large geographical area such as San Diego County, especially in urban areas, these activities are not always safe or possible. There are not always proper facilities such as bike paths and shared lanes to make it easier for bicyclists to travel from place to place. What was lacking was a research-based tool for measuring where bicyclists could most benefit. While San Diego County is a fair-weather location with many avid bicyclists, planners had not often factored bicycling demand into infrastructure decisions, and data was lacking. Planners, engineers and cyclists were looking for accurate bicyclist counts to begin creating bicycle lanes and paths.
Through the Communities Putting to Prevention to Work and Community Transformation Grant programs, both Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)-funded initiatives, the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency's Healthy Works program under Live Well San Diego funded the bicycle-counter project (and called it Bikes Count). Under the direction of SDSU researchers, the counters were installed along SANDAG's Regional Bike Plan locations, in both urban and rural areas. The counters sense the electromagnetic footprint of a bicycle and distinguish it from an automobile. A small logger is installed in the side of the roadway and attached to a loop detector installed in the asphalt in the bicycle lane. Data is collected and summarized at 15-minute increments, available by hour, day, week, month or year. The equipment includes a modem that allows for daily data upload without going out into the field to collect. The data is available for viewing on a connected web site.
Bikes Count is now the largest regional bicycle-counting project in the nation, and is expected to grow in future years. The data is already proving valuable. Dr. Sherry Ryan, the SDSU researcher who leads the project, recently provided Bikes Count data to the City of San Diego as the city was preparing to approve the San Diego Bicycle Master Plan update, which will double the city's bicycle network during the next 20 years. That plan was approved by the City Council.
"This bike-counting system is proving to be the perfect tool for vital data around bicycling in San Diego County," Ryan said. "We're now able to start recognizing where these numbers can make a real impact." Another example of Bikes Count in action involves a construction project affecting the Rose Canyon area of the City of San Diego. SANDAG and Caltrans were considering closing the paved bike path that connects through Rose Canyon while they completed the upcoming Mid-Coast Corridor Transit Project, a trolley-extension project. Data from Bikes Count, though, helped to change that plan. The Bikes Count counter located on the Rose Canyon bike route showed significant bicycle activity every day of the week, especially during weekday morning and afternoon commutes. Though the route is known as a popular path for recreational use, the counters proved it was also used extensively as a commuter path, as cyclists use the path to get to and from work and school. The path will now be kept open during the construction project.
The hope is that as future data from Bikes Count becomes available, cities throughout the county will use it for planning bicycle infrastructure as they plan for Smart Growth. Ryan says she hopes the data might eventually help inform bicycle planning in such long-talked-about projects as a bicycling route from downtown San Diego to the border that takes only an hour to ride. By knowing where bicyclists are pedaling, meaningful decisions can be made around new bike paths and other transportation choices. Good bicycle facilities help many people get to and from work, contributing to the health of the local economy. And by giving bicyclists the facilities they need, individual and community health are improved, and environmental impacts are lessened.