Bike Counters and Social Justice

Here are several comments to the Echo in the City blog and to Streetsblog, on the subject of bike counters and research methods. Bicycle infrastructure should support bicyclists who are bicycling now. More infrastructure can of course inspire people to bicycle, but we ought to respect people who are using the bicycle to travel already. Changing the population of bicyclists through provision of infrastructure and police crackdowns on helmets or riders is not necessarily a positive act.

The advantage of the bicycle is that it offers mobility to people without requiring a large investment. People who have already figured this out should not be marginalized and penalized for not meeting bicycling standards set by authorities without democratic consent.

Thinking through the Strava data My response:

Can you point me to the part of your argument where you disproved the null hypothesis? The null hypothesis being that for planning purposes, the Strava-user database does not differ from other tools used to assemble data on cyclist behavior?

I agree strongly with the sentiments expressed in the “research-0013.jpg” cartoon, but I can envision a number of different methods that share the same problems. In New York City, the authorities do “screenline” counts, where counters are positioned along certain high-traffic bike routes leading to midtown Manhattan. This is great for finding out how many people are traveling to midtown, but in my opinion it is unlikely to lead to improvements to bicycle infrastructure along routes that do not lead to midtown Manhattan. My point being, the city authorities didn’t need to buy a Strava data pack to get data that would have similar biases. If the goal of cycling promotion is to get people onto bikes, the overall problem with all types of collection of cyclist data trips is that they only measure trips taken by people who are actually cycling during the study period.

My understanding of bicycling promotion market research is that transportation planners devote a great deal of attention to encouraging the “interested but concerned” folks who are not currently riding bikes because they feel it’s not safe. These people’s biking experiences are not going to be reflected in any kind of data collection project because they are not currently biking.

Do We Need Automated Bike Counts My response:

Great post. I like your Venn diagram. Looks to me though that the biggest problem with automated counters is that the level of detail of the information they provide is not likely to be required to prove the hypotheses that are being proposed.

If I tell you that 1531 people are bicycling through the intersection of West 86th St & Columbus Avenue in a southerly direction on an average summer Tuesday, what are you going to do with that information? Would you do something else if I told you the count was 3531? I presume any number greater than 0 could be used to justify some kind of bicycle infrastructure.

And in Streetsblog

Collecting data only on the number of people crossing between from borough to borough, but not counting “local” bicyclists, privileges people who are traveling longer distances, and the bike infrastructure necessary to encourage them, viz. better bridge crossings, greenways, and protected bike lanes along direct, arterial roadways.

Bicycles, however, are used for more than just traveling between areas. It is a canard that many car trips are just a mile or so and can be replaced by bicycle trips without having to confront issues of fatigue or fitness, thus reducing motor vehicle traffic in busy neighborhoods. This is the philosophy behind DOT-supported bike share, and the DOT neighborhood slow zone program, and it is therefore a little surprising that DOT researchers are still using screenline methods to collect data that does not inform the policy initiatives of the organization.

Another Insightful Streetsblog Comment

I looked this one up today so I could refer to it again; I don’t know if it’s really that insightful or whether I just keep rebutting the same guy with the same bland insight.

A true 21st century human-powered logistics system would still require extensive distribution and logistics facilities. The West Side docks closed because they didn’t have the fifty acres of back-pad necessary to offload and store the containers from the ships; I presume the same acreage is necessary for any kind of transfer facility, which leads to the question of where best to locate an 18-block logistics facility in midtown Manhattan.

This is a pretty good argument that the likelihood of a 21st-century human-powered logistics system developing in New York City is pretty slim, as land is so expensive it makes the return on the investment too small. Look at Chelsea Market, which is one single block, and how that adapted from a small-scale food distribution center to a high-end retail food center.

Another reason this is a good argument is that Greg, the cargo-trike guy on the West Side, suggests the creation of a distribution center, “like in Paris,” as a prerequisite for a human-powered delivery system.

Other more bicycle-specific reasons are these:

System max weight is 700 to 1000 lbs, using a tricycle chassis. System can probably carry about 10 big-size totes (22 inches long, 12 in deep, 15 in wide), each of which can hold 50 lbs of coffee. So you cube out before you weigh out. But really, the staff costs kill you, with the workers’ compensation insurance added on. Going more than a couple blocks at 5 mph increases the time spent traveling, and therefore the payroll (as well as helping bump up against the 8 hour limit, and the lunch hour…) over reasonable costs. Hiring more workers to cover slow travel means you need more bikes as well as a larger pool of potential workers. And if you are only going 5 mph with a cargo trike, you might as well go 3 mph with a hand cart and save on the workers’ comp and the salary.

One reason a tricycle is better than bicycle for really heavy loads because you can shift into a lower gear while standing still on a tricycle. In order to get going with a heavy load from a standstill on a bicycle, you need to be in the low gear when you stop. I remember with fondness the high crown of Avenue A at East 2d St, and trying with difficulty to get the bike with trailer into forward motion over that crowned roadway.

Streetsblog Comments Worth Saving

Here are a set of comments I made to Streetsblog back in 2011 that I thought were worth digging up again and saving for future reference. I was a little more engaged in the commercial cycling business at the time, as you can see.

I can attest from personal experience that it is not easy or straightforward to shop for a liability policy for bicycles on the business level. Individuals may find it easier.

I believe that this problem is at least partially responsible for the poor cycling behavior of the delivery fleet. Riders are treated as independent contractors (with their own personal bicycles) because the restaurants can’t afford to pay a liability claim. More enforcement and more widely available insurance would make it reasonable for restaurants to put their riders on payroll and cover them directly under their own insurance policies. This would align safe and courteous riding behavior with what the boss wants. All the “bicycle-friendly business” campaigns won’t do a thing until business owners actively take responsibility for the behavior of their delivery fleet riders.

(I liked particularly the idea of the delivery fleet dressed as flight attendants and riding big Oma bikes. It’s a useful corrective.)

BicyclesOnly, thanks for sharing your thoughtful bicycling memoir and explanation for why you support TA’s policy. I agree with you, but have two caveats.

First and most obviously, the benefits to following the “Biking Rules” street code mostly accrue to other people. It’s not obvious that following Biking Rules will keep you, the rider, any more safe. One simple example: stopped at a red light next to automobiles. No cross traffic visible. Is it better to cross the intersection against the light and avoid turning autos or is it better to wait with the automobile and have them turn into your path? I prefer to cross against the light; call me a rebel!

Second, if it were true that “the small minority of cyclists who ride too aggressively” were all individual actors, than I would feel the same as you do; I would grudgingly accept that a behavior-modification campaign was the best way to win acceptance for cyclists.

However, if TA believes that “setting an example” is the way to change cyclists’ behavior, don’t they realize that the example is not being set by paid-up TA members with fluorescent clothing and front-and-rear lighting systems? For every Larry Littlefield in a blinking LED vest, there are a hundred cyclists in black nylon jackets riding without brakes. They are the ones setting the biking rules for everyone else.

In order to change their behavior, though, it makes more sense to coerce the businesses that employ them than to pressure the individual riders. Restaurants are reputation businesses, and should be held responsible for the behavior of their employees. It’s the job of the employer to make sure that employees are following the rules, not the job of random bicyclists on the streets.

Thought experiment: if restaurant delivery staff dressed like flight attendants, rode big heavy Dutch Oma bikes with GPS dynamo headlights and bright red taillights, and strictly obeyed the Biking Rules code, would that encourage or discourage other New Yorkers to ride a bike? I think the former.

The city heavily regulates the taxi fleet; why not the delivery fleet? Better regulation could improve service (bikes could have GPS built in, so customers could track their delivery online), improve safety (lights and reflectors), and reduce accidents (GPS-activated horn could beep when bike was being ridden on the sidewalk, and brake to a crawl when bike was going the wrong way), and enhance the image of cycling as a dignified and respectable way to get around, even with a couple take-out dinners in tow).

(From the same post)

My opinion is that the Biking Rules program reinforces the antibike narrative by creating an monochrome context in which many cyclists’ behavior is interpreted as “WRONG.” This prompts the antibike crowd to argue, very reasonably, that they are all for “RIGHT” biking, and that until all cyclists are “RIGHT,” “WRONG” cyclists shouldn’t be entitled to full use of the streets. Why build bike lanes when “WRONG” cyclists will just use them to maim innocent pedestrians, they say?

And even when articulate proponents of cycling infrastructure like yourself advocate for the benefits of extending more bike lanes so that people can be “RIGHT” cyclists, the dichotomy is stuck to you like a bear trap; opponents respond, ‘Yes, that would be great, but until we do something about “WRONG” cyclists endangering the lives of our uncles and aunts, we shouldn’t just give them more precious street space.’

It reminds me of the fight over needle-exchange programs. In that example, it was necessary to redefine and destigmatize junkies from offenders to victims before exchange programs were accepted as tools for harm reduction. As long as TA (and DOT) keep drawing lines with the majority of working cyclists on the outside, people riding bikes will never get the benefits that they deserve.

Good news on comments

Watermelon man, pictured, has good news: I’ve figured out how to open up the comments box to anyone. No need to puzzle out how to register with the site to leave a comment now.