Thursday, September 4, 2008

It all counts

Today was a big day for counts. On the 5-mile bicycle commute to the ProWalk/ProBike conference, I counted 21 bicyclists, all apparently fellow commuters. This roughly equals the number of bicycle commuters that I see during a typical week of morning commutes in Louisville. At the conference, I attended a morning session that included three presentations involving bicycle traffic counts and counting methods. It gave me ideas for where, when, and how to do more bicycle traffic counts in Louisville. (Bicycling for Louisville conducted morning and afternoon peak hour bicycle counts of 20 intersections in the spring of 2007.)

I joined an afternoon "mobile workshop" to see the ways in which University of Washington is encouraging its students, faculty, and staff to avoid driving alone to the campus. We stood on University Way one block off campus learning about measures taken to make the street safer and more inviting to pedestrian and bicyclists. During a 10-minute stretch at that intersection at about 4:30 PM, I counted 15 bicyclists - a pace of 90 bicyclists per hour, more than we counted at any of the intersections in Louisville. Remarkably, this happened during a "slow" time when the University is not in session. An hour later, we stood at the south edge of the campus alongside the Burke-Gilman Trail, a paved multi-use path over 30 years old. In six minutes, I counted 54 bicycles passing on the trail - a rate of 540 bicycles per hour! Although this was during rush hour peak (about 5:45 PM), it was again during a slow time of year for traffic in the University.

With or without bike lanes or paths, with or without school in session, Seattle has enormously higher bicycle traffic than Louisville does. During my glimpse of it, the Burke-Gilman Trail carried even more bicycle traffic than any of the Seattle streets I've seen. Over the past few years, Seattle has averaged about half of our number of bicycle fatalities (about 1 per year rather than about 2/year in Louisville). Even so, riding around Seattle has not given this Louisvillian a sense that the bicycling facilities here are all that much better than those in Louisville. Cascade Bicycle Club (with 10,000 dues-paying members and 20 paid staffers!) and the City of Seattle appear to agree. Last year, the City approved a new bicycling master plan with commitments to invest roughly $3 million per year for 9 years ($27 million total) on new and improved bicycle facilities. The plan calls for much more, as funds become available. The $27 million will go to carefully selected, high-benefit projects, not just some vague concepts or one or two glamorous big-ticket trails or bridges. The plan also has specific goals for these new facilities and programs: tripling the number of bicycle commuters from 4% of Seattle commuters to 12%. (I believe that fewer than 0.2% of non-home-based workers in Louisville commute by bicycle.)

Seattle appreciates what bicycling already does for the city and its people, and wants more of the same. Its tremendous bicycling advantage over Louisville has relatively little to do with more or better bicycling facilities (notwithstanding the phenomenal difference between bicycling conditions on University Bridge in Seattle compared with Clark Memorial (a.k.a. 2nd Street) Bridge in Louisville). Over the next ten years, we'll get to see how much bicycling increases and bicycle crashes decrease in Seattle as they build more and better bicycle lanes, multi-use paths, and bicycle boulevards.

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