Counting Bikes to Plan for Bikes

View the BikeArlington Counter Dashboard here!Photo: group of bikes at intersection

An old adage says “you can’t manage what you don’t measure”. In response, Arlington County transportation planners have established a robust program of continuous, automated bicycle and pedestrian counters to generate data on bicycle and pedestrian transportation. The count data strengthen the case for continued investment in and encouragement of active transportation, and help direct efforts to have the greatest impact.

Traditionally, bicycle trip data came from a combination of manual counts and surveys. But both methods are labor intensive, prone to inaccuracy and subjectivity, and provide limited insight into the everyday and long-term “pulse” of active transportation. Imagine working for weeks to organize a team of volunteers for a count event, inducing them (perhaps with cookie bribes?) to commit to a day of street corner observation with a clipboard, only to have the event washed out by a thunder storm. Or, perhaps the weather cooperates, but, on compiling the results, it is found that some volunteers did not follow directions carefully, so there results are flawed, unrepresentative, or unusable. There are many arguments to be made in favor of electronic surrogates that work 24-7-365, rain or shine.

Arlington’s first two automated bike and pedestrian counters were installed in the Fall and Spring of 2009-10 on the Custis and Four Mile Run Trails. They use a combination of in-ground inductive loops, passive infrared detectors, and pressure-sensitive piezo technology to generate data on trail volumes and travel direction. (Yes, for the curious, the occasional deer might get also be counted as a pedestrian).

As of this writing, in January 2015, the County has 18 permanently installed bicycle and pedestrian counters on shared-use trails, 10 permanent bicycle-only counters in on-street bike lanes, 6 mobile counters typically used for short term sidewalk counts, and the first real-time bicycle counter on the east coast, which we call the #bikeometer. This device, near the intersection of Lee Highway and N Lynn Street in Rosslyn, shows cumulative daily, monthly, and year-to-date totals at one of the busiest bicycle locations in the region. For nine months in 2014, from its launch on April 1 until December 31, the Bikeometer registered nearly 320,000 bicycle trips. We think the database we are building is not only valuable in the near term for planning and forecasting, but will also pay dividends for years to come as a record of active transportation.

Some early insights derived from the data include:

  • People are riding a lot of bikes on County trails! Most of our major trails see around 500,000 trips per year.
  • People ride on these trails to commute to and from work, for recreation and fitness, and for social and utility trips. Some of the trails display a balance of uses – other locations are predominantly used by commuters or recreational riders.
  • Many cyclists are not deterred by winter cold temperatures alone. But rain, snow and ice do have a major deterrent effect on ridership.
  • We enjoy a solid 6-7 month high season of strongest bicycle numbers.

Figure 1: Bike and Pedestrian Trips on the Custis Trail West (Uphill) of Rosslyn

Click image for larger version.
Alternate content: Figure 1 graph data in HTML table

Graph: Bike Trips on Custis Trail, Arlington County

Figure 1 shows activity over 62 months on the Custis Trail, an off-street, paved, multi-use trail running east-west across Arlington along I-66.

Peak months approach 50,000 trips, and peak days can come close to 2,000 bicycle trips. Imagine if all those trips had been additional vehicle trips on I-66 and other already congested roads. Cycling is making a difference! We have seen an average annual increase of nearly 5% in bicycle trip numbers over four complete calendar years.

Figure 2: A.M. and P.M. Commute Hours

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Alternate content: Figure 2 graph data in HTML table

Graph: Custis Trail Peak Hours

Figure 2 shows a.m. and p.m. spikes on the Custis Trail, typical of a commuter travel pattern.

Even a casual observer would notice that most riders carry backpacks or panniers during commuting hours. This regular, predictable, dependable activity sends an important message. The Custis Trail is a popular and valuable commuting facility, and not just a recreational trail. In fact, it’s more popular on weekdays than weekends. The counter data underscores the importance of the Custis in the inevitable competition for limited resources, and in support of Arlington’s dedication to providing transportation options.

Figure 3: Effect of Weather

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Alternate content: Figure 3 graph data in HTML table

Graph: Effect of Weather on Bike Trips

Figure 3 shows the effect of the weather on bike trips.

Cyclists on the Custis Trail are much more averse to rain than to merely cold temperatures. This observation helps strengthen the case for continued trail maintenance and snow clearing throughout the winter. If the trails are clear of snow, many people will choose to ride despite the cold. A relatively small investment in clearing the trails keeps people on their bikes, and means fewer cars on the road, and less crowding on buses and Metro trains.

From two original counters installed in 2009-10, Arlington County has grown a network that now includes 18 bike and pedestrian counters on off-road shared-use paths; 10 counters in on-street bike lanes; six mobile devices suitable for short term bike and/or pedestrian counts, and the first real time bike counter on the east coast, the Rosslyn #bikeometer. The wealth of data these devices generate helps legitimize cycling as a valid form of transportation, and guides the continuing efforts of transportation planners. So the next time you ride in Arlington, remember – we are “counting” on you!

RackSpotter -- Crowdsourced Arlington bike parking map

Arlington’s Bicycle Counters

Bikes counted

View Counter Data
110 Trail
14th Street Bridge
Arlington Mill Trail
Ballston Connector
Bluemont Connector
CC Connector
Clarendon EB bike lane
Custis Bon Air Park
Custis Rosslyn
Fairfax EB bike lane
Joyce St NB
Joyce St SB
Key Bridge East
Key Bridge West
Military NB bike lane
Military SB bike lane
MVT Airport South
Quincy NB bike lane
Quincy SB bike lane
Roosevelt Bridge
Rosslyn Bikeometer
TR Island Bridge
WOD Bon Air Park
WOD Bon Air West
WOD Columbia Pike
WOD East Falls Church
Wilson WB bike lane

All bike counters, YTD

View Counter Data
Year to Date
About Arlington’s Bicycle & Pedestrian Counter Program

Upcoming Events
Take Our Daughters & Sons to Work Day

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Arbor Day

Friday, April 28, 2017

Bike Rodeo

Saturday, April 29, 2017 10 a.m. - noon

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Arlington tax increase all goes to schools and Metro

Patricia Sullivan, April 22, 2017, Washington Post

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April 23, 2017, Arlington County

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