Cyclists Count Bikes Because Facts Fight Anecdata

city street and person driving motorized scooter in bike lane
Lloyd Alter

TreeHugger founder Graham Hill used to quote management guru Peter Drucker all the time: “What gets measured, gets managed.”

But in the City of Toronto, where everybody argues about bike lanes everywhere, they haven’t actually measured how many people are cycling into the city since 2010. As an urban planner and activist Gil Meslin tells Sarah-Joyce Battersby of Metro:

Too often in recent years in decision making we’ve allowed ourselves to get bogged down in partisan divide and rhetoric, and we have allowed personal anecdotes to supplant evidence,” he said, pointing to the dialogue around the Gardiner East expansion and Scarborough subway.

So he decided to collect direct evidence and put out a call on Twitter for volunteers. Seventy people, including me, turned up for the count on this beautiful October morning. I like to think that the information we gathered will be useful. As Gil notes,

Hopefully, the more timely and directly relevant evidence that is available at the table at the time these discussions take place, the harder it is to dismiss it and distort it when it comes to making a decision.

bike count 2010
The City of Toronto bike count locations are ploted on a map of the city. City of Toronto / Public Domain

Gil picked locations that could be compared directly to the 2010 count; I was assigned a corner on the east side of the city core on Wellesley Street, where there was a bike lane during the last count. Since then, there have been other east-west bike lanes added, so I wasn’t sure if the count would go up because there are a lot more cyclists, or down because there were more options.

City street with empty bike lane and little traffic
Lloyd Alter

When I got there it was pretty quiet, but that didn’t last long. We were asked to separate male from female riders because past research showed that there was a real gender imbalance. This actually complicated the count (and was sometimes hard to tell). I wanted to collect other data, so I also divided it into those wearing helmets and those not. This made life even harder, as I had to choose between four boxes instead of just doing a straight count. It got pretty messy.

But there were a lot of interesting data from my little intersection study.

1. A lot more people are cycling than during the last count

bike count graph
Graphing showing the total number of bikers by time. Lloyd Alter

In 2010 there were 181 cyclists between 8:00 and 9:00, compared to 280 this year, a 54 percent increase. In 2010 there were 137 between 9 and 10; this year there were 170, a 25 percent increase. And that’s with more safe alternative parallel routes.

2. There is still a gender imbalance, but it’s getting better

gender balance
Chart showing bikers by gender. Greater Toronto Area/Public Domain

Of the 450 riders counted in the two hours, 59.5 percent were men, compared to 2011, when 67.25 percent were men.

3. The riders generally follow the rules and treat this like a commute, not a sport.

Snarky bike-hating tweeters ask if we are counting Highway Traffic Act violations and people riding on the sidewalk. In two hours I did not see a single one of either. When there is a bike lane, people do not feel the need to ride on the sidewalk. When they ride every day for work, they tend not to go through red lights at major intersections during rush hour.

4. It doesn’t sound like much, but 450 bikes in two hours is a lot of bikes

I tried counting how many cars got through the intersection and it is surprising how few there actually are getting through each traffic light change; cars take up a lot of space in the road. During many traffic light cycles, more bikes than cars passed me. I also counted how many big fast electric scooters were in the bike lanes and only saw three in two hours. This was encouraging.

5. Most people wear helmets

helmet rage in London

There is helmet rage in London but this happens here too. I was actually surprised at the high proportion, 78 percent, of the cyclists who were wearing helmets. I wear one, but I am not taking a position that people should wear helmets; I was just curious because so many drivers now seem to get angry at cyclists who don’t, so I wanted to see if they had any reason for this rage. (It was too hard to count the people cycling in heels, but there were a few.) It may be different in London, but in Toronto, the drivers don’t have much to be angry about here.

the bike lane
The bike lane saves cyclists from cars, buses and trucks.  Lloyd Alter

I found the whole exercise to be really encouraging. I saw no road rage, a lot of people using bikes as transportation, quite a few families, everything totally normal and unexciting, just people going to work. I saw as many people on bikes as I saw people in cars for much of the time, and the bikes were going faster. But mostly, from where I was, I saw that most of the arguments used by the people who hate bike lanes are just silly. These lanes are getting used, more people are using them all the time, and there are enough cyclists to merit their own dedicated lanes.

It will be interesting to see the total numbers; I will report back when Gil Meslin totals it all up.