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San Diego Regional Bike Counters Up For Adoption

A bicyclist rides over a bike counter on 5th Avenue in Bankers Hill, July 12,...

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Above: A bicyclist rides over a bike counter on 5th Avenue in Bankers Hill, July 12, 2017.

San Diego Regional Bike Counters Up For Adoption

GUEST:

Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS News

Transcript

Dozens of devices across San Diego County have been gathering data on cycling activity for the past five years. But the bike counters have not been consistently maintained, and some have gone more than a year with dead batteries.

In 2012, the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency purchased 54 bike and pedestrian counters and installed them throughout the county. At the time, it was billed as the largest bike-counting network in the country, capable of providing transportation and health officials with important data on the region's active transportation habits.

Five years later, a handful of the devices have been sitting in the pavement with dead batteries for more than a year. Others have periodically gone offline after being short-circuited by rain.

The spotty maintenance of the devices is due in part to how they were purchased — with one-time grant dollars — and in part to the sometimes disjointed patchwork of public agencies responsible for transportation infrastructure.

Video by Katie Schoolov

For most of their existence, the bike counters have been managed by Sherry Ryan, a professor of city planning at SDSU and consultant who was contracted by the county to find the best locations for the counters. Unlike bike-counting cameras purchased by the city of San Diego in 2014, the county's devices are installed under the pavement and rely on the same "inductive loop" technology long used to detect cars at intersections.

RELATED:San Diego Confronts Bad Data From Bike-Counting Cameras

Ryan said she has done her best over the years to cobble together funding to replace the devices' batteries when they die, but that government agencies responsible for transportation could be better equipped to work the maintenance costs into their budgets.

"It pencils out to something like 100 dollars a unit per year" to replace the batteries, she said. "It's not that much money. It's just there's no steady stream of funding identified for it."

Earlier this year, Ryan convinced officials at the San Diego Association of Governments to accept 10 of the units as gifts. SANDAG, which is responsible for long-range transportation planning across the county, is budgeting $85,000 this fiscal year for the devices' maintenance.

"For our 10, we want to make sure we're very confident in the data we're getting from those," said Chris Kluth, SANDAG's active transportation program manager. "So there's a fair amount of work. Some of them will need to be reinstalled. Some will get some newer parts to put in there that are more durable."

Two of the bike counters are located on 4th and 5th Avenues in Bankers Hill, where SANDAG is planning to upgrade painted bike lanes to "cycle tracks." That type of bike facility provides cyclists with a physical barrier to protect them from moving vehicles.

Kluth said the counters could help validate the idea already supported by research that protected bike lanes are far more effective at attracting ridership than painted lanes.

"That is the goal in the long term, to be able to help us figure out where projects should go, what kind of return did we get on this kind of investment," he said.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Sherry Ryan points to her computer screen showing displaying graphs with data from San Diego County's regional bike counters, July 17, 2017.

Despite occasional gaps from dead batteries, the data from the counters show some reliable trends: People bike and walk more in summer months than in winter, for example. Also, people are far more likely to bike on streets with safer conditions, slower speeds and lower traffic volumes.

For example, bike counters on La Jolla Boulevard, which for nearly 10 years has had a set of traffic-calming roundabouts, show more than three times the average daily ridership than bike counters on Vista Village Drive, a six-lane arterial road with high vehicle speeds.

"The two environments are attracting different levels of cycling," Ryan said. "And so as planners, we want to understand why, and what makes for a comfortable location corridor for cyclists to ride along, and how do we build more of those."

Ryan said she would be going to all the cities with bike counters in their jurisdiction to try to convince transportation officials to adopt the remaining devices and start maintaining them. It could be a tough sell, given that public agencies are often reluctant to take on new costs that originated somewhere else. A spokesman for the city of San Diego said it was "not likely" the city would adopt any counters.

Ryan said cities should see the devices as an issue of transportation justice.

"Who is walking and cycling? Younger people, people who are too poor to own cars, people who are trying to access transit," she said. "So they are kind of the forgotten modes, and unfortunately those travelers are in less safe environments."

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