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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, 2017.
Nicholas McVicker
A bicyclist rides over a bike counter on 5th Avenue in Bankers Hill, July 12, 2017.
San Diego Regional Bike Counters Up For Adoption
San Diego Regional Bike Counters Up For Adoption GUEST:Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS News

This is KPBS Midday Edition. I Maureen Cavanaugh. Yesterday we brought you the story of San Diego’s efforts to count bicycles and problems with the data collected by special like County cameras. There is another way to count bikes using electromagnetic sensors installed under the pavement. County health officials purchased dozens of those bike counters by years ago, but as Metro reporter Andrew Bowen explained some of the devices have been neglected and fallen through the cracks of local government. Reporter: We are here on Fifth Avenue between IV and Juniper and Bakersfield. Reporter: Chris Clute is active transportation manager at the regional transportation planning agency. A few years ago, the city converted one of the travel lanes here to a buffered bike lane which is very nice. So, there are two big boppers there. Reporter: Thanks to this the bike lane is scheduled for another upgrade. Cyclist will have a physical barrier protecting them from moving cars. Research shows this kind of bike lane called a cycle track is a much better job at attracting riders than just paint on the ground. The bike counter installed under the pavement can help confirm that. That is our goal in the long term to be able to help us figure out where projects to go and what kind of return did we get on this kind of investment. Reporter: This is one of the four bike and pedestrian counters purchased by the County health and human services agents in 2012. They were installed throughout the county from Imperial Beach to Oceanside. At the time, the system was praised as one of the biggest in the country capable of giving public officials valuable data on how many people are biking and walking and where. It is interesting data and having a snapshot of the data in this format helps us to validate it. Reporter: Sherry Ryan is an SDSU professor and consultant who worked on the County bike counter program. She showed me bar graphs on her computer with data from the devices. As you can see each of these humps is a summer month and this represents three years of data. We have is very consistent patterns across three years which is a lot of data. And then we see in July 2016 the battery died. Reporter: Yes, the battery died. Several of the counters have gone within the year with dead batteries. Others have gone off line because they were short-circuited by rain. How did that happen? Because no agency had budgeted for the counters maintenance. The units were purchased by the county with grant money one time dollars. Ryan has done her best to keep the counters in working order over the years, but that is not really her job. She is a profession -- professor not a transportation agency employee. There is no steady stream of funding identified. Reporter: Now that is just the cost of the battery date $100 -- you also have to pay for regular wear and fair for the wireless transition, still these bike counters are not a huge expense when you think about the millions we already spend a transportation infrastructure. Chris Clute says Sandag has excepted 10 of the units to take over maintenance. Budget is $85,000 for the maintenance this year. Reporter: We want to make sure we are very confident in the data we are getting from them. There is a fair amount of work. Some will need to be reinstalled. Some will use newer parts to put in there that are more durable. Reporter: Still that has a few more dozen counters in need for adoption. Ryan said it is hard for one agency to take care of the cost when the cost originated somewhere else but the date is very valuable. I like to call a transportation justice issue. Who is cycling? Younger people. People who are too poor to own cars. People trying to access transit. They are kind of the forgotten modes and unfortunately those travelers are in less safe environments. Reporter: Ryan says over the next few months she will be going city to city trying convince their transportation officials to adopt the bike counters. It could be a tough sell. I asked the city of San Diego if they are prepared to take over maintenance of some of the bike counters and a spokesman Toby -- not likely. Reporter: Joining me is Andrew Bowen. Welcome. Glad to be here. Reporter: What is the whole point of trying to track how many people are biking San Diego? First of all, it gives you an idea of the demand for biking in certain areas. Where do people want to ride? And where they riding already? Planners want to build a safe and comfortable life facility where people are already writing because they are writing there for a reason. It also gives you an idea of measurement of ridership on a specific corridor after or before any improvements you are planning and I also think good hard numbers can prove or disprove arguments made by pro-and anti-bike advocate. You often hear people say they do not think the bike lanes are actually working and they are not going to track ridership and it is wasted money and data can prove or disprove that. Reporter: We played your first report about bike County yesterday and our listeners may remember you focus on the cameras that the city is placed at some intersections. Apparently, the data is not reliable. How have other cities gotten good information on bike traffic? And engineer Tommy camera technology invested in is evolving in it does not appear to be involved to the point that it is accurate enough as some of the other technologies that are out there. A lot of people have done manual accounts for many years so they are sending people on the street, counting bicyclists with the eyeballs and that is very accurate but it is limited to short periods of time so it doesn't give you macro data that is really useful for big planning decisions. There are also the inductive loops which is what the county has. These senses the electromagnetic fields from the bike the same technology we use when cars at intersections. They are pneumatic tubes so they sense the pressure when a bike goes over a tube and that counts that automatically in those last Are fairly accurate technologies in the cities that are counting bicyclists most effectively the date is really transparent? It is not just updated automatically on me to a website that not many people will go to every day. The actually creates reports annually with narrative structures saying biking is increased in these areas. It has decreased in those areas. It is highest at these times of days and that analysis is something I think San Diego given where we are with our bike County I think we are far away from that. Reporter: Today's story was about the county's problems in maintaining the bicycle sensors. Since they have the three years of data before these batteries dies, can't they use that to plan bike lanes? You would think so. I think again that staff analysis of all the data is another level of commitment that I think most cities in the counties are quite ready for. I think -- I asked Sandag why they only adopted 10 days what I was told was we have a limited budget for this active transportation program days biking and walking projects and we can’t spend all of our money on anything so this is an investment we can make right now feasibly with our budget. Reporter: Aside from running out of batteries, what are the limitations of these counters? They only capture when a ride over the sensor so by California vehicle code a bicyclist can take up any line of traffic pretty much on city streets. So, if a bicyclist chooses to ride in a lane of traffic it is not counted. Also, some streets have higher speeds in traffic volumes and a bicyclist may not feel safe writing on whatever facility is there. They may be riding on the sidewalk and that may not be counted either. Reporter: You talk about a buffered bike lane in Bakersfield. You talk about the before and after effect of creating these separate lanes. Tell us more about that. Spent the role of creating protective lanes is to make hiking safer in save lives. It is also to attract more ridership and that is what the data has shown. These protected lanes are most effective at growing ridership. You can measure how many people are writing to you for this upgrade and how many people are writing after and that really shows you the nexus between the safety of a facility and ridership. Sherry rind the SDSU professor I spoke with showed me graphs of a by graphs on La Jolla Boulevard which has traffic circles and slow speeds and safe facilities -- compared that to Vista Village Drive in North County which is a six-lane arterial road with fairly high speed and it has a bike lane. You can see that on La Jolla Boulevard you have more than three times the ridership as Vista Village Drive and that is because very clearly this is a safer facility that people feel more comfortable biking on. Reporter: Where are the pavement centers that Sandag is taking over? Are they the best locations to determine traffic? Smith, they determined that. They also have one in San Marco and they are along some of the corridors slated for infrastructure improvement and upgrades to the bike facilities either by Sandag or the cities themselves. Reporter: If these bike senses were to work -- is the ultimate goal of the program to create a network of protected bike lanes all around the city and County? I think the goal of encouraging biking in general is to increase community help and physical activity and lower greenhouse emissions and getting more people off the road and taking up less space. The goal of counting is to get good data so you can make the smartest investment with the very limited resource that public agencies have. It is not feasible to build protected bike lanes everywhere I think some advocates would like that certainly but they realize it is too expensive and that is not where our priorities are. You also may not need protected bike lanes and some parts of the county -- in rural areas or suburban areas where some roads are already calm or pleasant. In the most dangerous high-speed and collision areas and also where people need to write so they can get where they’re going, that is where you need to build the safest facility. Reporter: I have been speaking with Metro reporter Andrew Bowen. Yankees Thank you.

San Diego Regional Bike Counters Up For Adoption
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.

San Diego Regional Bike Counters Up For Adoption

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.

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