A woman in sunglasses sits on a bench by a city street.

The local — and national — effort to count cyclists

Early this morning, Kalen Alexander was sitting on the corner of Charlotte and George Streets making note of each cyclist who passed. She is volunteering her time in the first ever national cyclist count, called the Pedal Poll, organized by Vélo Canada Bikes.

Alexander sat for two hours this morning, from 7 to 9 a.m., tracking cyclists in an app. She’s one of an estimated 20 volunteers participating in the research across the city.

She noted that the count can be a little tricky since cyclists pass the corner so quickly. “They just go so fast!” she says.

That’s part of the reason that this research method can be useful, says Tegan Moss, cycling advocate and executive director of B!KE, a local non-profit cycling education centre and bike shop. 

“People on bikes go by quick and they don’t take up lots of room,” she says. “So they sometimes don’t seem nearly as prevalent as they really are.” Getting this data will help to demonstrate just how many people travel by bicycle, she says.

The Pedal Poll will collect data over the next six days which will be used to count and map cyclists in cities across Canada. It is the first national effort of its kind, and the goal is to produce data that can be used for research and advocacy at all levels of government, particularly focussing on climate change action and COVID-19 recovery, according to Vélo Canada Bikes’ website.

Peterborough has counted cyclists since 2012

While the Pedal Poll is the first national effort to manually count cyclists, it’s not a new methodology in Peterborough. There have been manual counts in the city and county of Peterborough every autumn since 2012, says Susan Sauvé, the city’s transportation demand management planner.

Every September, volunteers and Trent University students in environmental sciences and studies programs take part in an annual effort to count pedestrians, cyclists and scooter-users. 

Sauvé says the idea came together after she attended a conference in Portland where a presenter from another city showed how they used manual count data. “You could see a direct correlation between investment in infrastructure and the ridership data,” she says, which could be used to show how effective an infrastructure project was.

It’s pretty rare for a Canadian municipality to conduct manual cyclist counts, Sauvé says, and in 2012 there was no set methodology for how Peterborough should go about it (in fact there still isn’t a Canadian standard). So, the City used guidelines developed for American cities. They’ve been using the same framework ever since so that the data is easily comparable year over year.

In the first year, Sauvé says they collected data at 24 sites in the city, and over the years returned to those sites and added new ones. In 2019, there were 31 locations. By returning to the same locations year after year, the ridership data can be correlated to locations where cycling infrastructure was built or improved. This is helpful for knowing what cycling infrastructure projects have the most impact, she says.

That correlation analysis is exactly what has been done in a report that was presented to city council early last month. The Active Transportation & Health 2020 Indicators Report lays out what the City knows about how people are moving around by walking, cycling or taking public transportation.

With almost a decade’s worth of data, the authors of the report were able to identify trends in cycling uptake. The annual counts show that between 2012 and 2017 there was a 21 percent increase in cyclists, for example.

The 2018 count was also analyzed to show the top 10 cycling corridors in the city; in the number one spot was George Street at McDonnel Street, where bike lanes were added in 2016, and where the count recorded 491 cyclists in a day.

As Sauvé had predicted, the data and the correlation with infrastructure projects shows the impact of spending on cycling projects. According to the indicators report: “With every 1 km of new cycling infrastructure there has been a 1.5 percent increase in the number of cyclists counted during annual counts.”

This supports an idea that Moss told me about: if you build cycling infrastructure, people will use it, which is often counter to how governments make spending decisions. Often, funding decisions are made after demand is shown to already exist. But with cycling infrastructure, you have to build it before the demand increases, Moss says, and that is “one of the things that gets so tricky with advocating for cycling infrastructure.”

The cycling network that was laid out in Peterborough’s 2012 comprehensive transportation plan is a 183 km network of bike lanes, trails and other infrastructure designed for cyclists. As of the most recent update from 2018, the City had completed 39 percent of those projects.

The new master cycling plan is scheduled to be published in the coming months. The plan will lay out the bedrock for the City’s future cycling policies and programs, as well as update the cycling network with additional infrastructure proposals.

The map below shows candidate routes for the updated network. Which routes will be selected for the new plan remains to be seen.

A map of potential cycling routes in the city colour coded by type and whether the route is part of the existing network. Click for a high resolution version with the map key. (Source: City of Peterborough)

“Tipping point” — booming interest in cycling during pandemic

These efforts are coming at a time when cycling has seen a significant increase in interest. Moss says demand for bicycles at her shop has been unprecedented over the past year. “Oh, it’s wild,” she says. “People are very, very, very keen to get a bike and our supplies are super limited….There’s definitely a boom happening across North America right now.”

Moss points to shortages in the manufacturing of new bikes, which are leading to months-long waits for would-be buyers. And at B!KE, refurbished used bikes are sold very quickly after being posted. “As soon as we finish [refurbishing] one, it sells,” she says. But fixer-uppers are still available: “If someone is willing to spend a bit of time to fix something up, there’s definitely lots of options.”

Pandemic closures of gyms and other recreational facilities have likely pushed consumers toward cycling as a COVID-safe way to keep active. That’s something that Alexander experienced this year herself. “With COVID, it’s nice to go for a safe ride with friends,” she says. “It’s one of my few outings.”

Sauvé says preliminary data for 2020 shows more people are cycling in Peterborough but in different ways than they were pre-pandemic. The rush hour of cyclists in the morning commute is gone, she says, while day-time trail use is way up. 

Since cycling statistics were already on the rise pre-pandemic, Moss is optimistic that cycling is becoming a common part of more people’s routines.

“I think in Peterborough, we’re starting to see ourselves at the beginning of a tipping point,” she says. “If we get better infrastructure, we’re going to start to see more hesitant folks out there [on bicycles], and the numbers are just gonna skyrocket because we got a really good baseline.”

The Pedal Poll continues over the next six days, and the results will give an indication of whether the demand for bikes is leading to more cycling on city roads. [end]