John Bennett is executive director of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign.
Maybe you saw me standing on the sidewalk with a clipboard in hand, my eyes scanning traffic. Perhaps you were among those who politely asked me what I was up to.
You know those electronic traffic counters with the pneumatic tubes that stretch across a roadway? Well, that's what I was, except I was counting pedestrians and bicyclists.
I was one of many human traffic counters deployed around the city last month for the annual bicycle and pedestrian count, organized by Jane Love.
Love, a transportation planner at the Coastal Region Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the information collected by citizen volunteers is used for a variety of purposes, including "before and after" comparisons that can identify changes in traffic patterns resulting from infrastructure improvements such as new sidewalks or bike lanes.
For example, Love said preliminary analysis of bike traffic on Price and Habersham streets suggest the Price Street Bike Lane "attracts some southbound trips off of Habersham Street but also attracts some new trips that weren't captured previously in the selected count locations."
Conducting counts can also reveal the presence of people on bikes and on foot in places where some may presume they are not likely to be, Love said. When new infrastructure is proposed, sometimes residents question the need by claiming they never see people walking or riding bikes, and don't dare to do so themselves. Because of this tendency to underestimate bicycle and pedestrian trips "that are in fact occurring in spite of bad conditions," Love said, data is helpful in ensuring that "decisions are not based on conjecture."
The information gathered during the counts is also used beyond Savannah, through an effort called the National Bicycle and Pedestrian Documentation Project.
"We submit the data for a national database, where researchers can access it to look for correlations between, say, bicycle trips and types of land use, density, weather, or terrain," Love said.
The project aims to fill a major hole in our understanding of how we move around cities, which causes a cascading effect that ends where the rubber meets the bike lane and where shoe leather meets the sidewalk (or the absence of either).
"This national project is trying to make up for the lack of data about bicycle and pedestrian modes, compared to other modes," Love said.
"Lack of data means lack of research, which in turn means lack of knowledge, which further means lack of supportive policies and funding, which in the end means lack of adequate facilities for bicyclists and pedestrians."
While the count is important to local planning and national research, Love acknowledged its limitations. "A caveat is that our samples are small — because we haven't invested in an automated collection method yet," she said.
Still, the human-powered counting method currently being used does capture information that a pneumatic tube cannot, including the gender of cyclists.
Some researchers have suggested the percentage of female cyclists may be useful in assessing a community's bicycle friendliness.
"We like to know the gender of bicyclists because that can give us a clue on who to ask or what to address if we want to increase the amount of bicycle trips," Love said. "Given the gender percentages, there is more potential to increase bicycling by finding out why women are not bicycling more."
How are we doing on that metric?
"The percentages of female and male bicyclists observed in the counts overall is very consistent from year to year, at about 32 percent female and 68 percent male," Love said. "I don't think this is unusually high or low for cities in the U.S." By contrast, "In countries where a lot of trips are made by bicycle, the gender split is about 50/50," she said.
An electronic counter surely would not have detected something I noted during the bike count. Some people regard bicycling as purely recreational, conjuring images of families out for a neighborhood ride on beach cruisers at one end of the spectrum and people in tight, brightly colored clothing riding expensive road bikes on the other. I counted both types of cyclists.
But I also saw students with portfolios strapped across their backs; a construction worker heading home still wearing his hardhat, tool belt draped over his shoulder; and lots folks carrying groceries in their handlebar baskets.
More often than not, I saw these and other visual clues that indicate people using bikes not simply for recreation, but as a sensible, healthy and economical way to get where they needed to go. I count that as good news for Savannah.