Tuesday 3rd March 2015. Just another average Tuesday. People going about their daily business, going to work, out for a morning walk, people bicycling. People…wearing bright blue shirts and staring at intersections? Yes. Tuesday 3rd was in fact no average Tuesday, well at least not when it comes to bicycling. You see, it was Super Tuesday.
According to Bicycle Network, the event’s organisers, Super Tuesday is
the world’s biggest and longest-running visual bike count. It measures bike commuter flows in the morning peak (7–9am). The count provides an accurate annual benchmark of bicycle commuter numbers to facilitate informed decisions on relevant infrastructure.
Collecting data on anything can be a costly exercise, but it is done for good reason. One only needs to look at the backlash from economists and the community when the federal government floated the idea of slashing the budget for the Census. Put simply, you can’t plan for change if you don’t know what changes are occurring. Data allows us to understand changing behaviours, trends, and plan ahead.
For data to be useful in helping us identify trends, it must be consistent. That means collecting data periodically. The Census, for example, is once every 5 years in Australia. Data also needs to be validated, that is, we need to account for variables that might lead us to interpret information incorrectly.
In the case of collecting information on how many people ride bikes, who ride bikes, where they ride to and when, the government has not been proactive in this area to say the least. Step in Bicycle Network, Super Tuesday and a heck of a lot of volunteer hours. Counts like this are crucial to painting a picture of bicycling activity in Australia, and helps authorities and communities advocate for better bicycling infrastructure.
This year I volunteered to be a counter. It may sound boring, standing around in the same place for two hours, but actually it is quite fascinating. Upon registering, I selected a survey location from Bicycle Network’s online map. Here’s where I was, Griffiths Road entrance to the Newcastle Showground:
The grey line that cuts across the image diagonally is not a road, but a drain, part of the Throsby Creek catchment.
And here’s a sample of the recording sheet issued by Bicycle Network. The numbers are used to record the different directions people are traveling, in 15 minute intervals, between 7am and 9am.
At my intersection, I recorded almost 100 cyclists in the two hours, heading in all directions, but mostly into town. There were many more men than women cycling and I counted just 5 school kids on bikes.
I got a few strange looks from people despite (or because of?) my blue Super Tuesday t-shirt. With my survey sheet in hand, I think some people thought I was going to try and sell them something. A few people on bikes waved and gave the thumbs up, and passing motorists looked on, curious. A side note, I observed far too many motorists playing with their mobile phones, which we all know is not cool.
It was amazing to see how people navigated the same routes differently, often avoiding crossing at the traffic lights or crossing before the lights changed in their favour, due to what feels like (and perhaps is) an unusually long time for the lights to change. Due to the volume of traffic on Griffiths Road the intersection does not prioritise pedestrians and cyclists. The traffic lights and median strip force people to go out of their way, albeit only slightly, to cross safely at the crossing. It is hardly surprisingly people will often go whichever way they perceive to be the most convenient, even if it turns out it is less convenient. In the urban planning profession we call these paths ‘desire lines’, and they are usually telling us the design of an intersection or public space could be improved. In this instance, an underpass linking Jackson Street and Bates Street would be ideal, allowing for the uninterrupted flow of pedestrians, cyclists and traffic.
So what happens with the data? Volunteers submit their data online and the hardcopies via the post to Bicycle Network, who then collate the data and make it publicly available.
It was certainly a great event to be a part of, though next time I’ll be hoping a bicycle coffee cart will ride by…