Head Count: How Little We Know About the Mysterious Bikers in Our Midst!

Take a look at the available evidence and the conclusion is inescapable: San Francisco is a city of cyclists. Or it's not.

Really, it depends on who you ask. Consult the 2011 Census figures, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency bike count, or the Mayor's office, and you'll find that the city hosts a 14,862-strong legion, a slightly diminished 10,139 riders, or a mere 8,314 grease-stained fanatics. So we can be absolutely certain that the formidable army, respectable showing, or irrelevant minority that is the San Francisco biking community has an indisputably beneficial, disastrous, or totally inconsequential impact on the city. In other words, when it comes to basic data about cycling, we still have a long way to go.

Good news, then: Just in time for Bike to Work Day, the city will be installing its first-ever bike barometer. It will electronically stand watch alongside the downtown-bound cycle track on Market Street between Ninth and Tenth, running a constant, daily tally for all to see. Compare the wealth and quality of information that will come from that to what you get from a manual count, says Jennifer Donlon, a senior planner at the bike and pedestrian planning firm, Alta, and the manager of the National Bicycle and Pedestrian Documentation Project, a pro bono venture to develop better bike and pedestrian counting methods. “As San Francisco continues to invest in bicycle infrastructure on and around Market Street, they can begin to evaluate those investments,” she says. That means looking at how how patterns change (or don't).

So too with CycleTracks, the County Transportation Agency-commissioned mobile app that tracks the biking behavior of smartphone-toting subscribers. By analyzing that information, says Elizabeth Sall, the SFCTA's Deputy Director for Technology Services, the agency has been able to make some key observations about the value of bike lanes (“People are willing to bike twice as far if they can stay in a separated lane”) and the relative weight of different types of facilities (“Sharrows are nice, but it's the separated lanes that are really important to cyclists.”)

Collecting more data about cycling patterns probably won't bring political fights to an end, but it will help city officials pick those battles a little more shrewdly.

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