Counting Bikes and Cars Without a Clipboard

Making your own traffic counts could be this easy. Photo: Kickstarter

Liberate yourself from government transportation data that doesn’t tell you what you need to know!

Break the chains of ignorance about how streets in your town are being used!

Declare your independence from five-year-old data sets in PDF spreadsheets!

Advocates have for too long been at the mercy of the limited data on travel patterns they get from places like the American Community Survey and the National Household Travel Survey. And don’t even get me started on the Federal Highway Administration, which is about as transparent as a cataract. The information federal agencies provide is often out-of-date by the time it’s released, and simply doesn’t ask the right questions to find out how much people really use non-motorized modes of transportation.

TrafficCOM can't differentiate between a bike and a car in a mixed lane, but it can provide counts from the bicycle lane and the car lane. Photo: Kickstarter

“Traditionally the people that have had the data are the people in power,” Nick Grossman of the MIT Center for Civic Media said. “And we’re seeing, across society, the democratization of access to data.”

When it comes to transportation, the democratization Grossman is talking about could come in the form of a small cylinder attached to a long cable that you can lay across a street or bike lane to quickly and easily conduct your own traffic count. You can even track vehicle speeds. Then you plug it into your computer and it creates a database and even maps the data for you. It’s called TrafficCOM, and its creators are trying to kick-start $50,000 right now to produce them.

Mary Lauran Hall of the Alliance for Biking and Walking was impressed when TrafficCOM developer Aurash Khawarzad gave a demonstration at the Alliance office:

The visit got me thinking about how helpful a low-cost traffic measuring device could be for biking and walking advocacy organizations. A simple $200 portable device for measuring traffic and speed could make it much easier for advocates and community leaders to make data-based arguments about street safety. Imagine being able to easily measure average car speed on a particularly problematic street, or being able to quantify just how popular a new bike lane is.

Anyone who pledges $200 or more on Kickstarter will receive one of the devices. For that price you get up-to-the-minute, easy-to-obtain information about how people are using your local streets. It’s a whole lot cheaper than this fancy bike counter Copenhagen installed a couple years ago, and a whole lot simpler than standing out there with a clipboard and a clicker.

Washington, DC, bike activist Jameel Alsalam recently asked friends on Facebook to join him in supporting the project.

“The relative lack of data on bicycling in DC can be frustrating,” he wrote. “Other than personal observations, it can be hard to know what streets are the most important connections for cyclists. Or how much usage new bike lanes are getting. Or how the number of crashes in various locations relates to the number of cyclists using that road.”

Alsalam wanted to drum up enough support to get a few of the devices and distribute them in the local cycling community so that activists could work together on collecting and using bicycle counts.

He may not have the chance.

With just four days left on the kickstarter, Khawarzad and his co-inventor, Ted Ullrich, have raised less than 20 percent of their goal. For those unfamiliar with the Kickstarter model, here’s what that means: If they don’t reach their $50,000 goal, they don’t get to keep any of the $9,809 pledged so far.

But Khawarzad says that won’t stop them. “We are planning on moving forward with other options, which would include pursuing grant money or other investment,” he said in an email. Let’s hope there are other lifelines available.