As you might expect, given the billions America spends on highways, measuring the activity of motorists is practically an industry unto itself.
But data collection on walking and biking is much less rigorous. In most American cities, measuring active transportation consists of recruiting some volunteers to spend a few hours once a year standing at an intersection counting bikes. As a result, very little good data about how many cyclists and pedestrians are out there using the streets and sidewalks is available.
“The current state of bike/ped counts is way behind where it should be,” said Darren Flusche, policy director at the League of American Bicyclists. “We know a lot about how to count cars but not a lot about how to count bikes.”
That causes all kinds of problems for street safety advocates. Flusche said the lack of good data can make safety comparisons difficult. Two cities, for example, with roughly the same population and the same number of cycling fatalities might appear to offer similar safety outcomes. But that would clearly be misleading if one city had a far higher rate of cycling.
It can also present problems when trying to make the case for bike lanes and pedestrian safety improvements to, say, a local business. It’s a lot easier to present a convincing argument when you have solid numbers about how many people will be making use of the new infrastructure.
The state of bike/ped data may soon improve. For the first time this year, the Federal Highway Administration has issued recommendations for “non-motorized” groups in its Traffic Monitoring Guide [PDF]. States and localities still have to want to collect data — there’s no one forcing them to do it — but this will be the first time that the “bible” for traffic counts even contemplates cyclists and pedestrians in its guidance.