A recent story in the PI shows that Seattle’s city-wide bike count showed a 15 percent decline in the number of people biking in 2010 compared to 2008, according to SDOT’s city-wide bike count data.
But, as Scott Gutierrez points out in the story, the numbers from that particular count tell a rather murky story. After all, counts from the same day show a 21 percent increase in the number of people biking compared to 2009 (there was no downtown bike count in 2008. Likewise, there was no city-wide bike count in 2009).
This increase rate is further supported by the US Census American Communities Survey, which found bicycle commuting rose 22 percent since 2009 (and slightly more than that since 2008). According to the survey, Seattle has the second highest rate of bicycle commuting among large American cities.
The bike count data is comparing raw numbers, not mode share percentages. Quite simply, fewer people likely had a reason to be out biking at 6:30 a.m., considering unemployment rose sharply between 2008 and 2010.
Another thing to remember is that the morning of the 2010 bike count was a little chilly and damp (trust me, I was there). Not the kind of weather to make you run for cover, but maybe enough that some people with longer commutes chose to take the bus or drive to work. The 2008 count day was not much warmer, but the morning had clear skies.
Since the downtown counts were still way up while neighborhood counts appear lower, maybe that’s a sign that people with shorter bike commutes will bike no matter what, but people with longer commutes are more likely to choose a different mode if the weather looks iffy.
Whatever the reason, there hardly seems to be enough data to conclude that bicycling is on the decline in Seattle. All other signs point to up and up.
Using single-day samples is always going to be problematic. Being able to compare the data to another source, such as the Census, probably helps paint a slightly clearer picture of biking trends in the city.
The good news is the city is changing its count methodology to one where quarterly counts are conducted in accordance with the National Bicycle and Pedestrian Documentation Project (yes, that exists) methodology. While they were going to continue relying on volunteers for the counts, the city ended up contracting with a company to use cameras.
Hopefully, the extra data will make it easier to track trends accurately in the future.
In the end, depending solely on bicycle commute counts to judge how many people are using bicycles is not the best way to make decisions. Commute counts will always be far lower than the actual number of people who use bicycles every day. What about people who bike to the grocery store or to see friends, yet bus or drive to work somewhere else in the region? What about people who are out of work, but depend on their bikes for their errands and job searching (but not between 6:30-9 am)? What about children and teenagers?
Its fun to be able to say that Seattle is the number two bike commuting large city in the country (number one among cities larger than 600,000!), but 4 percent is an extremely low number that under-represents the scores of people who use bicycles for non-commute purposes.