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2018 bike counts up 32 percent on 2nd Ave downtown after bike lane, bike share expansion

Bike counter totals (2nd Ave at Marion St)

The final counts are in, and 2018 is officially a new high water mark for biking in Seattle.

Looking at the real-time bike counter data from around town, biking was up significantly in Fremont and across the lower West Seattle Bridge. But the real eye-catcher was 2nd Ave downtown, which saw a 32 percent jump over 2017.

The 2nd Ave numbers are particularly exciting because they demonstrate how bike share and an expanded network of protected bike lanes can work together to seriously increase bike use in a very short period of time. The Belltown extension of the 2nd Ave bike lane opened in January 2018, around the same time that bike share companies ofo, Spin and Lime increased the number of bikes on Seattle streets to a couple thousand each.

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It’s all but impossible to say which had a bigger effect on the increase, but it’s clear that the combination of bike share availability and safe, comfortable bike lanes works.

But bike trips weren’t just up on 2nd Ave. Both the Fremont and lower West Seattle Bridge saw significant increases.

Fremont shattered the previous record, reaching 1,051,893 trips. That’s a nine percent increase over 2017. Since so many north end Seattle and regional bike routes funnel to the Fremont Bridge, this is probably the single best point to get a snapshot of biking in the city. And because it is so busy, it takes a huge number of trips to move the needle. Since 2014, year-over-year changes have been within two percent of each other. So a nine percent increase is massive.

The West Seattle figures are little more tricky to figure out. Looking at raw numbers, the 2018 count was a modest three percent increase over 2017. But emergency work on the swing bridge closed the route for several days in June and the counter was down for several days in November. I tried to fill in the missing data using counts from days before and after the gaps and determined that maybe 7,000 trips were either missed or displaced. So the bridge was actually on pace for a five or six percent increase over 2017.

I’m sure there are people out there who are confused because this data seems to suggest the opposite of recently-reported Census data, which showed bike commuting declining or stagnating in Seattle. A recent USA Today story even highlighted Seattle as part of what appears to be a national trend away bike commuting. We wrote about the Census survey results previously, but I feel the need to address it again here.

I don’t believe the Census data is wrong. I just think the question they are asking (and the way they ask it) is not complete enough to give an accurate picture of transportation use in increasingly multimodal cities. Recent expansions of bike share and express transit service both encourage people to mix trips by biking to transit, for example. The Census survey only allows a single mode as a respondent’s primary mode of travel to work. So someone who bikes to UW Station then takes light rail the rest of the way is likely counted as a transit rider, for example. Someone who takes transit downtown, but then grabs a bike share to get the rest of the way to work is also likely counted as a transit rider. Transit ridership has grown significantly in recent Census surveys, and it’s quite likely that a lot of those new riders got to their stations or bus stops by bike.

People who bike some days — but not always — are likely not counted as bike commuters, either. The question also does not account for non-work trips, which make up the majority of all trips.

So it’s entirely possible for the Census bike commute rate to go down or stagnate while the total counted bike trips go up. And bike trips are the more important measure, since it really does not matter why someone is biking. We just do not have a quality dataset that accounts for all trips regardless of purpose or mode mixing, so people focus on the Census commute figures.

It’s also worth noting that the most recent Census data is for 2017, so it will be interesting to see how/if things change in the 2018 data. But that won’t be out until September.

This is a long-winded way of saying that more people are biking more trips in Seattle. And expanding the bike network and growing bike share both help people make more bike trips. And making big bike network improvements, especially downtown, can yield big results in a very short period of time. At a time when the city is bracing for years of traffic headache, an expanded and connected bike network could be an effective pressure release valve to keep people moving. Seattle leaders should celebrate this success and build on it.

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21 responses to “2018 bike counts up 32 percent on 2nd Ave downtown after bike lane, bike share expansion”

  1. PD

    I think we are also seeing the impact of Ebikes gaining a market share, bringing new riders and increasing the ride season of previous acoustic bike riders. 2017 was the first year sales jumped and the impression is that the sales increase was great enough in 2018 to register on some of these counts. I suspect they will really show up on the winter months. I only bring this up because it wasn’t mentioned at all.

  2. Mike Francisco

    Thank you for looking into the census question result that has been widely cited as “proof” that more bike lanes don’t make for more bike commuters. One year of data cited by bike lane haters is equivalent to “It’s cold this winter so climate change is a hoax.” This is the kind of real journalism that Seattle needs, not the typical lazy writing you read in the Seattle Times every time there’s a cycling story to be reported (e.g., https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/data/seattle-bike-commuting-hits-10-year-low-census-data-show/). I am so fed up with the pro-motor/anti-cycling confirmation bias in local media. See you at the next red light, motorheads.

  3. I estimated about 3,800 “missed” trips in West Seattle (“estimation” tabs here) by determining ratios to other counters on nearby similar weekdays… but I didn’t re-add trips for the actual bridge closure because they were trips that didn’t happen as opposed to trips that weren’t counted. The counter also appears to have gone down in late December and I haven’t done an estimation for it yet.

  4. Joseph Singer

    Why are there never any data reports from the Broadway bikeway? There’s a counter near East Union Street.

    1. Dave

      You can see a summary of bike counts in the traffic report that just came out last week (compares 2016 with 2017):

      If you’re interested, you can also visualize the data from all Seattle bike counters following links here:

      1. Gary

        What about the counter on the East side of I-90? There is one right as you are about to cross the East Channel bridge. That’s run by the WSDOT.

        I’m always interested in how it compares to the numbers from the West Side counter

      2. Gary

        Also the “ped” counts seem weird to me, for instance Oct 12th, 11am (a Friday) there are 26 ped counts going East…. Seriously? That seems off.

  5. (Another) Tom

    “We just do not have a quality dataset that accounts for all trips regardless of purpose or mode mixing, so people focus on the Census commute figures.”

    We do though, the Fremont bridge counter for one. I don’t think the census data is ‘wrong’ either but it is irrelevant and misleading and news orgs that used it to run with the ‘no one rides bikes anymore’ storyline were deliberately misleading. Somehow I doubt there will be many follow-up or correcting stories so if you ask the typical Seattleite even a year from now they’ll probably remember something about that survey that came out and said bike commuting is way down. “Isn’t that right? Purdy sure I read it in the Times and that proves bike lanes caused 9/11.” Also, no one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.

    Anecdotally I have been noticing more e-bikes passing me uphill on my commute route. The filthy cheaters. Nah.., good for them, motivation for me, and one less car!

  6. Great reporting Tom. In the bike shop world I think it is clear Business is booming to new levels. The fastest growing setor of course is transortation bikes, especialy E Bikes. This backs up the increase of bicycle use you decribe. How the bikes are used for Transportation is also evolving with super market bike racks in continuos use and short errand runs during the work day that avoid the search for the covetted parking spot.

  7. AP

    Did anyone happen to get a count from the SR-520 sign at the end of the year? The totals online are missing one month. I was hoping to get out there on New Year’s Eve but that didn’t happen.

    1. Mike Francisco

      That’s a great question, and I wonder if bike counts by SDOT should include these trips – I suspect that eastside/UW cycle commutes on the new 520 trail are not being counted. The trail has made such commutes much more practical for a lot of people.

      1. AP

        The state maintains a portal here: http://wsdot.wa.gov/data/tools/bikepedcounts/. But their online numbers were always about 30K lower than the display on the trail.

        I’ve asked WSDOT on a Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/apardoe/status/1039898065572773890

  8. Here is counter data graphed to include 2018 at Fremont Bridge, Spokane Street Bridge, and Second Avenue

  9. Jean amicj

    Thank you. We know bike trips way up. That acs survey where respondent can only choose one is very misleading. I have gone 1100 mi in 5 months on new e bike. That’s one less car but I’m not counted. Keep the good info coming.

  10. Rich

    The Census numbers are a rate statistic whereas you are reporting raw trip counts. You would expect to see an increase in the total number of bike trips for a city that has grown by about 20% since 2010.

    When you look at it on a per capita basis, the trend flattens out. Compared to 2013, the number of trips on the Fremont Bridge increased by pretty much the same rate as the population in Seattle.

    1. Michael Francisco

      OK – but 20% growth in 7 years is about 3% per year. The Fremont count is up 9% in one year (3 times the rate), and 2nd Ave up 32% in one year (ten times) and West Seattle up maybe twice the growth rate. Maybe we’re cherry picking here and you’re looking at 7 years and I’m looking at only one, but I feel free to hypothesize that the improved bike infrastructure is having a positive effect since many naysayers are concluding the opposite based on one year of far less granular data. This back of the envelope stuff isn’t conclusive and won’t convince bike lane opponents, but I’m leaning towards the “build it and they will come” theory at this point.

      1. Rich

        Absolutely, I just wanted to put the numbers in context.

        And I’m certainly not saying that improved bicycle infrastructure doesn’t have a positive impact on bike rates. Even if we were to have seen declining bike rates, I’d assume improved bicycle infrastructure prevented even steeper declines.

  11. In 2017, the 2nd Avenue Bike Lane was under construction, which made biking on 2nd nearly impossible. So it seems to me you are reporting a rather misleading statistic. Am I missing something here? Thanks!

    1. Michael Francisco

      It was not impossible at all! I cycled on 2nd many times in 2017 and in 2018. Very doable, though I had to dodge the construction and sometimes opted for riding with vehicle traffic.

    2. bobco85

      I think the context you’re looking for is that while parts of 2nd Ave PBL were in the construction zone, the bike counter (between Marion and Madison Streets) was not in the affected area.

    3. Tom Fucoloro

      That’s a good question, Stephen. You can look at the data yourself here: http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/projects-and-programs/programs/bike-program/bike-counters/2nd-ave-bike-counter

      The counter was installed in spring 2016, so we can’t get a full comparison of 2016 to 2017, but we can compare May – Dec 2016 vs May – Dec of 2017.

      May – Dec 2016: 176339
      May – Dec 2017: 182345

      So 2017, while 2nd was under construction, saw a 3.4 percent increase over 2016. My guess is that construction did reduce some bike lane use, but the July 2017 launch of bike share countered that decline. Then when it was all open in Jan 2018, the flood gates opened.

      So in short, I think it’s a fair comparison, especially since 2017 did not see a decline compared to 2016. The section with the counter was not under construction.

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