Seattle’s 2019 bike boom in 6 charts + Where should Seattle’s next bike counters go? – UPDATED

UPDATE: I have updated some of the data in this post with official numbers from SDOT. An earlier version of this post had data from data.seattle.gov that for some reason didn’t match with SDOT’s official numbers. As of this update, much of the data.seattle.gov figures now match SDOT’s numbers. The 2nd Ave section of this post has been changed most dramatically.

Photo of a person biking past the Fremont Bridge bike counter, a tall black structure with thermometer-like lights up the front tracking annual totals and a display of numbers counting the day's total.The counts are in, and Seattle didn’t just see increases in biking, the city absolutely smashed all previous biking records. We leveled up.

We’ve already written several times (and even made a video) about what happened this year on the Fremont Bridge. So many citywide and regional bike routes converge at this bridge that it sees the highest counts of any other single counting point in town. So it is an exciting point to track.

And the physical display ticking away in real time helps give people the feeling that they are part of something bigger. A number readout shows the counts that day while a thermometer-style gauge tracks the counts for the calendar year. Though perhaps Cascade Bicycle Club made a mistake in 2014 when they donated a counter that only goes to 1 million because Seattle topped out in October this year, months earlier than ever before. The grand total: 1,187,146.

Column chart showing Fremont Bridge bike counts by year. 2019 is by far the highest.So I wondered, was this just a Fremont Bridge or North Seattle thing? Unfortunately, we don’t have high quality data from all parts of the city. SDOT installed many low-budget counters years ago that have since gone dark due to vandalism or mechanical failure, so they are of little help. But we do have six counters in the city that are ticking away and have what should be mostly consistent and quality data (though it is harder to trust counters that don’t have the real-time displays, which also help make sure people are counted properly). The charts in this post use information directly from data.seattle.gov SDOT, and I did look for major data gaps (at least a month in duration) so I could note them. I also removed the walking counts for the counters that track both walking and biking (though, hey, someone could have fun analyzing that data, I’m sure). Let’s take a look.

Column chart showing Spokane Street Swing Bridge bike counts by year. 2019 is the highest.The Spokane Street Swing Bridge to West Seattle also hit a new record at 321,809, bolstered by a massive spike in biking to get around the viaduct closure at the start of the years. And a lot of those riders stuck around for the year, helping increase the annual count by 10% over 2018. The bridge riders even beat the 2015 record by 7%, finally reaching bike numbers the bridge hasn’t seen since before Viaduct construction hell began. 2019’s increase was truly led by the community getting together, getting organized and doing what they could to encourage and help their neighbors bike around the construction traffic. Seattle Bike Blog doesn’t give out awards, but if we did West Seattle Bike Connections would get one this year, that’s for sure.

West Seattle’s bike numbers aren’t going to balloon until E Marginal Way has safe, connected bike lanes and the waterfront bike routes at least connect West Seattle to downtown. The intersection of Chelan Ave SW and the Alki Trail also needs a total and complete reworking. This one awful intersection is holding the entire Alki Trail back because it’s difficult to avoid and can be really scary and intimidating, especially to new riders.

Column chart showing Elliott Bay Trail bike counts by year. 2019 is by far the highest.

* Elliott Bay Trail’s 2015 data is missing about a month of springtime counts.

The Elliott Bay Trail saw a dip in 2019 set a record in 2019 despite the year of construction that detoured a major section of the trail around Expedia’s future campus. I had actually expected to see a dip in the counts here. While the detour wasn’t too bad (and many commuters found that it was actually a little shorter), this work certainly made this route less appealing for purely recreational rides.

But we aren’t going to see massive increases on this trail until it connects to a safe and complete waterfront bike route. Couple that with a safe Ballard Bridge (and improvements through the rail yard), and I bet these counts would be higher than Fremont.

Backup counter reveals issue with 2nd Ave counts

Take these charts with a big grain of salt:

Column chart showing 2nd Avenue bike counts by year. 2019 is by far the highest.

Column chart showing 2nd Avenue bike counts by month. There is a big spike starting in May 2019.

UPDATE: Bike trips on 2nd Ave reached an official count of 559,946 in 2019, up a suspicious 79% over 2018. While that kind of increase would cool, there is just no way it is true. “Backup tube counts were picking up platoons of riders that permanent counter was missing,” SDOT Traffic Engineer Dongho Chang noted on Twitter. So the good news is that the 2019 figure should be closer to the truth. The bad news is that we cannot really compare 2019 to previous years (well, not without some fancy math to compensate for the change in counting accuracy, anyway).

I suspect 2nd Ave increased at a year-over-year rate somewhat comparable to the Fremont Bridge’s still very impressive 13%. As you can see in the monthly counts chart, the 2019 counts were on track for a more modest increase in winter and early spring, but then shot through the roof in May, nearly doubling the year before. That’s highly unlikely. And I no longer feel confident in what this data says to draw definitive conclusions. I think biking is up, but I can’t tell you that the data definitively says so on 2nd Ave.

Oh boy. Note that the Belltown extension of the 2nd Ave bike lane opened at the very start of 2018. You can obviously see the impact that extension had on cycling numbers in 2018. This was one of the so-called “$12 million per mile” bike lanes (the bike lane itself cost only a part of that, with the rest going to improvements for all modes like new and upgraded traffic signals, utility work and pavement fixes).

And remember that when the city first opened the 2nd Ave pilot bike lane back in 2014, biking on the street tripled over night. I had expected it to double, since a one-way was becoming two-way, but I’m not sure many people expected it to triple. So yeah, the 2nd Ave bike lane projects have been pretty great investments for our city.

The 520 Bridge changes Eastside biking patterns

For decades, you had three choices if you were going from the Eastside to Seattle: North of the lake, south of the lake or I-90. So the next two charts are connected to one major event: The opening of the 520 Trail across Lake Washington in January 2018. However, I do not have the 520 Trail bike counter data yet, so we’ll need to see if we can see the opening’s impact on the north end of the Burke-Gilman Trail and the I-90 Trail.

Column chart showing I-90 Trail bike counts by year. 2019 is by far the highest.

* The Mountains to Sound Trail’s 2016 data is missing about a month of summertime counts.

First, note that the 2016 I-90 Trail data is not at all accurate because it is missing at least a month of summertime counts. So actual biking levels would likely either put it similar to 2015 or somewhere between 2015 and 2017.

2017 saw record-levels of rain and a smokey summer, and nearly all counters showed a dip that year. But 2018 and 2019 were almost certainly down for a very different reason: People diverting to the 520 Bridge instead.

The 200,437 trips in 2019 were down 19% compared to 2015’s record of 247,706. But there is no doubt that this gap is more than made up by the big increases in cross-lake biking the 520 Bridge has made possible. Stay tuned, because I will update when I get the 520 numbers. But trust me, they will be a lot higher than 47,000.

Column chart showing Burke-Gilman Trail north of 70th Street bike counts by year. 2019 is by far the highest.

Again, note that the 2018 counts are not accurate because they are missing pretty much all of summer. So it’s best to just assume that it fits along a trend line between the other years.

At first you might be surprised to see that the city’s premiere trail saw a dip in use in 2019 compared to 2017 and earlier. 2019’s total of 367,992 is 11% below 2015’s record of 414,548. How can this be when the other counters in the city are seeing such big increases?

Again, it’s almost certainly the 520 Bridge. This counter is located north of NE 70th Street, so that’s just beyond the bike routes to Magnuson Park. So this count relies a lot on regional travel, much different than if it were located near the busier sections like around Gas Works Park, for example. And it is just so much faster for much of Seattle to get to, say, Redmond or Kirkland or downtown Bellevue by going over the 520 Bridge than by going around the lake. From the UW, you save more than a half hour by taking the bridge to Redmond even if you are already on the Burke-Gilman.

So yeah, a ton of riders diverted to the bridge. And though I don’t yet have the 520 counts, I am sure they more than make up for this dip. I’m sure they make up for the I-90 and Burke-Gilman Trail dips combined. So don’t look at these charts and say, “Well, bike counts are mixed.” Cross-lake biking is almost certainly way up, I just don’t have the chart I need to show you where the missing riders went.

We need more counters, especially in SE Seattle

And this brings us to the problem with Seattle’s bike counters: We only know what we count, but we don’t count everywhere. And though the city used to have more counters, we never had a good measure of SE Seattle biking (the long-dead Chief Sealth Trail bike counter was not in a good location to capture biking trends, anyway). This is the big problem with relying on data for civic decisions: Only those who are counted count. And if we keep investing primarily to improve areas where we have measured bike increases, then we will keep investing inequitably and widening the gap between how north Seattle and south Seattle are treated.

So yes, we need more bike counters in the southend. But there’s another problem: We need quality, separated bike routes where we can put these counters. Right now, there are few quality locations for a bike counter that would capture S and SE Seattle biking trends. If there were bike lanes on Rainier Ave or MLK, we could put a counter there. If Lake Washington Boulevard had a protected bikeway, that would be a great place, too. Jose Rizal Bridge bike lanes would also be a great spot, if those existed.

As it is, there is just no way to say whether SE Seattle biking has increased the way north Seattle has, at least not by using bike counter data. And even if SDOT went out today and installed a bike counter on, say, the new 5th Ave S bike lane next to International District/Chinatown Station, it will take up to two years to gather enough data to really see how biking trends are going.

I doubt SDOT has the budget to buy and install new bike counter totems like the ones on the Fremont and Spokane Street Bridges, but those were donated by Cascade Bicycle Club. So if anyone has connections to local businesses or organizations that would want to sponsor some new bike totems, that would be a wonderful gift to the city.

Of course you want to put bike counters where people are already biking. Pinch points are best because you can get a lot of routes at once. But you can also use bike counters in places where we want to invest to grow cycling. That way we can see whether the investments are working.

Some location ideas:

  • 5th Ave S near ID Station
  • Lake Washington Boulevard bike lanes south of Rainier Beach
  • Jose Rizal Bridge (as part of the planned bike improvements scheduled for 2020)
  • S Dearborn Street
  • Sodo Trail near Stadium Station
  • Georgetown to South Park Trail when it is constructed (perhaps the South Park Bridge is the best location?)
  • Linden Ave N bikeway (Interurban North bike route)
  • Burke-Gilman Trail on UW campus (to better understand school year travel trends)
  • Union Street as part of the planned protected bike lanes
  • Pike and Pine at I-5 to better understand cross-freeway travel
  • Thomas Street as part of the planned remake when it connects SLU to Seattle Center
  • The downtown waterfront bikeway when it is finally constructed someday

Do you have another other count location ideas? Let us know in the comments below.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Seattle Times published a story on the bike counter data earlier today, and some of their numbers don’t match what I found. For example, they noted that Spokane Street numbers were down in 2019, but that’s not what I found. SDOT Traffic Engineer Dongho Chang also tweeted out a different set of numbers for 2nd Ave than what is on data.seattle.gov. I’ll update this post when I figure out why the numbers don’t match up.

This entry was posted in news and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Seattle’s 2019 bike boom in 6 charts + Where should Seattle’s next bike counters go? – UPDATED

  1. Stu says:

    It appears by this information that transportation routes are seeing an increase of traffic over the recreational routes. That would fit the scenario we are seeing in the bike industry as well. Now if only we could get the bike industry to go even further to support transport over sport. SPORT IS STILL A PRIORITY. A traffic counter in West Seattle along the 16th Ave. S.W. and S.W. Holden to S.W. Myrtle St. would produce information about bike commutes generated south of the Seattle city line in places like Burien. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. vsa says:

    Does the Fremont counter count people biking on the east side of the bridge? If not it’s missing ½ of the riders. Including me twice a day 4 times a week.

  3. Andres Salomon says:

    It’s not South Seattle, but bike counter next to or near the future Roosevelt station (either along the new NE 65th PBL, or Ravenna blvd PBL, or the upcoming 15th Ave NE PBL, or the NE 70th PBL, or the upcoming 12th Ave/Roosevelt PBL, or.. well, you get the idea) would capture a lot of interesting trips. I’d expect spikes as new PBLs are created and connect to other PBLs in the area, and then a MASSIVE spike as the new light rail station comes online and people bike to the new station.

  4. AW says:

    I would like to comment on the bike counter that is on the west side of the 520 trail. I have been commuting on the trail daily since it opened and have been paying attention to the bicycle counter every evening. A few months ago the bicycle counter was moved because of a realignment of the exit from the highway and I immediately noticed that the counts were definitely lower than before the move. Did anyone else notice this ?

  5. PD says:

    they fixed the body of the article (changing decrease to in increase) for the spokane bridge but the title of the article remains incorrect.

  6. KAL says:

    Having a bike counter on University Bridge before Rapid Ride J’s Eastlake improvements would be interesting. I rather expect we’d see a count change with protected lanes added to Eastlake. If it was put in soon enough it could also show us if bike counts on University Bridge change when the Fairview Bridge re-opens.

  7. Matthew Snyder says:

    There’s a bunch of software that automatically counts cars and trucks using feeds from traffic cameras. Does any of that software work for counting bicycles? Is it reasonably accurate?

    Unfortunately I think most of our current traffic cameras are directed at big arterials and other locations where there are frequent car and truck backups, so maybe that’s not the best way to get bike counts, but it would seem to be cheaper and more flexible to potentially add “bike traffic cameras” than to install more fixed-location counters with questionable reliability.

  8. MW says:

    It’s not clear that adding another counter is necessary, the city already uses Strava Metro, which seems to be a pretty good tool, and has way more data: https://metro.strava.com/get-started/#bike-counter-correlation
    https://cdn2.hubspot.net/hubfs/1979139/Bike%20Counter%20Correlation.pdf

    What we, the cycling public of Seattle, need to do is up the fraction of Strava users to increase the rate at which the networks gaps are identified. The only problem I see is that none of these methods measure people who don’t ride because a connection doesn’t exist, e.g. Rainier Avenue. I wonder if Metro has a capability to do language analysis on segment names that pass through an area and check for terms like “Rainier death trap” to focus attention there.

    • Lisa says:

      You have to be really careful with Strava data. Each type of street has a different extrapolation factor, and the factors change with time of day, time of year, and weekday/weekend. Take the Burke-Gilman for example- your percentage of Strava cyclists is higher on weekend mornings when the fitness or more intense recreational cyclists are riding. The percentage of Strava cyclists is higher on longer routes, such as the I-90 bridge, and much lower on residential streets like greenways. If you take those factors into account, you can use Strava data. However, in my opinion, Seattle still doesn’t have enough permanent counters on the south end, or on different types of infrastructure- for example, I don’t know of any permanent counters on unprotected bike lanes like 8th Ave NE.

    • Al Dimond says:

      The bike community of Seattle doesn’t need to become the marketing arm for Strava, of all companies. We don’t need more GPS tracking, draining our batteries and sending data on our travels to be owned by random companies. We don’t need more phones on the roads. We don’t need more little tasks tacked onto the beginning and end of every trip. We don’t need more things in life that feel like they didn’t really happen if they don’t show up online.

      We know where the network gaps are. We just need the will to fill them. As you point out, there’s no GPS app in the world that can count the people that aren’t riding on Rainier. The case for Rainier is this: Rainier is the primary commercial street for an entire quadrant of the city and in several areas is a critical grade corridor with no real parallel alternative (even for narrow, slow vehicles like bikes). Data itself isn’t an argument. Any data can be used in support of almost any position. The case is a principled one: every corridor like Rainier is naturally an important part of the bike network, and deserves better infrastructure.

  9. KAL says:

    It’d be interesting to look at what intersections the volunteer bike counts cover in SE Seattle and what those numbers looked like. I-90 and I-5 have the potential to provide pinch points but there are a number of options west of 23rd. If we wanted to look at how folk are currently crossing I-5 & I-90 we could see about getting volunteers to count at all points where you can cross either of those freeways to/from SE Seattle next time there’s a count. We could choose to put a permanent count at one or two of the most used crossing points. Alternatively, we could choose to put counters based on where the bike master plan calls for improvements so that when we do improve the experience we have something to compare to.

  10. Joseph Singer says:

    Why is the Broadway bike way counter not listed? And why is there no visible counter on the Broadway bike way?

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      I didn’t list it because it wasn’t updated with all of 2019 yet. It doesn’t have a visible counter because nobody donated one to the city, which is the only way they have happened so far.

  11. J.R. Philbeck says:

    The Elliott Bay Trail is a great bike commute from Ballard to Downtown, SODO and beyond, even with the Expedia Campus construction.

    It would be light years better if the route along the waterfront from the south end of Myrtle Edwards park down to the stadiums had anything resembling a safe path for bikes. Is there a plan for a dedicated bike route in that congested and extremely dangerous section now that the viaduct has been removed?

    • Andy B says:

      Out of curiosity, what makes you say that section is extremely dangerous?
      It’s congested, sure, but that actually makes it feel relatively safer – it’s easy to keep pace with traffic most of the time, and at low traffic times there’s another lane where cars can easily pass. There are very few visual obstructions and limited issues with right or left hooks. Do you have any data suggesting that it’s particularly unsafe?

      If you’re saying it’s not *comfortable* because you have to ride in the lane, then I agree, but that’s definitely not the same thing as making a route dangerous.

      • Alex says:

        I’ve seen some stupidly dangerous behavior long the waterfront, but it probably isn’t that much worse than any other street. As you mention, the slow speeds usually help, but they also seem to increase road rage incidents. I’ve had 3 scary experiences along the waterfront (2 road ragers and 1 wrong-way driver) out of ~60 rides total over the past 3 years.

    • Bill N says:

      The Waterfront trail is going to be awesome. https://waterfrontseattle.org/waterfront-projects/park-promenade-bike-path
      They are still working on how to connect North of Bell Harbor Marina but I think they will figure something out.

  12. NickS says:

    Suggestion for SE Seattle counter — SE corner of Rainier Ave S and Seward Park Ave S. The sensor would need to cover both the end of the bike lane and the inner sidewalk to catch most riders. Seward Park Ave is very heavily used but has no bike lane so no way to count cyclists short of computer image recognition.

    Another spot would be somewhere along S Henderson between Rainier and Renton Ave S. But the bike lane sucks (door zone issues with the many parked cars and ends abruptly at Renton Ave), so many riders ride the edge of the lane and might be missed.

    As mentioned, the infrastructure in SE is so poor that there aren’t many good routes to measure that aren’t a general traffic lane.

  13. bobco85 says:

    Here are my ideas for South Seattle bike counters:
    -1st Avenue Bridge path over Duwamish Waterway
    -1st Avenue Bridge over railroad tracks in SODO (sidewalk and right lane)
    -South Park Bridge (sidewalks and bike lanes)
    -Chief Sealth Trail/Beacon Ave (east side of crossing)
    -I-90 Trail/Beacon Hill Greenway/18th Ave
    -SODO Trail next to SODO light rail station (this should increase when new Lander St Bridge opens)
    -Lucile St/Airport Way (big connection between Beacon Hill and Georgetown)
    -Swift Ave S near S Albro Pl (connection between south Beacon Hill and Georgetown)
    -Columbian Way/Alaska St at Beacon Ave
    -Wilson Ave S near S Orcas St
    -S Alaska St between Rainier Ave and 38th Ave

    • NickS says:

      Good ideas! I particularly like the I-90 Trail idea. With light rail going in at Judkins park, a bike counter along the trail would make a lot of sense.

      Though, “Swift Ave S near S Albro Pl (connection between south Beacon Hill and Georgetown)” — unfortunately, there is no connection to Georgetown on the new Othello/Myrtle/Swift bike lane, and because of this, this new plastic-post protected lane appears to be very underused. I’ve only seen a handful of riders using it.

      On the east / south end, the lane begins a long block west of Othello station (past a busy Safeway and bank parking lot with cars constantly jetting in and out, and a busy bus stop), and there is no safe access for riders coming from east of MLK. On the west/north end, the lane just ends on Swift around S. Graham St. well before the bike lane that passes in front of Cleveland High and continues north on 15th. There is no bike lane in either direction across the Albro bridge, a busy and intimidating street as it’s one of the few crossings over I-5 in S. Seattle and also crosses a busy I-5 exit.

      The only “official” bike connection between S. Beacon Hill and Georgetown is Lucille, which has a ridiculously steep grade heading east, as well as blind corners on the elevated section that crosses over the railroad tracks. No one in their right mind would use this, and unsurprisingly, I have never encountered a bike rider heading east/uphill.

      • Mark says:

        I traverse Lucille both east and west twice a day (Mon-Thurs). West in the morning going to work (NBF) and East in the afternoon/evening going home. I often see other riders on this route. Not as many as on I-90 trail, but still more then none!

        The only problem I’ve had in this section is drivers not yielding to bicycles along a short section of Airport Way through Georgetown. The speed limit there is 25 mph, but it’s rare to see drivers traveling South obey that limit.

  14. Where *is* the Elliott Bay Trail counter?

    • Ballard Kirk says:

      If you start from the south end (by the fountain) it is at the first fork, where the pedestrian trail goes left towards the water and the bicycle trail goes straight north. There’s no counting kiosk but you can see the diamonds in the pavement.

  15. Pingback: People who don’t let snow stop them from biking offer some advice | Seattle Bike Blog

Leave a Reply