The long-time bicyclist and data maestro leads one last effort to track cycling trends in our community.
Even to many bicycling enthusiasts, a bike count may seem an obscure and tedious undertaking. To Ralph Fertig, it was a more momentous and effective action for change than any critical mass or fundraising century ride. Data on bicycling was to Ralph the air an advocacy campaign needs — the numbers, oxygen fueling its ascent toward better bikeways. And key among that data was the bike count - a monumental survey requiring dedication and people power that he deftly took on time after time with just as much zeal the last time as the first.
With Ralph’s passing, we reflect here on the final bike count of his remarkable life in June of 2014, what his efforts accomplished, and what it means for all of us moving forward.
Why do bike counts matter?
Cities regularly conduct traffic counts that focus on motor vehicles and don’t keep track of bicycle traffic. But many people do transport themselves by bicycle, and Ralph made sure that their trips were counted as well. Thanks to his leadership, for over a decade the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition has been the only organization that's consistently conducted bicycle counts. Ralph did the first bicycle count in 1997 and would conduct 11 more, setting the stage for recording regional jumps in levels of cycling. Many public jurisdictions such as the City of Santa Barbara and UCSB have relied on his data to support analysis and grant applications for bike-friendly projects.
The 2014 Bike Count
In our 12th bike count in the organization’s history, 28 volunteers counted bicyclists at 34 intersections across Santa Barbara County’s South Coast over two weeks in mid June. This year we added intersections in Goleta, Isla Vista near UCSB, and Carpinteria that have never been counted before, to collect baseline data in these areas.
Ralph worked with dogged determination on the 2014 bike count. He drove the agenda and built consensus to conduct the count; selected the intersections, modified the survey instrument and instructions, sent out invitations to his loyal colleagues and supporters to join the effort, and calculated the results and analysis that appear below. All told, this year’s bike count certainly wouldn’t have happened without him.
Ralph also personally went out twice last month to count cyclists for 2-hour stints at the busy roundabouts on Milpas St in Santa Barbara’s Eastside neighborhood and on Coast Village Rd at Hot Springs Rd. Many of the volunteers who helped conduct the count commented on the unique experience of sitting and watching people get where they’re going. One volunteer said, “It’s really quite a fascinating experience... like watching human nature unfold in front of you!”
The counts also provided interesting anecdotal observations behind the numbers. For example, a volunteer observed that the traffic signal did not change for cyclists on Berkeley Rd crossing Fairview Ave along the North Goleta bike route. The volunteer saw one bicyclist wait until a car across the street from him triggered the light, but when that car did not yield the right of way and made a left turn in front of him, the light changed to red again and he was forced to dismount and go push the "walk" button before he could cross Fairview on the bike route. After that the volunteer began pushing the button whenever a cyclist showed up at that intersection: a small gesture to help bicycles that ideally happen automatically throughout our transportation system.
Some observations weren’t directly related to bikes at all, but instead pointed at systemic biases in favor of car traffic. At Hollister Ave at Fairview Ave (the entrance to Old Town Goleta) for example, a pedestrian commented that the “walk” button to cross the intersection was hidden beneath some bushes. She then compared glut of cars at the intersection to a herd of wildebeests, complete with horns (side mirrors)! Another pedestrian described crossing the same intersection as "playing frogger," in reference to the 1980s era video game where an electronic frog dodges cars to cross the street.
This sort of information alongside the statistics gives us at least some chance of figuring out how bicycles are fitting into our transportation system, and some clue as to how it could be improved to serve people using all forms transportation, especially bicycles.
2014 Bike Count Results and Analysis
A perplexing result emerged from the 2014 Santa Barbara South Coast bike count. The conclusions section below will discuss some key questions these results raise as well as possible explanations, but the bottom line is that the number of bicyclists counted was lower in many places across the South Coast than in previous years. This is a discrepancy from what was expected, since previous counts as well as US Census Bike-to-Work data have shown an upward trend in bicycle ridership. As usual, Ralph Fertig summarized the results best in his matter-of-fact way:
I have received count sheets for 34 South Coast intersections, 20 of which had been counted previously, so we have numbers to compare with our new counts. The earliest returns showed significant declines in bicyclists, but some later, busier intersections had increases. The overall result for all 20 is a net decrease of 3.7%. Since the bike to work numbers have been increasing, I expected our counts to increase as well.
Here is the raw data from all intersections in the 2014 bike count compared to previous years.
In addition to solving that data puzzle, Ralph was interested in how the perceived safety of our streets is reflected in the breakdown of riders’ gender and tendency to bike on sidewalks. To that end he proposed tracking gender for the bike count instead of wrong-way riding. He also eliminated tracking whether bicyclists were wearing helmets, since helmet use had remained steady at 25% of riders over the years of bike counts.
Results of the # of female & on-sidewalk bicyclists for the 3 South Coast regions:
SB City. 19% female, 15% on sidewalk
West of SB. 29% female, 5% on sidewalk
East of SB. 16% female, 17% on sidewalk
Key takeaways from the 2014 bike count results:
- The overall count at previously counted sites in the City of Santa Barbara was down by 3.7%.
- This contradicts the data from the Census.
- We don’t know what is responsible for the difference. We won’t know if this is a trend in ridership in the City of Santa Barbara and surrounding areas until either another count is done, or until repeated automated counts are taken throughout the City.
- We now have baseline data for other regional sites.
- We know that women in the region are under-represented on bicycles; a finding consistent with national data. The findings for gender at intersections in the three regions along the South Coast were different.
Our challenge is to use all that information to help us understand what is happening on our streets and in our collective experience. This 2014 bike count also offered a new opportunity to compare cycling trends across our region. As Ralph put it before the count, “This is going to be fascinating to see how other South Coast bicycling differs from SB city.”
Happily, Ralph lived to see at least one clear regional trend: areas west of the City of Santa Barbara are attracting more women riders and have fewer people riding on the sidewalk. This is likely thanks to the high levels of ridership to and from UCSB, reflecting how when more people are riding, the safer everyone feels taking to the streets by bicycle.
Beyond that, this year's bike count presents more questions than answers. Some of the most salient ones are:
- Could people be shifting their routes to avoid ‘perceived danger’ at certain intersections?
- Does people’s behavior actually match what they report on the US Census survey?
- Could a change in school schedules this year be behind the difference? SB City College was closed during the count, as well as SB Unified School District (K-12), and UCSB was in finals week. However, more research is needed to determine whether schedules were different in 2009 and previous count years.
- Could there be statistical accuracy limitations that prevent the data from being as accurate as the Census? For example, is it too small of a sample size to show trends?
- Where do we go from here in terms of using ridership data to push advocacy and bikeway improvements?
Although we may not yet know for certain the answers to those questions, there are things we can say for sure. First of all, we can celebrate how our volunteer-led effort mobilized to get the bike count done. As a result, we have new baseline data from sites in the Goleta Valley and Summerland-Carpinteria that extend the range of our knowledge of bicycling trends throughout the South Coast.
We can also say that our volunteer-powered efforts, even when lead by a one of a kind dynamo like Ralph, are resource and time intensive. In order for this to be sustainable, our local governments need to follow the lead of other jurisdictions around the country that have prioritized bicycling, and invest in and adopt available technologies that will automate collecting bike count data so that we can make the same informed decisions about the level of service for bicycles on our public streets as we currently do for cars. Ultimately we want to follow Ralph’s lead in taking a clear-eyed look at the data trends to light the way toward better bicycling for all in our community.
Ralph donated this piece of neon bike art to the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition in early July 2014. He had displayed it in his home for many years.