Center-City Bike Counts Rose 8% in 2013. Now, What About the Rest of NYC?

Bicycling in the New York City core continues to rise, according to the latest counts from the city. But the methodology NYC DOT uses to measure year-over-year changes in cycling is also showing its age. To get a clearer picture of citywide cycling activity, DOT will have to start doing annual counts in more places.

Graphic: NYC DOT
From the bottom to top, the colors represent average daily bike crossings from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Hudson River Greenway at 50th Street; the Queensboro, Williamsburg, Manhattan, and Brooklyn bridges, and the Staten Island Ferry. Graphic: NYC DOT

DOT’s screen line bike count shows cycling increased across the boundaries of the Manhattan central business district 8 percent in 2013 [PDF]. (The counts aren’t on the DOT website and the press office didn’t respond to Streetsblog’s request for them, so we got them from an unauthorized source.)

DOT conducts the screen line count by tallying cyclists several times between April and October at the Hudson River Greenway at 50th Street, the four city-owned East River bridges, and the Staten Island Ferry terminal. The great thing about it is that the agency has used the same methodology, more or less, since 1985, so it now provides a 30-year trendline.

You can tell from the historical record that the city’s investment in safer bikeways has paid off — the screen line count has nearly tripled since 2005.

Citywide measures of cycling, meanwhile, also show upward movement, but not as much as the screen line. The Census (which has its flaws) shows a 40 percent increase in bike commuting between 2007 and 2012, and in an annual Department of Health survey, the number of New Yorkers who report biking several times per month increased 16 percent from 2007 to 2012.

In other ways, though, the screen line appears to undercount cycling — namely, it’s not capturing all of the growth due to bike-share.

Last October, DOT counted bike-share trips and non-bike-share trips at various locations throughout the Citi Bike service area, which covers roughly the same part of the city as the screen line. Combined with a survey that showed a small proportion of bike-share trips were substituting for personal bike trips, the results indicated that there were 36 percent more bike trips in the service area than there would have been without Citi Bike.

But if you look at the annual change in the screen line after Citi Bike trips plateaued last July, the increase is significantly smaller than 36 percent. The screen line count for August, September, and October of 2013 was just 13 percent higher than the count for the same months in 2012. The screen line counts apparently don’t capture an accurate proportion of bike-share trips, maybe because a relatively small share of those trips involve biking over a bridge.

The screen line count is a great metric and the city should keep tracking it. But it’s increasingly clear that the screen line alone is insufficient: It’s not conveying enough information about bicycling trends throughout the city — either inside the screen line boundary or outside.

The bike-share-enhanced counts from last October were a welcome addition — a new way to estimate total cycling activity in the city core. It would be good to see those counts continue on an annual basis.

More important, though, is to fill in the gaps in what we know about bike activity outside the core. DOT already does plenty of bike counts outside of Manhattan on a project-by-project basis (see, for instance, this presentation on the Pulaski Bridge). But as of yet there are no annual, standardized bike counts in the other boroughs that can be used, like the screen line counts, to assess year-over-year changes.

Mayor de Blasio’s goal for bicycling is to achieve a 6 percent mode share citywide. To do it, his DOT will have to make biking safer in parts of the city far from the screen line. And to measure progress and stay on track, DOT will have to start doing annual bike counts on streets in Upper Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island.

  • BBnet3000

    They also need to start those counts now to have a few years of useful data for comparison by the end of De Blasios first term.

    Can they use those things theyre already using for car traffic counts (with the rubber hose) to also count bikes seperately? I have heard that is possible (with the right counting unit). If thats the case bike counting can piggyback on traffic counts that are already happening.

  • stairbob

    I have to wonder if the slight decrease on the Hudson River Greenway is a good sign. Might it show that people are feeling safer cycling on city streets, and are less likely to go out of their way to avoid them?

    That said, you are right, there is still plenty of work to do. Even in Manhattan there are missing links in the bike lane network on every non-greenway route between Midtown and Brooklyn.

  • vnm

    It’s great to have 30 years worth of data from the same source, but other than that, the screenline is seriously flawed. It actually really much of a screenline at all and should be called something different. Those of us who ride in from uptown and the Bronx are severely undercounted. So, it’s a great measure of cyclists from Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, but it’s a terrible measure of cyclists from uptown and the Bronx. To actually be a screenline, there would need to be counts done at West End Avenue, Columbus, Fifth, Park, Lex, Second, Sutton Place/East Side Greenway, and Central Park Loop @ Seventh Avenue. At a minimum, the West Side Greenway count point should be moved from 50th Street up to 59th Street. There are plenty of CBD-bound cyclists who get off the greenway before 50th Street.

  • J

    The data you show is completely public and available on the DOT website:
    http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/2013-isci-2-25-14.pdf

    Here is the page with the link:
    http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/bicyclists/bike-counts.shtml

  • J

    The city used to do such counts on all avenues but stopped because they felt that the large number of delivery cyclists going back and forth on the avenues across the screenline was skewing the results.

  • mistermarkdavis

    Thanks for writing this article. Yes the screen line counts are unreliable. If it happens to rain on a day the counts are recorded totals will be down. Each individual year can’t really be looked at to figure out trends, but looking at Many years is very useful. Do people actually believe that cycling went down in 2012 after about a decade of consecutive increases? It seems unlikely, particularly when we see that 2013 also shows an increase.

  • Kevin Love

    Every screen count is inherently imperfect, but I have seen a lot of disrespect of delivery cyclists from NYC politicians, tabloids and others. Yes, delivery cyclists are “real” cyclists making “real” trips. They should be counted.

  • SheRidesABike

    I cycle/commute less often on the greenway because it’s just too crowded to do it enjoyably on many days. For example, I used to ride my Inwood-to-Midtown commute from Dyckman/Riverside to 54th Street. Once they put down stripes for the wider bike lane in Central Park so that jockeying around runners in the old bike lane was no longer necessary, I started cutting up through Riverside Park at 90th Street to avoid the jogging/dogwalking/biking crowds below there (some days it’s fine, others, it’s not). So while I agree that better on street choices might be part of the decrease (and we might not even be talking about the same section of greenway), I bet some of its people like me who have a little less tolerance for the crowded greenway conditions, which generate a lot of jerky behavior on the part of every kind of greenway user.

  • AnoNYC

    The Harlem and Bronx River crossings would be a great place to count.

  • Joseph E

    Yes, Portland (and other cities) use this system for their permanently-installed bike counters on bridges.

  • Brian

    Since the term is mentioned about 75 times: what is a “screen line”?

  • Jonathan R.

    Collecting data only on the number of people crossing between from borough to borough, but not counting “local” bicyclists, privileges people who are traveling longer distances, and the bike infrastructure necessary to encourage them, viz. better bridge crossings, greenways, and protected bike lanes along direct, arterial roadways.

    Bicycles, however, are used for more than just traveling between areas. It is a canard that many car trips are just a mile or so and can be replaced by bicycle trips without having to confront issues of fatigue or fitness, thus reducing motor vehicle traffic in busy neighborhoods. This is the philosophy behind DOT supported bike share, and the DOT neighborhood slow zone program, and it is therefore a little surprising that DOT researchers are still using screenline methods to collect data that does not inform the policy initiatives of the organization.

  • Kevin Love

    Rather than counting all cyclists within an area, a “screen line” only counts cyclists passing over a particular border line. That boundary line over which the number of people cycling is counted is called the “screen line.”

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