It Shouldn’t Take This Much Effort to Count Bike Trips in NYC [Updated]

Update: We added a short Q&A with Chancey to the end of this post.

In case you missed it, at 6:30 a.m. yesterday Bahij Chancey set up a table on the DUMBO side of the Manhattan Bridge to count cyclists. By the time he wrapped up at 8 p.m., 5,589 people had biked past.

Chancey was also collecting signatures from people who’d like DOT to install a bike counter — also known as a totem — on East River crossings, starting with the Manhattan Bridge.

“A lot of criticism from community boards focuses on the idea that cycling is a seasonal mode of transportation,” Chancey told AMNY. “The counter is a great way to incentivize cycling — for people to see the numbers of rides and compare it to car traffic — and to establish it as a viable, quick, cheap commuting option that people use all year around.”

More broadly, Chancey wants DOT to make bike count data more accessible to the public. DOT releases trip data in occasional reports, but does not publish it on the city’s open data portal.

“With the information available to all to dissect on the totem, I’d be interested in looking into how weather impacts the number of riders, or maybe compare the number of rides taken on different days of the week,” Chancey said.

An online petition calls for improvements to the plaza under the bridge, like better lighting and signage, in addition to the counter. Chancey plans to send signatures to Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, DOT Brooklyn Borough Commissioner Keith Bray, and City Council Member Steve Levin. You can add your name here.

We asked Chancey about yesterday’s event and the campaign to get better bike data from DOT. Here’s what he had to say.

Streetsblog: Were you surprised by the count?

BC: Yes, I was surprised by how many trips I counted across the Manhattan Bridge. The latest Cycling in the City report that the DOT published put the average daily ridership on the Manhattan Bridge at 4,541. My count of 5,589 between 6:30 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. exceeded that average, but I also take into account the fact that that average must include days that were not as nice as Monday, and would certainly have lower ridership. I heard from many people who were crossing the bridge that this seemed like the most crowded biking day in a while, so I definitely consider myself lucky to have picked such a nice day by chance.

SB: Any feedback from DOT or electeds at this point?

BC: Steve Levin’s office was initially intrigued by the idea when I submitted it as a participatory budgeting project months ago. I also submitted it as a suggestion to the DOT, both to Polly Trottenberg and Keith Bray, through the online forms. That was more to say that I’ve taken this step, have a case number, and that the agency is aware of the proposal. I don’t expect a real response from those forms.

I have not heard anything from either the council member or the DOT since I did my big advocacy event yesterday, and the totem has been in the press. I plan to do my first official petition delivery in June, so I hope to get the conversation going with them then.

SB: What’s next?

BC: I need to type up all the handwritten signatures I got yesterday, which is a task on its own at around 230 signatures. I also plan to reach out to local and other relevant organizations to see if I can get them to endorse the idea. These include CB 2, the DUMBO BID, Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, the Waterfront Alliance, Bike New York, and TransAlt (who has backed the idea in conversation, but not officially).

When that’s all set I plan to deliver the petition to Steve Levin and the DOT. I’ll also reach out to Margret Chin’s office to see if I can get some support from both sides of the river.

Additionally, I’m going to submit a FOIL request to get the DOT’s historical screenline count data. I would like to see if they’ll give me machine readable data in greater detail than the daily average that was provided on the no longer accessible screenline count PDF.

  • BBnet3000

    Also useful since apparently they stopped publishing the usual annual bike counts this year. I will sign today if they are there or else do it online tonight.

  • Vooch

    I’ll count the cyclist:car ratio if I have a few minutes to kill or having a drink outside. I am absolutely certain the DOT traffic counts exaggerate motor vehicles and under count cyclists.

    I’ve counted 130-140 bikes going by a PBL over 15 minutes (ie >500 bikes/hour) while having a cocktail. The DOT bike counts for that PBL ? 800 for 12 hours.

    Ditto for motor vehicles, I’ll count how many cars pass by during a typical 90 second light cycle. I have some rules of thumb 30 cars a cycle equals extreme crowded, >40 cars a cycle total gridlock avenue essentially shuts down. DOT peak hour traffic counts ALWAYS show much higher numbers than 40 per hour.

    No question the data is suspect

  • Glad you guys gave Bahij some spotlight. I was following his adventures on Twitter all day yesterday!

  • Eric McClure

    Bahij Chancey is doing some great advocacy work, here with the bike count project but in many other places, too.

  • reasonableexplanation

    I can’t comment to the bike counting, but in terms of vehicle counting you’re likely wrong.

    The way cars are counted in NYC is usually via a 3rd party contractor, where they literally hire the same people you see working in your polling place on election day, give them clicky counters, and set them loose on streets/intersections.

    They set it up so several people are counting the same cars. If their numbers are close, the data is averaged, if not, either the outlier is thrown out or the location gets recounted another day.

    On the whole, this process is less prone to error than your casual observations.

  • Vooch

    the same people counting votes ?


  • reasonableexplanation

    The folks in your polling place don’t count your votes, you know that, right?

  • Komanoff

    The figures in this post are cyclists traveling in both directions, yes?

  • Simon Phearson

    Unless you mean to suggest that the clicky-counting people were counting the same cars that Vooch was counting, at the same time, I’m not sure how this explanation is relevant. It’s a little like telling me that, since meteorologists have fancy radar equipment and weather models that can predict where and when it’ll rain, they know better than I do whether it’s actually raining outside my window right now.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Let’s recap:
    Vooch claimed the following: “I am absolutely certain the DOT traffic counts exaggerate motor vehicles ”
    and gave a personal anecdote to support it.

    I pointed out that on the whole, the methods the DOT uses are pretty good (and more consistent than just one guy), and if he/she saw something different, it doesn’t speak to a systematic issue with the DOT’s methodology.

    Just like it would be silly to say that meteorology is useless and wrong if the weatherman predicts rain one day, and it’s dry.

    Do you think there’s an issue with the way cars are counted?

  • walks bikes drives

    I thought they do their counts with pneumatic hoses that count axles and then divide by 2 and some decimal that takes into account the probability of vehicles with more than 2 axles.

  • reasonableexplanation

    It depends on the street/intersection. Sometimes they even do both.

  • BAMstutz

    Also good to track rides using Strava where you can indicate if it’s a commute. Strave shares data with city planners.