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Research hopes to fill in the gaps for bicycle and pedestrian data

Tuesday, December 5, 2017 by Andrew Weber, KUT

Traffic is terrible.

City and state officials are really good at counting cars to see how terrible traffic is and how it got that way, but that sort of data-collection infrastructure doesn’t exist for bike and pedestrian data. New research hopes to change that.

The project has a simple goal, but you wouldn’t glean that from its name: “Evaluation of Bicycle and Pedestrian Monitoring Equipment to Establish Collection Database Methodologies for Estimating Non-Motorized Transportation.”

The Texas Department of Transportation-backed pilot program is counting cyclists and pedestrians on roads in both Austin and Houston, and it aims to figure out a way to share that data statewide.

In Central Texas, bike and pedestrian counts happen, but they’re not necessarily consistent – and the data are not always readily available to researchers and planners at TxDOT.

Greg Griffin, a researcher at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, said the project is about nuance. A nuance that, he says, is not often afforded to researchers collecting that kind of data.

“Our transportation agencies haven’t been able to put the resources into doing nuanced counts of bicyclists and pedestrians all over cities,” he said.

So, Griffin and his fellow researchers here and in Houston are collecting all this data and trying to figure out how to store it – all without spending any extra money.

An easy way to do that is to have the pedestrians and cyclists do the work for you – by using crowdsourced data from open platforms like Strava or Ride Report. These sorts of apps have provided transportation researchers with an easily accessible, relatively low-cost source for counts, but they’re not 100 percent accurate.

“People say, ‘Well, big data’s better, right?’ Well, no, not necessarily,” Griffin said. “And we have to understand what’s really going on in the world, and we do that with 100 percent counts of all the people that are actually biking in an area.”

Obviously, not everybody has a smartphone, and even the people who do don’t necessarily use those apps while they’re biking or walking. Even when they do, it’s not always clear whether they’re doing it for fun or to get somewhere.

“These new data sources are interesting and helpful, but if you just pick them up and apply them without thinking about who it’s representing, then that can make, actually, worse situations,” Griffin said. “Then, you’re planning for people that are buying apps – instead of your community.”

To create a 100 percent accurate snapshot, sometimes the old ways are the best.

So, researchers are using pneumatic tubes – like TxDOT uses in its car counting – to measure capacity along roads like South Lamar. The thin rubber tubes are embedded with sensors that give a relative sense of how fast cyclists are going while counting cyclists on a given roadway.

But, they’re not a permanent solution; they’re nailed into a handful of bike lanes for a few weeks, then they’re gone.

So, Griffin is also using data from the permanent bike counters set up by the city along high-traffic areas. They provide constant data and they’re sturdier than a thin rubber tube with a sensor in it.

They even use video and person-on-the-street-style interviews with folks to count cyclists and pedestrians.

All of this will give a clearer picture of where people are biking and walking, and could inform the $482 million corridor project that was funded by last year’s mobility bond. That slate of projects along nine roads in Austin will take the better part of eight years. City Council has yet to approve construction plans for those corridors, though a draft of the plans is expected to go before Council early next year.

While the data could help inform those projects as they’re built out, Billy Fields, a professor of political science at Texas State University, said the transportation institute’s research is short-term.

“We don’t need data to make our decisions. We always have imperfect data,” Fields said. “We’re always making decisions, and we let the lack of data hamper us.”

For him, it’s quantity over quality. The pilot program is well-intentioned, he said, but it’s grant-funded. There are no guarantees it will continue after the money runs out.

“The key issue is that we need to do this consistently. It’s not a one-time deal. It’s an every year deal. That’s what, essentially, auto traffic data is about,” he said. “It’s about doing it consistently and managing the system that way, and we don’t do that. We need to institutionalize that data-collection system.”

To get a good picture, Fields said, you can just get some numbers on a consistent basis to see where crashes happen and where bicyclists and pedestrians are going and where they’re not. While Austin’s Bicycle Master Plan is a good example of using comprehensive cycling data, that sort of deep dive isn’t always necessary to get a quick look at who’s riding where.

“It’s basically the length of time that you do these counts that it matters for. And then, instead of doing an academic paper – I like academic papers, that’s what I do – but you need to get that data out for people to hear it,” he said. “(Such as) doing a report every year to show where we are.”

Ultimately, both he and Griffin agree – no matter how the data are being collected – more people are walking and biking in Austin and across Texas.

But, when the research collection wraps up in February, Griffin hopes a potential database could help cities and TxDOT balance pedestrian- and cyclist-minded improvements like safer bike lanes and more pedestrian-friendly crosswalks, while reducing traffic on busy roadways.

“You can’t do that without counts, so that’s why this kind of research is important … it’s not just interesting,” he said. “It lays the foundation for being able to save lives through infrastructure changes.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/KUT News.

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