Sidewalk Mailbox #7: Counting Cyclists on Cleveland

Here's a letter I received a little while ago, a response to a recent streets.mn post about new bike count data on Cleveland Avenue. For reference, the data showed big increases in bike traffic on the street:

Bill –
I was in midst of my own personal study on Cleveland which was showing similar numbers but I do need to differ with you on ‘interpretation’. You got to be kidding me with ‘build it they will come’ – hell you got about 20 – 30 extra bikes using the road PLEASE!!!

What needs to happen is to set benchmarks just like they do for roads based on use to determine whether a road should be converted to a bike lane? Sorry, but 30 folks don’t justify the loss of parking. What I also observed over about 3 morns & afternoons is that it is a wickedly busy & unsafe road for bikers. I never saw any kids which is good & truthfully I saw more joggers than bikers.

Can I take a shot here at ‘bloggers’ with a mission & use alternate facts!!! I hope that one stung & time for beers.

My buddy is a statistician & don’t know whether he would agree with my interpretation.

My friend lives in the ‘hood’ & we sat a watched a few days together.

I’ll gladly work with you on developing ‘real criteria’ for conversions.
Look forward to a correction/modification of your position in next addition!!!

Counter Conventional

Dear Counter:

Buono Giorno! First off, thanks for reaching out. I always appreciate feedback.

Also, thanks for staring at a Saint Paul street for hours! It’s one of my favorite pastimes and I can’t recommend it enough.

That said, people see what they want to see. After staring at Cleveland Avenue for a few hours, I am pretty sure that you and I would have different takeaways. (More on that in a second.)

But still, the exercise itself is almost always rewarding / infuriating / existential… which is why I recommend it in the first place.

Anyway, this is to say that I think you’re cherry-picking your statistics. Here are a few numerical caveats.

IMO, the larger before-and-after numbers for Cleveland south of Marshall are the more important measure. That's where most of the local destinations are located, where the new lanes create a connection from the colleges down to the heart of the Highland neighborhood.

When I was on the Cleveland Avenue task force, I said it would quickly be one of the most used bike lanes in the city. And I was right! Cleveland is in the top half of streets in the Saint Paul bike count. South of Marshall, there was an increase from 20 to just over 50 bicyclists in a two-hour stretch on one weekday rush hour afternoon.

"Only an extra 20 cyclists", you say?

Well that's only two hours. If you wanted to extrapolate to a full day, you’d at least be tripling that number.

(Sidenote: it's an interesting question about the relationship between commuting rush hour car patterns and all-day bicycling patterns. Especially in a college / mixed-use urban area like this, bike traffic is generally more steady throughout the day.)

Let’s say, conservatively, that we’re talking about 100 brand-new people bicycling on Cleveland per day during decent weather. That's on top of the already existing 50-60 people using the street, who will be better off bicycling in the lane.

So are the new lanes worth it?

It depends on who you ask, I am sure. Before I get to the heart of the question, let me throw a bit more data your way.

When the city was studying the lanes, and coming up "real criteria" for bike lanes (as you say), public works' staff did a "parking occupancy count." They literally counted how many vehicles were parked on Cleveland, at multiple times of the day on multiple days. All the data is here. Spoiler alert: it shows that there is a lot of parking in many places, and parking is tight in others.

The trade-off here is that we’re making parking a bit more difficult. Someone parking their car in one of the tight areas will likely have to walk a bit farther, I'm guessing a half-block on average. (Maybe more?  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ) Meanwhile, over a hundred people trying to get around will be safer.

Is that worth it?

To me, that’s an easy choice. I guess you disagree...

I wrote a while back about how frustrating I found it that someone's parked car made it more dangerous for me to get around on a bicycle. To me, the safety of a living human being should be the first priority of our streets, and convenient storage for an expensive private vehicle when you're not using it should be a distant second.

By the way, I strongly disagree with your assertion that the bike lanes are unsafe. I suggest you talk to more people who ride bicycles around the Twin Cities. While there's never unanimity about these things, the vast majority will tell you that lanes are safer. (Consider for example the case of Evan Steeves.) In fact, because they lack a "door zone" problem, the Cleveland lanes are probably some of the safest in the city!

(Granted, that's not saying much... Saint Paul has a long way to go if it wants to catch up to Minneapolis' safety standards.)

Here's a bit more food for thought. One of the more counter-intuitive rules of street safety is called the “safety in numbers” effect. The paradox is that crashes do not increase linearly with the number of bicyclists, as you might expect. If you get more bicyclists on the street, the average per-capita crashes go down, not up. This has happened in city after city.

The point is that the safest thing you can do for bicycling is to get more people bicycling. Drivers learn to expect to see bicyclists, and they slow down and pay more attention. The street becomes safer for everyone.

To sum up, this last year was just the first year of having bike lanes on Cleveland Avenue. I think it's going very well. While two older businesses have closed, two new businesses opened up in their places almost immediately. The gloom-and-doom scenarios have not come to pass,  and I do not think they will.

On the contrary, I believe that each year we will see more people bicycling on Cleveland, especially if we continue to grow Saint Paul's fledgling bicycle network. If you keep watching the street, you might see this for yourself.


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