Nine Thoughts You Have While Doing a Bike/Walk Traffic Count in A Vacant Lot for Two Hours

[The vacant lot where I sat for two hours.]
Statistics are important. They drive [sic] our built environment. Statistics shape the solutions that cities put in place, magnifying budgets, and creating the ideological space for what's possible in city institutions. In other words, without statistics, it's really hard to get money.

That fact is a problem for non-motorized transportation because acquiring statistics about cars is relatively easy. You simply put down a few strips of rubber one morning, wait until the evening to pick them up, and voila! You’ve completed a “traffic study” which can be used to justify all kinds of “solutions” to “problems” you’ve just identified.

(N.b. It's probably not as easy as I make it sound... but whatever.)

On the other hand, getting hold of statistics for non-cars is quite difficult because people, bicycles, and buses aren't very predictable. There are a few options. You can use cameras, but that's expensive and time consuming. (Someone has to watch them!) Another option is rigorous surveys, but that’s also expensive and usually only happens through intrusive long-form-style census data. (E.g. the ACS commute data numbers.)

That’s why Minneapolis and Saint Paul’s annual bike and walk counts are so important. They provide valuable data that advocates, politicians, and city staff can use to justify and demand better bike lanes and sidewalks. They provide much-needed feedback in the process of changing our streets, something we can point to on a chart or graph. We've been doing these counts in the Twin Cities since 2007 and (at least in my cursory survey) it's pretty rare for a US city to have such a good set of longitudinal numbers.

[This is what bike/walk statistics look like when they're used.]

So this year, for the first time ever, my friend and colleague Reuben Collins (Saint Paul’s new bicycle and pedestrian coordinator) rudely tricked me into participating in this year’s bike/walk count, using a highly dubious “ask” over Twitter:

Being a fool, I answered his question. And like that, I was sitting in a vacant lot on the corner of Robert Street and Cesar Chavez Avenue on the West Side of Saint Paul for two hours on lovely Tuesday afternoon in September.

Believe it or not, two hours is a long time to spend sitting in a vacant lot staring at a traffic light. You think a lot of thoughts, some good, some bad. I wanted to share them with you. My rewards were surprising, my frustrations profound. My hope is that my time was well spent, if not for the valuable information tallied on my makeshift sheet, then at least for the existentialism.

Honestly, bike/walk counts are very important. Everyone should sit in a vacant lot and watch a streetcorner for an hour. A lot happens. I highly recommend it!

Thought #1: There are a shit-ton of cars

[Kids waiting next to a beg button as I creepily take their picture from the weeds.]
In general, I try to avoid profanity on this blog. But there's not really a word in the contemporary English language that can capture the sublime terror, the awareness that dawns on you like nausea as you sit on a busy corner during rush hour other than "shit-ton." It's a Niagara of hopelessness. They just keep coming, on and on, with out end.

Then every once in a while, like a weed in a cornfield, you see a person walking. It's a thrill. They have a face, and hands, and clothes, and are carrying something. What is it? It's fast food! The electric thrill passes away as they disappear around the corner, replaced again by the endless numbness of cars and their tires endlessly whirring by, the constant idling, the seamless metal frustration of traffic.

Thought #2: Kids love pressing the "wait button"

It's not that there are no people. It's just that they're so rare as to become exquisite. The highlight of the experience, people-wise, was when a group of eight schoolchildren tumbled down the hilly sidewalk next to me. Their voices were high and bubbling. They were talking to each other! This miraculous fact made want to erect a shrine. 

"What are you doing?" one kid shouted at me.

"Counting people!" I yelled back. They weren't far away, perhaps ten feet, but we had to shout over the continual din of traffic.

"How do you do that?" the kid replied.

"It's easy! One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight!" I pointed at them, counting as they rolled like marbles down the hill. 

They didn't reply. In fact, other than those kids, not one of the people who noticed me sitting in the middle of the vacant lot uttered a word my way. In my part of town, weird men sitting in vacant lots is not uncommon. It's best not to talk to them, a lesson you need only learn once.

My point was this. It wasn't on the statistic sheet that the city provided me, but I made some rough calculations of my own. I can report that a young person of approximately eleven years of age presses a new-fangled audio "wait button" an average of twenty-seven times. "WaitWaitWaitWaitWaitWaitWaitWait...." and so on. An insistent beat. The number of times one presses the "wait" button declines with age until adulthood, where it plateaus at around one-and-a-half.

Thought #3: Time flies

[Another view of my corner from the vacant lot.]
Two hours seems like a long time, in the abstract. It seems like a long time in the particular, too, but I was surprised at how quickly time passed.

This was especially true during the first hour. One hour spent in a vacant lot staring at a lamppost is actually somewhat entertaining. The sun came out at 5:12, and it was an event! The shapes of the buildings burned into my retina. I noticed things you'd never normally see, the rust on the sign of a liquor store, the bees floating about the weeds, the different ways that people walk.

If you think about two hours as being the length of a movie,  and how much time and money is spent thinking about movies, the fact that you can reasonably pass two hours of your day watching a mundane street corner is remarkable. I think about teenage life in an imaginary small town, with nothing to do but sit at the corner store and watch cars go by. Maybe it's not so sad, after all.

Thought #4: People don’t’ walk where they’re “supposed to”

[The dotted lines I was given.]
The way it works is that you're given a map of a corner, with two dotted lines crossing two different streets. Each time someone walks or bikes across one of the lines, you mark down a tally.

It all sounds good, but one of the problems is that a lot of the time, people don't walk along the main street. This part of the West Side is one of the spots in the city where the rectangular grid is all askew, streets coming in at odd angles to follow the topography of the bluff. Streets intersect acutely to form strange triangles. These strange shapes mean that there are all kinds of ways to take shortcuts, particularly since almost every block is half empty. I saw all kinds of pedestrians cutting through parking lots; the Burger King lot was especially popular. What do you make of folks who cut across the lot, and don't quite cross the line like they're supposed to?

It's a key difference between cars and people. Despite all the SUV commercials you've ever seen, cars basically have to stay between the white lines. They're corralled by rules, and it's easy to count them. People on bikes or (even worse) on feet will hop curbs, cut corners, skip over fences, and even sit in vacant lots for two hours. Do I count that guy wandering down the alley? Is he "traffic"?

Thought #5: Bike lanes v. sidewalks make a big difference

Another statistical revelation is that, unless there's a decent bike lane, most people will bike on the sidewalk. One of the streets of my intersection (Cesar Chavez) has a bike lane. Indeed, it's one of the only decent bike lanes in entire the city of Saint Paul, a fact I find deplorable.

The other street (Robert Street) was a five-lane automotive deathscape. Guess which street had almost everyone riding on the sidewalk?

[no peeking!]

If you guessed Robert Street, you're right. The numbers were striking. Along Chavez, 14 out of 16 bicyclists were using the bike lane. On Robert, 15 out of 18 bicyclists were on the sidewalk. If you build decent bike infrastructure for people, they'll use it. If you don't, they'll bike anyway, but in much more dangerous and problematic ways.

Thought #6: Is this what a homeless person feels like?

[Another view from the vacant lot. The bus stop was my friend.]
As the time passes, and the dust of the vacant lot swirls around you, forming thin clouds as you brush it from your pants... As the pressure on your bladder gradually increases, and you wonder if you can take a leak in the scrabbly woods behind you... As a cop car slowly drives by and you tense for some reason... As people stare at you for a second before turning blank faces toward their feet, you might wonder this.

I am sure there are many, many more important ways that being without a home affects one's psyche, but sitting in a vacant lot for two hours seems like a start.

Thought #7: THIS is what our human civilization has come to???????????

Earlier I said that time flies, and that sitting in a vacant lot for two hours watching traffic is surprisingly entertaining.

That's only half-true. Somewhere around the 75-minute mark, when you sit there with a pen in your hand waiting for people who never appear, something breaks. The cars, the blank metal cars that say nothing, that mean nothing, the cars that go and stop and go again and are always rushing along, dozens at at time in an unceasing stream, just empty dull slabs of metal belching atmosphere for hour after hour all day every day without even a moment's pause, crack your spirit like a thin glass.

I realized that I'd rather sit and watch any other corner than this one.

I began to think that you could go to any city on Earth (of a comparable size), literally pick anywhere at random, and it would be more interesting to watch than here. It doesn't matter where. Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, Mexico, probably Australia... pretty much anywhere outside of the damned car-choked USA, and their streetcorner would be better. Any of these places would have more people walking, more people talking, more people sitting, more smiles, more shops, and more life than this one. Somehow, of all the streetcorners in all the world to sit and watch for two hours, I had to be watching to the most boring, the most lifeless, the most monotonous endless-car-streaming streetcorner on the whole of planet Earth.

Why me?

Why here?

What did I do to deserve this fate?

I thought about all the people in all those never-stopping cars. They all had names, faces, eyeballs, thoughts, lives, houses, families, and things to say. Thousands of people crossing paths in a place in Saint Paul, so much potential, so much possibility, and what comes out of it?

Absolutely nothing. Not one of these people chatted with each other, not one recognized another human face. I doubt than any one of them in any of these endless cars even turned their heads for a second to glance at the lane beside them, and even if they did, even if they glimpsed one of their fellow humans, it wouldn't matter. What a boring world we live in, where surrounded by thousands and millions of people, in the same place at the same time, we can go a whole day without once meeting the eye of another. What's wrong with America?

Then it washed over me that this wasn't just the most boring streetcorner on Planet Earth (or at least somewhere in the top one percent), this was likely the most boring streetcorner in the entire history of the human race.

Consider all of time, every "city" that's ever existed since people began living in approximately the same place. Sit and watch an intersection randomly chosen from all of time and space for two hours in the middle of the day. Anywhere you went, any place your TARDIS landed, you'd find more people smiling and chatting and doing something in a civilized social way than this godforsaken place in Saint Paul. Anywhere on earth, any city for the past five-thousand years would have more life than this one, more chatter and commotion and movement of bodies.

Somehow, we've managed to take the great potential of human interaction, all the social possibilities that a group people gathered in one place could possibly present, and we've turned it into a great empty steaming pile of crappy cars streaming past each other in cocooned silence, the September sunlight glinting from the thousand blank windshields, and the occasional actual person shuffling along the empty street like a post-apocalyptic leper, trudging in a silence drowned by the noise of a thousand engines. This is where I live, at the absolute low point in human history.

It's seriously depressing.

Thought #8: Is that person in the motorized scooter just messing with me?

[Another view from the vacant lot. Actually it's the same view, as if it matters.]
Only the tally of the traffic count keeps you tethered to reality.

That lady in the baggy pants driving the maroon motorized scooter... Why is she going in circles on the corner, repeatedly crossing the imaginary dotted red sidewalk line?

Is she messing with me? Does she know I'm here?

Nope, she's just going to the liquor store.

Thought #9: Becoming data

At the end, the two hours pass. Six o'clock finally arrives. I rise and shake my legs out. I stumble toward the traffic light, the very one I've been watching for two hours. I hit the wait button, then hit it again five more times.

Down on the sidewalk level, you realize how horrible the experience of walking actually is. The closer you get to the cars, the less pleasant they become. They're louder, and move faster. You have to constantly dart your eyes back and forth to be sure nobody is about to run you down and crush your legs into a bloody mess.

I cross the street, and it feels glum. My bike waits on the other side, but even though the light is green, the pale red "Don't Walk"  hand is telling me not to go over there.

The street is full of cars, five lanes in each direction, all moving like sharks. I press the next "wait button", only once this time. My vim has evaporated.

And I wait, for another whole cycle of red, green, red, green arrows, what seems like forever, but is probably only a minute. I've just waited for two hours, and now a minute seems like forever.

Finally, the white "walk light" man appears, and I cross the street. Is anyone counting me?


Avidor said...

Brilliant post.

Unknown said...

Counting Bloomington Ave & Lake St was a bit livelier, I had six people stop and ask me what I was doing. But yeah, cars. So many cars. A shit-ton of cars.

Jinwen said...

Interesting post!!! Believe it or not, when I was a teenager, one of my favorite entertainments is to sit at a spot on a busy street and watch people, bikes and cars, most cases, I would watch the walking people (there are tons of people in China walking on the street which I am sure will not disappoint you and you definitely will be extremely busy for counting). The reason I enjoy it is because I can feel the dynamic around me, which makes me feel in a civilization, and also I will try to image the story, background or maybe personality of each person passing in front of me. That was fun and feels like time flies.

Unknown said...

Do you want to buy me dinner at Boca Chica or Taco House ;)

Thanks for volunteering. Next year you can count Water St/Lilydale where you will see hardly any cars.

Unknown said...

Please do a count on the Wabasha Street bridge in downtown St. Paul, counting bicyclists using the bike lanes on the road, vs. those riding on the sidewalk. Enjoyed your blog. Thanks.

B. Walter Irvine said...

I love the end of this. Yes, Bill, yes, you count.

Carl said...

bleak, bro

Jeremy Wright said...

"...where it plateaus at around one-and-a-half" -love it!

Shovelfoot said...

I counted on Wabasha and Fillmore. There were a good number of cyclists riding on the sidewalk on Wabasha however hardly any of them crossed the screen line as they turned onto the levee trail into Harriet island park. Although some made it to the screen line most of them would then move into the street on Wabasha where the bike lanes disappear+. I'm assuming due to the sidwalk getting narrow. Fascinating dynamic to witness.