Bicycling Up 8.5 Percent in SF Last Year, 53 Percent Increase from 2006

San_Francisco_Citywide_Bicycle_Counts__2006_09_.jpgSan Francisco Citywide Bicycle Counts (2006-09). Image courtesy SFMTA.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has released its 2009 Bicycle Count Report (PDF), which shows an 8.5 percent increase in the number of cyclists on the streets last year compared to 2008, and a 53 percent increase since 2006. That marks the third consecutive year of growth for bicycling in the city - every year since the MTA began conducting the annual counts in 2006. Though not as explosive as the 25 percent increase recorded between 2007 and 2008, it's a solid figure for a year in which many of the nation's top cycling cities saw growth in bike trips slowed down by a weak economy and depressed gas prices.

In light of the Bike Plan injunction in San Francisco that's been in place since 2006, the MTA is especially pleased with the continued growth. "Given the inability to make physical improvements to bicycling in San Francisco over the time period, we can only imagine how great an increase we'll have when we're able to implement the Bike Plan fully," said MTA spokesperson Judson True. "I think we're reaching a point in San Francisco where more and more people see bicycling as a primary means of getting around. That's a great sign for the future of San Francisco."

The SFBC's Andy Thornley felt the report deserved more public touting from the MTA, since it shows a 53 percent increase in bicycling since 2006. "We urge MTA to really come forward and make this a prominent report because it tells a really strong story of the city's success in achieving, or moving towards achieving, some of its mode shift and environmental goals," said Thornley. "During the three years and more that the city has been handcuffed from making any physical improvements for bikes, we've seen a 53 percent increase in bike traffic."

Relative_Bicycle_Volumes_at_Count_Locations.jpgClick to enlarge. Relative Bicycle Volumes at Count Locations. Image courtesy SFMTA.

Thornley also pointed to specific intersections identified in the report that have seen bicycle volumes increase at even greater rates. "Page and Scott in the Wiggle in three years has seen a 63 percent increase in bike traffic. Fell Street at Scott has seen a 70 percent increase in bike traffic," said Thornley. "So, in certain parts the growth in bike traffic is even more astounding and gratifying."

For the past four years, the MTA has sent out interns to 33 locations throughout the city to count the number of cyclists passing through on an August day between 5 and 6:30 p.m. At the busy intersection of Market and 5th Streets, the MTA also counts cyclists from 8 to 9 a.m. and 1 to 2 p.m. The resulting data provides a snapshot of cycling trends in the city that complements data in the U.S. Census and American Community Survey.

If this year's 8.5 percent growth is a little disappointing compared to the 25 percent leap in 2008 and 14 percent increase in 2007, it's worth keeping in mind that Portland, the top bicycling city in the nation, saw its first dip since 1995 this year. That decrease of five percent compared to 2008 is still a bit less than the seven percent decrease in auto traffic, according to the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

The economy and cheaper gas prices didn't keep bicycle traffic from growing in New York, however, as the New York City Department of Transportation reported a 26 percent jump in cycling in 2009 compared to 2008. Still, even with New York's aggressive commitment to improving its bicycle facilities, that's a less steep increase than the city reported in 2008, when cycling traffic grew by 35 percent over 2007. And with less than one percent of commuters choosing to travel by bicycle in New York, the city has a lot of catching-up to do, as San Francisco reached a 2.9 percent mode share for bicyclists in the 2008 American Community Survey.

Minneapolis, the nation's second most bike-commuting city according to Census and American Community Survey data, also recorded a slight dip in the number of cyclists at key locations in 2009 (PDF), suggesting that the growth of cycling slowed down nationally last year, as less travel, period, mitigated the growth of bicycling somewhat.

In addition to posting another consecutive year of growth, there's plenty to be pleased with in the MTA's 2009 Bicycle Count Report, including a continued increase in female cyclists, a number which increased by two percent to 29 percent of bicyclists counted, and a more robust growth rate of 11.1 percent in the volume of cyclists outside downtown. In downtown, where messengers also comprise a large number of those on a bike, cycling grew by a modest 1.7 percent.

Of the locations recorded, the intersection of 17th and Valencia Streets had the highest share of female riders, at 33 percent. The lowest was at Sloat Boulevard and Great Highway, where only one in five riders were female. Those figures aren't entirely representative, however, since the MTA didn't attempt to record riders' gender at the highest-volume intersections, where interns were too busy simply recording the number of cyclists.

While the helmet debate carries on among bicycle advocates, San Franciscans showed a slight increase in their tendency to wear one while cycling, from 67 percent in 2008 to 69 percent in 2009.

Daily_Ridership_Variation_on_Westbound_Fell_Street.jpgDaily Ridership Variation on Westbound Fell Street. Image courtesy SFMTA.

In a promising development for the accuracy and detail of such counts, the MTA plans to greatly expand the number of automatic bicycle counters in its streets over the next year. Its first (and so far only) counter was installed on Fell Street between Scott and Divisadero Streets last year, a pilot project intended to prepare the agency for more counters. This year, the MTA hopes to install 22 counters at 13 locations throughout the city, with a goal of eventually installing automatic counters at all 33 locations it includes in its annual cycling counts.

Automatic counters pick up bicycle traffic at all hours of the day, every day of the year, so the MTA will be able to gather far more detailed data in the future. According to this year's report, the inductive loop counters are installed one to three inches below the surface, and are able to distinguish between bicyclists and other users of the street. They require minimal maintenance, as their batteries last for about ten years.

The data in the 2006 through 2009 bicycle count reports, while not as extensive as that offered by automatic counters, provides a useful glimpse at the growth of cycling in the city, even as a court injunction kept the city from making improvements to its bike network during that time. That data could provide an extremely important baseline once the injunction is fully lifted and the city starts making improvements on a large scale again.

"As the court injunction against the bike plan is lifted and new bicycling infrastructure is implemented, future counts offer a unique opportunity for the SFMTA to document the impacts of that new bicycle infrastructure on ridership," the report notes. Partial relief from the injunction, granted in November of last year, means "the 2010 bicycle counts should help explain the impacts of new infrastructure on bicycle ridership."

3336832711_b56c8bbaae.jpgThe city's first bike counter, on Fell Street. Photo: Bryan Goebel.