Detroit: There are no accurate bike counts

How many people in Detroit bike? How has this changed over time?

They’re very popular questions. The truth is we don’t know. Nobody does.

And that same answer is true for most American cities – accurate bicycling data does not exist.

That hasn’t stopped some groups from pretending that it does.

If you read the recent Huffington Post article on Detroit, you may have seen this.

A 2012 report by the Alliance for Biking & Walking found the number of bicycle commuters in Detroit rose 258 percent over the last two decades.

Sounds good, right? The Alliance report says Detroit had 340 daily bicycle commuters in 1990 and 1,217 in 2009.

What the Alliance report fails to tell you are the margins of error, which really give you an idea how inaccurate these numbers are.

That 2009 number is 1,217 plus or minus 803. Yep, the Census says the actual 2009 number could be as low as 414, likely within the 1990 number’s margin of error.

Another thing to consider: The 2009 numbers are based on a Detroit population of over 900,000, which is off by couple hundred thousand people.

And while everyone acknowledges Detroit’s notable increase in cycling activity last year, the 2010 Census numbers show bicycle commuting dropped nearly in half to 651 plus or minus 424.

If this hasn’t convinced you these numbers are quite worthless, there’s more.

The Census numbers only includes those who are working and 16 years or older. The Census doesn’t count most people who combine modes (e.g. use the bus bike racks) or who bike only a couple times a week.

The Alliance for Biking and Walking were made aware of these Census discrepancies for Detroit, but for the most part they did not address them. That’s why Detroit chose not to participate in the most recent report.

Other cities

Other cities are making big strides in understanding bicycling trends and counts. They’re doing travel surveys and bicycle counts — both automatically and manually — at key bridges and intersections.

And in cities like New York, they’ve found their counts don’t match the Census numbers either.

Detroit’s done some bicycle counts around Woodward, in Southwest Detroit, and on the RiverWalk, but not enough to draw any major conclusions. It would great if some future bike lane projects (looking at you, E. Jefferson!) could get some automated counters.

Until then, there just aren’t any good answers.



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5 Responses to “Detroit: There are no accurate bike counts”

  1. Dave Says:

    Considering the city and region are well behind in anything relevant to most non-automobile transportation, I wonder how long it will take for this to change. Two years? Five? Ten?

    This would not seem to be a long-term action nor a relatively large investment, though as you’ve written I believe, there is a considerable share of the cycling investments made by parties other than the city, so I wouldn’t expect it anytime soon. It would appear to me to be something done by a city department rather than a private party, though again, that perhaps that may be different in Detroit in this regard.

  2. Aaron D Says:

    hmm. a social network for se-michigan cyclists would really shine some light on the matter. expensive but totally possible – think of it as a investment. hmm?

  3. Todd Scott Says:

    @Dave, I think the time frame for effective counts in Detroit is really tied to the capacity of a non-profit (with volunteers) to carry it out. It’s also tied to whether this data is a pre-requisite for additional funding. If it is, then the priority will rise. If the numbers are just for the media then its priority may not rise about all the other tasks that need to be taken.

  4. ZooNine Says:

    Good input and perspective. Bottom line I think we need automated counters, more advocacy groups (i.e. DETROIT BIKE & BRUNCH | DOWHATWEDO), and many more passionate bikers to have this kind of dialogue!
    Rite on @ Todd. But when the data is more accurate and money is potentially on the table, it will take ALL strings of media blasting the info! These kinds of funds have a way of disappearing or finding their way to any place but where they’re needed most.
    @Dave, I think it has begun to change. Its up to ALL our continued persistent warrior-like efforts.

  5. ZooNine Says:

    Thanx for the article Todd!

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