ENCINITAS — In the past, Howard LaGrange and other members of the Oceanside Bicycle Committee stood at the edge of a roadway for hours on end and counted the number of cyclists that whizzed by.
Such was their commitment to finding out which roadways bicyclists frequented the most. The results, however, were “frustratingly incomplete” by LaGrange’s estimate.
“We only had data from a few points in time that don’t tell us much,” LaGrange said, adding that a big picture of bicycle travel has eluded groups for quite some time.
That’s why LaGrange is especially excited about the new research from SDSU’s Active Transportation Research Center. The center recently launched what it’s calling the most comprehensive bicycle study in the nation, known as Bike Count.
Researchers installed electronic sensors underneath the asphalt of 28 streets, including in Del Mar, Solana Beach, Carlsbad and Oceanside. Each time a bicyclist travels over an underground sensor, it adds to a running tally.
“It’s similar to signals that trigger traffic lights, but it’s designed only to count bicyclists,” said Sherry Ryan, a public affairs professor at SDSU. She also heads Bike Count.
Additionally, researchers also attached infrared sensors to street poles to count pedestrians.
When building new roadways, planners can consult scores of data on which streets or freeways are popular with motorists. But there’s little information available on which streets bicyclists and pedestrians use the most.
“This hasn’t been a part of long-term transportation planning,” Ryan said. “We don’t collect data, we don’t do any analysis; we don’t plan for bike and (pedestrian) travel. That’s a problem.”
Bike Count hopes to change this.
Data from the electronic sensors shows the average number of bicyclists per day on the road, which can vary from 25 to 25,000. So far, counts are highest in Oceanside, Ryan noted.
Digging through the numbers yields more valuable nuggets. Researchers can glean the peak hours of bicycle traffic. And a better idea of why people are cycling becomes apparent. For instance, a lot of bicyclists on the weekends suggest recreational riders.
Moreover, what’s learned from a street with a sensor can be used to predict the bicycle patterns of surrounding roadways.
“We combine the sensor and manual counts on parallel or nearby streets, and this has been amazingly accurate for gauging the number of bicyclists in the immediate area,” Ryan said.
Ryan eventually envisions more than 150 sensors giving an even clearer picture of bicycle transportation.
Identifying which roadways are in demand for bicyclists won’t necessarily dictate what kind of bike structure to put in. But Ryan said separate studies indicate that traditional bike paths on busy roads aren’t cutting it.
“People don’t feel safe driving in a bike lane on a four-lane highway,” Ryan said. “The majority of people need some kind of separation from vehicular travel.”
Ryan pointed to cycle tracks, almost like a sidewalk for bicyclists, as an alternative.
Ultimately, SANDAG decides where to place and what kind of infrastructure to build. The organization has a 40-year transportation plan, a portion of which is dedicated to bicyclists.
To help decide where the bicycle network is going to be, SANDAG contributed $23,000 toward Bike Count’s funding.
The rest of Bike Count’s roughly $300,000 in funding comes from a larger $16 million grant to the San Diego County Health Department.
Stephan Vance, senior regional planner for SANDAG, said that bicycle transportation lacks models like the ones used to inform driving.
“There’s a wealth of data that we’ll use over time,” Vance said. “The data will prioritize what gets built.”
The data will also be used to determine how safe streets are for bicyclists. For example, if two nearby streets have the same number of bicycle accidents or crashes, but one has double the amount of traffic, then the less popular street’s safety components should be reviewed first.
“This will aid a lot of our decision-making in regards to bikes,” Vance said.