Take a look at the available evidence and the conclusion is inescapable: San Francisco either is or is not a city of cyclists.
Really, it depends on who you ask. Consult the number-crunchers behind the 2011 Census figures, the SFMTA bike count, or the seasonally-adjusted number cited by the Mayor's office, and you'll find that the city hosts a 14,862-strong legion of regular bike riders, a slightly diminished, though still respectively five-figured, 10,139 riders -- or a mere 8,314 grease-stained fanatics.
But hey, leaving aside the tricky question of total ridership, based on the many stats, truisms, and anecdotes I've seen bandied around about cycling over the years, at least we can all be absolutely certain that the formidable army, respectable showing, or irrelevant minority that is the San Francisco biking community has an indisputably beneficial, disastrous, or totally inconsequential impact on local business vitality, traffic congestion, neighborhood air quality, pedestrian safety, public health, the timeliness of bus services, and the moral fiber of the citizenry.
Which is to say, when it comes to basic data about cycling, despite the best efforts of many academics, non-profit researchers, and municipal transportation planners, we still have a long way to go.
Good news then that, just in time for Bike to Work Day, the city will be installing its first-ever bike barometer. It will electronically stand watch alongside the downtown-bound cycle track on Market Street between 9th and 10th. This real-time bicycle counter will mark the passage of each cyclist who passes before its robotic gaze, running a daily and annual tally for all to see.
When the SFMTA announced this decision a few weeks ago, Board Chairman, Tom Nolan, was quoted espousing the new device's virtue as a billboard: "This high-visibility bicycle barometer on one of San Francisco's most heavily traveled corridors will help with the agency's continued promotion and encouragement of traveling by bicycle."
No doubt, the promotional quality of the new meter shouldn't be dismissed. As the numbers tick up, and up, and up, one can assume that the tally will serve as a reminder to drivers to watch out for those 10,532 -- no, make that, 10,533 -- cyclists on the street. And for those flirting with the idea of taking up a bike commute, it's possible the barometer will exert a kind of numerical peer pressure.
But what I find most exciting about the counter is the simple fact that it counts.
By counting bikes, the barometer isn't doing anything new. But unlike its sentient counterparts -- those laudable human volunteers who, with clickers and clipboards in hand, post up on busy corners to count cyclists as they whiz by -- the barometer is a permanent fixture. Rain or shine, day-in and day-out, season-to-season, our city's newest employee will continue to keep an eye over the southern strip of Market Street.
Compare the wealth and quality of information that will come from that compared to what you get from a manual count, says Jennifer Donlon. Donlon, a senior planner at the bike and pedestrian planning firm, Alta, is also the manager of the National Bicycle and Pedestrian Documentation Project, a pro-bono venture that works with cities to develop better bike and pedestrian counting methods.
Lasting, at most, a few weeks and occurring during limited hours, these old-fashioned counts only provide a "snapshot" of cyclist patterns, says Donlon. They typically overlook seasonal or weather-related fluctuations and they don't provide nearly enough uninterrupted data to capture long-term trends.
By providing consistent, year-over-year observations of biking trends, the barometer will allow the city to gauge the impact of future developments, she says.
"As San Francisco continues to invest in bicycle infrastructure on and around Market Street, they can begin to evaluate those investments," Donlon says. That means, looking at how ridership increases (or not) and how patterns change (or don't) in response to the addition of new infrastructure.
Imagine that: a policy discussion about bike infrastructure that actually includes comprehensive, local data.
Admittedly, in discussions about cycling (and every policy issue), the availability of reliable information doesn't guarantee a reasoned and courteous debate. Consider the fracas over on the Polk Street where, despite the availability of data showing that the vast majority of the boulevard's visitors arrive by transit, foot, or bike, pro-parking advocates have succeeded in batting down the SFMTA's proposed plan for bike lanes on the grounds that it is a "misguided experiment" that will put the entire neighborhood out of business.
But at the very least, by collecting more data about cycling patterns this way, city planners can easily locate the most heavily traveled corridors, and determine where certain facilities might best be placed. The prevalence of more data probably won't bring the political fights we always have about bike lanes to an end, but it will help city officials pick those battles a little more shrewdly.
That's partly the idea behind CycleTracks, the County Transportation Agency-commissioned mobile app that tracks the biking behavior of smartphone-toting subscribers. By analyzing that information, says Elizabeth Sall, the SFCTA's Deputy Director for Technology Services, the agency has been able to make some key observations about the value of bike lanes ("people are willing to bike twice as far if they can stay in a separated lane") and the relative weight of different types of facilities ("sharrows are nice, but it's the separated lanes that are really important to cyclists.")
Most importantly, she says, the data has been pouring in since the launch of the app in 2009. That gives Sall and her colleagues a uniquely comprehensive perspective on how the San Francisco Bicycle Plan, released from legal limbo that year, has shaped riding behavior as it's been rolled out. And with a new iPhone-version released this coming week ("just in time for Bike to Work Day"), Sall says she expects more participation in the future.
"We're going to continue to look at how people are choosing their routes, what trade offs they make, what facilities they most value," she says. "It's a really exciting time."
Ben Christopher is an Oakland-based freelance journalist. His favorite pastimes include pretending to work at coffee shops and shaking his fist disapprovingly at errant drivers from atop his baby blue Cannondale.