Charlotte needs to be better at counting cyclists

From Martin Zimmerman, former Executive Director of the Charlotte Area Bicycle Alliance. This op-ed is excerpted from a column at

Things have been looking pretty good for bicycling in Charlotte recently. Charlotte voters approved by a whopping 70.2 percent majority $5 million in planning funds for a $35-million cross-county bike-pedestrian trail. Many of us agree that the trail, if built, could be a game-changer for Charlotte and the wider region.

But not all the news has been good news. A few weeks earlier, Steve Clark of the League of American Bicyclists came to town. He was here to assess local conditions, particularly those relating to the league’s well-known Bicycle Friendly Community awards program.

The awards are coveted, and competition to move up the ladder can be keen. Awards are granted on four-year cycles, and Charlotte is one of eight N.C. communities with Bronze ratings, the lowest rung.

Before departing, Clark reminded a group, composed mostly of CDOT staff, that the city has a lot of work ahead if it wants a Silver ranking. His remarks, especially about evaluation, seemed to point to three needs here:

• Charlotte needs to be much more rigorous about doing bike traffic counts. And that means counts before and after bike lanes and other facilities are installed.

• U.S. Census data show Charlotte’s totals of everyday bike commuters are far below levels typically associated with a silver ranking. Charlotte should start generating its own numbers, as well.

• The benefits of robust local traffic counts and similar survey tools have merit in their own right, irrespective of how the rankings turn out.

The proportion of everyday bike commuters in Charlotte is low, based on the most recent American Community Survey from the U.S. Census.

On the other hand, as CDOT staff appropriately notes, ACS numbers may not tell the entire Charlotte story. ACS data leave out those who take partial work trips by bike, such as bike-to-bus or bike-to-light rail. The data omit children biking to school, college students traveling to campus or anyone using the popular B-Cycle bike-sharing system to shop, dine or run errands.

Evaluation is also important at the project level. Are more cyclists arriving uptown via South Tryon Street or South Boulevard now that the bridges over Interstate 277 have been upgraded to accommodate them? In high crash locations, especially at certain street intersections, are bike “boxes” or similar street markings lowering the crash rate? Safety is a huge concern for seasoned cyclists and beginners alike, and proper evaluation can help alleviate some undesirable conditions.

From within the bicycle community today, we have little more than anecdotal evidence fueled by a healthy dose of optimism. That is hardly enough. The League may have done Charlotte a big favor in reminding all proponents for better bicycling of a basic truism: “If you don’t count it, it doesn’t count.”