Why cycle count numbers are only half the story

Commentary surrounding both proposed and existing cycleways in Christchurch typically turns its attention to just how many people either currently use or will use a certain cycleway. In amongst those conversations, there are often arguments along these lines:

  • Who is going to ride the whole length of cycleway XYZ?

  • Even if you point to the data showing current cycleway counts (CCC SmartView); someone will do the maths and show what a low daily (or hourly) rate that is of people cycling using the cycleway
“Only 1400 a week? That’s only 200 a day or just 100 cyclists back and forth…”

Let’s address the mistaken thinking to these concerns by using a semi-hypothetical example to illustrate the typical reality of most cycleways in Christchurch.

Let’s assume that a new long cycleway route is being built (e.g. like the 15km South Express route). Because of its length, it might be that only a few keen people will travel the entire length of it from one end to the other. For simplicity of the maths, let’s assume that number is 100 trips a day, as shown below…

100 trips/day – doesn’t seem like a very good argument for building a major cycle route, does it? However, it is likely that there are also people who are taking advantage of the new route to connect to other destinations along the way. So, perhaps the total number of people cycling from the start of the route to somewhere is actually 400 trips a day

Of course, for similar reasons, there might be other people using other parts of the cycleway to make cycle trips elsewhere along the route. The figure below shows a possible example of those trips along the cycleway. Now when we tot up all these possible trips, we find that actually 1000 trips a day are being made somewhere along the cycle route…

Now that’s starting to look to like a much better case for building this cycleway if 1000 trips a day are going to benefit from this facility. But where to put some cycle counters to help demonstrate this use to everyone? Budgets usually limit how many counters you can install, so maybe we can only select three locations along the route to place a counter…

A few things are apparent in this example:

  • Clearly none of the counters on their own can capture the entirety of all 1000 trips that use part of the cycleway; at best they show 300-500 of them.
  • Some cycle trips aren’t captured by any of the counters
  • The locations selected above don’t even count the busiest section of the cycleway, which actually has 600 trips a day on it…

Hopefully from this example, you can start to understand why the cycle counters only tell part of the story. They certainly don’t capture every person using some part of the cycleway; conversely multiple counters may capture some other person more than once. Practically speaking, the most useful role of our cycle count network is to help us work out relative growth in cycling numbers.

This was a hypothetical example, but you can probably think of real-world parallels in your own trips around Chch. In the same way that most people don’t drive from one end of Colombo St (Cashmere) to the other (Edgeware), most people don’t actually bike from one end of a cycleway to the other. I often use a bit of the Quarrymans Trail to get from my home to Barrington Mall, but I don’t cross over either of the counters along its route. And let’s not forget that most cycle trips in Christchurch (e.g. my ride to/from work every day) don’t actually cross any of the cycle counters in the city…

How many cycle counters do you cross on your regular rides?

9 thoughts on “Why cycle count numbers are only half the story”

  1. Thank you LennyBoy for this excellent example, which clearly illustrates the issue of relying only on counters. Here’s my own anecdotal evidence: I live half-way up the Northern Line Major Cycle Route and use it often to get up to Northlands. I also use it to get down to Riccarton or CBD; however less frequently. The counter, however, is located on the section between Fendalton Road and Wroxton Terrace, so about 70% of my trips on the Northern Line go unaccounted…

  2. My route used to go across the middle of North Hagley park, avoiding the counter toward Mickle gate.
    On realising this, I started riding a bit further just to catch the counter. Is that bad ?

    Now I come via Blenheim Road and the Hospital corner, so catch the netball court counter along with the footbridge counter.

    1. Isn’t this also how car counts work? And overseas cycling counters? It may not be totally accurate, but it is apples to apples.

      This number, 500, is also the one to figure out things like how wide it should be, not the total of 1000.

      The busiest in Auckland is around 1,500 per day. So what if it is a bit off. The question (mainly for the council) is the same—why isn’t this 10,000 per day in a spot like Kingsland? These differences are so stark that the distinction between 500 and 1000 doesn’t matter.

      The much more important fallacy in that assertion is assuming that this number will not grow.

  3. Nice – love the diagrams. My daily ride uses a portion of the Quarryman’s trail but I don’t cross any counters.

  4. Also useful to use a car analogy for some readers – we count vehicle trip on some streets, but not all and acknowledge that total trips are likely to be higher. We also often use only part of a street when we are driving somewhere, but that doesn’t make the rest of the street irrelevant, as others will be using it.
    Drivers also use roads for trips that aren’t a work commute and those other trips – to cafes, shops, libraries or the gym etc – are just as valid as commute trips, and the same goes for those who use their bike instead of those trips 🙂

  5. Public transport is much the same as well. Those who say that the buses are always empty may perhaps regularly observe a bus route near it’s terminus without having any idea how many passengers got on and off during that service. I travelled from Rangiora to Merivale last Sunday at midday and was pleasantly surprised that for the entire journey the bus was between 1/3 and 2/3 full and more surprised that people were getting on and off at pretty much every stop. Add up everyone and the total would have been more than sufficient to near fill 2 buses.

    1. And also counted 77 bikes during that one hour journey. Admittedly 8 were parked up outside a cafe in Kaiapoi . 55 of them were counted between Rangiora and Kaiapoi ( 17 on the Passchendaele Path ) . There were only bits of the motorway path that you can see from the road but that was certainly in use also.

  6. With the Papanui Parallel at my gate, I use the cycle path frequently. I would estimate that about 50% of my trips on that path do not cross counters.

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