Eight, Make that Nine, Bike Counters in Ottawa

Update: as per April 24, 2013 the National Capital Region Ottawa - Gatineau has its own bike counter, hitting high numbers.
Update: as per April 24, 2013 the National Capital Region Ottawa – Gatineau has its own bike counter, hitting high numbers.
A Falco counter near Apeldoorn in the Netherlands. (photo: Falco)
A Falco counter near Apeldoorn in the Netherlands. (photo: Falco)

One of the most underestimated tools for bike advocacy is the bike counter. They come in all kinds of sizes and shapes. Here in Ottawa, we currently have eight bike counters. Few people know about them but it has helped tremendously in proving that there are much more cycling movements than people think. As the old adagio goes in Dutch: “Meten = Weten”. (measuring = knowledge). The counters are all underground in little water tight containers, hidden in the pavement or the bushes along bike paths.

A bike counter in the east of the Netherlands, showing temperature, time, number of minutes to destination,  your cycling speed and the total number of cyclists passed.
A bike counter in the east of the Netherlands, showing temperature, time, number of minutes to destination, your cycling speed and the total number of cyclists passed.

Former Citizens for Safe Cycling president Krstulich has really pushed for those hidden counters. Telus, Citizens for Safe Cycling, City of Ottawa and NCC paid for the original four counters. They were placed at the south end of the Alexandra bridge, along the canal and along the Ottawa river near the War museum just before the abandoned railway bridge. When I presented about Cycling in Ottawa in Charleston, SC last year, one of the items they were most in awe with were the counters.

A bike counter in Barcelona - photo Christine Grant
A bike counter in Barcelona – photo Christine Grant

The counters consist of a loop in the asphalt; they work more or less the same like the loops at traffic lights. My wife and her friends always thought those loops work on weight (as if there is a giant balance built underneath the pavement), but it detects the metal of your bike. They are sensitive enough that they won’t count cars. They might count a wheel chair but statistically that is neglectable.

Seattle Fremont Bridge - Photo Joshua Trujillo
Seattle Fremont Bridge – Photo Joshua Trujillo

The data are stored in the counter and can be collected through Bluetooth once in a while. Two counters, built in Laurier near Metcalfe, have a modem which sends the data to a server, which in turn puts the data on line. (I am skipping a few steps here for clarity). Four other counters on Laurier (at Bay and Lyon both directions) count too, but don’t submit the data to the web site.

Hawthorne bridge - Portland, Oregon
Hawthorne bridge – Portland, Oregon

Last year a counter was added on Somerset (west bound). The data for the Laurier/Metcalfe counters is usually available after midnight, the other data can be retrieved from the City of Ottawa’s open data catalogue, which you can find here, updated every three months.

Sadly, people have opinions on cycling that are based on subjective observations (“no one cycles here“, “the bike routes are never used“). These counters take all the guess work away.

Did you know that:

– 5611 bike trips were counted on July 1st, 2011 on the Ottawa River Pathway

– only 4093 trips were counted on that same day on Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge

– we need a two page permit to step off the path to actually read the counters

– a total of over 580,000 bike trips were counted on Laurier near Metcalfe between July 11, 2011 and February 10, 2013. (The totals are even higher on Laurier as not everyone passes that stretch of Laurier).

– Laurier’s record was on July 10, 2012: 2939 counts in one day

– even in October 2012, Laurier counted 37,278 bike trips

– the counter at the Alexandra bridge was thrown into the ditch by workers who started working on the bridge two years ago (we are missing a season of data)

– over the three year period 3,458,268 bike trips were registered by the four initial counters (with Alexandra bridge dropping out one season)

– for a few weeks, a display with the real time numbers was hanging inside a lunch room on Laurier facing the street

– a counter was standing outside along Laurier during bike to work month in 2012

– part of the counters’ underground loops were actually made at home by a volunteer, to safe money

A bike counter in Vlaardingen, west of Rotterdam, Netherlands. In front of it a red and white standardised bike directional sign.
A bike counter in Vlaardingen, west of Rotterdam, Netherlands. In front of it a red and white standardised bike directional sign.

Yet, wouldn’t it be wonderful if said counters are much more visible to the public? That people actually see what the numbers are? Those counters exist and they are slowly coming to North America. Perhaps, one day, we will see a virtual bike counter in the National Capital Region too. They could show daily, monthly and annual counts, they could show the temperature (perhaps even a freezing rain warning). Some of them come with a bike pump (built in compressor) even.

Bike counter at Dronning Louises Bro, Nørrebro, Copenhagen The danish text reads: "Hello Biker you are number 1118 today and number 2007324 this year to bike past this point, have nice trip and thank you for biking in the city."
Bike counter at Dronning Louises Bro, Nørrebro, Copenhagen The Danish text reads: “Hello Biker you are number 1118 today and number 2007324 this year to bike past this point, have nice trip and thank you for biking in the city.”

Obviously, these counters are there partly for marketing reasons (and it works, because they made it to this bike blog) , partly to collect data and partly just for fun. Although fairly bike friendly in places now for Canadian standards, Ottawa is not much known as a bike city, even though our infrastructure is improving (I know more and more Canadian cities look to Ottawa as an example, which is sometimes hard to believe if you live here).

The bike counter in Ottawa that appeared briefly along Laurier.
The bike counter in Ottawa that appeared briefly along Laurier.

Already, looking to those pictures I learn you want to have a clear bright logo on it that says it is Canadian (or Ottawa or Gatineau not ‘NCR’), it as to be on a busy route and it has to be visible for drivers too, preferably when they are stuck in traffic so they can see that counter counting). The logo and the totals have to be close together else you can ‘t see both in one picture.

Chris Begley pointed out this counter in Vancouver at Science World on the new bike path west of the old shared Quebec Street path. Picture: Ken Ohm
Chris Begley pointed out this counter in Vancouver at Science World on the new bike path west of the old shared Quebec Street path. Picture: Ken Ohm

Update: April 23, the NCC installed a bike counter on the Pont du Portage/Portage bridge on the border between Ontario and Quebec. The counter counts over 2500 bike rides a day on good days, even flirting with 2700 sometimes. See the on line bike counters on the website of Citizens for Safe Cycling in the left hand column.

Links:

City Of Ottawa Open Data for bike counters (download)

Stuff: Eco counter and Falco bike marketing

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7 thoughts on “Eight, Make that Nine, Bike Counters in Ottawa

  1. These are a great idea!
    But it seems that biking advocacy initiatives never make it to my path (along the Rideau River, near North River Road).
    You’d think that a path that services the eastern neighbourhoods and goes directly to Hurdman would have more exposure!

    In any case, those meters are really cool 🙂

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  2. It is important to know how many people are cycling and what the trends are, so that we can supply the correct infrastructure. Cyclists are invisible to motorists, both individually and in total, so a visible display sign would be educational for users and non-users. Many of our most popular cycling routes are off-road, so putting one where a path crosses a road (eg, War Museum) would be visible to cyclists and motorists.

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  3. Ottawa is very lucky to have counters, and I love seeing the counts publicized. I don’t think it’s too important to have the counters where drivers can see them, as long as the numbers make it into the news once in a while, or, better yet, show decision-makers that cycling is becoming more popular.

    For what it’s worth, motorists do seem to be quite aware of the paths along the ottawa river parkway… I was once running late for an appointment and had a strong tailwind and a fast bike, so I opted to take up a lane of the parkway to make up the time. My average speed was solidly over 40 km/h, topping out in the 50’s, and I have never experienced so much honking and aggressively close passing (even though it was easy to change lanes to overtake me). The message definitely seemed to be ‘get off of my freeway, there’s a path right over there.’ I’d like to see a day when cycling is so popular that faster bike traffic using the road when the paths are crowded is no big deal. I guess even what I experienced goes to show that people were aware of how excellent our paths are… although maybe not so aware of the 20kmh speed limit on the paths and the 60 km/h limit on the parkway!.

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  4. But if there’s ever a visible counter that is placed in Ottawa, it should be put somewhere where traffic creeps. Mostly just to give people time to read the sign and take in the numbers. And then also time to think about which traffic stream they’d rather be part of!

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    1. That would be wonderful idea. But it requires some extra IT infrastructure: only two counters are hooked up with cell phone technology to the server which collects the data for the Laurier Bike Lane.

      In order to hook the other counters up, they all need to get this technology. The other ones are currently read manually through blue tooth.

      It is a neat idea and we can certainly ask if it is doable.

      Hans

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