Showing cyclists that they count

| January 3, 2011

An interview with Marianne Weinreich, Head of Mobility for Veksø A/S

There are many infrastructure improvements devoted to increasing bicycle use, but perhaps none are more immediately enjoyed by the cyclist as the cyclist counter. Invented in Denmark, the cyclist counter represents the melding of infrastructure and public data in a way that is transparent, interactive and even fun for citizens.

“The cyclist can see that they count…

It may seem counterintuitive, but biking past a cyclist counter and seeing oneself represented as a number is actually quite empowering. It has the effect of making one feel counted as a valued member of society while sending a clear signal to the larger community that cycling is a priority. In particular, on a cold snowy December morning, it’s inspiring to know that you are part of a much larger movement of people choosing to bike.

…while they are being counted.”

Raising the profile of cycling requires good data. To this end, cyclist counters also serve the very practical function of providing a steady stream of real-time data to municipalities on how cyclists are traveling through the city. Timely and robust data can play a vital role in a municipality’s funding and planning decisions.

We spoke with Marianne Weinreich of Veksø A/S, a Danish company which has produced cycling equipment for the urban environment for the past 60 years. Marianne has worked with cycling for the last ten years. She specializes in promoting cycling through information-based campaigns and advises municipalities on how to promote cycling. Marianne is currently the Deputy Chairman of the Cycling Embassy of Denmark.

Talk a bit about the history of the cycle counter.
“The first cyclist counter was developed 10 years ago in Denmark. At the time, the City of Odense was Denmark’s National Cycle City and because of that role it acted as a laboratory for the testing of new cycling measures that could help reverse years of decreased cycling in Danish cities. In part, the motivation for developing the counter was that there was so much technology for cars in cities (for example, intelligent transportation systems) but very little in the way of technology for cyclists. So, the original idea was to have a product that was very high-quality, that could elevate cycling and treat it as just as important as the auto – in other words, to show the cyclist that they are not second-rate.”

Given that there are cheaper ways to collect data about bicycle use, why would a municipality choose a cyclist counter? What unique purpose does it serve?
“The beauty of this unique piece of equipment is that the cyclist can see that they count, while they are being counted. It’s a statement by the municipality saying that “cyclists count.” On a rainy day at 7am they can see what number they are and feel that they are not alone…that they are part of something. The City of Aarhus just put up 10 counters and initiated an “Every Cyclist Counts” campaign. Along with this campaign was a competition between the different neighborhoods to see who could register the most cyclists in a period. So, it’s fun too. It’s fun to see what number you are every day. It’s showing the cyclists that they count in a very clear way and it gets people talking about cycling. They say, “What is this weird thing?” It’s a talk-generator in a city.”

How do you respond to someone who says: “This is just a waste of money, why do cyclists need special counters? Pedestrians and cars do just fine without them.”
“It’s an important signal. It’s a signal from the city saying that they want things to be in a different way. We’ve had 50 years of cities being planned for cars. Now we are at a point in time because of congestion, climate change, immobility and obesity that we have to do things differently. Of course you cannot suddenly increase the number of cyclists just because you put up a cyclist counter, but it can either be a first step – a kind of a lighthouse – and a signal to citizens saying that cyclists are a priority. In the United States in particular where the bike is viewed not so much a means of transportation, but rather as a thing of leisure, it may be that a counter could get cyclists to view themselves as part of a movement.”

What is done with the data and the availability of the data to the public?
“At Veksø, we have a website that all our customers can access. Inside the counter there is a SIM card that transmits data to a database every time a cyclist passes a counter. You can see our test website at where the City of Aarhus has their 10 counters displayed. There is a public area of the website where the public can see: the total number of cyclists from the day before, total number of cyclists year-to-date, and a percentage which shows whether the number of cyclists from the day before is more or less than the daily average from the last three months. You can imbed these counter images onto the municipality’s website. There is also a login where municipalities can download all the raw data (time of day, peak hours, etc).”

How does a municipality get started in selecting the right location for a barometer?
“It would have to be a very visible place and on a route where there is relatively heavy cycle traffic because it’s not fun if you pass a counter that only says 4! Ideally it would be at a place where at least a couple of hundred cyclists pass each day. An added benefit would be if it is also visible to drivers and pedestrians.”

Pablo Celis, project manager of Aarhus Cycle City, once stated: “Bicycle barometers take the pulse of city cyclists, while enrolling the individual cyclist in a larger context.” What does he mean by “larger context”?
“The cyclist can see that they count. They can see that they are part of something. I’m hesitating to call it a “movement” in Denmark, but in countries where cycling as a means of transportation is new, the word “movement” may be more relevant because it’s a statement choice. It’s showing the world what values you have. In many other countries, cyclists used to be viewed as these militant, aggressive men in high-tech racing gear. But now it’s women and children, on regular bikes, in regular clothes. You can see the numbers going up on the counter and see that more and more people are joining the movement. You can see that you are part of creating a new city where people count, not just cars.”

Cycle counter and barometer in Frederiksberg, Denmark, on a cold December afternoon. The cycling counter displays the total number of cyclists today (we see number 1245 on his way into the city). The digital barometer shows the total number of cyclists from the year prior on the left side of the counter and the total number of cyclists year-to-date on the right side of the counter. We can see that the number of cyclists so far in 2010 (right) is lower than the 2009 level (left), presumably because of the back-to-back harsh winters that the Danes have endured this year.

Ryan Horton, urban planner and guest contributor for Cycling Embassy of Denmark.

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Category: Danish Cycling Know How, Infrastructure

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