New figures released by TransLink this week reveal an impressive jump in the number of bike trips taken in Metro Vancouver. Overall trips in the region have increased 26 per cent in the past three years, with transit use also up 17 per cent. This is great news for Vancouver's Greenest City initiative, which seeks to encourage sustainable commuting options, but unfortunately not such good news for the region's transportation infrastructure. Vision Vancouver Coun. Geoff Meggs notes that by moving out of their cars and onto bikes and buses, Vancouverites have impacted the amount of fuel tax available to fund future infrastructure improvements: "The good news is more people are using more sustainable transportation options, but the bad news is we have less money to fund them," he told CBC.
Numbers are a funny thing. Bias can easily lead you into seeing what you want to see, regardless of the data. If you trusted the anti-cycling camp, you'd believe that Vancouver was a wasteland of deserted bike lanes, populated only by drifting tumbleweeds. Well-meaning cycling proponents naturally tend to skew the figures in the other direction. From a personal perspective, I certainly see more cyclists on the road than when I first began commuting five years ago. It feels like more than a 26 per cent increase, but then I'm writing this at the end of the summer when cycling numbers have been at or near seasonal highs for a while. My perspective is just that, one individual opinion; the numbers tell their own story.
And as an information geek, that's one of the things I love best about the numbers: the stories they intentionally and unintentionally reveal. Last week I attended an Open Data Summit, where I got to see fascinating examples of what happens when local government data sets are made available for community members to play with. One of my favourite examples used a subset of the same numbers I've been discussing here - daily bike trips over the Burrard Bridge - overlaid on precipitation data. Of course it doesn't take a genius to figure out that riding levels will be lower in the dreary Vancouver winter than the summer, and that's exactly what the base numbers showed: heavy use in the summer, a gradual decline during the fall, and then steady use at a slightly lower level through the winter.
However, it was the anomalies that were interesting. Overall, winter use was pretty consistent and precipitation levels didn't have much of an impact on cycling trips. Year-round cyclists are a pretty hardy bunch: they don their Gore-Tex, tuck their gear into waterproof panniers, and pedal on regardless of whether it's a sunny day or a downpour. In the summer, cyclists are much more flighty. On the single wet day recorded in July, the cycle traffic plummeted. With waterproofs and warm gear packed away for the season, apparently it's a whole lot easier for cyclists to convince themselves to just hop in the car or take the bus to spare themselves one rainy commute.
Not rocket science, but nonetheless an interesting insight into cyclists' behaviour. Who knows what other stories are hiding in Vancouver's cycling statistics?
Kay Cahill is a cyclist, librarian and outdoor enthusiast who believes that bikes are for life, not just for commuting. Read more at sidecut.ca, or contact Kay at firstname.lastname@example.org.