The magic of bike barometers

September 22, 2014

by Karen Brooks

If you live and bike in a major city, your pedaling presence may have been noted by a new technology: a bicycle barometer. These nifty devices record passing riders and tally the numbers by the day, month, year and sometimes lifetime of the barometer. The results are displayed for all to see, giving people who bike a boost of public acknowledgement—and most importantly, helping city policymakers make good decisions that consider all those biking citizens.

How do they work? First, the location is carefully selected—it works best in a place that bicyclists ride by regularly and where the display can be seen by many, but not a place where people meander about. A good example is bike paths on bridges. Sensors are calibrated to be triggered by bikes but not pedestrians or cars. Each bike that rolls over sends a pulse via radio frequency to the counter, and in some cases also to a computer that records more information for later study.

bike counter by the cityhall
Copenhagen's bicycle counter tallies thousands of riders every day. (Image: Marcin Wojcik)

The first bicycle barometer was installed in Denmark, in the city of Odense, back in 2002. Odense takes bicycling seriously and has the results to show for it: Bicyclists make up just over a quarter of all traffic. Naturally, Copenhagen, "City of Cyclists," has a bike barometer (it also includes a handy tire pump!). Even less well-known towns in Europe, such as Bolzano, Italy, use barometers to encourage riding and gather valuable data.

Seattle's Fremont Bridge bike counter was unveiled in 2012. (Image: Seattle Department of Transportation)

Now bike barometers are cropping up in the U.S. The first was installed in Portland, Oregon at the popular bike lane on the Hawthorne Bridge in 2012. It counts an average of 5,500 daily bike trips. (You can view live results on this website.) Seattle and San Francisco have them as well, and a barometer was recently installed in Boulder, Colorado. No doubt more American cities and towns will make use of them soon.

The new bike barometer in Boulder, Colorado sits on the 13th Street protected bike lane (and, coincidentally, right below the PeopleForBikes office.)

Why do it? Aside from the cool factor, the Portland Bureau of Transportation puts it best:

In the same way that counting automobiles is the basis for transportation spending and policymaking, counting bicycles informs the Portland Bureau of Transportation about its progress toward making bicycling a fundamental part of life in Portland and gives feedback about the usefulness of its investments in bicycle infrastructure and city streets.

In less wonky terms, it’s always good to know the numbers before making changes. Car traffic is routinely counted to inform road building and maintenance, so counting people on bikes as well makes sense. Specific data, such as direction of traffic flow and peak times of travel, can help determine how people use bike routes and what designs work best.

Bike Counter on the Hawthorne Bridge
This bike counter in Portland, Oregon illustrates the large amount of bike traffic on Hawthorne Bridge, a popular commuting route. (Image: Urban_lenny)

But the sheer numbers produced by bike barometers also have the effect of boosting bicyclists’ confidence. When you see that ticker go up, you know you’re not alone. On a dreary Monday morning commute by bike, it can be surprising—and encouraging—to see just how many other people had the same idea you did. Wherever you ride, for whatever reason, it’s nice to know that we’re being counted.

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