Calgary's cycle track numbers show ridership has grown, but unevenly so far

City council is set to decide in December whether to keep, modify or remove the Centre City Cycle Track Network, and the ridership numbers will likely factor heavily into their deliberations. So how do the numbers look, so far? Take a peek at the early data.

Numbers are way up on 5th Street and most of 12th Avenue, but have barely changed on 8th Avenue

Cyclists ride through a balloon arch on the 5th Street S.W. cycle track on Aug. 17, 2016 that was set up to celebrate 1 million trips on the separated downtown bike lanes. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

Calgary cycling enthusiasts celebrated a milestone Wednesday: one million trips on the city's downtown cycle tracks.

That's the approximate total recorded so far by three automated counters at central points along the separated cycle lanes on 12th Avenue South, Eighth Avenue South, and 5th Street S.W.

There are actually many more counters than that, however.

Inductive loops that detect when metal passes overtop of them are embedded beneath the road's surface at points all across the cycle-track network, and the data those devices collect will play a key role in determining the network's fate.

City council is set to decide in December whether to keep, modify or remove the lanes, and the ridership numbers will factor heavily into their deliberations.

So how do the numbers look, so far?

Nearly two years ago, the city set targets to double, triple or quadruple pre-cycle-track ridership along different sections of the network, compared to baseline measurements taken in the fall of 2014.

City officials declined to speak about the targets this week, saying it's too early, since the comparison numbers are to be based on ridership levels in September 2016.

But the automated bike counter data is published online daily and offers an early glimpse of how things are going.

For comparison purposes, we looked at daily counts over the past month (July 17 to Aug. 17) and took the weekday average.

It should be noted that the baseline "daily" counts in 2014 were recorded manually over a period of 16 hours, while the automated counters record for a full 24 hours each day. The number of riders in the off-peak (overnight) eight hours is typically very low, however.

Here is an interactive map depicting the various counter locations. The locations in black are ahead of city ridership targets. Those in red are behind the target levels.

Click on each location for specific numbers:

As you can see, the numbers are up — way up — along two main downtown stretches.

Ridership has tripled at the three count locations along Fifth Street S.W. and more than quadrupled on the western portion of 12th Avenue S.W.

Further east, however, the numbers aren't as strong.

Ridership has only doubled at the 12th Avenue counter near Third Street S.E., which is behind the city's target of a threefold increase.

The counter at Ninth Avenue near Fourth Street S.E., meanwhile, has actually seen fewer cyclists than before the cycle track went in.

The Eighth Avenue cycle track is also behind target levels. The goal is to double ridership on that stretch but a mere three per cent increase was recorded by the counter near Eighth Street S.W. and a 25 per cent increase by the counter near Third Street S.W.

Cycling outside the centre city

Of course, these automated counters only offer a limited snapshot of cycling in Calgary, as a whole.

The downtown cycle tracks are relatively small in the scale of Calgary's transportation system, occupying a mere seven of roughly 16,000 lane-kilometres of paved roadway.

Looking a bit further out from the city's core, however, ridership numbers also seem to be on the rise.

Every two or three years, the annual civic census includes questions about commuting habits, and there has been a steady rise in the number of people saying they ride a bike to work.

These maps depict the proportion of people who reported cycling to work in the Calgary Civic Census in 2011, 2014 and 2016. The darker the community, the higher the percentage of cycle commuters. (City of Calgary)

In 2011, there were just six communities where at least four per cent of respondents reported commuting by bike.

In 2016, that had risen to 43 communities.

One other measure, known as the Central Business District Cordon Count, also shows a sudden spike in cycling this year.

This is a manual count the city has done for decades. It employs data collectors who literally sit for hours each day at dozens of entry points around the downtown core over a period of three weeks in May and, using specialized control pads, record every single person they see coming and going by bus, in cars, by bike and on foot.

From 2012 to 2015, the proportion of cyclists stayed virtually unchanged, hovering between 1.6 and 1.8 per cent over the 16-hour counts. In 2016, it suddenly jumped to 2.4 per cent.

Four other ways cycle tracks will be evaluated

Cyclist volumes are just one of five primary metrics city staff will focus on when they prepare an evaluation of the Centre City Cycle Track Network to present to city council later this year.

The others are:

  • Satisfaction: Based on phone surveys and interviews, city staff will evaluate whether Calgarians are satisfied with the experience of walking, biking and driving along the cycle track routes. The targets vary slightly from route to route, but the city is generally aiming for increases of 10 to 30 percentage points in cyclist and pedestrian satisfaction, and no reduction in driver satisfaction.
  • Safety: The city has set a goal of a 10-per-cent reduction in the collision rate along cycle track routes. This will be based on data from police.
  • Driving time: Based on GPS data and physical stopwatch trials, city staff will measure how long it takes motorists to travel along the cycle track routes during rush hour. The goal is to keep any increase in travel time below 20 per cent.
  • Unlawful cycling: Before the cycle tracks were put in, the city measured how many cyclists were illegally riding on the sidewalk or against traffic on the road. Based on direct observation and recordings from video cameras, the goal is to reduce both to nearly zero on most routes. (One exception is along the Ninth Avenue S.E. cycle track, where the goal is to cut sidewalk riding to below 10 per cent of riders, down from the notably high baseline measure of 64 per cent.)

In addition to these main metrics, the city will also look at "secondary performance measures" including the age and gender of cyclists.

Using in-person observations and video recordings of cycle track traffic, the goal is to have female ridership grow to account for at least 25 per cent of people using the network, and to increase the number of cyclists under the age 14 and over the age of 65, compared to baselines from the fall of 2014.

One other secondary measure will be the economic impact on businesses near the cycle tracks. The city plans to look at the number customers local stores see and the amount of money people spend at them, based on surveys of merchants and patrons.

Of course, none of these things will, on their own, make or break the cycle tracks.

Ultimately, it will be up to the 15 members of city council — who voted by an 8-7 margin to create the cycle tracks in the first place — whether the network stays or goes.


Robson Fletcher

Data Journalist

Robson Fletcher's work for CBC Calgary focuses on data, analysis and investigative journalism. He joined CBC in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.


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