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Real-time bike counter in Santa Monica tallies downtown cycling traffic

Santa Monica officials show off the city's new bike counter on Main Street on Dec. 21, 2016.
Santa Monica officials show off the city's new bike counter on Main Street on Dec. 21, 2016.
City of Santa Monica

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Santa Monica this week unveiled a new system to tally bikes on one of its major streets Wednesday as part of its continuing efforts to make the city more friendly to bikes, pedestrians and transit riders.

The system uses a specialized sensor to detect people riding bikes on a section of Main Street near Olympic Boulevard, and displays a daily and yearly count in real time to passers-by.

"When people see themselves reflected back and they see themselves being counted, they know that it matters what they’re doing, that their choices are important," said city planner Francie Stefan. She hopes the positive reinforcement will encourage more biking.

The bike counter is among the first of its kind in the Los Angeles area, where car traffic has been well-documented by sensors on streets and highways for decades. Data on car traffic guides decisions on road design and development, but little information has existed on pedestrian and bike traffic in most places.

Stefan said the information collected by the bike counter will better inform planners on Santa Monica needs for future cycling infrastructure such as bike lanes. 

"What we count is what we plan for, and what we measure is what we pay attention to," said Stefan. Until now, she said, cars have had higher priority in most transportation planning, something she hopes is changing.

The Expo Line light rail section to Santa Monica that opened in May 2016 made the city a hub for car-free travel, and the city has aggressively pursued measures to make its already walkable downtown even more bike and pedestrian-friendly.

Santa Monica was the first city in Los Angeles County to launch bike sharing in 2015. It has been improving its bike safety infrastructure with brightly painted bike lanes and crosswalks, and protected cycle tracks. Census data shows Santa Monica's rate of bike commuting is already among the highest in the county, making up a 3.8 percent share of rides to work compared to the average 2 percent in L.A. County.

A bike counter was installed at UCLA in 2013, but the technology is more common in biking hubs like Portland and Copenhagen. Stefan hopes collecting data on bikes and pedestrians will become more widespread in the county as it moves toward a less car-centric future. The passage of Measure M, a sales tax increase to fund billions of dollars of investment in transit and other transportation projects, is a key part of that vision.