Last Tuesday, I had the pleasure of volunteering for the "Bicycle Counts" project run by the Office of Sustainability. The sheer fact that this bike blog exists is proof that the bicycling community is gaining in numbers. Undoubtedly, we can all agree that with the added bike lanes and trails throughout town, we are seeing a sharp increase in bicycle usage. But what we see and feel in our community isn't enough to gain future funding and grant opportunities to continue improving the biking and walking infrastructure. We must quantify hard data thus providing evidence that we, as a community, deserve to see even more bike lanes and paths across Indy.
That's where "Bicycle Counts" comes in. I found out about the project through a e-newsletter from Bicycle Garage Indy. BGI's call for volunteers that afternoon (and this coming Saturday) caught my eye. I called the coordinator, Jamison Hutchinson, immediately. As the Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator in the Office of Sustainability, he put me on the volunteer list.
"Coyne?" He asked when I told him my last name. "Like Wayne Coyne?"
"Yes, exactly!" I replied. "I love The Flaming Lips, but we're not related."
I met him at the City Market that afternoon, where he gave me my assignment: a count of both Illinois Street and the Cultural Trail. He handed me a packet of information about how to count pedestrians and bicycles, sort of like a radar traffic counter that sees only people who cross in front of it. I would count the East-West line of the Cultural Trail and the North-South line of Illinois Street on two separate data sheets.
I arrived at the required intersection a few minutes before the two hour count was set to begin at 5 p.m. Settling into a shady corner near an bright pink azalea bush in full bloom, I got my clock, pen and data sheet organized.
The first 15 minutes were pretty exciting: 14 male cyclists and 8 female cyclist passed me on the Cultural Trail, while only 6 males and 1 female passed on Illinois. With each passerby, pedestrian or cyclist, I made a hatch-mark in the appropriate column: male or female (a total of four categories for those keeping count). There was also an "Other" column for skateboarders, rollerbladers and the like (of which I only saw three).
Every fifteen minutes, I would move into a new row, starting the count over again. But soon my excitement and attention began to wane. After the novelty of the activity wore of, it was incredibly dull to say the least. For 45 minutes, I watched as one after another bicycle or pedestrian passed, trying my hardest to not space out. After all, missing even a single eligible person for my count could make the difference in millions of dollars of funding for bike lanes. (Did I mention making the stakes impossibly high was a central focus tactic for me?)
Amazingly, after an hour and fifteen minutes had passed, my sense of boredom began to fade. I noticed the smell of the blooming flowers beside me. I took in the beautiful stone work on the back of the Scottish Rite Cathedral across the street. I saw a second burst of businessmen leaving their offices just after 6 p.m., and felt the sun setting at my back. I even began to hum along to the chiming of the cathedral bells every quarter-hour. I found my zen place in the midst of this mind-numbingly important activity. All the while, I continued counting.
I began to think about how inappropriate it seemed to make snap gender assignments, which took my brain down a lovely rabbit hole. I listened to snippets of passing conversations, hearing one woman complain to her male counterpart, "I hate having a fixed gear." To which I script a ten minute conversation about the merits of rear-derailers.
At one point, I even decided to contrast my count of environmentally friendly movers to the cars passing on Illinois, but was discouraged after counting 29 single passenger cars in just one light. The number would have risen easily into the hundreds, dwarfing my pitifully made hatch-marks. I gave that tactic up quickly.
Before I knew it, the bells chimed 7 p.m., and my two hour count ended. I packed my bag, put on my helmet and left the cozy spot I had carved out for myself in downtown Indy. The next step: turn in my data and wait for the overall report. Stay tuned...