Create a Fact-Base: Document Locations of Existing Facilities and Their Use

A plan is built on a fact-base. Documenting the presence and status of bicycle facilities allows agencies to identify and prioritize locations where improvements are needed. Knowing where current or potential bicycle use is high also enables agencies to focus planning efforts on areas where the benefits would be maximized. Having a strong fact-base can also help gain political support for the new plan by exposing problem areas and demonstrating opportunities for improvements.

Existing infrastructure

Traditional infrastructure elements include bicycle lanes marked on roadways and bicycle (or shared use) paths. However, including other community elements-essential to understanding where bicyclists can and cannot safely travel-is imperative.

Information that could be collected includes:

  • Bicycle parking facilities - there are different types of bicycle parking, so inventories can include total available parking as well as descriptions of the facilities
  • Inventories of bus and transit stops (assuming that bicycles are accommodated on transit), school locations, and school-related signs
  • Inventories of road facilities (local streets, collectors, arterials, thoroughfares, highways) and any bicycle-related infrastructure they may have
  • Inventories of bicycle warning signs, share-the-road signs, bicycle route and directional signs, and school-related signs and the last dates when the signs were replaced (to ensure reflective signs are in place)
  • Street light inventories-single versus double sided lighting, spacing of lights, and the size of lights (level of illumination)

Most of these data are regularly available in a local planning department, or for metropolitan areas, in a metropolitan planning organization (MPO). Geographic information systems (GIS) can be used to display the location of these facilities.

In addition to knowing the location of the facilities, knowing about their current characteristics is important. Is the infrastructure well-maintained? Is it connected to other parts of the network? This information is rarely available, but can be collected using community audits or facility inventories. A useful report is the FHWA Pedestrian and Bicycle Date Collection in United States Communities: Quantifying Use, Surveying Users, and Documenting Facility Extent. The report documents existing data collection efforts from 29 different communities, summarizes results, and discusses lessons learned.

Current use

Knowing current and potential bicycle demand is useful for prioritizing investments. For current users, questions include:

  • Where are nonmotorized travel activities taking place?
  • What are the demographic characteristics of nonmotorized transportation users?
  • What are barriers that impede additional bicycling?

Actual users can be identified through surveys or site counts. Surveys are commonly implemented at the trail, corridor, or community-level. They can be conducted over the phone, in person, or via the internet; each method has different cost and response implications. The length of the survey matters, with short surveys providing limited information but yielding higher rates of response than longer surveys.

The geographic scope for the survey will depend on the specific purpose of the data collection effort. For examples of recent surveys, see pages 92 to 120 of the report, FHWA Pedestrian and Bicycle Date Collection in United States Communities: Quantifying Use, Surveying Users, and Documenting Facility Extent.

Counts most often occur at specific points along the roadway segment. Technologies for bicycle counts include:

  • Manual
  • Infra-red laser and passive sensors
  • In-pavement loop detectors
  • Piezo-films
  • Pneumatic tubes
  • Video

For examples of how these technologies have been used in US communities, see pages 21 to 91 of the report, FHWA Pedestrian and Bicycle Date Collection in United States Communities: Quantifying Use, Surveying Users, and Documenting Facility Extent.

Data collection is expensive, but many agencies have developed innovative approaches to reduce the cost of collecting such data, including using shared technologies, volunteer labor, and piggy-backing bicycle and pedestrian data into current motorized vehicle data collection programs.

Potential use-predicting bicycle use

Predicting demand for bicycle and pedestrian facilities is an important yet challenging step in the process of encouraging people to bike and walk. Because installation and maintenance of these facilities is expensive, it is important to determine where the largest number of people will benefit from them. Also, there is a growing trend to quantify the air quality benefits (and congestion relief) that can be expected as a result of CMAQ (Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality) projects. Anticipating use, however, requires much insight and analysis of current and future community characteristics.

<>While the science of predicting bicycle and pedestrian travel demand has not yet developed to the same level as motor vehicle planning, there are a number of methods that planners have developed over the years to help quantify which locations have higher levels of demand.

When planning bicycle and/or pedestrian facilities, it is important to remember that current volumes usually do not reflect demand for two reasons:

  1. Existing conditions and gaps in the network result in fewer users-potential users are deterred by dangerous or inconvenient conditions.
  2. Dispersed land uses create trip distances that are perceived as being too far to make by bicycle or on foot.

There are two primary methods of determining demand for bicycle facilities: the intuitive approach versus the use of forecasting models. The intuitive approach is less time consuming; however, it does not yield results with the level of precision produced by the models.

Intuitive/Sketch Plan Approach

A "sketch plan" typically focuses on proximity between origins and destinations, since distance is a primary factor in the initial decision to take a bicycling or walking trip.

For an intuitive (i.e., sketch plan) approach, destinations throughout the study area that would attract nonmotorized transportation are shown on a base map. Routes are selected that serve higher concentrations of destination points, or that serve destinations that typically yield high numbers of nonmotorized users, such as universities, downtown areas, shopping centers, major employment centers (hospitals, business parks, major industries and corporations, etc.), schools, and parks. Route selection and prioritization can be done via graphical representation; the intent is to identify locations that serve multiple destinations and higher population densities (population densities can be obtained from census data). This methodology can be accomplished using a GIS system or it can be done by hand.

Public involvement is important to the success of the intuitive (sketch plan) method. It is particularly important to gain input from a wide variety of local citizens (representing different geographic areas) who represent all ages and abilities.

Forecasting/Modeling Approach

The other method of estimating latent nonmotorized travel demand is to adjust conventional motor vehicle travel demand theory so that it applies to bicycle and pedestrian travel. By using a gravity model to measure latent bicycle and pedestrian travel demand, the planner can achieve results that are more precise than the intuitive approach. The other advantage to this approach is that it complements the type of analysis that is typically done for motor vehicle and transit travel simulation. This can be particularly important in cases where bicycle and pedestrian improvements are competing for similar funding mechanisms as other modes, since most transportation improvement programs make funding decisions based upon quantifiable results.

Bicycle travel demand modeling can be done on a system-wide basis, or at the corridor level. Further information on more precise bicycle and pedestrian travel demand methods are provided in the 1999 FHWA Publication, Guidebook on Methods to Estimate Non-Motorized Travel.