By the Numbers: Counting Bikes and Pedestrians in Watts

A boy walks in front of the Watts Obelisk. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

As the cloud of sarin gas descended on the scene, party-goers once happily doing the Carlton dance were suddenly writhing on the ground in agony.

Huh?

I rolled over and looked at the clock. It was 4 a.m.

Thanks, NPR, for invading my weird retro dream.

I rubbed my eyes and stumbled toward my coffee maker.

Why did I agree to count bicyclists and pedestrians so early in the morning, so far away from my bed?

Early as the start to the day was, it made for a nice ride to Watts. The streets were practically empty and the air was fresh as I struck out around 5:45 a.m. I could almost feel the city yawning, stretching, and scratching its head.

As I parked myself along the train tracks near the intersection of Grandee and 103rd (the 103rd St. stop on the Blue Line), I looked around for my fellow counters. I didn’t see any. The busy site was all mine.

Even so, it turned out not to be too hard to keep track of the flow of people.

Foot traffic moved completely in tandem with public transport.

As soon as a bus pulled up at the stop in front of the Watts Station house, 10 uniformed kids would come walking in my direction. A train arriving would bring older students and people on their way to work.

Very few people passing through the intersection had walked or ridden their bikes from somewhere else in the neighborhood. Which turned out to be a good thing because, about 45 minutes into the count, I realized that there were two other counters kitty-corner to me, hidden behind a telephone pole about 1000 ft away.

Shit.

How did that happen?

I contemplated just staying where I was because it seemed clear that there would be little overlap. People heading to or from the Metro or bus stops that passed in front of them would reach their destinations without ever crossing my screenline.

In the end, I went over to check in with them. From there I went to a couple of other sites to see if they were in need of partners (they weren’t). Then I spoke with Martin from the LACBC and went back at my original post.

“Who are you?” demanded a woman wrapped from head to toe in a black hijab as I settled back in. “Who sent you here? Do you have permission from the MTA?”

Ah, hello, Wyjeah.

She and her husband are vendors at the Watts Station and she keeps track of who comes and goes in the area.

Which means she tends to harass me whenever she sees me talking to somebody, claiming she works for this or that city agency (or several, depending on her mood) and then threatening to report me to the city.

She doesn’t much care what my reasoning for being in the area is. And when bike/ped counting is your game, you don’t have much leverage. I mean, what are you going to do, threaten to count her if she comes toward you again? No.

So, I let her take a picture of me and told her she was welcome to do whatever she felt she needed to do so I could get back to doing my thing.

She turned out to be the most exciting thing that happened that morning.

I was expecting to see more people dashing in front of trains and disobeying traffic signals, but there was very little of that.

Instead, if people had trouble navigating the four sets of tracks, it was often because they were in a wheelchair or pushing a stroller loaded with children or groceries.

A woman in a wheelchair on the north side of 103rd wanted to get to the metro station, so she and her friends crossed the Blue Line tracks and then crossed 103rd (in the space between the UP and Blue Line tracks) because there is no crosswalk before the Blue Line tracks. There is one located at Graham (a block east of the station), but I’m guessing she thought navigating her chair around the overflowing bus shelter and the vendors on the south sidewalk would be too much of a pain.

Only one car made a left turn onto the tracks, even after the gate arms were already down. And a school bus got stuck in the middle of an intersection (see photo), obeying a red light, unable to move because it would have meant rolling onto the tracks.

The light finally turned green and the bus could move out of the intersection where it had been stuck. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

But, nobody honked or tried driving around the bus. They just waited patiently and went about their business when the light turned green again.

The afternoon was even less eventful.

Stationed near the Watts Towers at 108th and Santa Ana with bike/ped counter extraordinaire Herbie Huff, I found myself counting just a handful of people per interval.

The contrast was striking.

Considering that Wilmington is a commercial corridor of sorts and it isn’t too far from the Metro station, it would have been natural to expect more foot traffic. Especially on such a nice afternoon. But locals don’t necessarily consider Wilmington the safest street to move along, so if they weren’t students from the school across the street or people who called the area home, they were very unlikely to feel comfortable moving along it.

A local man drove the point home for us when he called out from his car window to check and make sure we were OK. We had been joined by two of Huff’s friends, and suddenly, we apparently looked like a conspicuous gaggle of white people who were dangerously far from their natural habitat.

“Don’t stay out here too late!” he warned.

Another woman, the only female biker we had seen, came back around and stopped to ask if we were tourists.

I explained we were counting pedestrians and cyclists to get a sense of how people moved around in the community and see what resources might be necessary to improve the environment. We were excited to see her, I said, because she was the only female biker we had seen all afternoon.

She gave me a huge smile and agreed more women riding would be a good thing.

“Be safe,” I said, “You’re riding on the wrong side of the street.”

“I will,” she said as she pedaled off on a child’s bike that was several sizes too small for her. “I just live around the corner.”

“Did you count her?” asked Huff’s girlfriend, noting that it was almost 6:01.

“Hell, yeah.”

We’re interested to know what you saw or learned from your counting experience. Did you note any unexpected patterns or have any strange encounters? Share your stories below!

  • Dennis Hindman

    I counted bikes/peds on Van Nuys Blvd at Glenoaks Blvd in Pacoima on the 7-9 am and the 4-6 pm shifts. There are bike lanes on Van Nuys Blvd and Glenoaks Blvd at this intersection.

    I started riding at about 5:20 am to make sure I made it in time for my first count. It took me about an hour to get there riding north mostly up an incline and a fairly steep hill on Glenoaks Blvd. A garbage truck passed me that I swear was doing 60 mph. The wind that the truck created seemed like it would be if you were riding next to motor vehicles on the freeway. I tended to ride to the right of the bike lane whenever I could after that.

    I had only one female bicycle rider all day (that’s not a good sign to me for a inviting place to ride). She was riding in the bike lane without a helmet in the opposite direction of traffic. It turns out that she had just turned the corner after riding the wrong direction in the bike lane on Glenoaks according to the person covering that street.

    A teenage male rider also was riding in the bike lane on Van Nuys Blvd counter to traffic flow and without a helmet. Only he was riding without gripping the handlebars. When a car started to pull out from the curb in front of him, and there was oncoming traffic approaching, he decided to grab his handlebar. But he continued with his no-hands riding–opposite the flow of traffic–shortly after.

    I noted quite a few bike riders riding against the flow of traffic on the opposite side of the street from where I was standing. After some further observations on my part, I figured out that they had probably been riding on the sidewalk just before this and were just trying to go around the bus shelter and waiting passengers by entering the street by way of a driveway and then quickly getting back on the sidewalk at the next driveway. They did this before there was any oncoming traffic. I counted eight people riding the wrong way on the street. The data will show that there was a lot of scofflaw riders, but most of them were just briefly in the street while it was clear of traffic in order to go around some obstacles that were in their way on the sidewalk.

    My conclusion from observing Van Nuys Blvd is that in order to appeal to the masses there needs to be bicycle infrastructure that is more robust than unprotected bike lanes on a street with at least four lanes of traffic that has a post speed limit of at least 35 mph. The Dutch CROW manual states that there should be a barrier protected cycle track installed for bicycling if there is more than two lanes of traffic.

    My Saturday shift is on Tuxford Ave at San Fernando Rd in Sun Valley. This is a industrial area with what looks like concrete plants on either side of the road. There were bike lanes installed since the 2011 bike/ped count but the total number of bike riders will likely have some of the lowest totals. There were only about 117 pedestrians counted for all three shifts in 2011. This intersection is not exactly swarming with bikes/peds.

  • DS

    I counted in the afternoon in Boyle Heights. Most riders did not have helmets, and more wrong-way riders in the street than I expected. There seemed to be two general types of riders: the ‘committed cyclists’ with helmets who rode confidently and rapidly in the bike lane, and everyone else, who rarely if ever wore helmets and usually did NOT ride in the bike lane at my screenline even when they were going in the direction of traffic. Possibly they thought they weren’t going fast enough. A significant number of pedestrians crossed the screenline in one direction and then came back carrying bags from a large grocery or drug store.

  • sahra

    Interesting — meaning they were riding on the sidewalk (if not riding in the lane)? Sidewalk riding is something I see in a lot of immigrant commuters who do not feel safe on the street — they tell me drivers are crazy.

  • sahra

    Thanks!

  • DS

    Actually, most were in the street but in the parking lane, at least at my screenline. They may have intended to get on the sidewalk further down the street, or thought that as they weren’t going too far, they didn’t belong ‘in the street.

    On my vehicular cycling commute, I see most immigrant riders hugging the curb to the right and stopping with foot resting against the curb, which is dangerous for being right hooked. I think some of this habit has to do with a lot of people using bikes that are not fitted for them, or are even children’s bikes, and they feel biking is an informal method of transport that doesn’t belong on the road. They can go reasonably fast but not necessarily as consistently as someone with a road bike.

  • sahra

    Interesting… I’ve seen that too. I did a story several months ago about bike lane infrastructure not being enough and had a photo of one guy riding on the sidewalk next to a bike lane and the other riding well to the right of the bike lane, as you describe. I think you’re right — there’s a mix of reasons behind why people don’t ride in the lane, and some of what you describe fits with what I’ve heard too. Protected lanes would go a long way in helping people safer and like they have a more legitimate right to be in the road.

  • Mike

    I worked the 4:00 to 6:00 down in Watts on Central at Century.

    The whole experience was comical. I got the usual expressions of concern from my officemates when I told them about what I was going to do. “Be safe” or “bring a gun.” Pffft. I told them to stop living in the 1990s.

    Once at Central, I scoped out a spot in Ted Watkins Park. But for a sidewalk near a park, where do you start counting? Do you count only people on the sidewalk, or people on the grass near the sidewalk. If so, how deep into the grass was legit? I decided to only count feet on the concrete.

    Then, the whole Verbum Dei High School track team was doing laps around the park on the concrete sidewalk. I was told that you shouldn’t count any one person more than three times, but, trying to figure out which ones had already done three laps was impossible. In the end, I decided to use a blond-ish guy as my marker, and once he passed by three times, I stopped counting the track team.

    Sadly, I didn’t see a single female cyclist for my entire count. I did see one riding down the cross street, but, she didn’t go through my sightline.

    Also, the box for “no helmet” really should be changed to a box for “helmet”. I only saw two bike helmets the entire time.

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