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Bike Counts

The Bike/Ped Count and How People Relate to their Streets

A young man walks past a church that was recently converted into a weed shop on Broadway in South L.A. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

A woman struggling to carry heavy plastic bags brimming with heads of cauliflower approached with her grumbling grandson. The bag he grasped to his chest - also filled with cauliflower - looked to be about a third of his body weight, and he was clearly chafing at having been asked to carry it.

"Te queda mucho...?" I asked sympathetically. (Do you have far to go?)

It was the life raft he had been looking for. He asked me for the time and then told his grandmother he couldn't possibly take her bags all the way home. He had to be ten blocks in the other direction in the next few minutes. Couldn't she find someone else to help her?

She nodded toward a spot a block and a half down the street and told him he just needed to get her that far. She'd manage from there.

He sighed, hefted up his bag, and began shuffling down the street again.

I wished I could have helped. Unfortunately, I was stuck where I was between 103rd and 104th Streets on Compton Avenue, finishing up my afternoon shift counting cyclists and pedestrians for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition's bi-annual bike/ped count.

I had been standing there the first time the woman passed by on her way to the market. And I was still there when she came back a third time and stopped to show me the extent to which the plastic bags had cut into her tiny arms. She was so frustrated that her grandson had broken the handles off the bag he was carrying, she said. It had been given to her new by the woman she bought the cauliflower from and now it was useless to her for errands. She had ended up having to get help from a black neighbor (a challenge because of the language barrier), she said, and was so grateful that he was more helpful than her grandson. She shook her head in annoyance, rubbed her arms some more, and moved on down the street.

"This is 'aging in place,'" I thought.

I looked at my count sheets, wondering where that might fit.

I love doing the bike/ped counts. I move through the communities I cover constantly, but rarely get the chance to stand in one place for two hours and observe how a particular corner functions.

Which is why I also wished that we captured so much more data. I say that with a full understanding of how potentially unwieldy and challenging that could be, of course. But I still thought it.

The reason is that, right now, we get a sense of how many individuals move through a space - data which is genuinely important. But in lower-income multi-generational communities, people tend to be accompanied by family or friends, and are less likely to be on their own. They are also generally moving along the street for a specific purpose, especially if they are with their families, and may relate to their streets in unique ways - all data that could help us plan for spaces that would be more responsive to the way folks, including our elders, actually moved.

During my morning shift at Broadway and Florence, for example, the bulk of the people I saw walking alone were men on their way to work who stopped to grab breakfast from a vendor on the corner.

In contrast, more than 100 of the 183 people walking between 7 and 7:45 a.m. were kids on their way to school. Almost all walked with family or friends. Those that walked with their parents (mostly their mothers) often had younger brothers and sisters in tow, some of whom then had to be walked to a school in the opposite direction.

In the period between the start of the school day and the opening of the businesses along the corridor, the street returned to being the purview of the folks who were struggling to get by. Several went back and forth two or three times to collect recycling, and a young homeless man arrived, as he regularly did, to help the street vendor pack up her things as the breakfast rush waned.

Only one person was out for recreation - an older man who jogged north along Broadway as dawn broke through the clouds.

Similarly, along Compton, there was only one jogger that afternoon. School-aged youth were also out with their friends and in less of a hurry than they were in the morning, but few, if any, were walking just for the sake of walking. Which is not to say that no one in the community walked for recreation, but rather to say that those that did were more likely to be found using the walking track around Ted Watkins park - a designated space for recreational walking where people were more likely to feel comfortable doing so.

Standing along Compton, I was also aware of what I was not seeing.

Friends that live a block down the street in the Haciendas housing development would rarely, if ever, be spotted walking up Compton or waiting for the bus on the corner. Most drive when they can to avoid being caught slipping, harassed by law enforcement, or accidentally caught up in the middle of someone else's drama. The shooting of a young man at Wilmington and 103rd (two blocks away) in broad daylight the day before was yet another reminder for them that being in a car was the safest way to get around.

But it's hard to count the folks who aren't walking. And unless you ask, or are familiar enough with the community to not have to ask, it's hard to know if the people that do walk past you chose this street because it was convenient or because the others are less hospitable or more contested.

Which only serves to underscore how hard it would be to get a larger (and accurate) picture of how people actually relate to their streets via a bike/ped count. But I still wished we could.

Did you participate in the bike/ped count this year? What were your observations?

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