A few years ago, I wrote -as president of our local bike advocacy group- a letter to City Council in which we mentioned that (I believe) 23,000 bike rides were counted on Laurier Bike Lane (at Metcalfe) between November 2011 and March 2012. These numbers were collected by in-ground bicycle counters.
At the next council meeting (or perhaps Transportation Committee, I don’t remember), one councillor asked about these numbers; he refused to believe the numbers and city staff was tasked to come up with the numbers instead. Of course, we were using the same data source and city staff must have rolled their eyes when they had to prepare an answer for the councillor. Low and behold, their answer was: 23,000 bike rides. No surprises there.
“No one cycles”
We wrote that letter because although all the data are public, the reality is that not everyone cares about numbers. If you advocate for cycling, you have heard it all before: “No one cycles here”, ” All cyclists break the law”, “Why are we spending a million dollars on this crap?”
We realised that as Citizens for Safe Cycling (now Bike Ottawa) we also didn’t always have the numbers at the ready. Our first attempt to bring order in the numbers was in our Annual Report on Bicycling in Ottawa. We have been doing that for two years, and the third Report on Bicycling is due on March 21, 2015. More reports here.
About a year ago, in 2013, I started to toy with the idea of an infographic to bring some of the data together in a better way. I looked into some online tools, but they didn’t satisfy me (as I was looking to a free solution, being Dutch). I also didn’t feel like fiddling with GIMP for weeks. Eventually I figured I might as well put it in Word. I used cells, combined a few cells, resized a few, threw in a greenish (later a white) background. Then I played a bit with colours.
I realised I needed images with transparent backgrounds (and free to use), which wasn’t that hard to find. They are not the fanciest ones, but they do break up the text here and there. The hardest image was our own logo as we didn’t have one with a transparent background (only a white background), but eventually Simone solved that problem, which really made the infographic much nicer. Our logo no longer looked like a band aid on a poster.
A lot of time went into verifying the numbers. I had some numbers in my head, but were they the right numbers? I read through the Ottawa Bicycle Plan. I checked the collision numbers on the Transportation Canada website, the temperatures on Environment Canada. I pulled in data from bike counters and read through the city’s collision data; the reporting on that one has changed over time, so I had to go through ten years and then average the data out.
There are more data on cycling and traffic than I could fit in, so eventually I will make a second infographic. For example, the total km of bike infrastructure is over a thousand km apparently, but I need to check what that entails as I don’t find sharrows bike infrastructure, so were they counted? Since Bixi Bike didn’t operate in 2014, I didn’t want to add it, but I could have added the number of RightBike stations and bikes and the number of self service bike stations (1). Also next year, we will have a new bike share system up and running, so that will provide us with some info.
We first released it on Twitter and within a day, it was the most retweeted and most favourited item since we are on Twitter. Followers from Halifax to Houston to Holland shared it with some commenting very positive about it (“We should have this too“). John Dance pointed out that I should use ‘crossing’ a bridge, not ‘passing’ a bridge. It is the stuff that slips through, even after two board members proof read it (thank you Kathleen and Gareth).
The next step is to get printed copies to the councillors so they can stick it on the wall above their desk. Because -and you can trust me on this one after five years of advocacy- in this electronic age, nothing stands out like a humble sheet of paper sometimes.
Cycling numbers are often much higher than the critics realise. No matter if you talk about collisions, weather data or number of rides. You will often hear from others that they “had no idea that so many people cycle“. That is partly because bike paths are often out of sight or people just don’t register cyclists as many of us know all to well. In my presentations I noticed that nothing gets an audience’s attention better than data, no matter if it were the Kiwanis or the Light Rail folks.
So prepare your data and you have won half the battle. Plus you leave the trolls in their holes, although they will still dispute the numbers, and therefore you should never engage in online arguing in the first place. It is annoying and a waste of your valuable advocacy time.
High res PDF