We were so excited for a bicycle counter on the Hawthorne Bridge that we published three stories before it was even installed with great fanfare in 2012. Less than a year later, the then Commissioner of Transportation Steve Novick hob-nobbed next to the counter at a Breakfast on the Bridges event where he hoped to earn the blessing of bike riders. Novick then marked the first million trips logged by the counter with a public celebration.
It was clear from the start that this counter was about more than hardware and data. It was a sculpture that honored cycling.
These days cycling is no longer the center of Portland’s political universe and the counter is no longer something any local dignitary would want to stand by. Covered in graffiti, its little green lights that once proudly counted riders by the millions are now dark. (Yes, I’m trying hard to not see the perilous condition of the counter as some sort of symbol that stands for something beyond just another vandalized object in Portland.)
There are many people in Portland who understandably do not care one iota about this counter. Even before our city was bombarded with more important issues like a shelter shortage, policing problems, an uptick in crime or a pandemic — many were quick to criticize this counter. Despite what you might have read by misinformed haters in The Oregonian, the $20,000 piece of hardware didn’t cost the City of Portland one cent. It was a gift from the nonprofit Cycle Oregon, a group that puts on large group ride events and used to be much more involved in cycling advocacy.
Counting the number of bike trips might seem superfluous, but it’s not. There’s a saying that “What you don’t measure doesn’t count” that applies here. Transportation departments have always had detailed car trip data and that has led to street designs and policies where driving is default and other modes are the “alternative”. There’s been a huge hole in commensurate bike trip data for years. Portland does a better job than most other cities, but as cycling has lost a bit of lustre in local politics in recent years, so too has our effort to count them.
We used to get annual bicycle counts and a summary report released to the media by the transportation bureau. But that count seems to have been mothballed. The latest counts on PBOT’s website is from 2018, and the bicycle count page doesn’t appear to have been moved to the city’s new website. The only mention I found was on a general “traffic counts” page where bicycles were relegated to a mere two sentences.
But all is not lost! Our Eco-Display Classic might be dark, but the hardware that actually counts bike trips appears to still be working and sending data back to a central server. The real-time data is displayed online and while current counts are a trickle of what they used to be, there’s life yet in this counter.
After posting a photo of the counter on Twitter this week, several local activists felt like it was worth saving. I’ve got requests for comment in to Cycle Oregon, Portland Bureau of Transportation, and Eco Counter (the Montreal-based company that makes it) to see if there’s any possibility to restore its former glory.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and email@example.com
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