Counting Pedestrians and Bicyclists

Counting pedestrians and bicyclists have been neglected by traffic engineering or planning professionals. This results in lack of accommodations for these modes, and little understanding of how changes in the built environment either encourage or discourage walking and bicycling. However, conducting such counts poses great technical challenges. New efforts are underway to determine the most efficient, accurate, and consistent methods for counting pedestrians and bicyclists, and to begin establishing a database of counts nationwide.

Why Count?

An increasing number of cities and states are adopting pedestrian and bicycle plans, conducting assessments of school walking and biking safety projects, and making pedestrian/bike improvements conditions of private development permits. Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are increasingly focussing on shifting vehicle trips to walking and bicycling. Without baseline data on walking and bicycling trips, it is difficult to determine whether these efforts are making any difference. Knowing how much pedestrians and bicyclists are exposed to risk also makes it possible to determine the reasons for changes in the number of pedestrian and bicycle crashes. Counting these modes also helps to highlight their needs, making it harder to simply ignore them.

What to Measure

peds-wheelchair-burden.jpg"Counts" may include both direct and indirect measures of bicycling and walking[1]:
  • The number of bicyclists or pedestrians on specific streets.
  • "Cordon counts" (counts of trips in and out of a particular district) by counting at natural bottlenecks such as bridges or freeway undercrossings.
  • Demographics (age, ethnicity, income) and gender of walkers and cyclists
  • Helmet and light use by bicyclists
  • Child and family participation
  • Trends - growth or retraction over time
Through surveys or self-reporting forms, subjective data can be gathered as well:
  • Facility choice - why here?
  • Mode choice - why walking or bicycling vs. another mode?
  • Factors that make the route appealing
  • What users would like to see improved
  • Behavior change, i.e., reported shifts from another mode

These metrics provide valuable data that help inform transportation planning and funding decisions. However, collecting the data requires careful planning and consideration of various factors, such as the count purpose, seasonal/hourly variations, weekend or weekday, high crash locations, low volume locations, main street vs. side streets, schools, traffic volume, manual vs. automated counters, training of personnel, and the available budget.

Challenge of Pedestrian Counts

counting-pedestrians-urbaneyes.jpgPedestrians are more difficult to count than motor vehicles or bicycles because their paths are much less constrained. Pedestrians can stand, pace back and forth, use a wheelchair, or walk by in groups with no light gaps in between them to be detected by a counter.

While automated counting technology for motor vehicles has been in use for many years, automated pedestrian counting technology is less developed. Most pedestrian counts are done manually (see photo), but this method suffers from variable quality depending on the reliability of the person counting. Automated counting would be preferred if a reliable technology, or group of technologies can be deployed.

Some counter types that have been developed include:
• Laser scanners
• Piezo-electric pads
• Computer vision
• Infrared beam counters
• Passive infrared counters
• Array counters

Accuracy of these counters varies widely depending on conditions. Most counters do not distinguish between a person walking, walking a bicycle, or riding a bicycle. Therefore, automated counter data need to be interpreted carefully.

Few studies have been done to test the accuracy of the different available technologies. However, one study [3] determined the EcoCounter dual sensor pyroelectric infrared counter, a passive infrared counter, was the most reliable (as of 2008). According to the authors, this technology has a lower rate of undercounting and is easy to use. The authors used this counter to show it was possible to count for just two-hour periods and extrapolate the results to a reasonably accurate weekly estimate of pedestrian activity. More studies of this kind will be done in the future, which will make counting pedestrians much easier, affordable, and hopefully more widely done.

National Bicycle & Pedestrian Documentation Program

In 2003, the consulting firm Alta Planning and Design and the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) Pedestrian and Bicycle Council[3] initiated the National Bicycle & Pedestrian Documentation Project. This nationwide effort provides a consistent model of data collection and ongoing data for use by planners, governments, and bicycle and pedestrian professionals.

The Alta/ITE National Bicycle & Pedestrian Documentation Project (NBPD) is now being used in all four federally-funded Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Projects (Marin, Minneapolis, Columbia, Sheboygan), under the approval/review of the FHWA/Volpe National Transportation Systems Center. It is also being used as part of the 2.5-year Caltrans research project to count pedestrians and bicyclists in San Diego (the Seamless Travel Study), and by agencies nationwide.



Each source is referred to by the same number every time it is cited. Please keep citation style consistent.
[1] Birk, Mia. 2008. "Counts that count: Bicycle and pedestrian data collection" (presentation by Alta Planning and Design).
[2] Schneider R et al. 2005. Pedestrian and Bicycle Data Collection in United States Communities: Quantifying Use, Surveying Users, and Documenting Facility Extent. Washington, D.C.: FHWA, U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Natural and Human Environment.
[3] Schneider, R. et al. 2008. A methodology for counting pedestrians at intersections: Using automated counters to extrapolate weekly volumes from short manual counts. Transportation Research Board 2009 Annual Meeting.
[4] National Bicycle and Pedestrian Documentation Project, Institute of Transportation Engineers


Pictures are cited in the order they appear above. Please keep citation style consistent.
[1] Automated bicycle counting. Photo by mindfrieze via Flickr.
[2] Pedestrians at intersection. Photo by Dan Burden via Pedestrian Bicycle Information Center Image Library
[3] Woman conducting manual pedestrian count. Photo by Urban Eyes via Flickr.



Pedestrian, bicycle, volume, intersection, manual counts, automated counts, extrapolation