Each September, a small group of volunteers spends two hours counting bikers and pedestrians at 32 roadways and intersections in every corner of Hennepin County.
The unique data collection system is used by officials to track trends over time and help guide planning and project decisions. The sites reach as far north as Rogers and all the way to Loretto, a town of 650 on the western edge of the county.
The count days and methodology are aligned with dates selected by the National Bicycle and Pedestrian Documentation Project, a nationwide effort to collect consistent and accurate non-motorized traffic data. The city of Minneapolis does its own count.
This year, the intersection of W. 50th Street and France Avenue in Edina had the most pedestrian traffic. Volunteers counted 208 people during the two-hour window. The data also determined an estimated 1,155 bikers pass through the area daily.
"We really tried to spread the sites out geographically, and choose places that may be near a bike path, a high-accident spot or where two county roads cross," said Jordan Kocak, a county transportation planner and coordinator of the counts. "A lot of the volunteers request the city where they live. They give back to the community and contribute to bigger efforts."
Jan Matheus saw the count's impact firsthand in her city of Richfield. She was teaching a class on bike safety when she ran into Kocak. She's an advocate for creating safer biking conditions in the city, so volunteering for the count was a natural move.
She was assigned to W. 66th Street and Nicollet Avenue, which was four lanes in all directions. There were only sidewalks and poor pedestrian crosswalks, she said. Buses were running through the area, but they were nearly empty.
The count data shaped reconstruction of the area several years ago. There is now a dedicated sidewalk-level bike lane and a roundabout at the intersection. Since 2017, the improvements have doubled the estimated daily bike traffic.
"The area is way more accessible," Matheus said. "I've noticed all transportation modes have increased. We did make a difference, which is why I continue to volunteer. Build it and they will come."
More than 40 people volunteered for this year's count. Plymouth Road north of Minnetonka Boulevard in Minnetonka was the busiest site for bikers. There were 132 bikers at the site, which has access to Lake Minnetonka LRT Regional Trail.
Besides the in-person counts, the county has 81 automated counter tubes for bike traffic. Data is collected for 48 to 72 hours and vary from the other count sites. The program, which is similar to the county's vehicle counting program, was developed with the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the University of Minnesota Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs' Capstone Program.
Before the county started its volunteer counting initiative in 2016, Minneapolis handled some county road bike counts. But the county wanted to expand where they did counts and include pedestrians, Kocak said.
The county had no problem finding a group of volunteers, recruiting through listservs for those interested in walking and biking. Every person brings a different perspective to their intersection, he said.
If a person walks across an intersection to a store and then walks back across 10 minutes later, that is counted as two people, he said. Or if a cross-country team comes running by, they would all be included in the count, he said.
In 2020, the county did an analysis of the automated tube counters to see if COVID-19 had impacted bike activity. On commuter routes, the volume did go down but recreational trails saw an uptick, Kocak said.
"But things have now bounced back," he said. "The change patterns are noticeable."