Since 2014, the number of cyclists and pedestrians counted at stations across Missoula has fluctuated from 20,000 to 30,000 users, with last year’s count splitting the difference at more than 24,000.
The moving figures reflect the obvious: Weather plays a role in how and when people use Missoula’s growing non-motorized system. Warm years see more users. Cold years, not so many.
“These estimates show that weather acts both as a deterrent and an influencer on the number of people walking and biking in the transportation system for both transportation purposes and recreation,” said Michael Harpool, a transportation planner with the Metropolitan Planning Organization. “It shows the large impact weather can have on our estimates on specific count days.”
Harpool this week detailed the facts and findings included in the 2018 Missoula Bicycle and Pedestrian Count Report. The data was taken during the 2-hour volunteer count held in May and again in September during peak travel times on a Tuesday and Saturday.
It also includes data taken from permanent automated counters placed along the Bitterroot and Milwaukee trails. The findings suggest that Missoula continues to outperform other college cities in cold-weather climates, and it details the differences in how male and female riders use the system.
But it also shows Missoula has work to do to achieve its aggressive mode-split goals – an effort intended to address traffic congestion by investing in other means of transportation.
“Clearly some things still need to change with how we fund and finance transportation projects,” said Ben Weiss, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. “We need to commit to more bicycle and pedestrian connections and better facilities, and we need to do those aggressively to get to those ambitious goals.”
According to the data, roughly 6.4 percent of Missoulians commute by bike and 7.4 percent by foot. Both figures exceed the state and national average and increase every year, though they still fall short of the city’s mode-split goals listed in the Long Range Transportation Plan.
Among other things, that goal looks to cut the number of drive-alone commutes by 50 percent by 2045, while boosting the number of people who commute by bike or foot to roughly 15 percent and 18 percent, respectively.
“If we continue on this trend, we still need to do things beyond the status quo to reach those goals, but they’re not completely out of reach,” said Harpool. “We’re doing far better than Montana as a whole and the United States.”
According to the figures, males represent roughly 66 percent of cyclists compared to 34 percent female – a gap that has grown wider in recent years. In 2016, female riders represented 38 percent of all riders on the system.
Harpool said the presence of female cyclists is often used to measure the “friendliness” of the network. The level of traffic stress along a facility has a greater impact on female riders than it does on male riders, the report found.
Female riders are more likely to use facilities with improved infrastructure and lower traffic speeds.
“Closing the gender gap isn’t as simple as painting more bike lanes, but it’s certainly an important component of creating more female ridership,” said Harpool. “Improved bicycle facilities have a much greater impact on the comfort levels of women than they do men, and that’s regardless of rider experience.”
According to the traffic counts taken on a Tuesday and Saturday last year, Higgins Avenue at both Front and Spruce streets had among the highest ridership, followed by the Madison Street underbridge and University Avenue at Arthur.
The number of users on the system falls off the further away from the city core the count took place. But weekend traffic remained high across the system, especially on the city’s shared-use pathways.
“Those proportions really show the importance of our commuter system for those people coming in from outside the city limits,” Harpool said.
Britt Arneson, a member of Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board, said the city should count non-motorized transportation the same as it counts vehicles on the streets.
While walking to the store, she said, she noticed a counter placed by the state in the roadway. She didn’t see a correlating counter measuring traffic across the sidewalk.
“If we’re going to measure how many cars pass a point on a certain day, why are we not also measuring how many people walk or bike past that location?” she said. “It would make a huge difference and show the city values all those forms of transportation if they were being measured alongside the vehicle counts.”
Harpool said the city has purchased six additional automated counters to achieve that very task.
“With the new counters we got, we hope to coordinate those with the counts being done with motor vehicles in the future,” he said. “We can get those counts and make comparisons at those intersections that are measured. That’s the plan for the future.”