The Trouble With Numbers

Today I’m at a conference in Madison called, “Places for Bikes.”

During the conference the industry-funded and led People For Bikes organization is rolling out a new program called the Bicycle Network Analysis (BNA). It’s a pretty cool way to give a more or less objective number to the bike-ability of a community. The BNA starts with the idea of “low-stress routes”. This is a concept pioneered by the Rails to Trails Conservancy. The notion is an obvious one: most of us ride where we don’t think we’ll get killed. So we favor bike trails over four lane highways. BNA just takes that simple concept, applies the analysis tools similar to those developed years ago by the RTC and, presto, you’ve got a number that expresses how safe people might feel riding a bike in a given city or a neighborhood.

Madison comes out pretty good with a 43, which is better than most American cities, but there are cities in Europe that hit 70 or better. One hundred is the best possible score.

It’s a great tool, but those at a discussion of it raised lots of good questions. The most important issue folks raised was that the score deals only with infrastructure. Charles Brown, a senior researcher at Rutgers University, emphasized the need for qualitative analysis to go with the heavily quantitative analysis in the BNA. So, for example, a low-income neighborhood might score really well on the BNA and yet few people there ride a bike. The reasons are cultural, social and economic, all things that the BNA does not take into account.

The League of American Bicyclists has a widely used, tried and true, program called Bicycle Friendly Communities and that program takes into account the “Five E’s”: not just engineering, but also education, enforcement, encouragement and evaluation. Recently, the League has started to take serious consideration of a sixth “e”: equity. Many of those things can’t be quantified nearly as well as engineering can, yet they’re important.

So, we hope that the BNA is intended by the industry to enhance and support the League’s program, not compete with or supplant it.

The breakout session I attended was titled: “What gets measured gets done.”

Maybe so, but let’s be cautious about taking that concept too far.

Let’s not forget what Bobby Kennedy said about measurements.

“Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.

“It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.

Robert Kennedy.

“It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs, which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.

“It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Good words to keep in mind as we think about the BNA. Numbers are great as long as we don’t think they count what’s most important.

One thought on “The Trouble With Numbers

  1. Harald from Madison Bikes here. I very much agree that a numerical score can’t be the end of analysis. But it can be a great beginning. In contrast to the League’s rating system that provides a rating to a whole city, the Bicycle Network Analysis tool analyzes each census block, each street, and each intersection. For us as a local bike advocacy organization, this level of analysis is really crucial. For instance, you mention equity. We as bike riders and advocates already have a lot of local knowledge and intuition about where there are gaps in the local low-stress bike network.But I’m quite concerned that that local knowledge has certain biases. Most of us live in well-off neighborhoods near to the isthmus. And so we are probably less familiar with low-income areas or with the more suburban parts of Madison. The Bicycle Network Analysis maps then provides an opportunity to check those intuitions and to also identify blind spots, helping to guide our advocacy efforts and the city’s priority setting.

    So let’s view the BNA tool as a tool and not an end; especially when it comes to the city-wide scores. I see exciting opportunities ahead and want to say thanks to People for Bikes and Toole Design Group for laying the groundwork for this.

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