Sunday, September 16, 2012

What Counts

            Last Thursday I had eagerly volunteered to help with Arlington County’s annual bicycle and pedestrian count. I was assigned to a busy location, and one that I cycle past almost daily – the beginning of the Custis Trail just after it forks out of the W&OD Trail. I was asked to position myself by the automatic counter, to help validate its accuracy. Although I was provided with an aerial map, I had a great deal of difficulty finding the right location – in large part because I had no idea what the automatic counter looked like.

            Being the diligent do-gooder that I am, I arrived at the intersection at 6:45 a.m. – but could not find where I was supposed to position myself. I rode up the Custis Trail, thinking that maybe the Arlington County fellow had a different idea of what “close to” meant. Let me mention here that, once you round a small bend with a little incline, you then must go up a fairly substantial hill, before which the careful cyclist must slow down considerably, as it requires a 90 degree turn, and downhill cyclists sometimes are found in the uphill lane. So, despite the pleasantly cool 61-degree morning, I was sweating by the time I made it up the hill – and still could not find an automatic counter. So I rode back down, thinking I must have missed it. Nope – I couldn’t find it. Back up the hill, sweating more than ever now – drenching both my “moisture wicking” under layer and the thermal top I wore over it.

            I rode farther, passing George Mason Drive – about a mile from the intersection of the two trails. There was another volunteer counter stationed there, so I felt certain that I had gone much too far. I stopped and showed her my map, and she told me to go back – that my location was, indeed, “very close” to the beginning of the Custis Trail. I still couldn’t find the counter and, by then it was 7:09. I had spent nearly 25 minutes riding back and forth – adding miles and hills to what was to have been a hill free commute day – as I was going on to Crystal City for a conference afterwards – an easier and shorter ride than my normal commute.

            So I plopped down close enough to what I thought was the right place, and started counting. Finally, at 7:53, the Arlington coordinator returned the frantic phone call I had placed at 6:45 – asking for more help in finding my location. He seemed angry that I was counting in the wrong place, reiterating that the manual counts were needed to verify the accuracy of the automatic counts. After being upbraided, downbraided, and generally humiliated, I told him, “ok – I’m just a big dummy!” After that he backed off a bit, and thanked me for VOLUNTEERING to help. He phone-talked me to the correct location, in time to begin recording by 8 a.m.

Finally - the automatic counter (and my nice bike)

             Amazing as it seems, the automatic counters have been on the path for a year and a half or two years and I NEVER ONCE NOTICED THEM. Now that I know what they look like, I am seeing them everywhere.

            But enough, too much, about my mishaps in finding the right location. The results were as follows. Of all the 275 people on bikes, only 13 percent were female. This is a disgraceful percentage and it made me very sad that so few women were on the path on a perfectly gorgeous morning. The percentage held for both the small number of cyclists traveling westward (17 percent) and the great majority traveling east – presumably commuting to D.C. As I had guessed through informal observation – the pedestrians were evenly split between men and women – but cyclists far outnumbered walkers and runners. I only observed 58 pedestrians, total.

            A few other factoids about the Arlington cyclists: out of 275 bikers, only 5 were not wearing helmets. There were only so many things I could keep count of, so I did not record the exact number who were in lycra compared to “street” clothes. But it’s safe to say that the great majority of riders were clad in sports gear. This did not surprise me, given that my location was nearly five miles from D.C. and, thus, most probably had a fairly substantial commute.

            All in all – despite my early confusion and my great disappointment at the small percentage of women who cycle – I enjoyed spending two hours as a volunteer counter. I got lots of friendly waves and smiles, I brought snacks to eat for breakfast, and I got to do some yoga during slow periods. Best of all was getting to see this little girl in a flowered dress on her Dora the Explorer bike, complete with training wheels, protected by a Little Mermaid helmet, accompanied by her dad toting her glittery pink backpack. At the other end of the age spectrum, I saw a heavyset middle-aged woman who had an unfortunate gear malfunction at the bottom of the hill and had to walk her bike up it. I gave her props for the effort and remembered the days – they seem so long ago now – when I had to walk my bike up the big hills, feeling humiliated, but determined.

Maybe she'll continue to be a lifelong bike commuter
            Mostly, though, I remain committed to encouraging more women to experience the joys of bike commuting. It has improved my mental and physical health, it saves me money, and, in a sense, it saves me time – since I used to often go out and ride my bike for an hour in the morning, and then get in my car and drive half an hour to work. How silly was that? What counts for me is not just the number of people who ride their bikes, but the diversity of those who participate. I saw plenty of athletic young-ish men, but also older men, young women, people who struggled slowly, and speedsters. I saw young boys riding to the Catholic school adjacent to the path and a couple of family groups. I saw few people of color – perhaps a reflection of the North Arlington neighborhood. But mostly I saw healthy bodies and happy faces – people enjoying an exhilaration fueled by moving forward on one’s own strength, aided by two smooth wheels.

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