Walk Bike Marin’s $28m+ Failure Rewritten Into Success!

Walk Bike Marin’s $28m+ Failure Rewritten Into Success!

While I enjoy cycling and support extending bike paths and trails, residents such as myself have found themselves facing off against bicycle coalitions and bike groups that serve as the vanguard for pushing high density housing. Frequently these groups claim to represent thousands of cyclists and speak  out against the wishes of their membership as covered in another Planning for Reality article.

As someone who has been involved in many market research projects I am a big fan of statistics – when used correctly – but nothing could have horrified me more than the manipulation of  Walk Bike Marin and the associated Congressional report deeming the $28m Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program a success. This was further heralded by coverage in an article in the June 30th  Marin Independent Journal “Feds Hail $28m Bike Path Program“.

What Should We Be Trying to Achieve?

We do need to fight climate change,  reducing vehicle miles travelled. More importantly we should spend our dollars as cost effectively as we can to focus on the most critical resources – road and freeway usage during peak weekday commutes.  It may help with emissions to reduce off-peak trips, but if we can switch people from cars to alternative commute methods that would be the real win – saving time for those who do need to commute by car, and maximizing economic benefit. The economic benefit of reducing peak hour congestion is measured in multiple ways:

  • People can commute to jobs that would otherwise be out of range
  • Children can be taken to activities
  • Additional shopping trips may occur (these may be part of multi-leg trips incorporated into the commute)

Marin Commute Trends, 1990 – 2012 (Source: US Census)

To achieve this critical goal of switching people from cars to other methods we need to consider which alternatives will be most effective, for instance:

  • Encouraging / subsidizing working from home, as covered prior this would be “surfing a wave” as this is the #1 biggest change in Marin’s commute patterns according to the US Census increasing from 6.5% in 1990 to 9.8% of commute methods in 2012.
  • Encouraging / subsidizing car pooling to reduce the number of cars during peak commute
  • Investing in cost effective public transport (the author has covered the $1.6bn train in detail in many other articles identifying that this is cost ineffective)
  • And of course – encouraging biking (and walking – but the focus of this article is biking)

While we must consider alternatives, if we pursue these alternatives we must consider their cause and effect. So for cycling we need to consider that bike commuting represents a very small percentage of Marin commutes – only 1.4%, but this percentage has been steadily increasing – with a mere 15 people a year switching to bike commuting.

Therefore we should look to Walk Bike Marin’s $28m taxpayer investment leading to a further upward inflection of this tiny amount. Is this what we see?

What Impact Has the $28m Injection Had?

Walk Bike Marin first received grants in 2006, but it has started to bare fruit with implemented projects in the 2009-2011 timeframe. So if these have been effective we should expect to see an additional upwards trend in 2011-2014. What do Walk Bike Marin’s figures show?

Walk Bike Marin Bike Counts

Walk Bike Marin Bike Counts

This graph, published by Walk Bike Marin tells the story.  Not only did bike counts not continue to rise, they actually dropped. This is also on the heels of the US recession ending in 2009 when the recovery began, so one might  expect bike counts to be even higher.





Average weekday PM peak hour bike counts, change. Walk Bike Marin

Average weekday PM peak hour bike counts, change. Walk Bike Marin

This graph shows the percentage change in weekday peak hour bike counts. This makes the story even clearer – even during an economic recovery, while Walk Bike Marin’s projects were starting to come to fruition, weekday peak bike counts were dropping.

The story is similar for weekend bike counts.

Source: Walk Bike Marin, Marin Counts Update 2013

The congressional report somehow tells a contradictory story. It arrives at growth of the following

  • 66% in 2011
  • 70% in 2012
  • 66% in 2013

Congressional Report – Annual Change from Baseline, bikes are lighter blue.

The presentation of these numbers in the report to congress is highly misleading as the chart represents %change of a 3 year moving average from a baseline taken in 2007. So that 70% growth you see in 2012, represents only 4% growth,and the 66% growth in 2013 actually represents a reduction.

What’s worse is that the congressional report states:

According to Marin County, nearly all of its 24 individual infrastructure projects, 13 stairway connection projects, and 23 signal improvement projects were completed between 2009 and early 2012.

So therefore  growth before 2009, and arguably a substantial amount of 2010 cannot be attributed to the Walk Bike Marin project. This post-recession growth represented the lions share of growth. Once removed the figures are much more meagre.

But worse yet one must consider that the figures are using three year moving averages. This means that the 2010 number is really an average of the 2008-2010 bike counts – so Walk Bike Marin gets 2/3 credit for growth that occurred before it instituted any programs.

If one was asked to take figures that presented the project as a failure, and dress them up like lipstick on a pick, to appear to be a success, one could not have done a better job using these combined techniques:

  • Starting with a baseline year at the trough of a recession
  • Using 3 year moving averages that attribute results prior to project implementation
  • Presenting percentage figures to obfuscate the dismal absolute figures
  • Failing to present the detailed methodology behind the counts (at least Walk Bike Marin did that with its figures, but the congressional report does not)
  • Failing to reference or reconcile data with Walk Bike Marin where counts demonstrate contradictory findings

In business if decisions were made based on such a presentation, and this became known, then heads would surely roll.

The Story Where Projects Were Implemented?

Perhaps the story is different if we look at the counts and trends at locations where Walk Bike Marin has been involved in projects that have completed:

- The Cal Park tunnel completed 2012.
Weekday peak hour bike count dropped from 60 to 33 bikes (down 33.3%) in 2011-2012 and went from 33 to 40 bikes in 2012-2013 (a 21.2% increase). But again the numbers are really in the weeds – for perspective consider that highway 101 is carrying 25,000+ people an hour during weekday peak hours.

- Enfrente Rd to S Novato Blvd, cost $2.1m, completed Dec 2011.
Bike counts rose 200% in 2012-2013 in what one might deem a remarkable success. However scrutiny of the count data shows that this is a jump from just 5 to 15 bikes in the bike count. While this represents a remarkably high percentage it is hardly noticeable when absolute numbers are considered. Increasing a small number is easy.

RanchitosPuertoSuelloSummit- Los Ranchitos Connector, cost $1m, completed Nov 2009.
The closest bike counts I could find were Ranchitos Rd at Puerto Suello Summit where weekday peak hour bike count dropped 83.2% in 2011-2012, and dropped a further 41.4% in 2012-2013. In fact the absolute numbers tell an even starker story with a count of 78 in 2011, dropping to just 8 in 2012 and 6 in 2013.

One should expect such a result to have the natural consequence of the outrage of our elected representatives, and the immediate cessation of funds to these projects which clearly have not demonstrated any effectiveness even by their own measures. Instead what do we see?

The results show that pilot program investments countywide have markedly improved conditions, encouraging bicycling and walking –  Supervisor Kate Sears, president of the county board


What’s Going On Here?


While the statistics clearly tell one story – that the $28m investment has been a dismal failure – we have multiple groups cheering on the success of the project:

- the County Supervisors, in particular Kate Sears who speaks out of the success of the program

- The Transportation Authority of Marin which is responsible for transportation planning in our county

- United States Congress – where does our congressman Jared Huffman preside on this matter? Hopefully his paid aides will actually do the scrutiny and help him realize what’s transpiring.

What the author believes is occurring is that planning is being conducted based not on the facts, but on whims, desires and wishful thinking. These programs generate an incentive effect where Marin is able to secure federal dollars, however wastefully the dollars are spent, and this is bolstering an ecosystem. But this is not a sustainable ecosystem – at least it is only sustainable so long as the figures are not scrutinized and there is an absence of governance.

This report serves as a gross distortion of statistics and demonstrates a strong bias by organizations and officials who “want to believe” that bikes will replace cars when the statistics tell a completely different story. To see this article vindicating such misuse of statistics, which will surely be used to secure even more / higher funding, is a terrible service to taxpayers when there are far more effective programs we could be using to reduce vehicle miles travelled.

Result: Crowding Out More Effective Alternatives

Ultimately the distortions of Walk Bike Marin and the Marin IJ article serve to “crowd out” and displace alternative measures that could have been far more effective – such as:

1) Work from Home Programs: A program encouraging local companies to embrace working from home. As mentioned this would be riding a wave as this single commute method has grown the most between 1990 and 2012 according to the US Census. This program should reduce the stigma of allowing employees to work from home.

2) Car Pooling Programs: A program encouraging and/or incentivizing people to become car poolers.

3) Subsidizing Transit: A program encouraging transit use by doing the one thing proven to work – reducing transit fares. This would also benefit low and middle income workers the most, reducing their commuting costs and allowing them to commute further.

Think about this – we spent $28m to achieve almost nothing in terms of reducing emissions or peak hour car commuting. What could we have done with this money to greater effect? This represents a near criminal failure of imagination and ultimately a failure of governance.