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The new normal: Shaping norms with real-time data.


I was really happy to discover the city of Montreal had installed an eco-counter for one of it’s bike lanes in the Plateau-Mont Royal borough earlier this year. It’s located right outside of the Laurier street exit of the Laurier metro station, which is in a residential area north of the city’s downtown. The space for automotive vehicles is kept to a minimum on this particular street, what with it’s generous pedestrian walk way and two lanes of bike traffic.

City engineers were made aware of the true count of cyclists in the city of Montreal after working with the fine folks at Eco-Counter, who were able to demonstrate a doubling of cyclists when the city installed the two above-mentioned bike lanes on Laurier Avenue, while also reducing motorized traffic to a single lane. Further, the research reveled that the city’s bike lanes were used much more than previously thought. North American director for Eco-Counter, Jean-Francois Rheault, suggests that city engineers can underestimate the number of cyclists using the bike network by a factors of 10 to 100. If the people who are paid to care about the city’s infrastructure can be that far off the mark, just imagine how off the perspectives of average citizens might be. This is naturally very important, as we know that norms shape behavior. If most people think it’s “not normal” to bike, these people are much more likely to opt for that which is perceived to be more “normal.” Consider for a moment how much space is allocated to cars in the city and suburbs, and it’s no surprise that the default mode of transportation for many North Americans is the car.

So it wasn’t enough for the city to be sharing this information with the city officials… they had to share it with the public. Thus the eco-TOTEM, which displays the current temperature/time, the precise count of the number of cyclists that day, as well as a cumulative count of cyclists that year. You might call it a barometer of biking. You can also follow the use of the path from the comfort of your own home, as the information is available online. From this information you can see that bike use drops a little on the weekends, suggesting that many people bike to work using this bike lane.

I hope that this is the first of a few such installations on more of Montreal’s bike network. There are currently 10 bike counters around the city, but this is the only public display of the numbers. Moreover, it’s on a relatively quiet street in terms of car traffic. Perhaps this is due to fear around distractions on the road, I’m not sure. However, I think it would be very valuable for drivers to understand that, despite being small and quiet, there are thousands of cyclists on the road, not just a few – suggesting this might be an option worth trying themselves.

It would also be nice to include some positive reward for the cyclists on the path – a little smiley-face as the number increases, for example. I know that when I recently road across the sensors I felt that fuzzy feeling of doing the “right thing,” but I’m also the kind of person who would blog on this topic.

A student of mine once suggested that we should invest in bike infrastructure in order to support the poor people who have to resort to biking to get around. This is a business student at a top-raked university! A future leader, surely. This person couldn’t see past his own assumptions to see all the people biking in suits to their jobs in the downtown core around the university. These are the kind of assumptions that have to be over-come in order to see more people embrace active, environmentally responsible forms of transportation.

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