Memphians are doing their part to curtail the community spread of the novel coronavirus. While most retail, entertainment, and recreational services have closed their doors to average business activities, Memphians have opened their doors at home to enjoy time outside. We’ve analyzed various data sets and determined that – no, it’s not just you – many more people really are walking and biking around the city. By some counts, the volumes of pedestrians and cyclists are double or triple what we would expect for this time of the year. As a result, safe spaces for these activities, whether for transportation or recreation, is currently in high demand.
Not A Typical Memphis Spring
Since March 24, the volume and pace of movement within Memphis has been drastically reduced under the city’s Safer at Home Executive Order. The directive was instituted to curtail community spread of the novel coronavirus which was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11. While the local directive halted all non-essential activities, shuttering many commercial and retail establishments, the city’s bike shops were permitted to remain open due to their role in providing essential transportation services.
Under the directives of Safer at Home, individuals maintaining compliance with the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) Social Distancing guidelines were permitted to engage in outdoor activity. Reporting has shown some increased demand at local bike shops and anecdotes suggest that Memphians have been taking advantage of the relaxed pace of Safer at Home by getting outdoors to engage in active forms of transportation such as walking and bicycling.
Here in the Bikeway and Pedestrian Program, our current day-to-day tasks have been upended like many others, but we maintain our commitment to improving the experience of active transportation for all Memphians. In light of the Safer at Home restrictions on average daily activities, we were curious to examine if some of the data points we have on hand supported the reported retail trends and anecdotal observations. It appeared that more people were out and about in Memphis, but were they just taking advantage of the outrageously splendid weather? Or, was the supposed surge in activity related, in part, to the limits the Safer at Home directive made on average daily activity? Was there even really an increase in activity at all?
Show Us the Data
To examine these questions, we turned to several of the automatic bicycle and pedestrian counters that have been installed at points across the city. We pulled data from a total of nine counters, three of which are owned and managed by the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, three by the Overton Park Conservancy, and the remaining three by the City of Memphis. The counters detect passing bicycles and pedestrians, and provide a total count of either of the modes or a combined count of total bike/ped activity at the count site. Capturing the data in weekly intervals, defining single weeks as Monday-Sunday, we analyzed week-to-week changes in addition to year-to-year changes to determine if any new trends occurred around the time of Safer at Home.
Access Blocked to Cars, but Visitors Reach Overton Park on Foot and by Bicycle
First up, we looked at Overton Park, which began tracking bicycle and pedestrian activity at its primary access points and Old Forest gateways earlier this year. We compared nearly four full months of bicycle and pedestrian activity at Overton Park’s Tucker Street (Tucker) access point off of Poplar Avenue and two of the Old Forest gates, one at the entryway along East Parkway (Ben) and the other near the Rainbow Lake playground (Tyler). As seen in Chart 1, week-to-week bicycle counts into and around Overton Park varied widely with a average of counted bicycles for the period of 273 at Ben, 722 at Tucker, and 1,033 at Tyler. Compared to the week-to-week average indicated by the dotted line in Chart 1. bicycle activity at Tucker was above average and increasing through the first week of March but had declined by nearly sixty percent by the third week of March (16th – 22nd).
In the following week, when the Safer at Home directives were ordered (March 24th) all three of the Overton Park count points saw an increase in bicycle activity but the counts at Tyler increased over seven hundred percent while activity at Tucker continued to decline and activity at Ben leveled off. It is interesting to note that in the 5th week of March, on the 30th, some City of Memphis Parks (including Overton Park) were closed to automobile traffic as a safety measure to accommodate for social distancing practices among park users.
Average pedestrian activity into and around Overton Park was much higher than that captured for bicycles. Showing the week-to-week trends in Chart 2 the pedestrian counts at Ben averaged 786 per week over the four-month period, Tucker averaged 217 per week, and Tyler averaged 4,542 per week. The Pedestrian activity at Tyler sustained rates well above the weekly averages for the park overall but saw a decline of over sixty percent between the third and fourth weeks of March. Somewhat surprisingly, we see a significant increase in the pedestrian counts at Tyler between the third and fourth weeks of March, similar to spike seen in the bicycle counts at that location.
Bicycle and pedestrian counts at the Overton Park Bike Arch shown in Chart 3 averaged only about five hundred per week for the four-month period analyzed. However, the trend indicates some alignment with the Safer at Home directives. Here we see an increase in bicycle (+132%) and pedestrian (+73%) activity in the 4th week of March that remains above the combined average of 465 bicycles and pedestrians per week for the period analyzed.
While these counts give some indication that the Safer at Home directive may have affected bicycle and pedestrian activity into and around Overton Park, these data points alone do not give a full or conclusive perspective of its effects. Ideally, we would have multiple years worth of data from the counters in Overton Park to determine the longer-term trend. Fortunately, the Bikeway and Pedestrian Program maintains or monitors multiple bicycle and pedestrian counters throughout the city with that offering.
Count Levels on Big River Crossing Return to Those of Its Opening Year
An earlier set of counters that allows our program to monitor bicycle and pedestrian activity were installed in fall of 2016 along Big River Crossing (BRX), the longest public pedestrian bridge across the Mississippi River. A multi-year comparison of bicycle counts for BRX indicate a decline in use in the spring of 2018 that overall was 62 percent less than the 2017 period. While this decline may suggest that the novelty of the facility began to fade by 2018 (the facility opened in October of 2016), the count data for the last quarter of the comparison period increased nearly 60 percent the following year. In fact, in the 4-week period of late March/early April 2019, bicycle counts for BRX increased an average of 175 percent from 2018.
For 2020, the BRX counts for the comparison period started off on par with the 2019 counts for the first quarter of the period. By the second week of March, the 2020 counts topped out the counts for that week in each of the previous years. Likewise, in the fifth week of March 2020, which correspond with the Safer at Home directives, the bicycle counts for BRX more than doubled the average for that period with a total weekly count of 1,245.
Shelby Farms Greenline Activity Doubles or Triples in Places
Among the earlier bicycle and pedestrian counters installed in Memphis, multiple points along the Shelby Farms Greenline record active transportation use. These counters, in addition to a counter located along the Wolf River Greenway, have been recording combined bicycle and pedestrian counts since 2014. These earlier sets of active transportation data allow for an examination of longer-term trends to compare with the 2020 counts from late March and early April. Each of the Shelby Farms Greenline and Wolf River Greenway comparisons use data collected from the third week of March through the full month of April.
Beginning with points in the east along the Shelby Farms Greenline, Chart 5a provides a comparison of four consecutive years of data at Germantown Road. Using count data from seven-week periods of spring beginning with activity from 2017, we see a significant increase in activity from this period in 2020. Similar to the trends seen in Overton Park and along the Big River Crossing, we see a spike in activity in the last week of March 2020. At this location, while the 2020 counts from mid-March were below average but on par with previous years, by late March and through the month of April, the activity was, on average 160% higher than the same period in 2019.
Moving west, we also analyzed the count data along the Shelby Farms Greenline at Farm Road. With data missing for 2019, Chart 5b compares five years of combined bicycle and pedestrian counts beginning in 2015. Unlike the Germantown Road Greenline location, bicycle and pedestrian activity at the Farm Road location does not show the same increase in 2020 compared to data recorded from previous years. However, similar to Germantown Road as well as Overton Park and Big River Crossing, activity beginning at the fifth week of March and through April is well above the average for recorded activity. In this period, use averaged nearly five thousand bicycles or pedestrians per week with a nearly two hundred percent increase in activity from the fourth week of March 2020 to the following week.
Further to the west, at Highpoint Terrace Chart 5c compares five years of data beginning with 2015. Much like other bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure throughout Memphis, the average activity at this location increased nearly one hundred percent for 2020 compared to the previous year in the period examined. While the average year-to-year change at this location saw slight decreases from 2015 onward, and averaging around four thousand users per week overall, the weeks corresponding to the city’s Safer at Home directives and City park closures saw upwards of seven thousand users, nearly doubling the typical use recorded at this location.
Wolf River Greenway Sees Highest Usage since Inception
Like the bicycle and pedestrian counters along the Shelby Farms Greenline, the activity along Phase II of the Wolf River Greenway (WRG) – the segment paralleling Humphreys Blvd. – has been monitored since 2014. This activity is also recorded as a combined bicycle and pedestrian count which is compared in Chart 6 over a six-year period. With the dotted line reflecting the weekly average for all six years, the data indicates an overall year-to-year decline in activity along the Greenway from 2015 to 2018 (presumably as the novelty in this one facility faded and other new pieces of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure opened in other parts of Memphis). While 2019 saw a modest increase of nearly ten percent from the previous year, the springtime activity in 2020 jumped over eighty percent with nearly six thousand individual users in the 5th week of March.
Explore Bike Share: 54% Increase in Check-Outs
Recognizing the potential need for Memphians to get outside for fresh air and relaxation, a Bikeway and Pedestrian Program partner, Explore Bike Share (EBS) encouraged us to “ride this out!” Beginning on March 20, the EBS Let’s ride this out! campaign offered free sixty-minute rides for thirty days expanding the opportunity for Memphians to get outside and participate in safe forms of solo exercise or recreation. In this thirty-day period, EBS saw a fifty-four percent increase in bike check-out rates from their top 30 stations compared to the month prior. In addition, nearly eighty-five percent of the bike check-outs were from new users of the service. To help continue to meet the increasing need for outdoor activity that adheres to social distancing guidelines, EBS has extended its campaign through May 20 (follow the link above to learn more).
A 61% Year-Over-Year Increase on Florida St.
While these multiple datasets indicate a possibility that the Safer at Home directives impacted the average use of bicycle and pedestrian facilities, it is likely that the majority of locations and datasets examined thus far have seen increased recreational use as opposed to use as transportation. Fortunately, the city’s first on-street bicycle counter was installed on Florida Street in October of 2017. Located a few blocks north of Crump Boulevard, this counter’s on-street placement provides a dataset that is more likely to reflect bicycle use as a form of transportation. Data was collected for a nine-week period from 2018, 2019, and 2020.
The overall counts for this on-street facility remain low compared to the other datasets we have reviewed thus far, but the use trends mirror the increases we have seen across many of the more recreational sites. Chart 7 shows that all but one of the weekly counts for Spring 2020 were at or well above the average use per week for all the years combined.
Table 1 reflects the weekly count data for Florida Street comparing the same nine-week period over three years. From 2018 to 2019, the average use for this period increased by twenty-five percent and for the 2019 to 2020 period, average use increased by sixty-one percent. Coincidentally, the weeks seeing the highest activity across the entire dataset are the last week of March and the first week of April, 2020.
Table 1. On-Street Bike Counter – Florida Street 2018-2020 Comparison
|4th week Feb||6||14||12||11|
|1st week March||20||6||17||14|
|2nd week March||11||15||21||16|
|3rd week March||24||23||16||21|
|4th week March||22||26||30||26|
|5th week March||30||35||50||38|
|1st week April||13||22||64||33|
|2nd week April||12||25||38||25|
|3rd week April||32||39||37||36|
A Fleeting Trend or New Normal?
This reflection upon the data available to the Bikeway and Pedestrian Program does not definitively conclude that the city’s Safer at Home directive is increasing walking and biking. At most locations across the city where data collection is occurring, however, the trend is clear: more people really are walking and biking than we would expect from past years. Perhaps people are stir crazy from home quarantine. Perhaps the weather has been optimal. Perhaps our annual expansion of pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure is leading to more and more activity. Or, perhaps, the reason is a combination of all the above.
Despite the uncertainty and instability that the novel coronavirus has presented, the trends this analysis suggests are ones we hope continue. While many day-to-day activities have undergone significant adjustments in the past months, we are encouraged by the fact that access to safe spaces for walking and biking – the access our program provides to Memphians – is currently fulfilling the increased need and demand of this specific moment.
While we did not anticipate the exact needs of this particular global pandemic, we are honored to see this newfound value in investments made by the City over the past decade. Moreover, with uncertainty about how the novel coronavirus will adjust ‘normal’ over the longer-term, this analysis reminds us of the importance of providing all Memphians with access to safe spaces for active transportation.
Speaking of safe spaces, if you now find yourself itching for a bike ride, be sure to consult our citywide map of Memphis’ bikeway network, complete with all existing greenways, bike lanes, and bike routes as of the start of 2020. Despite the situation we all find ourselves in, planning, design, and construction on various projects continues in 2020, and we’ll continue to update the map to reflect the growing network.
Post Author: Jessica Buttermore