Thanks to the connected eco-counters, cyclists and pedestrians are no longer left behind when it comes to transport planning.
For the past 15 years, devices designed by company Eco-Counter have been relentlessly counting bikes and pedestrians. They work with a lot of accuracy and in all types of configurations, whether it’s on a hiking trail, an important tourist site, or a bike path in New York and Montreal. This article is about the world leader in counting systems designed for soft transportation.
“If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.” This quote, which can be attributed to an American engineer specialized in quality control (1), has logically become the mantra of several managers. What’s more surprising though is the way in which the company Eco-Counter has applied this tenet to promote walking and biking around the world, and improve infrastructures dedicated to these non polluting modes of transportation.
Measuring leads to better decision-making
Jean Milon, who started his career in R&D at France Telecom has always been a militant for nature conservancy. In 1998, while working on a restoration site located near a path along the shoreline, he became interested in the reliability of attendance figures collected in an outdoor environment, and put together the first prototype of what his son Christophe very aptly named an “eco-counter”.
The company Eco-Counter was created a few months later. The project received a warm welcome from the town of Perros-Guirec (Brittany) and subsequently from the General Council of Côtes d’Armor. Indeed, what better way to assess the relevance of a biking trail than generating reliable and accurate attendance figures, optimizing a path taken by visitors in a public space or a downtown area, arguing in favour of developing a site, or even demanding its protection? Organizations managing natural outdoor spaces were amongst the company’s first clients and were rapidly joined by communities and towns eager to better manage their bike paths and urban pedestrian areas.
Today, the company has 50 employees and is overseeing 12,000 counters spread out all over the world thanks to an efficient distribution network and a branch in Montreal, Canada. The appeal of the original technology developed by Eco-Counter has gone way beyond French borders, to the point where the market in France now only accounts for a small part of their revenues: 75% of their products are being exported to Northern Europe, Pacific Asia and North America.
Decision-makers have long turned a blind eye when it comes to soft mobility
Counting cars travelling down a road is a craft that has been mastered for a long time. That being said, it has been constantly evolving through the appearance of systems that are becoming more and more sophisticated and are now able to differentiate several types of vehicle, their speed, etc. Conversely, when it comes to mobility, managers and urban planners have long turned a blind eye. Decision-makers have long resorted to carrying out counting campaigns using human observers and the results would then be extrapolated in order to obtain attendance figures. This method was costly and rather unsatisfying, if only because weather conditions occurring during the campaign could skew the results: “By doing a systematic count and by cross-referencing these data with other factors like the weather, the results we get are a lot more relevant in terms of understanding how infrastructures are used”, says Laure Doidi, Analyst at Eco-Counter.
“Technically,” explains Mathieu Rougeolle, Hardware Product Manager at Eco-Counter, “it’s a lot more difficult to count pedestrians, cyclists or even riders who aren’t passing by as regularly as vehicles on a main highway, are crossing each other’s path, and can’t be recognized based on their weight.” So Eco-Counter designed sensors capable of adapting to all possible configurations and accurately counting the various types of users. Detecting cyclists is done by using inductive loops that recognize the metallic signature of a bike, or using pneumatic tubes sensitive to the pressure induced by a passing bike. As for counting pedestrians, riders and mixed users, a pyroelectric sensor is used. “These are technologies that are systematically combined with patented algorithms (ARGO, ORION and SIRIUS), allowing us to exclude any means of transportation we don’t want to record.”
A technology 100 % made in France, from hardware to software
Eco-Counter’s operations have taken a strategic turn over the past few years. “First, we were hardware manufacturers”, adds Mathieu Rougeolle. High-end equipment, entirely designed and manufactured in France, by the teams at Eco-Counter in their workshop. “Each unit represents several days of work, from assembling the electronic components to the possible “dressing” of the device which can be customized, as is the case with Eco-TOTEMs. Aside from counting, the purpose of these devices is to encourage biking or walking by illustrating the number of passers-by in the form of a gauge.” But for some time now, the traffic analysis software developed by the company (Eco-Visio) has been an ever-growing part of the solution’s added value: “Our counters were originally equipped with nothing but a Bluetooth communication system. Thanks to a dedicated mobile application, our clients could collect the data and visualize them with a dashboard or export them. We’ve progressively equipped our counters with 2/3 G modems that transmit data through GPRS so our clients don’t need to move.”
The result: users spend more time examining streams reproduced in chronological intervals inside their dashboard, tallying the data and interpreting them based on various factors: weather and precipitations is one of course, but so are events organized across the city, incidents occurring on public transit, time of year, number of tourists, etc. “Some users are even starting to integrate the data within their own applications, thereby encouraging us to develop an API to make things easier. Today, even if our R&D is still very much focussed on designing new products and improving existing ones, we’re investing massively in the development of our application which we’re also fully coding in HTML5. From designer to hardware, our business is naturally moving towards software editing”, says Séverine Bernard, Marketing Director at Eco-Counter. This evolution is what makes the implementation of a solid and highly available computer infrastructure so crucial. (see text box)
A world leader who became a key player in soft mobility
Eco-Counter’s clients are not the only ones mining data collected by field devices. The company itself regularly aggregates these data to present the “Worldwide Cycling Index” (2). At the beginning of 2016, this index allowed the company to record a 3 % increase in bike traffic between 2014 and 2015. The calculation was based on more than 218 million bike routes compiled by 1,490 counters spread across 17 countries.
This analysis showed that biking has progressed in France by 2% during that time, following a dramatic 10 % increase between 2013 and 2014. However, this definitely isn’t enough to spin the wheels of other European countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Finland or Germany, who all have a significant lead in that regard. “Our position as world leader in counting equipment for soft traffic allows us to build a unique database capable of helping decision-makers, journalists and citizens shed some light on these questions and sort out all the information that’s been thrown at them. Who could have predicted that Spain, Switzerland, Finland, Canada and the United States would one day show the strongest increase in bike traffic?” says Laure Doidi. If these figures can be used to improve travel policies, they definitely represent a formidable communication tool for Eco-Counter and its clients. Letting figures do the talking is good. Using them to get people to talk about soft mobility is even better.
(1) H. James Harrington: American engineer, entrepreneur and prolific author who examined the cost of non-quality, among other subjects.