Yesterday, 2,047 cyclists passed through Lake Harriet bike path in Minneapolis. This saved society $20,470 in healthcare and clean air costs, conserved 198.7 gallons of gas, and burned 188,324 calories. Pretty good for one day, right?
How do I know all this? Artist Arlene Birt, an information designer who specializes in sustainability, has just unveiled her latest project, Bicycling Counts, which measures sustainability data and transforms it into clear, easy to understand, public displays. She has teamed with the Center for Energy and Environment (CEE) on this innovative project for Twin Cities Bike Walk Week in an effort to encourage people to ditch their cars and take advantage of the healthy, environmentally friendly, and financially conscious benefits of two-wheeled transportation.
Starting Saturday June 2, a portable animated bicycle counter will be installed in different, surprise locations on various popular Minneapolis bike routes every day over the course of the week. The project is a traveling, interactive exhibition that uses social media to provide clues as to where it’s located.
The counter will tally all the cyclists that pass over it all day, and then at nightfall a projector will be set up to display its findings, as well as share—in real time—additional bikes passing by. The counts will translate the cumulative impact of individual financial savings, gasoline saved and environmental benefits to society through improved air quality and reduced healthcare dollars. It’s basically an interactive, animated infographic installation piece. Got that? Okay, here’s what it looks like:
Arlene Birt is what you might call a “sustainabilty storyteller.” According her artist’s statement, she is “driven by the idea that when people become engaged with–and can interact with–the stories behind their purchases and daily rituals, they can create a personal connection, from which they can understand their own role in social and environmental sustainability.”
Arlene was kind enough to take a few moments out of her schedule to chat with us about her project:
Arlene – About two years ago, I did an artist residency in Sweden. Part of the University of Malmo called MEDEA which is sort of a collaborative new media research unit. I spent two and a half months there; the first month was figuring out what information was available in the city. I knew I wanted to do something to visually communicate some aspect of social or ecological sustainability and this was one of the projects I worked and developed while I was there. Throughout Europe, they have these counters that have a number, so when you cycle by you are counted and you see what number you are, and I thought, “well that’s a really interesting idea, but what if we took it further to the next step and see what that number actually means.” For example, if 200 people cycled past that particular point that day, what are the saving by doing that (as opposed to driving a car). So that’s what led to the prototype project that was done in Sweden. Then after that, I thought about how I really wanted to do this in more places.
Michelle – And Minneapolis is home for you, right?
Arlene – At the time I split my time between Belgium and Minneapolis. My soul is, I guess, in Minneapolis…but my love, my partner, is from Belgium so we spend part of the year there. Minneapolis is second in the nation for bicycling.
Michelle – Oh, I didn’t know that! Which city is the first?
Arlene – Portland. But last year, until about a week ago, we (Minneapolis) were the first, just for that one year–we beat Portland–and then Portland overtook us again.
Michelle – Well I biked to work today, actually, in the spirit of what I learned while researching you and your work.
Arlene – Yay! (laughs)
Michelle – So you’re making a difference! Every little step of this process…
Arlene – Wonderful. That’s good to know.
Michelle – How did the project begin to take form in Minneapolis?
Arlene – I was approached by a woman from the Center for Energy and Environment and she was interested in bringing the project to the center to find out if they would be able to support a Minneapolis version of it. And here we are.
Michelle – Well I’m curious about your background in journalism. It seems that writing and design use two separate sides of the brain. Would you say you are mentally ambidextrous, in a sense, as a person who works equally with both information and art?
Arlene – In the field of data visualization I think you have to a have to be. It’s an emerging field and you’re really working with numbers and data. But my primary interest is in communicating sustainability, so a lot of that is how to take that data that is increasingly available about sustainability and then communicate that to people. And I think you need to apply emotions to do that. Visuals are a great way to give some context and kind of help people literally see a story in order to hopefully better connect with those numbers and understand what sustainability means.
Michelle – Makes sense.
Arlene – I think our main goal is to help people gain awareness of what bicycling means and the positive impact it does have.
Michelle – Your work and your outlook are consistent with what we at Ode looks for. We call people like you “intelligent optimists” and we try to spotlight them as much as we can.
Arlene – Well I’m glad you found me.
Michelle – I am too! We’ll be watching how it all unfolds on twitter.
By Michelle Oznowicz