On the freedom of cycling

This is a cross post from The Daily Blog, originally published 20 November 2013.

Freedom of a carThe automobile is often cast as a great liberator. The power to travel long distances at great speed, free of the tyranny of timetables or fixed routes. There is no question that a car can be a very useful tool for transporting a small group of people at odd hours of the day or night, the best way to transport heavy or unwieldy objects, and often the only way to get to far flung beaches or mountain tracks.

But how free are the commuters stuck in traffic jams each morning? In 2006, over 80% of people drove to work. Whether or not they got stuck in congestion, they are stuck paying the high costs of owning, operating and maintaining a motor vehicle that will sit idle 96% of its life.

More than 80% of New Zealanders also live in urban areas, and most urban trips are actually quite short distances. About one third of morning peak trips are less than 2 kilometres, and nearly half are less than 5 kilometres. These are not great distances, and during morning congestion they are unlikely to be high speed. So why don’t people walk or cycle for more of these trips?

Quite simply, because the road environment tells them they don’t belong there – and in fact they may feel they are risking life and limb. (In reality, the health benefits of cycling outweigh the safety risks significantly, but it certainly doesn’t feel safe.) The roads have been designed for large volumes of vehicles to travel at high speeds, and this is terribly unpleasant environment for people not encased in steel boxes.

Too much of any good thing can completely undermine its advantages. Cars are very useful, but they aren’t the most practical or affordable way for everyone in an urban area to get to school and work.

Cities in other parts of the world have taken a different approach to transport planning, and treated bicycles as a serious mode of transport that deserves safe, separated infrastructure. And the results are a transport system that is truly liberating, because it is affordable and accessible to a greater range of people.

[yframe url=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuBdf9jYj7o’]


The public infrastructure costs of providing for one person to travel one kilometre in a car are about 8 times higher than that required to provide for one person to travel the same distance on a bicycle. The land required for parking or storage for a car can be 20 times greater for a car than for a bicycle, if the car park is off street. But the private cost of car ownership and operation is about 50 times greater than for a bicycle.

By designing our streets entirely around motor vehicles, traffic engineers not only have inadvertently aggravated congestion and imposed costs on ratepayers and tax payers, they have imposed a financial burden on many who may well have preferred the freedom of bicycling for many of their short trips. (One doesn’t need to own a car to get the benefits of using one occasionally. There are alternatives to car ownership like car share that provide much more affordable access to newer vehicles.)

About one third of New Zealanders cannot even drive, due to age, income or disability. Public transport is an important part of a balanced transport system, and I have argued that we can provide better service with more affordable fares, but the most liberating and empowering step we can take is to enable more New Zealanders to get where they need to go under their own steam. Cycle infrastructure, if well-designed, can be perfect for mobility scooters, children, even the elderly if we take the example of the Netherlands given above.

I can’t adequately describe to you, dear reader, the simple beauty and joy of cruising along a tree-lined street on a bicycle, especially without the noise, pollution, and fear of death that dominates in our current transport environment. But there is no doubt that everywhere proper, safe cycle paths have been provided, people of all ages and abilities are happily enjoying the freedom to get around their community. And those who don’t cycle also benefit from far fewer cars on the roads. The video embedded above goes some way to illustrating the possibilities…

6 Comments Posted

  1. Now it’s my turn to say that I’ve never seen any claims that cyclists wearing bright/reflective clothing would improve safety, but that seems like a no-brainer

    Well… a coroner claimed it recently (eg. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10865448 ), but there’s been a lot of push-back from cyclists in response who aren’t convinced that there’s actual evidence besides a coronial gut feeling that making hi-vis clothing compulsory makes a significant difference to safety.

    I’m not deeply familiar with the research, but I think part of the issue (especially if there’s not actually evidence to back up that claim and if people in high-vis are still being run over) is also that telling cyclists it’s their own fault when they don’t wear reflective clothing is transferring blame for a cyclist being run over to the cyclists, and it ignores the presence of responsibility for motorists who do the actual running over, or of road designers who made it so easy for it to occur.

    I can sympathise. Even if a cyclist makes a mistake, it’s the motorist who’s responsible for the death-to-others machine. Pedestrians and unmotorised traffic can co-exist very happily without stringent rules—look at photos from a century ago and pedestrians and bicycles were happily sharing the roads with public transport (trams in those days), because it was their domain. The only reason we now have such highly structured rules on our roads today is to cater to the presence of giant, high momentum speedy, human-fallable motorised vehicles on those roads, which bring with them much higher risks and much worse consequences for any slight mistake by anyone be it motorist or cyclist. Many of these roads are now impossible to avoid if you wish to get from one place to another because they’ve usurped so many of the important corridors.

    I am not a cyclist, for the record. (I tried once, but was freaked out by all the traffic coming up behind me, so I stick to walking and public transport whenever I can.)

  2. Hi Mike, here’s some data on helmet effectiveness just from a quick pull from wikipedia (the data on the graphs comes from NZ, as it happens):

    A quote from an expert (on the same wikipedia page) admits that “Although bicycle-related injuries are generally declining, this decline is not consistent, nor is it clearly associated with helmet laws.” One interesting bit of data is that pedestrian head injuries are declining at around the same rate as bicycle head injuries, both before and after the introduction of the helmet law. This overall declining rate also seems unaffected by the prevalence of helmets.

    Perhaps helmet laws could be retained for minors in a ‘think of the children’ law, but again there is scant evidence of benefit, and the possibility that mandatory helmets discourage bicycle use can have wider (negative) impacts on health.

    Now it’s my turn to say that I’ve never seen any claims that cyclists wearing bright/reflective clothing would improve safety, but that seems like a no-brainer; of course it would – especially at night! Pedestrians benefit from this as well. Wearing dark clothes at night is like wearing camouflage in the jungle. Why else would road work crews wear those orange vests? I think there’s more evidence than non-evidence on that issue, but really this is a bit of a derail.

  3. I’m not well read up on helmet evidence — my possibly-false intuition is that they might at least be useful for children whose skulls haven’t hardened up completely.

    Is the evidence, or non-evidence, along similar lines to claims that cyclists should all be wearing brightly coloured reflecting clothing and that doing so would improve safety?

  4. First of all we need to throw out the helmet law! There is little-to-no evidence of any benefit, and in fact plenty of evidence that the helmet law discourages people from biking. Helmet Law == Bad Law

  5. the mini capital is perfect for cycling and walking…
    it would be a beautiful dream come true when we can enjoy Wellington more when we worry less about our safety on bicyles or on foot in this city with mostly narrow streets.

  6. Great post Julie Anne. And great to see that video used again and again to get the message through. It will be a dereliction of politics if Christchurch does not develop in this way. It should be so much easier when starting again from new – but the present concepts do not seem well focussed in this direction.

    And clearly we need to get normal through-traffic cars out of many Wellington city streets (particularly the Golden Mile) as soon as possible. The essential quick-fixes are needed now – more bus lanes, removing on-street car parks, and more cycle lanes – and we also need to start now on the integrated public transport system that incorporates a tram system for the future.

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