Get on your bike!
An introductory discussion on international bicycle transportation trends
By Wendy Dinsdale - Researcher, MMResearch™
Using bicycles as an alternative means of transportation (as distinct from recreation) has many well-known benefits for society – it lessens motor vehicle traffic congestion and pollution; reduces reliance on car imports and oil resources; not to mention the health benefits of burning all those extra calories getting from A to B. It makes sense, therefore, that the "get on your bike!" message is not only supported by the public's policy makers, but is proactively promoted and adequately funded. Indeed, integrating the needs of cyclists into transportation policy and infrastructure planning is a great way to encourage sustainable development.
The number of cyclists in New Zealand is estimated to be about 1.3 million with about 750,000 of these being regular cyclists18. Despite current initiatives however, the rate at which New Zealanders are using bicycles for transportation remains low relative to other means of transport, and when compared to bicycle usage rates overseas. According to Census stats, the percentage of employed people who used their bike as their main means of transport to work fell from 3.1% in 1996 to 1.9% in 20061. During the same time-span, the percentage of people who drove to work increased from 56.9% to 58.6%. In contrast, 32% of workers in Copenhagen, Denmark, reportedly cycle to work, with 50% percent saying they do so because it is fast and easy16.
In terms of broader bike usage, The Netherlands can boast that around 29% of all trips annually are made by bicycle, with Denmark and Germany indicating around 18% and 11%, respectively, and Great Britain at 4%2. Broken down by distance, The Netherlands's bike usage stats are even more impressive, with 40% of trips up to 2.5 km long made on bicycles, and 35% of rides between 2.5 and 5 km made on bikes8.
Our less-than-glowing bike usage stats suggest that there are some very real barriers to cycling participation in New Zealand, whether they stem from the environment, attitudes, or a combination of the two. A quick survey of family and friends regarding their bike usage is likely to generate no shortage of concerns: New Zealand is rather hilly, we get four seasons in one day, our busy roads are too dangerous, cycling gets chain grease on your trousers, or perhaps that helmets tend to ruin your hairdo! Whilst these are legitimate concerns, topography, weather, busy roads and other such practicalities are hardly unique to New Zealand. Indeed, we can learn a great deal by looking at how other countries have overcome such obstacles and become bicycle success stories.
So what are the commonalities in the strategies of these countries that have led to their impressive bicycle 'revolutions'? They appear to engage in three steps, beginning with establishing rights for cyclists within public policy, before going on to make room for cyclists in the country's infrastructure, and then increasing the public's awareness of cycling5.
Establishing rights for cyclists
In light of the alarming issues that arise from becoming an increasingly motor-vehicle obsessed society, it is surprising just how skewed the funding and policies of some countries have been in favour of motor vehicles. For example, spending on cycling in England in the period 2006 to 2007 is reported to have amounted to only 0.3% of the overall transport budget17. Likewise, the combined funding for cycling and walking in New Zealand currently comes to less than 1% of the national transport budget18. In contrast, policy makers in countries like Germany and The Netherlands have realised that for cycle uptake to improve, real support is required from key policy holders in the form of bike-friendly funding and infrastructure. For example, Erlangen, Germany, boasts that 30% of all trips are made by bicycle, resulting from a policy of 2.5% to 4% of the city's investment budget being spent on cycling facilities each year2. Copenhagen, is reportedly investing over $200 million between 2006 and 2024 in a 136 km extension of its cycle lane network (to 507 km in total)12.
It is important to recognise that cyclists are also legitimate road users, and thus "the right to travel safely should not be confined [solely] to motorised traffic"3. Indeed, an increasing number of countries are now developing their own national cycling strategies, plans and policies. Redirecting funding from motor vehicle-related to cyclist-related uses, and taking cyclists' needs into account when forming policy, is not about showing favouritism to cyclists, rather it's about making them more equal2.
Making room for cyclists
With a supportive policy framework established, and the financial resources to implement it, these countries then turned to improving the infrastructure of their cities to encourage bicycle use. Some argue that, "The most important pillar supporting a proper bike policy is the infrastructure"8 which needs to link homes with schools, workplaces, shops, public transport and amenities. One of the most visible changes to be made is the formation or extension of a dedicated network of cycle lanes. On the basic end of the scale, these can take the form of narrow, white-painted buffer lines which have cyclists sharing the road beside cars (frequently seen in New Zealand), through to the grander end of the scale, where wide cycle paths are completely separated from cars by barriers (be they man-made or vegetation) and have their own traffic lights (see Odense, Denmark)!4,5.
Separating cyclists from fast-moving flows of motor vehicles addresses a very important concern identified above: safety. By reducing some of the risk posed by other road users, cyclists (of all ages and genders) can feel safer and therefore be more inclined to hop on their bike. The Netherlands, which has the highest number of bikes per capita (practically 1:1)8, has predominately wide bike paths that are separated from motor vehicle roads, and constructed in a smooth red asphalt surface to distinguish them from car lanes. In addition, intersections, a notorious danger spot for cyclists, are avoided where possible by the building of tunnels and bridges, and 'streaming lanes' give cyclists priority 'right of way' at intersections8.
Another important infrastructural detail that these countries have had to consider is that of parking. People need somewhere to store their bikes securely when they arrive at point 'B' – their destination. This is particularly useful at transportation hubs, such as bus and railway stations, as it facilitates people biking to the station and then catching public transportation to work. In countries such as The Netherlands, where 30% of train passengers reach the station by bike, they have dedicated extra funding and land area to construct massive bike storage areas8. In fact, "Amsterdam has built five new bicycle garages in recent years and now plans a 10,000-bike garage in the centre of the city"4.
Other segments of the public may prefer to take their bike on the train with them in order to travel further by bike after the train has arrived at its destination. In The Netherlands, this has reached 12% of train commuters and continues to grow8, requiring trains to be fitted with suitable storage devices to accommodate these users. It is encouraging to see that Wellington has recently made bringing one's bike onto the train free (albeit on a limited capacity 'first come, first served' basis), a move that seeks to encourage both active and public transport9.
Some countries have also addressed the issue of bicycle availability, making bikes easily available and affordable for rent at specific areas within their cities. Paris for example, put "thousands of low-cost rental bikes at strategic spots across the city ... aiming to cut traffic and reduce pollution"4,6. Typically free for the first half-an-hour to an hour to encourage people to use the bikes for small trips, users then begin to incur an hourly charge or can invest in a long-term bike pass. Such strategies have proven to be a very successful means by which to encourage people to "get on their bike!". For example, in Barcelona, within two months of introducing 1500 bicycles at 100 stations, they were able to boast that 30,000 people had used the rental service7.
Another important aspect of cycle-friendly infrastructure is the need to address the physical dominance of motor vehicles in many areas. Where it is not possible to separate cyclists completely from their car-driving counterparts, 'traffic calming' measures and parking restrictions are often (controversially) employed to create a safer environment for more vulnerable road users, such as cyclists and pedestrians. These measures, which aim to slow cars down or deter them from entering an area entirely, are often introduced in city centres where population density is high and the distance between destinations is shorter. In Utrecht, a city in The Netherlands, parking spaces become more expensive as their proximity to the centre of town increases, some roads have become completely or partially inaccessible to cars, and parking areas surrounding public transportation hubs have been expanded at the city border8. As a result of implementing these measures, the city centre has reportedly experienced an increase in the number of cyclists and pedestrians of over 10%, and a reduction in motor vehicle traffic by 6%8. Similar success has been achieved in Copenhagen, as a result of reducing the number of inner-city parking spaces available and making some areas car-free zones8.
Such initiatives can be controversial, with motorists facing higher parking costs and lack of access, and retailers fearing lost sales because of this. However, in The Netherlands, such pro-bike policies have actually rendered these areas more attractive by increasing foot traffic and encouraging people to spend locally8.
Heightening awareness for cycling
With policy makers on board who have put their money where their mouth is, and infrastructure that supports the goals of their policies, these countries faced the daunting task of encouraging the public to get 'on board' (or 'on bike', in this case!). Some argue that "The use of bicycles depends much more on a bicycle-friendly culture created by a favourable transport policy than on external factors like the weather or topography"2.
One of the most noticeable features of bicycle-friendly countries is the mindset of the populace that cycling is an ordinary, useful and beneficial means of everyday transportation. Together with a safe and supportive infrastructure, encouraging children to use bikes from an early age sets them up to to be lifelong cycle users8. Indeed, "The bicycle in Holland is classless and democratic"8, used by students and business-people alike, rich and poor, the young and old, by oneself or with others aboard. It is apparently "not at all extraordinary to see people biking in business attire with their brief-cases at the back or swinging from the handlebars, [and] waiters or concert musicians in evening dress"8. This is in stark comparison to countries like New Zealand where bicycles are largely considered equipment for weekend leisure and sporting activities8.
The types of bikes used in bike friendly countries also differ considerably to New Zealand (where mountain bikes are the norm), often times forgoing style in an effort to maximise functionality. Some argue that one of the keys to having a successful cycling culture is to ensure durable bikes, which are easy to maintain and handle, are easily and widely accessible8. The types of bikes used in countries like The Netherlands allow you to sit upright without having to lean across to reach the handlebars; they are equipped with mudguards, chain-guards and dynamo lights; have minimal gears; and often feature saddlebags for storage and bike seats at the back for one's small children. These features combine to make cycling a very practical method of transportation. To assist cyclists with longer journeys and hills, small electric pedal-assisting motors can be fitted discretely to the back wheels of bikes, and bike lifts such as the Trampe bicycle lift in Trondheim, Norway can be employed on steeper slopes13.
Garnering public support also means increasing the awareness and acceptance of cyclists as legitimate road users among motorists. On average in New Zealand, about 270 cyclists per year require hospitalisation and nearly 10 cyclists are killed each year, due to crashes with motor vehicles14. It is interesting to consider cyclist casualty rates among different countries and how these may relate to the way in which cycling as a means of transport is viewed there. For example, "England, having a low number of cyclers and hence less awareness of biker safety by motorists and having an inferior infrastructure, has four times the number of deaths per bike-kilometer as The Netherlands"8. Indeed, this ties in with another particularly contentious issue regarding cycle safety: the use of helmets. Whilst compulsory in New Zealand, helmet use in The Netherlands is practically unheard of. Helmets can be burdensome and aesthetically unpleasing to wear and have been known to discourage people from using bikes to commute8,15. It is interesting then that countries like The Netherlands, where no one wears helmets, enjoy a relatively low casualty rate compared to countries where helmets are the norm.
Whilst policy, funding, infrastructure and publicity appear to be the essential parts of the bike revolution solution, there is one overarching idea that appears key to these countries experiencing cycling success on such a huge scale: integration. Cyclists need a consistently safe and high-quality space in which to ride; routes that are well-connected and continuous, minimising the need to slow down or stop; and cycling infrastructure that is well integrated with other forms of public transportation2,11.
Although New Zealand is experiencing a downward trend in bicycle transportation usage at present, with rates that pale in comparison to other countries, the aforementioned bicycle success stories provide many insights which can be applied here. If put into practice, perhaps New Zealand too can become a bicycle oasis that is home to cyclists of all kinds.