Health and economy of cycling

Last updated 07:39 26/02/2014

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OPINION: Wellington should not fear become a bicycling city, writes Green MP Julie Anne Genter.

City cycling for transport is a huge opportunity for New Zealand cities, especially Wellington.

That doesn't mean forcing everyone onto bikes in dangerous conditions. It means creating a transport environment where everyone who might want to cycle feels safe enough to do so.

Some retailers may understandably be concerned about the potential loss of a few on-street car parks or traffic lanes to provide safe cycling infrastructure. But cities all over the world are proving that creating a people-friendly environment is much better for business than widening roads and taking up valuable urban land with (mostly empty) car parks.

It is people who buy things, not cars. People are what makes the economy and society function. And bicycles are an astoundingly efficient way for people to make short and medium length trips around urban areas. The public infrastructure needed to move one person one kilometre in a car costs eight times more than the same needed to travel by bicycle. The private costs of using a car are about 50 times more than using a bicycle.

Not everyone needs to use a bicycle all the time to benefit from cycling infrastructure. Portland, Oregon is an example. A typical car-oriented North American city for many decades, Portland has been steadily investing in cycling infrastructure since the 1990s.

It has paid off. While the population and economy has grown, leading to an increase in trips, almost all the growth has been in bicycle trips.

Bicycle mode share in Portland since 1996 has increased by nearly 200 per cent, while all other modes remained static or slightly declined. Portland has been able to accommodate growth without having to widen roads, build new bridges, or add thousands of car parks - all of which would have been extremely costly.

Not only has the city of Portland saved huge amounts of money - their entire cycle network has been built for less than the cost of 1.6km of urban highway - but households save money.

Cities all over the world are starting to change how they plan their transport infrastructure to give people more choices. There are plenty of roads and car parks for those who still drive.

But giving more people the opportunity to feel safe on a bicycle means there will be less pressure on the roads, less of our rates needed for road maintenance, less competition for car parks, and more money spent in the local economy.

When I worked as a transport consultant, we developed a model for the New Zealand Transport Agency to estimate the benefits of increased walking and cycling. Wellington can benefit hugely from more cycling. According to the 2006 census, 19 per cent of people walked to work, but only 2.6 per cent cycled. If, by following Portland's example, Wellington makes cycling a safe and realistic option for a few more people - say 7 per cent of work trips - it would be worth $20 million a year in reduced infrastructure costs, reduced congestion, reduced demand for car parks, money saved on vehicles and fuel, and health benefits. Most of those benefits are direct savings to council and those driving cars, not just those who take up cycling.

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The proposed Basin flyover is partially justified on its benefit to cycling and walking - but if we spent half the cost ($45m) on high quality walking and cycling infrastructure across the city, Wellington could have a people-friendly environment to rival European cities.

Contrast that with at best one minute saved for a small number of people driving on a flyover. A more balanced transport system that enables more people to make trips on foot, bicycle, and public transport is the most cost- effective way to save time for motorists because it reduces pressure on the roads.

Some may say that the hills in Wellington are impractical, but in decades past bicycle mode share here was close to 7 per cent, and electric bicycles are making it easier for more people of all ages and abilities to cycle long distances and up steep hills.

Bicycles, electric or push, can and should be a serious and safe option for more people. It's not a question of trading off the environmental or health benefits for a stronger economy - a more balanced transport system that is designed around people will deliver strong economic benefits. City cycling can be part of an exciting, vibrant, prosperous Wellington future.

The Wellington City Council has started to show leadership on cycling by finding a bit more money for cycling, and they should be congratulated.

Central government can follow their example and prioritise safe cycling in urban areas.

- The Dominion Post

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