The optical illusion behind “I never see any cyclists”

In amongst all of the seemingly endless “controversy” about the new cycleways in Christchurch (well, controversial if you’re a Press reporter…), inevitably there is some online comment questioning the value of the cycleways because “I never see anyone using them”.

There’s one…

Apparently because someone noticed only two people biking while they were driving along St Asaph St or wherever, this means that no-one cycles in Christchurch, certainly not enough to warrant the “exhorbitant” amount of expenditure (aka $165 million) on cycleways across the city (ponder that while we celebrate the opening of a single road bridge that just cost $112 million…).

So it was with this in mind that over winter I started trialling out the (Lennyboy patent pending) “how many riders on my trip to work” test.

{warning: some minor multiplication and division to follow…}

How many cyclists will I see?

Essentially this is an irregular survey on my commute from Huntsbury into work (around about 8.00-8.30am), usually depending on when I remember to do it. Basically I count all the other riders I come across while biking to work. The rules are simple:

  • They can be biking either in the same direction as me, approaching in the opposite direction, or crossing my path
  • I also look down side roads to see if someone is approaching/departing
  • Even if they’re walking their bike or on the footpath I count them
  • I don’t count all the parked bikes I also see floating around
  • I don’t count myself!

My 6km route takes in some reasonably busy but generally not particularly cycle-friendly routes (some cycle lanes for part of the way). I also travel past about four schools (although it varies whether I’m there during the school morning peak).

…another one…

Throughout winter since June (often with small single-digit temperatures at the time), I consistently observed between 13-19 riders each morning. That’s a few more riders than many detractors claim they see, but still evidently not many…

However, it is probably a reasonable assumption that I typically have only a small window of opportunity to observe most of these riders (especially the crossing ones who tend to be the most). Conservatively I’d say that if I’d arrived a minute earlier or minute later I probably wouldn’t have seen most of these people biking. But of course if I’d been there a minute earlier or later I probably would have seen a bunch of other people riding instead. So we could take my low-ball observation of 13 riders, multiply that by 30 (the number of 2-minute periods in an hour) and get 390 riders in one morning peak hour.

…and another one…

Now of course my route was only 6km of the city; even if you include all the short lengths down the side streets that I could observe as well, let’s say it’s 10km of the network. But there are well over 3000km of roads/paths in Christchurch, so should I be multiplying that first estimate by 300?

Two caveats: firstly the average cycle trip is probably <5km (NZ Transport Agency uses 3km for its cycling trip calcs) so there will be some doubling up where the same rider is observed in multiple places – let’s divide that 300 factor by 5km to get 60 instead. Secondly, that 3000km includes many minor local streets that won’t have much traffic of any kind, so I wouldn’t presume that they have similar cycle levels to what I had observed. Conversely there will also be some routes (e.g. Matai St, South Hagley Park) that have much higher cycling figures, but there are not as many of those places. So let’s take that 60 factor and knock it down to (say) one-third = 20. Now we can take my observed estimate of 390 riders/hour and multiply by 20 to get 7,800 riders/hour across the city in the morning peak; perhaps 10,000-15,000 people riding over two hours.

Given that there are about 10,000 people who commute to work each day in Christchurch (never mind the numbers who also bike to school/uni), that seems in the ball-park of what I would expect. All from just 13 original riders…

Perhaps you could try the same approach on your journeys (I wouldn’t recommend doing it while driving – a lot more to pay attention to at higher speeds!). I’d be interested in whether you think any of these scaling factors could be tweaked (remember, I was trying to be conservative as well).

So that explains a lot behind the myth of the non-existent cyclists. A couple of other things are important to consider as to why people don’t see many others cycling:

  • Did you spot that one?

    Often in rush-hour, cyclists are travelling at similar speeds to those plodding along in their cars. So a motorist may not notice many people cycling because they’re either further in front or behind them along the road, and never the twain shall meet (one reason why official counts are taken at a stationary location…)

  • Sadly, many people driving simply don’t notice those around them who are cycling; it’s classic psychology of only seeing what you’re looking for. Unfortunately, that also translates into a lot of “SMIDSY” cycle crashes (aka: “Sorry Mate, I Didn’t See You”)…

Remember too that the new cycleways are also designed for future growth; many of these routes are modelled to have considerable increases in cycling numbers as the network starts to join up (in fact already some of those numbers are threatening to show up sooner than expected).

On the first two days of spring on my way to work I counted 26 and then 36 people biking…

Roll on summer… (c/ Sara Templeton)

11 thoughts on “The optical illusion behind “I never see any cyclists””

  1. Well, how lucky are you Lennyboy being able to do this!! Last summer prior to the Papanui Parallel opening, I did a similar exercise over the 3.5km between St Albans and Christchurch Hospital a couple of times, but abandoned the idea because it was unsafe on the grounds of distraction. Why was there so much distraction ? Simply because one summer evening heading into the city I counted in excess of 100 cycles on or in sight of the route. You cannot do that and be a safety conscious person on a bike. Even with the new cycleway open it is still necessary to keep your wits about you , and concentrate on the ride. Also there is every chance now ( depending on the time and weather ) that the number will be much greater than 100.

  2. I am a cyclist and regularly cycle to work and often cycle the Brougham Street, Southern Motorway, Hornby cycleway. I count the cyclists. I cycle 3.30 -4.00 pm weekdays and sometimes midday Sundays. Very few cyclists are on the cycleway when I am cycling it. I sometimes stop to have a breather. One or two cyclists pass me. 3 or 4 come the other way. That’s it over an hour of cycling.
    The cycleways could be used more extensively. The Rutland Street, Grassmere Rd, Sawyers Arms Road cycleway is often empty on fine Sunday mornings.

  3. The argument saying I never see any cyclists so we shouldn’t spend money on cycleways is specious.

    There are an awful lot of roads and streets where I hardly see any cars. Do we stop spending money on roads then?

    1. Good point Rex. Living very near to Rutland Street it is easy to see that it is generally devoid of vehicles on a Sunday morning too.
      People travel when and where they need to , few would get in a vehicle and go on a road, simply because it is there. So why in the early days of a cycleway network that is yet to be completed do we expect big numbers off-peak overnight. Even at peak time for that matter. Behaviour change is gradual , many factors are at play , and for many ( as it did for me ) it will take years to turn a 90% journey mode by car ( the remainer by bike ) into 90% by bike . As the cycleway network grows some legs, the journey experience for many more people will improve. The southern motorway shared path has always been an orphan because of a lack of off road paths between it and Little River , and to the city in the other direction. E-bikes are reducing distances, and opening up opportunities for a wider age and ability cohort to get on a bike. As long as cycling numbers are increasing throughout the city, as they appear to be , the challenge is to press on with the infrastructure for a network completion, join some dots to improve the service, measure and report the results, and be patient. European cities have taken decades to get where they are now. We are but mere starters.

  4. My perception is there are a lot more cyclists around than ten years ago. Ten years ago I felt quite often that was the only person biking in miles around me. Now I see people biking everywhere. I mean when it is summer, it is a lot harder to see many bikers on a cold wet and dark July morning. I am not saying that the new cycle ways are already used to capacity but it would be not be realistic to expect that. Any person who never sees a cyclist should hand over his/her driver license as he/she will a danger on the road. It is such a lazy argument and just code for: I will never consider riding a bike so why should I pay for it? Well because the person who is biking is likely to be more healthy so costing the tax payer less money, contributing to better air quality, taking up less road and parking space, doing his/her bit to combat climate change, supporting local businesses and more likely to arrive at work in a good mood. We all have a choice to bike or not to bike but it is a responsibility of (local) government to provide safe cycling facilities as cycling makes so much sense on so many levels.

  5. I see very few cyclists on my 10 – 15 minute cycle to work – usually 4 – 6, only about 1 other female on average & not many schoolkids. Despite this cycleways are a better & much more sustainable use of public money than building roads as they reduce congestion & pollution & are gradually encouraging more people to travel by healthy means of transport – the wider corridors are more pleasant for walkers too, & are making the city a more liveable city. The new signalled crossings – e.g. on Lincoln Rd – are helpful in making tricky crossings easier. Not investing in cycleways is nonsensical, but it would be better if Christchurch had also invested in rail access to the central city. There still needs to be a big shift in mindset about cycling. I don’t have a car & don’t see the need of having one, but most people in Christchurch don’t use bikes as their prime means of transport – cycling is seen as recreational, not as a serious means of getting from A to B. On several occasions I’ve attended events at the Horncastle Arena or at the Court Theatre when hundreds of people have attended, but mine has been the only bike parked outside. Some work colleagues won’t entertain the idea of going to the new cinema complex when it opens in Colombo St next September because of the cost of parking – why, when the bus interchange is directly opposite it (which also has good bike storage facility) & when they own bikes?! There’s a similarly negative attitude towards public transport – basically because driving & car ownership are projected as the norm. When will people like real estate agents start advertising houses by their distance from the CBD in km (not travel – i.e. car driving time), or by their proximity to bus stops / routes or cycleways? When they do so that will indicate an acceptance of cycling & of public transport.

    1. Agreed – I’m house shopping at the moment and apparently Rolleston and Lincoln are “a quick 12-15 minutes to town” which would be 16 3/4 minutes at open road speeds all the way, and no car will do 100 down Blenheim Road !

  6. I count cyclists, too but not school students on bikes (15 this morning). Its my way of turning stopping at red lights into a positive because you get to have more opportunity to see crosswise cycle traffic. I used to keep data but gave that up but after 10 years of doing this there has been a steady increase, esp in styley bikes and people in ordinary clothes. Like Nigel I used to think I was the only person cycling but that was before I actually started looking for them. But like Hazel, I suspect many commuter cyclists just do it for their work/school commute- to shows and evening outings and so on its back to travelling by car because that is socially acceptable and “normal” . I have to go to a funeral this afternoon and will turn up on my bike. Too bad if people think that’s weird. I think its weird that people would choose to drive, frankly.

  7. Some datapoints if of interest
    I come in to the Bridge of Remembrance, cruising down the Northern Line from Blighs Road.

    Tuesday I saw 43 cyclists, Wednesday 51, this morning 40. I was fairly beady-eyed, looking into the distance as we crossed the park. Lots of school kids on scooters too.
    Normally around 20-30 on the rail route, with another 20ish in the few blocks past Christs’ to the hospital.

  8. Saturday morning – 16 bikes in the first 8 km from home to Cup up dyers.
    Then total swelled to 55 bikes in 21km (to the Rhodes Fountain)
    I lost count at 75 bikes going downhill into Gebbes Pass at around 25 km mark (passed multiple bunches coming uphill)
    By the time I hit Port Levy it would have been over a hundred bikes, that’s excluding doubleups.

    Admittedly this was sport and exercise rather than commuting. I’ve tried the look-around, but Bealey Ave is a high-pressure space that demands full attention, with no time for idle bike-gazing.

  9. This could be the start of something…. 5 bike count volunteers already . Recruit a few more, co-ordinate a date and time period. Violá , the first ever Christchurch massed bike count event.

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