Mythbusting: “Hardly anyone cycles”

So it’s being constructed… but no-one’s using it yet…?

Getting cycleways over the line in Christchurch (and the rest of New Zealand) has always been a difficult task, with various concerns about cost, car-parking, traffic restrictions, potential conflicts, you name it. It’s interesting to note though how often we still see someone complain that they don’t see the point because they “never” see any cyclists or that it’s only a very tiny proportion of people who cycle. So why are we “pandering to a small minority”?

The short answer is that such complainants are wrong, both in terms of their own observations and the actual usage data available. Indeed, any time I hear someone say that they never see any/many cyclists, I think it says more about the person looking (or not looking…) – perhaps they should do the test to illustrate the “attentional blindness” that seems to occur?

There are two separate questions to consider:

  • How much cycling is done in Christchurch city?
  • How many people in Christchurch cycle?

While there is site-specific count data for cycling around the city, and once every five years we also get Census data on who’s commuting by bike, the best indicator for total Christchurch cycling usage comes from the Ministry of Transport’s Household Travel Survey. This is an ongoing survey whereby a sample of people (about 5000 households across NZ) maintain a travel diary of their activities for a few days and this data is then scaled up to the national population. It gets a bit tricky to get a precise estimate of travel patterns in smaller areas (the sample size starts to get too small) but, for larger urban areas like Christchurch, a reasonable picture is formed from combining 2-3 years worth of trip data and this data is available online.

The sample size means there’s a bit of variation, but what it generally indicates is that in the past few years there has been an average of about 50,000 cycle trips a day in Christchurch, about 1/5 of all cycling in the NZ. Note that by “trip” we mean one journey from an origin to a particular destination; a bike ride to the shops and then back home counts as two “trips”. On some particularly busy stretches of our cycle network, we’re already seeing over 1000 riders per day too.

Apparently all of these people on bikes are just figments of our imagination…

OK, that’s well and good. But if we assume that the average rider makes two trips a day (i.e. somewhere and back), then the above figures translate into about 25,000 people or maybe 7% of Christchurch’s population. That doesn’t seem like a lot of people we’re talking about. But people with this view are falling into the trap of assuming that “X% of trips equals only X% of people who cycle”. The flaw in this thinking is that every day it is not the same people who cycle on each day. For example, I ride to work most days, but there may be the occasional days when I either work at home or am travelling out of town. Conversely there are people who don’t regularly ride to work, but perhaps occasionally go on a recreational bike ride in the weekend every now and then.

Again, we have some data to help us from the City Council’s own annual Residents’ Survey. Amongst the various questions is one that asks “how often have you cycled on a public road in Christchurch in the last 12 months?” (note: not including mountain-bike tracks). As a rough rule of thumb (see chart below), it basically works out that on average about 1/4 of residents have cycled in the past week, about 1/3 in the past month, and about 1/2 in the past year. 50% of the city having cycled in the past year? Suddenly not such a small minority…

How often have you cycled in Chch in past 12 months 2010-16
Cycling in Chch: Not as rare as some seem to think…

These figures show that cycling in Christchurch is not just the hobby of a select few. Of course, the whole point of the Major Cycleways programme is not to cater for the existing cycle numbers but to encourage more people to bike regularly… Many of those 50% of residents may only cycle a few times a year but are keen to do more if the right environment is offered. Slowly we’re working on making that happen here…

How many people do you know who cycle? How many who don’t cycle?

8 thoughts on “Mythbusting: “Hardly anyone cycles””

  1. I find the figures hard to believe I cycle every day at different hrs in chch some trips up to 9 km I never see another cyclist maybe there are some in the 100s of cars that pass me …

    1. Try sitting by one of the main cycle lane roads at rush hour – there’s a fairly steady stream of riders along many of them

    2. I use the "Uni-Cycle" route, and have done so for years. It is almost at the point of being congested in the mornings, certainly not the free space there used to be, and it’s not even finished yet.

  2. I always note what a difference the weather makes – driving on rainy days is SO frustrating and slow – and while I don’t have hard research evidence for it I would think it is probably because many of the people who normally would be on a bike are suddenly in their cars and it makes a really significant difference:-)

  3. I really like that letter. If he does not see anyone on a bike then the reason why not is obvious for two reasons. The cycleway not being finished will account for no one using it, and if he is referring to the streets in general in the area then he needs to understand that is the whole point of building the infrastructure .

  4. It’s the very reason that people don’t see "many cyclists" on the road that I had a few near misses; including bus drivers.

    Perhaps there should be law to prevent driver from coming within arm reach of cyclist like in Australia on road where there is no cyclist lane.

  5. It’s the same with that new flyover by the airport. I haven’t seen a single car on it yet. What a waste of taxpayers’ money!

    1. Rich, I think from Mr. Reddish’s (the letter writer) point of view, there are tens of thousands of cars running below the flyover. He is observing that there are no riders in the general traffic lanes, without understanding that motorist demand for any given bit of roadway is inelastic compared to a potential bicycle rider. In other words, a person behind the wheel might be discouraged by congestion but not influenced that much by perceived lack of road safety.

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