Flashback Friday: Show me the money – The Economics of Cycleways

Happy New Year! I hope you have been enjoying some of the lovely weather over the break to get out and enjoy a few of the new cycleways around the city. As reported the other day, the price-tag for them when completed has climbed up to $300 million (and apparently they’re still controversial…), which might seem like an extravagance to many people (never mind the bill for motorways around  Chch over the past decade or so…). However, as this blog article first pointed out back in Feb 2015, the likely benefits from these are conservatively expected to be considerably greater than even that…

Spending any significant sum of money by the City Council tends to attract the scrutiny of some ratepayers, especially if they’re dubious about the benefits to be gleaned from the investment. We’ve seen some of that with the planned expenditure on a convention centre and new stadium for example.

Some people have also been questioning of the expense of the major cycleways (especially when the estimated costs for them jumped up recently). Assuming that such curmudgeons get past any mistaken belief that cyclists aren’t paying for it, the positive evidence on this one is actually fairly strong.

A recent presentation at the 2WALKandCYCLE Conference in Nelson highlighted some recent work done to model and evaluate the benefits derived from implementing the Major Cycleways in Christchurch (including the central city transport improvements and the Coastal Pathway). A paper by local transport modeller Paul Roberts summarised the work undertaken. I have a copy of the full analysis report and it makes for interesting reading.

The analysis relies on a “Christchurch Strategic Cycle Model” (CSCM) created in a similar way that many conventional transport models are developed for looking at motor vehicle trips. The CSCM uses information on demand for trips to determine when they might be undertaken by bike (e.g. shorter trips are more likely to be cycled than longer trips). It also works out which routes might used for cycle trips, e.g. quieter streets and links with existing cycleways are more likely to be preferred. In this way, a picture of the cycle traffic across the entire city can be determined.

Estimates of existing cycle traffic from the CSCM model

The next step is to work out the likely increase in cycling if the Major Cycleways are built. Based on various bits of research, it has been assumed that up to 30% of people currently using cars would switch over to cycling if the right environment was provided (many of the “Interested but Concerned”). Some growth in cycling numbers would be expected anyway (due to natural population growth, increases in fuel costs, etc), but the additional cycling trips can also be estimated. By 2041, that could translate to more than 20,000 extra cycle trips a day around the city, or an increase of ~30% (which personally seems on the conservative side).

Expected future cycling numbers based on different scenarios

It’s interesting to see the effect of the Major Cycleways themselves on where the cycling occurs, according to the CSCM. At present, only about 9% of all kms cycled in Chch are on protected cycle routes like pathways, with another 30% using cycle lanes. The introduction of the Major Cycleway network would see the bulk of the growth happen on these routes, to the point that nearly half of all kms cycled in the future would be on protected cycleways.

Proportion of cycle-kms travelled using different cycle facilities

The net effect of adding the extra cycle numbers to the city, in terms of user and society benefits, can then be determined. The types of benefits include:

  • Improved personal health due to physical activity from cycling and reduced motor vehicle emissions
  • Crash savings due to safer cycling environments
  • Travel time benefits for those using the new cycling facilities
  • Reduction in traffic congestion delays and associated costs

The calculated benefits (relative to the base case) are calculated over 40 years and converted into “present value” costs, to reflect the fact that benefits earned some time in the future are not valued as much as the same benefits earned right now. All up, the total estimated benefits for the planned cycleways are $1.2 billion in today’s dollars.

Breakdown of modelled benefits from the Major Cycleways

What’s really notable is that 28% of the benefits are for “decongestion”, i.e. benefits to people still driving, thanks to the shifting of others onto their bikes. We know already that there’s little truth to the belief that “cyclists don’t pay”, but this highlights the fact that everyone wins when we provide better cycling facilities.

Interestingly, the estimated safety benefits only make up ~2% of the total benefits (although that is somewhat conservative). While the perceived safety benefits of the new cycleways are a key reason behind the increased numbers of people cycling, the current research is still relatively limited in the actual safety benefits (particularly because most crashes occur at intersections). Also, the reductions in crash risk per rider are somewhat countered by the increased numbers of people cycling, so the absolute numbers of crashes might not reduce much (even a “cycling paradise” like The Netherlands has ~180 cycle fatalities a year, simply due to sheer numbers).

Even if the costs have blown out to ~$160 million, a quick calculation shows that the Benefit/Cost Ratio of the total cycleway programme in Christchurch is conservatively at 7:1 – a pretty good business case in most people’s eyes.

A similarly high Benefit/Cost Ratio was also found in a recent piece of research looking at the effect of a full cycle network implementation for Auckland. Other studies have also shown the same kinds of high returns on investment elsewhere in the world too.

Just for comparison, the much-vaunted Southern Motorway extension ended up costing $140 million for a projected Benefit/Cost Ratio of about 2.4:1 (I’m guessing that the likely benefits of the relatively small portion that went towards the parallel cycleways were much higher).

It’s important to note too that the full cost of the Major Cycleways is not being borne by ratepayers. Like all worthwhile transport projects, NZ Transport Agency subsidises cycleways roughly equally for every dollar that the Council contributes. And the new $100 million Urban Cycleways Fund allows Councils to split the bill three ways, with an extra third coming from there. Christchurch has already picked up a couple of bits of interim funding and could be in line to get ~$25 million out of the Fund potentially.

All of these calculations are of course only based on a model and, like all models, the CSCM involves a bit of crystal-ball gazing. But, if anything, the estimates and assumption seem conservative (in terms of cycling trips and benefits obtained), which augurs well for the merits of investing in the Major Cycleways.

Do you think the Major Cycleways are a good investment?

2 thoughts on “Flashback Friday: Show me the money – The Economics of Cycleways”

  1. Why refer back to A recent presentation at “the 2WALKandCYCLE Conference in Nelson”. When I followed the link it was the 2014 version of this excellent conference. There are more recent examples….

  2. The frustrating thing is that the cycleways are not being completed faster so the benefits accrue earlier. And strategically there needs to be a focus on serving schools, and especially secondary schools, so that not only do children have safer active travel options but that they are ‘educated’ in the benefits of cycling and take this on into their adult lives. I sometimes wonder is the demographics can be discerned in current cyclist ages. Do 50+ cycle more because they cycled as kids?

    Already I can see that there needs to be a more consciously defined route between the Little River Rail Trail and the Nor’west Arc along Edinburgh Street – especially connecting through to serve Hilmorton High School for students cycling from Addington. And from Quarryman’s Trail through to Hillmorton to serve those from Halswell. Every high school should also have connections to the major cycleways.

    Where’s the connection from Quarryman’s Trail to Cashmere High? The Barrington Road cycle lane needs to be completed. And Burnside High School has a shared path that is connected to a cycle lane on part of Greer’s Road – but not all of it. Likely all the schools are in a similar position.

    Surely teenagers who are seeking more independence and mobility are primed for um… spreading their legs… on their bikes instead of crashing cars at higher rates than other segments of the population. Such a programme would be even more beneficial and accelerate the transition to more active modes.

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