This is a post from Caroline Shaw and Marie Russell who are researchers at the University of Otago Wellington

Having high levels of walking and cycling for transport in our urban centres is a crucial component of having a sustainable, people-oriented, 21st century transport system. The benefits of active transport (walking and cycling in the context of this blog) are well-known.

Active transport is good for health, the environment and the economy (1-3). While we know that New Zealand cities need to do better in promoting cycling and walking, we don’t have any comprehensive way of evaluating cities, of assessing how well they are doing in comparison to each other and over time.

In this study, which is a baseline assessment, we have compared the six largest cities in New Zealand (Auckland, Tauranga, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin) for some of the key inputs to cycling and walking (levels of funding, policies and programmes, amount and type of cycling and walking infrastructure, and people working on these areas) and the outputs (who cycles and walks, how safe it is and how healthy the populations of each city are).

Some of the findings are from this report are:

  • Walking is the most common form of active transport; however the proportion of trips taken using this mode ranges from 12 to 27% of journeys, depending on the city.
  • Cities in New Zealand with higher levels of active transport (cycling and walking combined) tend to have populations with higher levels of physical activity and lower levels of physical activity-related health outcomes, such as high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.
  • In all cities studied, people who live in more deprived neighbourhoods are more likely to walk to work compared to people who live in less deprived neighbourhoods. However, for cycling to work, the association with deprivation varied by city.
  • Cities in New Zealand with more rain, colder temperatures and higher wind speeds tended to have higher levels of walking and cycling.
  • The number of city council staff working on cycling or walking issues ranges from 1.5 FTE/100 000 people (Christchurch) to 3.7FTE/100 000 people (Dunedin).
  • Given the opportunity (i.e. no congestion) in all cities, except Wellington, half of people will drive above 50km/hr in an urban 50km/hr zone.
  • Christchurch reports the highest levels of cycling infrastructure, with 231km of on-street cycle ways, however Tauranga and Hamilton also report 100km of on-street cycle lanes each. Physically separated cycle lanes remain rare in all cities, with Christchurch reporting the most at 5km (the survey was conducted in 2015, so this will have increased subsequently in some cities).
Photo credit: Jenny Ombler
Photo credit: Jenny Ombler

To obtain the information for the report we surveyed councils, collected information from council websites, and analysed information from the New Zealand Health Survey, the Household Travel Survey, the Census, and the Crash Analysis System. Our study was based, with their permission, on a successful series of reports undertaken in the USA by the Alliance for Biking and Walking. One of our aims was to find out how readily we could gather and analyse information on cycling, walking and health in the cities. It took much more work than we expected: customised data extraction was required to ensure standardised geographic boundaries. Data supplied by the city councils were sometimes unclear or incomplete. But this pilot study found that benchmarking is feasible, and laid the groundwork, with recommendations, for future benchmarking studies.

While this study had a number of interesting findings, one of the main benefits will be to repeat it regularly and show any changes that are happening over time, who is doing well (or not so well) at increasing walking and cycling in their city and what they are doing to achieve this.

We know, intuitively, from visiting or seeing cities where there are higher levels of cycling and walking, as well as from academic research, that what happens at a local level (as well as national) is important for cycling and walking levels (4-6). This report is the first attempt to try and systematically document the important components in determining cycling and walking levels in the largest New Zealand cities. We hope it will be useful for advocates, policy makers, researchers and planners as they embark on the necessary project of transforming our cities.

  1. Macmillan A, Connor J, Witten K, Kearns R, Rees D, Woodward A. The societal costs and benefits of commuter bicycling: simulating the effects of specific policies using system dynamics modeling. Environ Health Perspect 2014; 122(4): 335-44.
  2. Woodcock J, Edwards P, Tonne C, et al. Public health benefits of strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions: urban land transport. Lancet 2009; 374(9705): 1930-43.
  3. New Zealand Transport Agency. Benefits of investing in cycling in New Zealand communities. Wellington: New Zealand Transport Agency, 2016.
  4. Keall M, Chapman R, Howden-Chapman P, Witten K, Abrahamse W, Woodward A. Increasing active travel: results of a quasi-experimental study of an intervention to encourage walking and cycling. J Epidemiol Community Health 2015; 69(12): 1184-90.
  5. Goodman A, Panter J, Sharp SJ, Ogilvie D. Effectiveness and equity impacts of town-wide cycling initiatives in England: a longitudinal, controlled natural experimental study. Soc Sci Med 2013; 97: 228-37.
  6. Goodman A, Sahlqvist S, Ogilvie D. New walking and cycling routes and increased physical activity: one- and 2-year findings from the UK iConnect study. Am J Public Health 2014; 104.

Editor note: I suspect this report will ultimately be quite useful in helping to show the impact of the government’s urban cycleway programme.

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  1. Did the researchers consider topography – are people more likely to walk or cycle when the terrain is flat (or flattish?)

    1. Hi Pam- we didn’t look specifically at topography, although given Wellington and Dunedin have quite high levels of walking it suggests that this may not be an overwhelming issue. Also the advent of things like e-bikes and better connections with public transport may alter any impact of topography.

  2. I do wonder about walking modeshare data. Who does this refer too? People who only walk? Or does it capture all the people who walk as well use other modes? Aren’t we all walkers, at least some of the time? Does the collection of this data require us all to be entirely a motorist or an ambulist, or of course cyclist, or tranistist?

    1. Hi Patrick there are two different sources of walking mode share data used in the report. Firstly, the Census which asks about ‘main way of travel to work- the one used for the greatest distance’. Secondly the Household Travel Survey data which asks about all legs on all journeys in a travel diary for the selected days that individual participant. So a trip might comprise a car trip, then walk to and from the car park to the shop and the back home in a car. Or it might be a 15 min walk to the shops and back. Each of these 4 legs of walking counts as a walking trip in the Travel Survey. This means that we don’t have a good idea of distance/time in these figures, which is a limitation. But unlike the Census the Travel Survey doesn’t require an individual to be entirely one mode for a trip. These differences are why its quite good to have both sets of data in the report, as they look at different aspects of travel mode.

      1. That would be great if the 2018 Census did ask that, although it would spoil our current time series. I’m looking at some other data at the moment that asks about travel to your main activity (study work etc) but that is for quite a small sample so you end up with very low cycling and walking numbers.

  3. “Cities in New Zealand with more rain, colder temperatures and higher wind speeds tended to have higher levels of walking and cycling.”

    That’s a red flag to me that we’re just looking at some random statistical noise here. 6 cities is only a very small sample. Let me guess, Wellington has a relatively high level but windy and rainy weather.

    (also, the “this study” link is dead)

    1. That statement was a bit tongue in cheek- If you look in the full report you will see more conservative academic language to describe this ( The point is that there is little association between climate and active transport. This can also been seen in the US Benchmarking reports which have many more data points than ours and also in various academic papers. Weather probably makes a difference (I think there has been some work done on that for cycling in Auckland), but climate not so much.

        1. We are quite explicit about the limits of interpretation of the data in the report. But that is the reality of working with routinely collected datasets. In addition, only health outcomes/risk factors with a good evidence base of individual level relationships were included (e.g. increased active transport and reduced diabetes, obesity etc for which there are now a number of studies showing individual level relationships).

  4. I question whether they should measure the impact on mental health by polling the number of people with a diagnosis. People in urban (walkable) areas generally have greater access to mental health care, and less social stigma associated with seeking it out. There are a lot of statistics showing that the suicide rates are lower in urban areas.
    In “Happy City”, Charles Montgomery says the best way to measure happiness is to ask people whether they are happy.
    You also have to consider what is being measured. In “Walkable City”, Jeff Speck rates walkability by whether or not the walk is useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. A street like Elliot Street, which has been optimised for walking, would rate high in all these measures. Streets like Fanshawe, Nelson, Hobson and Albert, which have been optimised for car and bus travel would rate very low. Unfortunately there are far more apartments on these four streets than on Elliot.

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