Last week the Climate Change Commission released their draft recommendations and the supporting evidence on how to meet our domestic 2030 and 2050 emissions targets. There was a lot to be positive about, such as them linking transport emissions to urban form and it was good to see them linking together that some solutions to address climate change can also go a long way to addressing some of our other urban challenges.
However, one area we’ve been particularly disappointed about with the recommendations has been the unambitious position the commission has taken on the role of mode-shift in meeting our targets. In fact in some cases, their suggestions would mean we’d have to slow down the growth of non-car modes.
In addition to changing the vehicles we drive, changes to how and how much New Zealanders travel play an important role in our path. We assume the average household travel distance per person can be reduced by around 7% by 2030, for example through more compact urban form and encouraging remote working. We also assume that the share of this distance travelled by walking, cycling and public transport can be increased by 25%, 95% and 120% respectively by 2030. Overall, this would see total household vehicle travel staying relatively flat despite a growing population
These are national figures, even so, they seems to considerably underestimate the opportunity we have available to us, in particular with cycling. This is because while the levels of public transport growth required are mainly going to need to be met in Auckland and our few other major cities, increasing rates of cycling is something that could be easily achieved in towns and cities of all sizes all over the country.
There are now mountains of studies that show the single biggest determinant to getting people to ride bikes is the availability of a quality and connected bike network made up of safe infrastructure. This was highlighted even more visually last year during lockdown when the absence of cars created temporary ‘safe’ routes and resulted in huge numbers of people exploring their neighbourhoods by bike.
While our lockdown was thankfully short, the downside was it meant we didn’t get the chance to embed more permanent changes to our streets. That isn’t the case overseas though and some cities are seeing a huge boom in people riding bikes. Paris is one of those cities and recent research has highlighted the temporary cycle lanes have encouraged significant numbers of new riders with nearly 60% of users being new cyclists.
According to a report from the Ile de France department,(link is external) the Hotel de Ville – Paris’s equivalent of London’s City Hall – undertook a study to better understand who is using the new bike lanes. It found that 42 per cent of the cyclists interviewed at 12 different locations within the city were already riding there, prior to December 2019.
Some 14 per cent began cycling during the public transport strike of December 2019 and January 2020, before the first cases of coronavirus in France.
The study also revealed that prior to the pop-up bike lanes being put in place, women made up 36 per cent of cyclists in Paris, which has now risen to 41 per cent.
The proportion of women among new cyclists will therefore, by implication, be even higher – and as studies around the world, including the UK, have consistently shown, perception of danger is one of the biggest barriers to getting more women cycling, and providing safe infrastructure is regularly near the top of the wish list of those who would like to ride bikes.
The map below shows the extent of the existing and temporary cycle network with the latter significantly boosting and connecting up the network (interactive version here).
Rue de Rivoli, Paris, 7 juillet 2020 à 8h45. pic.twitter.com/mCxWm8t1JX
— Brice Perrin (@briceperrin) July 7, 2020
What’s more, 62% of Parisians favour making those lanes permanent.
Locally, what few bits of safe infrastructure we have tends to be largely isolated meaning we have few examples of a connected network. But in those few places we we have some semblance of connection, we’ve seen impressive results. Probably the most notable here is the Northwest path. Over the last decade or so the path has been extended, upgraded and had new connections added to it. Every time a new improvement has been added, usage has increased had doubled in the four years to early 2020 before COVID hit.
To highlight this, I’ve put together this video showing usage at Kingsland and Te Atatu since 2012 and the network of ‘safe’ infrastructure that exists. It’s worth noting that much of this network is shared paths rather than dedicated cycling infrastructure and in some cases the quality isn’t always the best, being too narrow/steep/bumpy etc.
Here’s the Kingsland graph just by itself.
To me the map also highlights just how small the actual network of safe routes we have is – and it’s not just me saying this, this is largely based of these maps by Auckland Transport.
A climate appropriate response would be to see a massive and rapid roll out of a safe network. That would open up the opportunity to cycle to a huge amount more people. What’s more, this is something that could be done in pretty much every town in the country.
Over in the UK, they’re setting an ambitious vision for walking and cycling and have set themselves this target.
In particular, there are many shorter journeys that could be shifted from cars, to walking, or cycling.
We want to see a future where half of all journeys in towns and cities are cycled or walked. 58% of car journeys in 2018 were under 5 miles. And in
urban areas, more than 40% of journeys were under 2 miles in 2017–18.
For many people, these journeys are perfectly suited to cycling and walking.
And those <6km trips are happening over large parts of the region.
When it comes to New Zealand as a whole, Auckland and to a lesser extent Wellington, will be somewhat anomalous with having a higher proportion of long commutes. Many of our towns are barely 3km end to end, an easy cycling distance.
What’s more those longer distances become even easier when you consider the role e-bikes are increasingly playing. Local and international research has shown that e-bikes enable people to travel further by bike and also help in encouraging more women to cycle. This interview with local researcher Kirsty Wild helps highlight some of the local findings while this one from a study in Norway highlights an international example.
All of this suggests a less than doubling of cycling rates significantly underestimates or undervalues the role bikes can play in addressing our climate challenge.
A climate appropriate response would be to rapidly roll a comprehensive network of safe routes in towns all across the country, backed up by low traffic neighbourhoods. Instead of, or at least as well as, suggesting incentives to switch to electric vehicles, the commission needs to recommend the government provide incentives to e-bikes – which could also be much cheaper for the government given e-bikes are magnitudes cheaper than buying even non-electric cars.