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Why are so many people unwilling to share the road with bikes?

Illustration/Getty Images

Cycling has the potential to make us healthier and happier, and our cities less congested and polluted. So why are so many people against it?

Dawn Miller-McTaggart is no Lycra-clad road warrior, but most working days for the past six months she has hopped on her three-speed bike and pedalled more than 10km to her job at the University of Canterbury.

It’s been a small revolution in her daily life, but it didn’t come easily. Having been knocked off her bike by a car in her native US several years ago, she was too nervous to try cycling on the roads of her adopted city. “That [fear] was always a barrier for me,” she says.

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But the barrier has come down in recent months. Miller-McTaggart hooked up with a volunteer group, Go Cycle Christchurch, set up by Danish-born Connie Christensen, which works with anxious cyclists to build their confidence and road skills. And the gradual establishment of a network of cycle lanes around the city, which fully separate bikers from cars, has turned what would have otherwise felt like an intolerably stressful commute into one that feels safe – even joyful.

For all but the first couple of kilometres from her suburban home in south Christchurch, Miller-McTaggart rides on the new St Asaph St cycleway through the city centre, and then on the so-called Uni-Cycle from the CBD to the university. Cyclists are separated from traffic by raised concrete berms, and have dedicated traffic signals, triggered by sensors in the lane. On quieter residential streets, “sharrows” painted on the road signal that cyclists and cars share equal status.

Dawn Miller-McTaggart is one of many Kiwis who have revolutionised their daily commute by taking up cycling. Photo/Martin Hunter

Her commute takes about 40 minutes – considerably quicker than travelling by bus, and only a few minutes more than it would take to drive and park a car. “It’s a dream. It’s lovely,” she says. Even the cold, dark mornings and evenings of winter do not deter her. “I find I’m more connected, and my mood is 100 times better when I’m cycling. I miss it when I don’t.”

It’s going so well that she has resisted the temptation to buy a car. But if it had not been for the provision of separated cycleways, she says, “I don’t think I would have done it”.

A highly satisfied customer of Christchurch’s partially completed $156 million urban cycleway project, Miller-McTaggart, 46, is an example of a phenomenon well known in the transport literature, the interested but concerned rider.

Miller-McTaggart. Photo/Martin Hunter

The “Portland model” – so named because it emerged from research by transport officials in Portland, Oregon – describes four types of cyclists: about 1-2% are “strong and fearless” – predominantly young, fit men who will bike as a means of transport, regardless of the traffic conditions or absence of protected cycleways; 12% are “enthused and confident”, happy to give it a go if there is some cycling infrastructure; a third fall into the “no way, no how” group, who are either unable to cycle or have no interest; and the rest are “interested but concerned”.

This last group is transportation’s silent majority: people who would cycle to work, school and the shops, and have fond memories of biking as children, but don’t any more because they are afraid of the traffic. A strip of white paint and cycle graphics along the edge of a road dominated by cars and trucks travelling at 50km/h are not enough to convince them that cycling is a safe option.

Separated bike lanes have allowed the interested-but-concerned Miller-McTaggart and many other Christchurch residents to become everyday cycle commuters. A recent Christchurch City Council survey of people using the new routes shows that 15% would have travelled by car if not for the separated lanes, says Lynette Ellis, the council’s manager of planning and delivery, transport, who is leading the five-year development of a network of 13 separated cycleways in the city, of which three are completed. More than 80% said they were cycling more than previously because of the new infrastructure.

“People want real choices about how they travel,” she says. At the moment, “it’s a car, or a bus that takes too long, or [they cycle and] run the gauntlet of cars”.

Photo/Auckland Council

Healthy habit

Last August, around the time that Miller-McTaggart was starting her cycle commuting, Wellington general physician Marion Leighton was beginning to speak out about the potential of regular biking and walking to reduce New Zealand’s expensive epidemic of obesity, diabetes and other preventable diseases.

A general physician at Wellington Hospital, Leighton works with patients suffering from complex multiple conditions, and estimates that 80% of her caseload is contributed to by lack of exercise and poor diet.

“The two together are causing us to be very unwell. They are not necessarily making us die early, but they are causing us as a population to live with more disease, and to live more miserably,” says Leighton, who quickly attracted the backing of 130 senior hospital doctors to Doctors for Active and Safe Transport when she launched the advocacy group last August.

Type 2 diabetes is just the tip of the iceberg, she says. “We think of it as a derangement of your metabolism. It’s not that your body can’t produce insulin; it’s that it can’t be used by the muscles and the liver, so the insulin that you’ve got doesn’t work properly. And we now know that those changes happen because our lack of exercise and poor diet cause the insulin not to be recognised properly.”

Leighton says other diseases are caused by the same sort of processes, including hypertension, gout, dementia, some types of arthritis, and non-alcoholic fatty liver – which is now the most common cause of liver failure in the Western world. 

Physician Marion Leighton, third from left, and Wellington Hospital senior colleagues make up Doctors for Active and Safe Transport. Photo/Marion Leighton

“Most of us, as doctors, are aware that the smart money is in prevention, but we are so snowed under dealing with the disease that’s coming at us here and now that we can’t focus on prevention. Only about 0.5% of the health budget is spent on this type of prevention. We need the transport and housing budget to focus on it as well.”

What’s this got to do with people like Miller-McTaggart making an everyday choice to ride a bike to work? Leighton says health research shows that the most successful way to build and maintain an exercise regime is to incorporate it into your daily commute. “That’s because it’s something you were going to be spending time doing anyway. Yes, you can go to the gym or go tramping, but that takes extra time, and what you actually need is a bit of exercise every day.

“You won’t lose much weight doing a gentle, active commute every day, but you will change your metabolism. Doing a 20-minute cycle commute each way, plus a bit of normal walking around – an hour a day is the sweet spot – changes the way your muscles work in order to absorb insulin better, and that changes the metabolic process that leads to diabetes and hypertension, which can lead to renal disease and strokes. It changes the way the receptors work in the muscles, in the liver, and it improves the way the blood flows through your body.”

The benefits from active commuting are well recognised in the international health literature, says Leighton. People who are fitter recover better when they do get sick, their rates of dementia are lower, and mental health indicators are better among those who are active for 20-30 minutes a day.

Last year, the British Medical Journal published the results of a study in which 260,000 people with an average age of 53 recorded their transport methods for five years. When the information was matched against hospital admissions and death records, the researchers found that cycle commuting was associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease, cancer and “all-cause mortality”. Walking more than 9km a week reduced cardiovascular disease, but it wasn’t as effective as cycling and didn’t reduce cancer rates.

Photo/Martin Hunter

The researchers concluded that the findings, if causal, suggest population health may be improved by policies that increase active commuting, particularly cycling: the creation of cycle lanes; cycle hire or purchase schemes; and better provision for cycles on public transport.

Research in this country has produced similar findings. University of Auckland head of epidemiology and biostatistics Alistair Woodward says a still-unpublished study linking census and mortality records has found that those who cycle to work have lower rates of heart attack and cancer and are at lower risk of death from all causes than those who drive.

“They may be at slightly increased risk of a road crash, but that’s more than balanced by all the health benefits of being more active,” says Woodward, who is leading a research project called The Future of the Bike, focused on the contribution that cycling can make to society. His research shows the risk of injury sufficient to generate an ACC claim from cycling is about the same as from DIY activities at home.

The benefits of having more people on bikes go beyond public health. As transport engineer and traffic planner Glen Koorey says, cycling reduces pollution and carbon emissions from vehicles powered by fossil fuels, and also cuts infrastructure costs because it is a far more efficient use of limited road space than using private cars.

According to the National Association of City Transportation Officials (Nacto) in the US, a single 3m-wide traffic lane can move 600-1600 people an hour (assuming one or two people per car), but a two-way protected cycleway can move 4000. (Dedicated public transport lanes beat everything, Nacto says, moving as many as 25,000 people an hour).

Koorey says that people worry about the price tag of separated bike lanes but, at about $3 million a kilometre, they are “relatively cheap” (New Zealand Transport Agency data shows the cost per kilometre of recently completed roads ranged from $10.5 million-$52 million) and their construction usually improves things for pedestrians, too.

“Ultimately, they make cities a lot friendlier and more accessible. Ten-year-olds can’t drive, but they can bike safely if we give them the right environment. The [cycleway] design philosophy for Christchurch is that an unaccompanied 10-year-old ought to be able to use this network. That’s similar to the philosophy in cities around the world – in Europe, they talk about eight-to-80 cycleways.”

Vicious cycle: the rollout of urban bike paths has caused friction between motorists, shopkeepers and cyclists.

Pushbike pushback

So what’s not to like about safe cycle lanes that remove the fear for people such as Miller-McTaggart and for parents who would like their kids to bike to school but believe it’s too dangerous on the roads? If the evidence is so strong, why the “bikelash” against so many of the cycleways under construction around the country?

In St Asaph St, the protected bike lane that Miller-McTaggart follows every day is the focus of bitter resentment from adjacent businesses, many of which have struggled to rebuild properties and trading levels following the earthquakes. “We see a ‘Copenhagen-style’ city being forced upon an unsuspecting city following a natural disaster,” Clark Richards, chief financial officer of the department store Ballantynes, told the Christchurch City Council. It’s fine to make room for cyclists and pedestrians, he said, but the “the amount of space … is disproportionate to their use”. If the council continued to roll out such changes, it would “drive people out of the city”.

Car parking, central-city property developer Shaun Stockman told the council in a submission, is “the lifeblood of business”. Like many other complainants, he’s unhappy that parking has been reduced and the two-lane, one-way street narrowed to create space for the cycleway and wide concrete berms.

The consequence, says Andy Innes, who has run a sporting shop in the street for decades, is that the road is so narrow, the traffic has to slow down whenever a car manoeuvres into a park, someone opens a car door or a bus stops.

“How many cyclists do you see on it?” demanded one irate business owner during one of the Listener’s visits to the street. At the time – it was 9.30am on a Tuesday – both the on-street car parks and the cycleway were almost empty, although data from council cycle counters shows that more than 500 people used the cycleway every weekday in November, and the number of people cycling around the city was up 15% on a year earlier.

The removal of trees in Quay St. Photo/Angie Humphreys

The bikelash has a cost. Opposition from the businesses soaked up $200,000 worth of council time. They wanted 53 on-street car parks reinstated, as well as other major engineering work in a proposal that would have cost $1.2 million. According to a submission by public health physician Alistair Humphrey, the provision of those car parks for the benefit of the businesses would have carried an equivalent capital cost of $30,000 each, a figure based on the Canterbury District Health Board’s cost of car-park construction.

In the end, the council decided on some minor tweaks – budgeted at $210,000. The discontented businesses are stuck with a design they deplore, and a reduction in easy on-street parking which they say is driving their customers away.

Change the street names, and the St Asaph St saga could easily describe the brouhaha in any number of New Zealand towns and cities where protected cycleways are being built in the hope of getting more Kiwis out of their cars and onto two wheels.

In Wellington, the modest 1.7km Island Bay cycleway is still whipping up passions two years after it was built. It has been the subject of angry public meetings, lawsuits have been threatened and the layout has been tinkered with. The design placed the cycleway between the footpath and a painted line against which cars park, and locals complained they couldn’t get their cars in and out of their driveways safely, and couldn’t see the cyclists coming because of the parked cars. Others complained that car parks had been taken away, causing businesses to suffer. Some didn’t like the fact the roadway had been effectively narrowed to accommodate the bike path. Even some cyclists disliked it.

Now, the Wellington City Council has budgeted $6.1 million to re-engineer the bike path: it plans to raise the cycleway to the level of the footpath, giving the cars a hard kerb to park up against. Councillor Sarah Free, who holds the cycling, walking and public transport portfolio, says the original design “wasn’t intuitive”, and the council “didn’t do the amount of preparatory work with the community that’s needed”. The new design will be a more “elegant” solution.

Elegant or not, it still faces deep opposition. Just before Christmas, about 100 people marched in protest, demanding that the whole thing be put back the way it was before the cycleway.

Lisa Prager. Photo/Angie Humphreys

Westmere wobbles

In the gentrified inner-Auckland suburbs of Grey Lynn and Westmere, development of a new cycleway has been stopped in its tracks by protesters, the most vociferous of whom is local cafe owner, self-described activist and long-time resident Lisa Prager.

“I believe everyone in New Zealand affected by a cycleway has the right to sue for the destruction of their business,” she told the Listener while perched in a pohutukawa in downtown Auckland, where she was protesting against the transplanting of trees to make way for the extension of the Quay St cycleway.

In December, Prager led the “occupation” of a traffic island at the top of Garnet Rd in Westmere and other sites along the proposed suburban cycleway route, as well as taking control of a digger. She has multiple objections: Garnet Rd is so wide there’s no need for a cycleway; car parks have been removed; grass berms dug up to lay tarmac for bikes; the design is unsafe; Auckland Transport (AT) engaged in “fake” consultation and is under excessive influence from cycling advocates (“car-hating bike zealots”); and it rains too often in Auckland for cycling to be a practical option.

Whatever the veracity of Prager’s claims – which include accusations that the cycleways are “like a fungus” and part of a private-sector plan to drive out small businesses and leave the way open for private developers to build high-rises – her campaign of civil disobedience worked. Cycleway construction in the area has been paused, and AT has agreed to months of fresh consultation with the community.

Some of Prager’s accusations sound extravagant, but other residents and businesses along the cycleway route are glad that her activism has drawn attention to things they were unhappy with. In the nearby West Lynn shops in Richmond Rd, Jacob Faull’s children’s clothing shop Nature Baby is one of about 60 retail businesses and small enterprises in the area. A bike-riding father of three, Faull co-chairs the Grey Lynn Business Association.

“I’m all for the cycle lanes,” he says. “We are happy to have them in our area.” But it’s complicated, he explains. Three divisions of AT were involved in the project – buses, roading and cycling. Local businesses asked for some “fairly simple items” regarding the placement of a couple of bus stops, and retention of car parking outside organics retailer Harvest Wholefoods, which is the shopping village’s major attraction and a big part of the area’s environmentally conscious identity.

But AT moved the car parks 150m away to the other side of the road. A bus stop was relocated outside Faull’s shop, which caters to parents with babies “who don’t come by bus”. Another bus stop was built out into the street and a bus shelter erected that has “closed down the frontage of two stores”.

Jacob Faull. Photo/Angie Humphreys

Managed transition

“AT has ignored the benefits of having a functioning local shopping area,” says Faull. He agrees that Auckland needs to move to a less car-dependent future – he has cycled in Copenhagen, Berlin, London, Paris and Amsterdam, where biking is often the easiest way to get around – but he says the transition to that future has to be managed, to minimise the harm to businesses.

“We have to look at how we protect retail that in urban areas provides character, not only for living but for the new businesses that start up … We just want better design and for [AT] to retain the area’s charm while it does it.”

Kathryn King, AT’s walking and cycling manager, says there was “considerable” consultation in the lead-up to construction starting, but “we didn’t perhaps hear from all of the people who now have concerns”. AT is setting up two community liaison groups, which are expected to meet monthly on a redesign.

Faull says he hopes the outcome will be better for everyone and provide a blueprint for other areas scheduled for cycleways, including nearby Karangahape Rd. “Let’s hope it works, otherwise we’re screwed.”

In the meantime, the “interested but concerned” of Auckland’s inner west, including the children of the three schools along the cycleway route, will have to wait. Old Mill Rd resident Linda Broom says her two girls, aged six and nine, want to bike the 1km to the local primary school and hoped the cycleway down their street would be finished by the start of term; it’s not safe enough for them to ride on the road, she says.

Amid all the shouting and complaining, she says, there seems to have been little thought for the interests of children such as hers.

The Tamaki Drive cycle path along Auckland’s waterfront. Photo/Jonathan Kennett

Learning curve

Is the problem simply that in New Zealand, which has one of the highest rates of car ownership in the world, we are not much good at designing cycleways? As Wellington councillor Sarah Free says, our cities are new to this; Copenhagen and Amsterdam have been at it since the 1970s.

“In some ways I think the first projects were always going to have difficulties, because there was really so much that we learnt. Every road has unique challenges. But we are definitely building up a body of knowledge.”

Whatever the short-term hitches, however, cities have to take a long-term view, she says. “People will say, ‘Only 2-4% of people cycle: why are you doing all this?’ But you have to lift the vision above today and look at the city we are aspiring to build in the next two decades.

“We know we have traffic problems, parking is under pressure, we need more housing and there is limited space. We can’t just build more and more roads. We really have to think intelligently about how we use our precious space and offer people more choices within our existing roading network.”

The phenomenon of bikelash has been seen in cities around the world that have tried to reduce congestion and pollution and improve public health by making cycling safe for all. Janette Sadik-Khan, who was New York City’s transport commissioner during the tenure of mayor Michael Bloomberg, calls it a “transportation Copernican revolution”.

“Instead of building new roads, urban planners need to start with building new transportation choices,” she writes in Street Fight, her account of the battle to reclaim the streets of the city from gridlocked cars and turn them into places for people to gather, walk and cycle. For a century, she wrote, urban designers have been “inculcated with the autocentric view that transportation is a car, and pedestrians, bike-riders, and public-transit passengers – all street life – are natural enemies of this order”.

As she rolled out hundreds of kilometres of protected cycle lanes around the city and launched a massive public bike-share scheme, Sadik-Khan faced ferocious opposition, lawsuits and accusations she was trying to turn New York into Amsterdam. One highly contested section of cycleway was described by a local newspaper as “the most controversial slab of cement outside of the Gaza Strip”.

In building safe biking infrastructure, Sadik-Khan says, cities are “daring to take street space that for decades has been used exclusively by vehicles and do something else with it”. For some, that amounts to an “ideological war on cars”.

“Never underestimate the anger directed at bicyclists,” she writes. In New York and Melbourne, opponents laid tacks across new cycleways; in New York’s Central Park, an attacker strung a wire across the path of a cyclist.

Similar sabotage has occurred in London and Portland. On the last weekend of the last school holidays, around 30 tacks were found on the Island Bay cycleway.

Challenge to the status quo

In a recent research paper on bikelash led by the University of Auckland’s Kirsty Wild, bike lanes are described as “sponges for a sea of latent cultural and economic anxieties … Far from representing a ‘value-free’ reshaping of the streetscape, cycle lanes present fundamental challenges to existing power relationships within cities”.

International experience shows bikelash tends to come from four key groups, Wild says:

  • Retailers who object to a loss of on-street parking. They tend to overestimate the importance of parking to their customers and underestimate the number who come by bus, bike or on foot. Many studies have shown little change, and often an improvement, in retail trade after a bike lane goes in.
  • The second main group of objectors tend to be political conservatives, who see cyclists as outsiders and regard the redistribution of road space as theft of an existing entitlement.
  • Internationally, bikelash has also come from experienced cyclists, who don’t want to be marginalised into separated lanes.
  • Others worry that cycleways are a precursor to gentrification and displacement of low-income and ethnically diverse communities.

Ironically, some of the causes of discontent about new cycleways (such as the digging up of grass berms in Grey Lynn and Westmere to lay cycle paths) are design compromises made to placate those who didn’t want to lose on-street car parking to make way for the bikes.

Woodward says that disputes about bike lanes occur even in cycle-friendly countries such as the Netherlands, but over decades they have developed design codes stipulating what kind of roads require separated cycleways and where it’s okay for cars and bikes to mix, rather than having to fight it out “corner by corner”.

“So you have this virtuous circle where there are more people using bikes on the street, which makes it more familiar and comfortable and authentic, so people are less anxious about it.” Vulnerable road users such as children and the elderly then start to feel that the streets are safe for them to bike and walk on.

All of this would make our streets much more like they used to be before cars began to dominate. “It wasn’t always like this,” Woodward says. “There was a power shift in the 1920s when pedestrians and cyclists were pushed, literally, to the margins. Now I think we are facing a remarkable period where young people are not using cars the way we [baby boomers] did when we were young. They are looking for other forms of status. The fossil-fuel period is coming to an end.

“And the bike, in a sense, is right at the heart of the politics of it all. There are the things that the bicycle can deliver in terms of numbers of trips and cases of diabetes prevented. And then there is what the bicycle stands for, which, in the long term, may be more important, because I think it’s to do with intimate cities, it’s to do with connections with nature, it’s to do with sustainability, with sociability and with simplicity and pleasure.

“You ask people why they bike, and of course they say that it’s quicker and it’s good for me. But they also say, ‘I feel better. When I get to work, I feel more alert and lively and more resilient.’”

This article was first published in the February 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.