Bikes vs car (per capita)

Aug 26, 2022
Bikes vs car (per capita)

Bike Auckland

Thanks to Greater Auckland for letting us share this post by Jolisa Gracewood, long time friend of Bike Auckland.

As the saying goes, ‘Bikes Are Climate Action‘. Using bikes for short trips is a key part of how we can cut down on unnecessary driving in order to lower emissions. But you still hear people in New Zealand doubting how ready we are to seize this opportunity.

It’s fascinating how contradictory the takes can be. Things like:

  • “well, not everyone can ride a bike” – while readily agreeing that learning to ride is a major universal and also magical/ super-‘grammable childhood milestone
  • “oh it’s just not part of our culture”, while enjoying all those cute ads on TV that feature diverse groups of kids on bikes as shorthand for a great Kiwi neighbourhood
  • “yeah but the weather”, while also loving the great outdoors and the fact we live in a place where families regularly strap bikes to the car and head out in the weekend to voluntarily get a bit muddy and wind-blown
  • the old classic “but you can’t do x,y,z on a bike”, while simultaneously turning a blind eye to the existence of both cargo-bikes, and furniture-moving trucks and buses, which suggest maybe you can’t always do some of that stuff in a car, either.
  • plus the new all-time classic of “bloody hell, where did all these people on bikes come from, and how great is this??” during Level 4, when streets all over Aotearoa simultaneously quietened down and livened up.

Reckons galore. Clearly, we need some data. So it’s exciting that New Zealand pops up on some eye-catching graphs in a new paper in the journal Nature, which looks at the ownership of bikes and cars in various countries.

Turns out, per capita, we’re kinda up there! We own about as many bikes each as the French, and almost as many as Germans…

And when it comes to car ownership, we’re second only to the US, per capita. Go us?

This combo tends to cancel out the benefits we could be enjoying when it comes to using our healthier sets of wheels. That’s because we’re a Type 4 country:

The type 4 countries show the highest car ownership level and a high bicycle ownership level, which is 142% and 140%, respectively, higher than the global median in 2015. These countries (the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) have vast land areas and cities with relatively low population densities, forcing residents into a car-centric lifestyle and resulting in unsustainable mobility patterns.

In other words: it’s not the number of bikes in the shed, it’s what you do with them that counts. It’s like we know what (and how!) to do, but we can’t quite get the rubber to hit the road… yet.

It’s interesting to put this data alongside a recent Ipsos survey that looked at 28 countries. Turns out, we’re smashing it per-capita, again!

This chart in particular needs to be stapled to the wall above the desk of every transport planner and politician in the country.

But don’t get too excited just yet: sure, New Zealand has one of the highest rates of people who know how to ride a bike – but one of the lowest rates of people who actually cycle. The key stats:

  • 82% of us know how to ride a bike, second only to Poland and well above global average
  • 35% own a bike we can personally ride (plus another 4% use bikeshare)
  • 18% regularly make a short bike ride (<2km) at least once a week – that’s half the global average.

Also, we’re almost twice as likely as other places to use a car for short trips… even while agreeing strongly that cycling is important for reducing emissions.


And yet, encouraging! Because all of this data underscores the huge latent potential across Aotearoa for mode shift to less-polluting modes.

Especially in our cities: the Ipsos survey found that city-dwellers in New Zealand are more likely to cycle more often, and more supportive of cycling infrastructure. This is great news, because cities are where there’s the most potential to switch everyday short trips to make a definitive dent in our greenhouse gas emissions.

This great urban well of potential chimes with recent research by Waka Kotahi, which found:

  • 60% of urban New Zealanders see cycling as a great way to get around town
  • almost three quarters of urban New Zealanders support cycling in their communities
  • and it’s socially reinforcing: those who cycle more frequently are more likely to have friends, family or colleagues who cycle
  • only one in three (35%) say access to bikes is a barrier.

The key barrier – surprise! – is perceptions of safety – and this goes for both those who already cycle and those who don’t yet. The good news is, it actually doesn’t take much to boost those perceptions of safety. The key solution – surprise! – is infrastructure.

Says Waka Kotahi: “even the most basic cycling infrastructure helps people feel a lot safer”. For example, of those who are physically able to cycle, 37% say they’d feel safe on a road with no cycle lane, that rises to 58% on the footpath, 64% on road with painted cycle lanes, 65% where speeds are 30km/h or lower, 68% on shared paths, 69% on roads with protected cycle lanes, and 73% on quiet streets.

In other words, by reshaping our streets so there’s protection on busy roads, safer speeds (30km/h is the sweet spot), and quiet local roads, we can maximise our per-capita bike skills and enthusiasm.

So… what are we waiting for?

Header image: Point Chev Bike Train crossing the road on the way to school. 

While we’re on the topic of infrastructure, some good news as this Saturday Ngā Hau Māngere, the replacement for the old Mangere Bridge is being officially opened.

There’s a beautiful article over on Bike Auckland by Barb Cuthbert about the exemplary history of the project, and the origins of its design and its name:

Every now and again, by a sheer miracle, we have a cycling project in Auckland that seems to hit a sweet spot. It moves like magic from inception, through concept to funding and design, a contract is let, construction begins and progresses to completion.

So if you’re wanting something new to check out on wheels, it’s the place to be this weekend – the action happens 12pm-2pm on Saturday.

Travel note: You can take your bikes on the train to Onehunga, and make your way towards the bridge. The roads between the station and the bridge aren’t great, so families and less confident riders will want to cross the road twice and use the ‘shared’ footpath on the west side of Onehunga Mall. Some good tips in this Twitter thread.

If you’re coming from central or West Auckland, you may be able to ride most of the way via excellent off-road paths. For example, the new New Lynn to Avondale Path feeds into the Waterview Path which feeds into the path alongside SH20, which then takes you down the steep Hendry Ave hill towards the waterfront paths of Taumanu Reserve. (See AT’s cycle maps here).

If you’re feeling even more adventurous, you could visit Mangere Bridge village for lunch, and explore the southern shore: see the spring lambs at Ambury Park, which rolls into the Watercare Coastal Reserve path.

In each case, do take care on the local roads, especially if you’re riding with kids. And take a moment to picture how cool Auckland would/will be, once all our streets are made safer for all those bikes we know how to ride.

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Bike Auckland is the non-profit organisation working to improve things for people on bikes. We’re a people-powered movement for a better region. We speak up for you – and the more of us there are, the stronger our voice!

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