Monday, 31 October 2011

Go Vilnius ! (or what future should a growing nation choose ?)

In the last week we hosted four representatives from the city of Vilnius in Lithuania for a study tour of Assen and Groningen.

Lithuania is developing fast. The capital, Vilnius, faces many challenges due to growth. Personal cars as a means of transport have grown in popularity, and this has resulted in several problems, such as a high rate of illegal parking. This was the reason for the much publicized story a few months back where the Mayor of Vilnius drove an armored vehicle over a car:


It was a publicity stunt, of course, but the Mayor being involved in this way demonstrates that increased car usage has caused problems which reach right through society. Vilnius is not alone in this of course. The same problems are seen in very many other cities around the world.

The Vilnius representatives came to Assen and Groningen in order to see how cycling could help. Every journey by bike is a journey which is not taken by motor-vehicle.

On Thursday morning I woke early. I remembered that some months ago, Todd Edelman forwarded me a link to an article about public transport usage across Europe. The Czech authors of that article used it to point out that their country has the highest public transport usage across Europe, a deserved boost to morale for a country with very good public transport. What woke me was remembering that I wrote back at the time to say that it also demonstrated something about cycling. I realised that this could also perhaps be of interest for Vilnius, as well as many other cities facing similar dilemmas.

I couldn't access that particular survey, but these surveys are carried out regularly, with similar results from year to year. In the 2007 survey, Latvia, next door to Lithuania, was shown to have the highest public transport usage in Europe, as shown in the graph below. Eastern European countries dominate the left side of this graph while Western European countries are mostly on the right side of the graph. There is a strong correlation with GDP per capita. As people become richer, they use public transport less:

It's simple to explain this. As nations become more wealthy, their people desire motor vehicles and other luxury items. Once it is possible to afford them they will buy them. This phenomena is not restricted to Europe. It's been observed most dramatically in recent years in China, which has very quickly transformed itself from being notable for its high rate of cycling to being notable for its massive traffic problems.

I thought it interesting to look at where Lithuania and the Netherlands appear on the graphs in the report. To make it obvious, I've highlighted the figures for Lithuania in yellow and those for the Netherlands in orange. I've also highlighted France in red, this being a typical low cycling rate established western European nation.

With these three nations highlighted you see that Lithuania appears amongst other up and coming Eastern European nations. These nations all have higher than average rates of public transport usage. The Netherlands and France, on the other hand, are both on the other side of the graph with relatively low levels of public transport usage. The Dutch have almost the lowest rate of public transport usage in Europe:


However, when we look at the rate of motorized individual transport, the picture changes. You now find that France is with the group of almost all wealthier Western European nations on the left of the graph with a high rate of motor vehicle usage. The Netherlands is in a rather unique position for a Western European nation - amongst Eastern European nations, due to its relatively very low rate of motorized transport. The reason for this is of course the high rate of cycling:


Despite relatively easy affordability of cars and a high car ownership rate, the Netherlands has easily the highest rate of non-motorized transport in Europe. Other Western European nations which have achieved a higher than average rate of cycling, including Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Finland show the same effects on all three graphs as the Netherlands, but to a less obvious extent. Other established nations in Europe, including the UK, France, Ireland, Austria and Italy, appear on the right side of the graph due to the domination of motor vehicles:


My conclusion: Unless there is another factor which changes what people do, as countries become more wealthy, their people stop using public transport and instead drive cars. The attractiveness of cycling in the Netherlands has lured people away from cars to an extent that public transport has not achieved in any rich nation. This makes a huge difference to overall transport patterns.

A choice must be made
If no action is taken then the likely future for all Eastern European nations, including Lithuania, as well as in developing nations all across the world, lies with cars taking over from public transport. This increase in car ownership and use results in roads which are uncomfortable on which to walk and cycle, walking and cycling risk becoming low status activities, and stopping their decline becomes difficult.

If this happens, it comes at a huge price not only in monetary terms due to the enormous cost of building roads, importing oil and cars, but also in environmental problems, road casualties, congestion, rising obesity and lowered freedom for children.

However, there is a choice. If these nations instead emulate the Dutch approach and retain a high rate of non-motorized travel by making cycling into an attractive alternative to driving then the future can be brighter. Encouraging cycling has many other benefits. These reducing environmental problems, improving the public health, reducing congestion and increasing the happiness of children. However, perhaps the raw financial aspects are most attractive. If 30% instead of 20% of journeys can be non-motorized in the future then this makes a huge difference to the cost of roads and maintenance of roads. There will also be less fuel needed to power those cars. The potential savings are far larger than the cost of providing even the best cycling infrastructure in the world.

The positive choice
Cumulative Current AccountBalance per capita for a range
of countries. High cycling
countries highlighted in orange
The choice of copying the "Dutch" approach has been taken by some of the most successful countries in Europe. In these graphs I also highlight in orange other countries which have taken steps to be similar to the Netherlands and in red other countries which have taken a similar approach to France (including some which are not in Europe but are often taken as examples).

We now see that the most wealthy nations in Europe (those which have the highest positive current account balances per capita) are also mainly those which have adopted positive measures for cycling.

Index of child well-being for a
range of countries. High cycling
countries highlighted in orange
A UNICEF survey to identify the world's happiest children also highlighted the same countries as having the best conditions for children.

Cycling plays a role in both of these other results. The high non-motorized transport rate of the Netherlands directly translates into a reduction in the amount of money which leaves the country to pay for imported oil. It also drastically decreases the cost of road-building and of imports of motor vehicles and parts as well as costing businesses less due to fewer working hours being lose due to traffic congestion and illness. These all have an effect on the Current Account Balance and help the Netherlands to remain in profit year on year.

Cycling also plays a large part in the happiness of Dutch children. They have a very high degree of freedom from a young age as their parents are not so concerned about their safety on the safest streets in the world.

Why make the choice for cars ?
The default position for many nations is to just let things happen. Individuals buy and use more cars, and the state provides for this. It is sometimes thought that high car ownership and usage are synonymous with development.

This is seen as both the path of least resistance, and also of giving people what they want. However, it is actually a very expensive choice by government which leads to individuals having few choices in the future. This policy has been followed by many countries, including all those highlighted in red on the graphs above. Many of them now have extremely high levels of debt.

The alternative choice, of choosing to spend money on building high quality cycling infrastructure and encouraging cycling is both less expensive and better for society. This is the path which results in emulating the success of the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Finland - rich countries with a high standard of living. Is this not what everyone wants ? Even the most expensive cycling infrastructure in the world is cheap compared with building motorways.

Like many other countries, Lithuania is currently in a position where it needs to make a choice. Right there in the capital city of Vilnius a decision needs to be made about whether to try to accommodate ever increasing numbers of cars, or ultimately to spend less money in providing better conditions for their citizens by encouraging the type of development seen in the Netherlands. The message sent to the world by the Mayor of Vilnius shows that the issues are on the table.

Your future is what you make it.

The document that I link to is concerned with promoting public transport and therefore doesn't comment at all on the much lower rate of motorized travel in the Netherlands vs. other countries. Instead, improvements are expected to come from funding public transport. The public of all countries tends to support the notion that "Better public transport" would improve the traffic situation. However, in many cases it seems that the expectation is that someone else will use public transport while they'll continue to drive. For this reason, I don't think this is an effective policy. Most short distance public transport use is because people have few other choices, not because sitting on a bus is a positive choice in itself. Cycling has the potential to attract people away from cars in a way that buses cannot because it is a personal mode of transport, not a public mode, and can be used to make any journey at any time without waiting or making detours.

Note also that there is a reason why Cyprus is an outlier in some of the graphs above. This country sadly provides fewer choices for transport than elsewhere. Wikipedia says, "Because Cyprus has no working railway system, various other methods of transportation are needed to ensure the proper delivery of any cargo, be it human or freight. Since the last railway was dismantled in 1952, the only remaining modes of transport are by motorways, by sea, and by air." The result is the highest car ownership rate in the world and while sport cycling remains of interest to a minority, conditions are unattractive for everyday cycling.

Another thing to note is that the huge number of people who park bikes at Dutch railway stations and bus stops are counted in surveys like this one only as public transport users. In any case, the low proportion of public transport usage vs. other modes means this doesn't skew the results much. The margin of error of these surveys is actually quite large, as can be seen by comparing results from one year with the next.

15 comments:

Kevin Love said...

David wrote:

"Every journey by bike is a journey which is not taken by automobile."

Kevin's comment:

There's a lot of evidence in Toronto that the people lured onto bicycles by the new cycle infrastructure and the new Bixi bike-share system have mostly been lured off public transit.

To put things another way, after 1945 the people of Toronto decided, after much public debate, to not construct an American-style system of urban freeways. The City streets only have so much car capacity and have been jammed to that capacity my entire life. So as the population grows, car use remains the same, because it cannot grow.

So there really is no point in luring a car driver out of his car. Induced demand is such that he will instantly be replaced by another wanna-be car driver.

This trend is not going to change. The plan for Toronto in the next 20 years is to add a million more people, and zero more roads for cars.

I suspect that a lot of other cities are more-or-less the same. There is such a high level of induced demand that it is really pointless luring a car driver out of his car.

See:

http://www.torontosun.com/news/torontoandgta/2010/01/09/12401501-sun.html

David Hembrow said...

Kevin, I just changed that sentence to read "motor vehicle" in place of "automobile". This was my original intention.

You're assuming with your induced demand argument that nothing can be done to reduce demand for driving.

When someone has been tempted out of a car, their place does not have to be taken by someone else even if the street can still be accessed by car.

Edward said...

This is a great post. Thank you for tying together all of those issues that we know are connected.

This reads a bit like a farewell magnum opus. You're not thinking of doing a Freewheeler on us, are you?

Frankas said...

Yep, I would hope that you would come to Vilnius (or go to Riga) to see what your mentioned figures mean in reality.
In Vilnius the choice was made over 10 years ago (strangely there was the same mayor) and as one result the Western bypass motorway is under construction (cost: 200 mln. Lt if I remember well). The budget for cycling this year is 0 (in words: Zero) Lithuanian Litas.
In Riga traffic is hell, but many people use public transport, because they just can't afford a car.
The image of cycling is changing, but still, it's a marginal means of transport, talking about big cities.
So, see you one day...

Jacob said...

While I think there is an interesting argument here, I think that there are several factors left out: First, long commuting distances, a function of city density and city size, can make biking not feasible as a primary mode, regardless of the quality of bicycle facilities. I lived in Manhattan, which no one would argue is low-density, but my hour-long bike commute (on a high-quality bikeway most of the way) tested my resolve and I doubt it is a practical option for most people. Countries with larger commuting distances are simply not going to be able to turn to the bicycle as a primary option without reconfiguring the entire land use structure.

Also, I think the reasons people turn to cars are more nuanced than simply "can I afford it?". Countries that are full of dense cities, where it is expensive to find parking are going to have lower car ownership rates than countries with low-density cities full of parking. There is a reason why less than 25% of Manhattanites own cars, and I can assure you it's not because they're poor.

Transit and bicycling go hand and we shouldn't assume that bicycling is feasible for everyone or that transit decline is inevitable. If we plan for decreasing transit use, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

David Hembrow said...

Frankas: Groningen also made the same mistake, building urban motorways right into the city in the 1960s. This didn't stop them reversing the policy ten years later.

Jacob: Americans often argue that they believe they have longer commuting distances. This is a myth.

No Dutch city has a density that comes anywhere near that of New York. What's more, Dutch cities with lower density and longer journey distances often have higher cycling rates than the more dense cities. There is no correlation between population density and cycling rate.

Commuting distances don't vary all that much from one country to another, and Dutch average commute distances are longer than those in many more motoring oriented countries (details later). Anyway, commutes are only a fraction of the total journeys made. In the USA, 40% of all urban journeys are 2 miles and under.

Commuting distances are not the problem in Lithuania.

Public transport can also be effective in cities where other options are not attractive. Like New York, London is also a good example. In both these cities, the experience of cycling is not pleasant (there is a reason for the remarkably low 3% cycling rate in London and even lower 0.6% of commutes in New York). There may be occasional good cycle routes in some directions, but there is no comprehensive network of good quality facilities for cycling as was found to be essential to grow the cycling rate.

The driving experience is also not great. But cities like this provide very comprehensive public transport. It then becomes the least bad option. Few people really love it, but it's better than the alternatives.

Neil said...

I am suprised that NL is so low for public transport. It seemed much better and just as well used as the parts of the UK I know. London is very high for public transport use, but is that enough to push the figures so far above NL?

Richard Mann said...

Public transport does not inevitably shrink as wealth increases, with Zurich and several other Swiss cities being the obvious examples. Oxford also has deliberately promoted bus use with significant success. The eastern europeans might well be better advised to copy the Swiss, since they are starting with comprehensive public transport networks. Which is not to say that bicycles can't be an effective (indeed essential) complement to public transport: they are more flexible over short distances, and are better at handling peak loads. The best advice is to do good public transport, good cycling and good walking, and don't waste time and effort on fruitlessly trying to provide for the car.

David Hembrow said...

Neil: I find that public transport here does work well. Trains are very cheap compared with the UK, especially for disorganized people who turn up at the station a minute before the train leaves and find that the highest fare possible from one end of the country to the other is only about €14 (with the €50 a year 40% off card). When this is taken into account, quibbling about paying an extra €6 for a non-folding bike is something that only very silly people do. However, public transport is simply never as attractive as private transport. When conditions are good for private transport, that's what people will take - whether bike or car.

Richard: In some cities with lacklustre cycling conditions and extremely good public transport, of course people will be more likely to take PT. That doesn't mean it is the option they'd use if all things were so easy. Oxford, like Cambridge, has enabled, funded and promoted buses to a much greater extent than they have cycling. Hence the relatively high PT usage.

I don't agree with you that promoting PT first is "best advice". That's merely dogma. What's more, doing so is fighting against what people naturally want, which is to make direct journeys from their home to their destination.

What's more, with average bus occupancy levels being just eight people in the UK, this is often a more polluting option even than private car usage.

Trains are in a slightly different category as they supplement cycling and walking for longer journeys. As you're no doubt aware, 40% of train passengers in the Netherlands start their journey by bike.

Richard Mann said...

David: I said promote PT, bike and walking, not PT "first".

Anonymous said...

"Every journey by bike is a journey which is not taken by motor-vehicle."

Even that is not quite true: it should be "walked or by bike". Look for instance, at the UK vs. NL:

MT/PT/cy/wa
59/18/ 3/17 UK
41/11/40/ 6 NL

So you see that, of the 37% more cycling trips, 18 (~50%) come from MT, 7 (~20%) come from PT, and 11 (~30%) from walking.

This may sound a bit pedantic, but it's funny that what you find normal as a Dutchman, is suddenly found funny by foreigners: "in the Netherlands the only pedestrians you see are walking their dogs".

That's probably exaggerating it a bit, but cycling is so convenient (in terms of bike parking and getting the bike out of the house/garage/shed) that trips that are often walked in many other countries (~500-1500m, a 5-20 minute walk) are often cycled in the Netherlands.

Frankas said...

David: I just hope, that would DO SOMETHING. Only if you make mistakes, than you could learn from them.
As I am German, I know a lot of mistakes made in my home country.
Plus: there were different fashions in traffic planning as well.
As Lithuanian differently to the Netherlands isn't a densely populated country, many solutions are not applicable.

David Hembrow said...

Frankas: Population density is a strange thing and often used as an excuse with regard to cycling provision. People in less densely populated areas say they're too spread out, while those in densely populated places say they don't have the space. Neither is really true.

The density of Vilnius, approximately 1300 people per square km, is almost exactly half way between the densities of Assen and Groningen (780 per square km and 2300 per square km).

David Hembrow said...

Chris, I wondered what would be at your link. After all, what's wrong with existing quick-releases ? However, it's interesting to see what they've made - a variation on the existing design for bikes with "lawyer lips" on the forks. On bikes without those lips, the original quick-release is just as convenient, of course.

And here's a revelation: Even lawyer lips can be blamed on John Forester ! What a service that man has done for cyclists...

Frankas said...

Ufff... Finally I managed to put some English subtitles on this small report on Cycling in Vilnius. Do you still want to go?
http://youtu.be/D9KGmAXHMY4