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:
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. Cycling can be so attractive as a form of personal transport that it makes a huge difference to overall transport patterns.
A choice must be made
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
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
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.