Wednesday 25 February 2009

Cycling and the economy

How often do cycling campaigners get told that providing decent infrastructure for cyclists is "too expensive" ? Or that it's simply a waste of money ? In many countries cycling gets a pittance compared with other modes of transport.

There is clearly a lot of muddled thinking going on. Cycling is not a problem, but is part of the solution so far as reducing dependency on foreign oil, improving people's health (which makes companies more profitable) and leads to a happier society. What's more, encouraging cycling simply makes good financial sense.

A few weeks ago I came across a graph showing the "Current Account Balance" (it's explained at that link) of various different countries. It actually explains itself as "a country's net trade in goods and services, plus net earnings from rents, interest, profits, and dividends, and net transfer payments (such as pension funds and worker remittances) to and from the rest of the world during the period specified."

Green shows a positive balance, red shows a negative balance, or rate of increase in debt. The length of the line shows the size of this trade balance.

Let's look down the list of the top ten nations.

China of course gains its wealth these days due to its incredible level of exports of manufactured goods. It is famous for having a lot of bikes (though sadly cycle usage is dropping), Japan also has a lot more cycling than average. Germany has around 10% of journeys by bike. Saudi Arabia and Russia have oil and gas. Switzerland has about 6% of journeys despite being a mountainous country. The Netherlands has around 27% of all journeys by bike, and leads the world. Norway earns its position in the list due to being an oil exporting country as only 4% of trips are by bicycle there, Kuwait also has oil, and Singapore is another big trading nation with high public transport use.

Now let's consider the three countries which come in behind the Netherlands for the cycling rate. Denmark, where 18% of all journeys by bike, has a small population so is disadvantaged for a position in this list but is still positive at position 38, Similarly Finland and Sweden take 3rd and 4th place for cycling with 11% and 10%, and both of these are also positive. So, the top four countries for cycling are all in the green, doing well financially, and they also have good social policies.

If we look at the other end of the scale, the countries with the fastest growing debts, we find this collection. Not one country at this end of the chart has a high cycling rate.

The USA, UK and Australia have amongst the lowest cycling rates in the world at around 1% of journeys. Italy and France are at 3%. Perhaps the worst position of a country with a reasonably high rate of cycling is India at 11th from bottom. However, that is a country where cycling is associated with poverty and people cycle predominantly because the have to. Mind you, they're still doing better than the bottom ten are.

Of course, correlation isn't causation. I'm not saying that these countries are at this end of the list purely because people who live there are reluctant to cycle. However, it is perhaps interesting to reflect upon the way that the Dutch sometimes refer to their cycling policy as a fiscal measure. Getting people to cycle means spending less on road maintenance, less on imported oil, less on fixing diseases which are caused by a sedentary lifestyle and makes workers more productive.

I've mentioned it before, but the top four countries for cycling, all of whom have positive balances in this comparison, are also the top four for childhood happiness. Is it not worth trying to copy such a success ?


Kevin Love said...

Interesting graph. I see Canada is at #14, right next to Sweden.

Until the current economic crises hit, Canada had run budget surpluses for the last nine years. Former finance minister Paul Martin talked about completely paying off Canada's national debt by 2023.

Toronto's financial district is called Bay Street, as that is the name of the street at its centre. Bay Street has, of course, a reserved dual-use bus/bicycle lane.

Jayadeep(JDP) said...

Great observation David - while it may not be obvious, I do believe it reflect the country's attitude towards life and economy by looking at the cycling population.

spiderleggreen said...

Thanks! More Ammo.

When I think about infrastructure costs, I think about those big trucks that pound our roads into potholes. They are the biggest offender, but cars aren't that light either. But compare that weight to a bike and you see why the costs of maintaining bike infrastructure is so much less.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, but I think you're jumping to conclusions here. What we have are two sets of data ('Current Account Balance' and an amalgam of 'no. of people cycling' & 'No. of bikes'.

You show that there seems to be a positive correlation between the two, but you haven't shown the link. These two sets of data could both be symptoms of a third set of numbers (e.g. density of towns & cities, or policies promoting social equality, or whatever.) Or they could even be completely unrelated sets of numbers - similar to a pair like 'a population's average height' and 'their country's mean height above sea level'. This could show that taller nations live closer to (or in one case, below) sea level, leading one to conclude that altitude stunts the growth.

The facts that are without doubt to me are that:
o People who ride to work take fewer sick days.
o Riding a bike = exercise = endorphins = happy people
o Infrastructure that encourages children to ride, and adults to allow them to do so unsupervised makes for more independent, but more responsible children
o 0.6% is a pitiful proportion of a transport budget to allocate to cycling, and even worse when you see that this 0.6% also includes footpaths and other routes to schools. When you factor in that cycling could be 40% of all trips, it's bordering on scandalous, showing where the real transport, environmental, and social policies lie in the UK.

though of course, I have no data to back any of this up! ;-)

cocosolis said...

China's cycling rate may be dropping... but from a very high base! I wonder though if that relative drop goes to show that cycling is more sustainable in a democracy (ie China's very high rate of cycling comes from a time when people had, literally, no choice). I know some cycling 'campaigners' who would not say no to totalitarianism if it meant more cycling. And yet the Netherlands manage to do it democratically.

David Hembrow said...

Jayadeep: I see the cycling rate, and the behaviour of cyclists, as exactly that kind of indicator.

Karl: Correlation is not the same thing as causation. Sometimes it is impossible to find a link which proves that things are related.

However, I think it helps to look at it in reverse. What you then see is that providing decently for cyclists does not in itself cause financial hardship for a country. Indeed, the four countries doing best for cycling are amongst those countries which are doing best economically, so cycling clearly isn't causing them a huge problem.

It's not just cycling. There are a wide range of social policies which are well planned and well funded in these four countries. None of them are causing these countries to under-perform economically. I think there is a good reason why: A happy and stable society is a productive society.

I can't recall how many times I was told in the UK that proper provision for cyclists was "too expensive". Even campaigners in the country don't ask for the best, because they think it unrealistic. Everyone's so worried about spending (perhaps "wasting") a tiny amount of money on cycling.

It brings to mind the expression "penny wise, pound foolish."

David Hembrow said...

Coco: I think it's quite simple. The Chinese haven't been able to have cars, so now that they're available they are attractive. Unfortunately they seem to be (to some extent, at least) following the same headlong path towards motoring as the entire western world, including the Netherlands, did in the 1950s.

The Dutch approach to get people onto bikes has simply been to make it a very attractive thing to do. No totalitarianism is needed, no-one is forced to do it, and people smile as they cycle.

Nick said...

Nice try David, but the correlations you make simply don't stand up. I fully agree with your premise that cycling=good and should be encouraged, but I think you're stretching it a bit by using these particular sets of 'statistics' to try to give your argument a solid foundation.

David Hembrow said...

Nick, I don't think it is that solid. I don't claim there is a direct correlation. That's not the point. However, having been told so many times when in the UK that doing any little thing for cycling was "too expensive", I think it is interesting to note that creating a really decent environment for cycling has not destroyed the economy of this nation. Nor has doing many other things which are desperately underfunded in the UK. Rather, it's those countries which have not done these things which would appear to be suffering more.