Is Cycling just for Rich People?

My colleague came back from a nationwide walking and cycling conference a few weeks back and said something I found intriguing. He was describing a talk someone gave where they said something to the effect of “we’re building a lot of cycling infrastructure, but we do need to keep in mind that cycling infrastructure is mainly just for rich people – poor people don’t cycle”.

I found this odd because it’s not the first time I’ve heard it said. I have vague recollections of hearing this previously and instantly dismissing it because it jars so abruptly with my own personal experience – cycling is the cheapest way to get around so surely it’s perfect for poor people. I know as an income-less student it was the only option I had. But this was not the Stuff comments section – this was a conference of recognised experts who tend to know what they are talking about, so I decided to have a closer look at whether this is true or not.

I had a look at Census 2013 data (it would be great to use 2018 data, but this is not available yet). First I mapped each area of Christchurch by deprivation index (a nationally recognised way of measuring who’s rich and who’s poor).

Deprivation
Map of deprivation purple = rich, yellow = poor (based on Census 2013 data)

Next I mapped each area of Christchurch by the percentage that cycled to work that day.

BikeShare
Percentage of people from each suburb cycling to work, purple = 0%, yellow = 13% (based on Census 2013 data)

It’s a bit difficult to really see any trends here, so I tried graphing them instead. Deprivation Index is along the horizontal axis, percentage of people cycling is on the vertical axis. Each small dot is a suburb (“area unit”), the large dot is the average value for all suburbs with that deprivation score. I’ve put a random selection of suburb names on just to give a bit of context.

BikeDeprivationGraph
Percentage of residents cycling to work versus deprivation index for each area unit in Christchurch (census 2013)

Now the trends are a bit easier to see. Firstly, it shows that for each deprivation index, there is a broad range in the percentage of people who cycle to work. Secondly it shows that people from rich suburbs are not cycling any more than people from poor suburbs. If anything there may be a slight trend the opposite way – the poorer suburbs of Christchurch tend to have slightly more people cycling to work than the rich suburbs.

This is the opposite of the claim that “cycling infrastructure is mainly for rich people”. This doesn’t mean the claim is untrue – just that it is untrue in Christchurch.

I think this can be mostly explained by Christchurch’s unique real estate situation. The argument that only rich people cycle is related to the idea that only rich people can afford to live close enough in to the city to be within cycling distance – poor people have to live in the cheaper areas further out of the city where it’s too far away to cycle. In Christchurch however this isn’t the case. Many of the inner city suburbs are cheaper to buy/rent houses in than outer suburbs. The deprivation index above roughly shows a large donut of rich purple areas, surrounding an inner city of poorer inner suburbs. This is the opposite of what most cities have, where the closer to the CBD you are, the more you’ll have to pay for a house. I have no idea why Christchurch is like this. This pattern predates the earthquakes – they may have exacerbated it, but I don’t think they have caused it.

So in conclusion, if you ever hear the claim “cycling is just for rich people”, I think you can discount it if you’re talking about Christchurch. The data shows that both rich and poor people are cycling – if anything poor people are cycling slightly more.

If you think you know why Christchurch’s real estate is so different to a typical city, feel free to comment below, or any other thoughts on the relationship between cycling and deprivation…

12 thoughts on “Is Cycling just for Rich People?

  1. One of the assumptions I hear is “I got a car, it cost $xxx so I need to use it” and that comes from people I’d call well-off as well as middle class. The poorer people don’t seem to use this rationalisation.

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    1. Yea I’ve heard that, and it’s not completely irrational. The fact that driving involves a huge sunk cost up front, and then a smaller marginal cost per trip, is a big reason people drive more than they otherwise would. The biggest benefit to biking or catching public transport comes when it means you can own one less car than you otherwise would need.

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  2. Nice post, and great to see some numbers to back it up. I think there’s a perception element in play, which relates to the the idea that cycling – and thus infrastructure for cycling – is about recreation not transport. Recreational cyclists are possibly more visible than others? So when people think “Cyclist” they think “person in Lycra on $15k carbon fibre speed machine”, rather than “Jo Bloggs keeping a car off the road by riding to work”. Until that perception changes we’ll always be up against the “it’s just for rich people”.

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    1. Yep I’ve definitely talked to people who still have this view, despite it seeming obvious that the cycleways are more for the kids going to school, families going to the park, women getting to and from work, etc. Maybe as people get time to observe how the completed cycleways are used they’ll start to understand.

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      1. I agree, I suspect most people see cycling as a rich person’s activity because of the highly-visible sport aspect of it, which reinforces the idea that most people in Chch could not imagine cycling for any other reason.

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  3. Christchurch has bucked a number of norms: the other one is that coastal property has historically been cheaper than property further inland, again the opposite of most locations. I’m guessing the overall issue is that Christchurch is much less prosperous than main centres in the North Island. The CBD was already half dead before the quakes with many run down or empty buildings.

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    1. Yep new brighton is quite a unique situation, especially odd when Summer follows the normal trend. Id argue the main reason for the cbd was dying was because of our transport and density policies suppporting sprawl rather than the city centre

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  4. Two points I’d like to make with regard to Christchurch’s “weird” real estate geography.

    1, The fact that many of Christchurch’s inner suburbs are not that desirable is not actually uncommon around the world. Melbourne’s northern and eastern inner suburbs aren’t that hot. For many American cities it’s much worse, inner suburbs are often rundown ghettos.

    2, In most cases, real estate price is a positive function of proximity to amenities, and for most cities the amenities are concentrated in the CBD, i.e. jobs, entertainment, transport hub etc. Hence areas closer to the CBD are more desirable. But for Christchurch, this concentration of amenities in the CBD is not as strong and there is a high availability of competing amenities in the middle and outer suburbs.

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  5. Great to see this blog, btw, keep up the great work!
    I think a major aspect of Christchurch’s layout is historical. The city really grew up in the early part of the 20th century, just as the car became the desirable form of transport. Similar things have happened in the relatively new cities in, e.g., the US (LA), compared to the old cities of Europe and even New York where city housing infrastructure was established when horse and cart and walking were the primary means of transport. This meant that, by necessity, everything in those old cities had to be close together so density was encouraged.
    In other cities in NZ, you have natural transit corridors defined by geography (Wellington has valleys, Auckland has isthmuses surrounded by water) that constrain where you can build and travel. Christchurch, however, is flat so with a car you can live and travel anywhere! I’m 53 and I can remember wide, quiet roads in my youth that you could just about lie down and go to sleep on with no danger. Those same roads now are busy and congested. We created an infrastructure (with relative post-WWii wealth) centred around the car and the fact that we all wanted the “quarter acre paradise”.
    Another factor leading to sprawl in Chch is that it’s relatively financially profitable for property developers to create big green fields developments on the outskirts, where they can create economies of scale rather than the less profitable approach of creating infill housing. From the CCC’s point of view, if you want to up your rates take (to pay for all the new projects) and the only option on offer are those big new subdivisions, what are you going to do?

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