Cycleways Versus Free Public Transport

Recently I saw the following exchange on Twitter, where Canterbury Regional Councillor Megan Hands suggests that making buses free is a better way of reducing emissions than building cycleways.

Firstly, I love that our left and right leaning politicians are past debating whether climate change is a thing or not and are now debating the best way of addressing it.

Secondly I thought Megan’s suggestion is an interesting hypothesis that is worth quickly checking the numbers on. So that’s what I’ll do here.

The cycleway they are talking about is the Coastal Pathway, for which central government recently gave Christchurch City Council $15.8 million to build.

Image from Map Kiwi (

It links Sumner and Redcliffs to the city. The business case modelling said we should expect this cycleway to increase the number of cyclists from about 100 per day to about 800 per day, an increase of 700 per day or 255,500 per year.

A study was recently commissioned investigating free public transport. This found that making public transport free for one year would cost $22.3 million in foregone revenue from fares, and would result in an additional 4.3 million people riding the bus that year.

So our two options are:

Build Coastal Pathway CyclewayMake Buses Free for 1 Year
Cost$15.8 million$22.3 million
Usage0.3 million people per year, into perpetuity4.3 million people, for one year

Free fares would get a far bigger bang-for-buck in the year it was implemented, but then after that year is finished you’re back to normal again. In contrast, the cycleway carries fewer people, but is there more or less forever once you’ve constructed it. It would take about 17 years before it has had the same impact on emissions reduction as the free bus fares option.

Based on these numbers, I feel you could probably make a reasonable argument either way on this one.
Of course it doesn’t have to be one or the other, doing both is an option that we shouldn’t rule out (as is doing neither).

3 thoughts on “Cycleways Versus Free Public Transport

  1. I agree that it should probably not be either or. Car dependency is very high in Christchurch and we need people to ditch their cars. For some cycling is a great alternative, while other people can be tempted by free busses or fast and affordable rail connections. Mode shift should be the aim and investing in a single mode is not likely to achieve this goal.


  2. Great post. Of course “emissions reduction potential” depends on which mode the new trips were previously using (if the trip occurred at all). I seem to remember experience of free fares has been that lots of new trips were previously walked or cycled.

    I’m still undecided on free fares, but I’ve always thought the emissions reduction argument was weaker than the transport benefits argument.


    1. Yea this is a very basic assessment just to try give some ballpark kind of context. Trip length is another thing that’s quite important but makes it way more complicated. There’s always an element of crystal ball gazing.


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