04 December 2012

The Bicycle Option for Longer Distances

Cycle tracks on both side of every motorway leading to #Copenhagen. #bike
Motorway 16, north of Copenhagen. Cycle tracks on either side.

The discussion continues unabated, around the world, about whether the bicycle can perform as a transport mode at distances above 5 km and thus present itself as alternative for motorized vehicles.

First, let's consider this quote:
”In the late 19th century, large numbers of women were already using bicycles to get to work, women office workers and shop assistants wending their way each weekday morning from the suburbs to the town. They found the bicycle a convenient form of transport for distances up to, say, ten miles”.
Plucked from John Woodeforde's book ”The Story of the Bicycle”, 1970

So the bicycle as an effective performer at longer distances is nothing new. Nevertheless, we're relearning the bicycle story.

A published peer-reviewed conference paper (full version here - on google docs), based on my Masters’ degree thesis in Environmental Engineering (specializing in Urban Planning), included an assessment on the environmental, economic and time aspects regarding bicycle use on longer distances – in this case it was 15 km. To sum it up in a few words: yes, the bicycle is an option, even for longer distances. The one condition is having (at least) quality public transport of an average level.

The study was done in Lisbon, Portugal.

For this part of the work, the following methodology was used: over a total of 33 days, data was collected regarding bicycle trips. Data such as time spent, costs, maximum speed, average speed, temperature, etc, was collected along the chosen routes.

Despite the difficulties throughout the whole year of the thesis, I was fortunate to be the one creating, collecting and treating my own data -- this is a cyclist and data geek's nirvana. Nevertheless, here’s a small small preview of the data file:

In this particular case, a river had to be crossed (from Lisbon to Almada) so the options to cross it were by train or ferry. The first and last sections of the the commute were by bicycle. After this fieldwork, a car trip was simulated in order to compare with the bicycle (and public transportation) use.

Thus, the routes studied were the following:

Route: bicycle (green) + boat (red)
Route: bicycle (green) + train (blue)

And then a car trip was simulated:

Route: car commute simulation
The total trip of every route was about the same: 15 km. This made the comparison between the bicycle (with the public transportation) and the car possible. Among other conclusions, it was possible to verify that:
  • Depending on the hour of commuting, the bicycle (used with the public transportation) was faster than the car;
  • The bicycle combined with the train pollutes eight times less than the car. Combined with the ferry, pollutes six times less;
  • Using the bicycle and the train would result in a cost saving four times greater than the car. With the ferry, the cost benefit was seven times greater than with the car;
  • An average worker in Greater Lisbon works three days per month just to pay for his car.
In other words, good public transportation is essential to the success of the bicycle for longer trips. By saying ‘good’ it means that it’s a public transportation that is suitable for the bicycle and is reliable and easy to use.

There's no need to be the most hardcore cyclist to travel longer distances. If the transportation system can work as whole, and regards the bicycle users as a solid market, then it is possible to commute on longer distances by bicycle. According to this study, it won't cost you more -- whether is time or money -- and you'll pollute a whole lot less. 


Rui said...

Nice one Pedro! :)

Let's say the temperature column (far-right) is something to envy! :D

I cycled in Lisbon for many years, and now I cycle in Würzburg, in the north of Bavaria, in Germany.

But to that I can say, I am never cold, and I prefer the German environment to the portuguese. That's because I hate to sweat when I cycle, and here I just have to study what I'll wear. Not to mention that I prefer 10 days of snow to 1 of rain.

I did some calculations of my own. And using the bicycle, for the 8km to my work, and the train, for when I want to go somewhere out of town, I am still saving more than 1000 euros a year. And I accounted for an old cheap car that would work for 10 years!

Really nice article, and thanks for your paper. Now, I have something to show my stubborn friends.


Richard Johns said...

I don't know what position this blog takes on electric bicycles, but in my view they have a contribution to make, especially for commutes in the 5-20km range.
Ebikes generally aren't much faster than regular bikes, except in hilly areas, yet on a 15km ride (say) they can reduce the time from perhaps 45 min to 40 or 35min, which is useful. The main thing with an ebike though is that the pedalling effort is constant and enjoyable, as you never have to work really hard. So longer rides do not seem like a chore, or just for the super fit.

Edward said...

My daily commute is only 7km. In my experience, the car is no faster. The bus can be but it depends on waiting time.

One of the more valuable aspects of taking the bicycle is the consistency of journey time. That is, regardless of the weather and traffic volumes, my journey is more or less the same time every day. That consistency is valuable to me as much as the journey time.

Miles Bader said...

Of course bikes are an option for longer distances. With a good route, some time to spare, good weather, for somebody in good condition, it's a fine option.

But it also seems fairly clear that the sweet spot for mass bicycle usage is somewhat shorter distances... beyond that, a good transit network is really necessary.

So I'd say the bicycling infrastructure should be optimized for local usage with good facilities for multi-mode travel (parking etc).

Having bike "trunk routes" here and there is a nice idea too, but doesn't seem a priority, and certainly shouldn't come at the cost of local infrastructure.

[Some bike advocates on other forums seem to be continually pushing for bike infrastructure optimized for high speed and long distances... while this may suit their style well, I don't think it would be a good focus for public investment...]

David Arditti said...

Why would you not optimise bike infrastructure for high speed, Miles? Whether it is used for long distances depends on whether it goes for a long distance. If it does, some cyclists will use it for that. The example of the Netherlands in fact shows that very high quality infrastructure on a country-wide scale causes a remarkable number of people to make very long bike journeys. You can cycle at any speed on top-quality infrastructure, but you need top-quality infrastructure to cycle fast on.

Ἀντισθένης said...

I miss Lisbon. That is a fine city. Cannot comment on bicycling there.

I have commuted 12-24km by bike in Tokyo, 25km from downtown Toronto to one of its suburbs (Mississauga), and 6km within another of its suburbs (Brampton). In most cases the bike was the best option. A few notes:
- the most troublesome thing is not having a shower after long bike commutes
- if you keep a car the savings are nominal
- unless your N.American city is over a million people giving up the car reduces your mobility too greatly
- if you can rid yourself of that anchor, spend what you want on bikes, transit, and rent cars often, you'll still save well over $5K/year
- you need decent transit back-up for snow days and other 'weather events'
- bicycle infrastructure matters far less than the attitudes of police and the courts to drivers and thieves (Tokyo excellent; Toronto execrable)
- long distance bicycle commuting can be most of your exercise plan

Miles Bader said...

Infrastructure that is optimal for one use is not necessarily optimal for another, and if they are competing for funds/space/mindshare, then some choice needs to be made.

For instance, there's a guy who's always advocating for grade-separated "bike highways" in NYC, elimination of signals, etc.

Such grade-separated "highways" would be great for high-speeds and long distance, but don't sound so good for local usage, because they isolate riders from the areas they are riding through and make it harder to get on/off. Moreover, because they would be fairly expensive and maybe consume limited rights-of-ways available for grade-separation, they would take resources from other perhaps more practical uses (local bike routes, bike parking, etc, and rail and other uses for the ROW).

So, where it's possible to enable long-distance/high-speed routes without much cost (e.g. using part of an existing auto trunk-route), then sure go for it. But when it comes to competition for resources, I think local uses generally deserve the nod.

Behooving Moving said...

Speaking purely as a smug, genetically superior, hyper competitive and arrogant jerk, I have to call 15km a minimum distance to work, if one wants any kind of endorphins buzz from their daily commute. Okay, so that's not an evangelistic message, because the unconverted are not genetically superior etc etc, but it is a kind of myopic truth that cannot be suppressed.
btw, thanks for a nice piece of research

Pedro Madruga said...

@Rui, I also prefer cycling in Copenhagen than in Lisbon, for many reasons. I cycled in Lisbon for 4 or 5 years, and did a lot of kilometres while collecting data for my thesis. And yes, I love cycling in the snow as well.

Thank you for your kind words. I'll post my full thesis (in PT) as soon as I have an OK from my faculty (bureaucracies...).

@Richard, personally, I'm not font of the electric bike. I'm not going into details on this but, for a 15km commute, the point is that the public transportation can be a great option -- no need for e-bikes and/or big muscles. And you also can try more than one type of transport just to break the repetition of the daily commuting routes.

@Edward, I agree. The consistency is due to depending on ourselves for the commute.

@Miles, Even with a bad weather -- like right now in Copenhagen (snowing a lot) -- people are commuting and doing inter-modality. But the point is, shorter distances should be the first thing to consider (when it doesn't already exist). It's indeed a waste of money when you jump right into expensive infrastructure. But, in some cases, the infrastructure for longer commutes already exist: public transportation.

@David, Nice. Do they use it for longer commutes as well (performed solely by bike)?

@Ἀντισθένης, I think you're ignoring the price of gas on that one. Even if you keep the car, you still save a lot of money by not using it.

@Behooving Moving, you're welcome.

Bernardo Campos Pereira said...

Excelente Pedro!
Did you prepare comparative studies which included other areas of metropolitan Lisbon but which provide alternative routes?
I'm referring specifically to some* of Lisbon's other suburban corridors which have some sort of alternative routes available for car traffic, and municipal policies have been consistently pro-automobile, unlike this area, where the 25 de Abril bridge works as a bottleneck, bogging-down car-traffic and municipal strategy isn't so clearly pro-car.
*Namely the Lisbon-Cascais A5/N6 corridor, but also the Lisbon-V.Franca A1/N10 corridor, and to a lesser extent the IC19 Lisbon-Sintra corridor or the A8 Lisbon-Loures corridor?
*We're hoping this becomes a hot issue at the next municipal elections in the greater Lisbon area, especially at the most automobile dependant municipality in Portugal, Oeiras.

Pedro Madruga said...

@Bernardo, a warm thank you for your comment. I research a lot for this article and my Thesis, but we're still in period where studies are scarce, unfortunately. But we're getting there and please use my article for bicycle advocacy.

Belén Goitia said...

I cycle 14km to work in Buenos Aires, which has a rather poor cycling infrastructure (the city government is making a big effort to make the place bicycle-friendly, though)and it takes me about the same time if I go by car or bus, so I guess that unless you live in a city built for cars, riding a bike is the best option for a medium to long commute.
As for e-bikes, I don't think they are a good option in some countries. Before getting one, make sure the power you'll use to charge the battery comes from clean sources, otherwise it's a highly polluting vehicle!