Cycle culture vs infrastructure?

I’ve been noticing lately that a lot of things are being framed as a dichotomy. For example, a post appeared on Cycling in Auckland a while ago that drew heated debate. Its premise was that, if you’re trying to get more people on bikes, the current focus on infrastructure is pretty well pointless and we should be trying to develop a bike culture instead.

So is it really a question of one or the other?

Here’s what I think. If I look back on my own experience of starting to ride again, it was bike culture that caught my attention and it was infrastructure that convinced me to do it.

In – I think – May 2010 the Dominion Post ran a two-page spread in their lifestyle pull-out featuring Mamachari bikes, Laurie Foon and a whole lot of other cycle chic stuff. Until then I hadn’t really considered that I might be able to cycle with my clothes on. I’d assumed skirts and dresses couldn’t be done, and for someone who’s rarely in anything else that was a big deal.

I already had an exceptionally stylish friend who rode everywhere, so I met up with him and we talked about bikes and clothes and what might be possible. He pointed out that my home was at one end of the waterfront and my work was at the other, so if I wanted to bike my commute I’d be as safe as houses.

About a month later I saw a bike on Trade Me, and, loving its look but knowing nothing whatsoever about it’s quality, took the plunge and bought it. My friend came around, checked everything was working and took me for a ride along the waterfront.

I loved it! I felt so safe, but I also felt like I was floating. I refused to go home after our first venture up Oriental Bay and back, so we went exploring along the waterfront right up to the concourse at Westpac Stadium.

Having those twin pillars of culture and infrastructure made all the difference for me, so I don’t think I can buy in to any debate that holds one above the other. We need them both if we’re going to make cycling ordinary.

Image credit: Patrick Morgan

16 thoughts on “Cycle culture vs infrastructure?

  1. ilikebike

    You’re certainly correct that one shouldn’t exist without the other, as culture and infrastructure pair together quite well. However given that they coexist so well, the infrastructure has to match the culture, and this is where we have a clash of sorts.

    For instance, you wrote about riding along the waterfront on your bike while getting to wear your clothes. All well and good. But, whatever infrastructure we build in wellington we have to take into account the geography, which for most wellingtonians involves some pretty gnarly hills and breaking a hell of a sweat wherever they go, because most live quite a way from the waterfront.

    This means that whatever nascent cycling culture comes of this, it’s going to involve carrying a change of clothes and finding a shower if we’re planning on spending any time in polite company once we get where we’re going The result of which will be that most won’t choose to cycle. People are lazy and will take the path of least resistance, which in wellington is big, yellow, manned by angry bitter drivers, and costs $3.50 for two stages.

    I live in Newtown and commute to work every day, which I have a great time doing, but I certainly wouldn’t even consider it if there weren’t facilities at my office building to make myself presentable to my colleagues afterwards. I love cycling around the city, but i’ll be the first to admit that it’s only for those of us who truly enjoy it. Whatever our infrastructure becomes, you can be sure that most people won’t use it, because as a culture, New Zealanders are fairly lazy folks (as evidenced by our shocking ranking in world obesity statistics).


    1. Fortunately the hills are generally on the way home. Until recently I lived in Hataitai and I never once needed to shower and/or change at work.

      If I lived up a hill again I’d probably get an electric bike. I’ve seen a few around and I hear they’re huge in Europe. They’re practically designed with Wellington in mind!

      Here’s the thing – I don’t think we’re lazy. We’ve just designed it that way. Places that design active transport into their cities have active people. Places that design for laziness don’t. A non-cycling acquaintance was telling me about her recent year in Copenhagen – what really struck her was that in that whole time she only saw one fat person. One.

      A colleague said to me the other day that the car was the greatest invention for human mobility. My reply was “Only because we’ve designed it like that”.


    2. I think the hill aspect of things is a bit overstated. The entire CBD is on the flat (you don’t get much flatter than reclaimed land). Mostly the hills are residential areas, rather than places people go to work. I live in Johnsonville and commute to Miramar: my ride is as flat as a pancake except for the drop down the gorge. I’d bet that 80% of potential cycle commuters work at an altitude lower than, or comparable to, where they live. That means that the big sweaty bit is likely to be on the return trip – and I’m going to assume that most people have a shower at home.

      Talking to coworkers, the hills do get mentioned a bit as a potential barrier. But the big bugbear seems to be the perceived danger of cycling. Looking at, say, the barriers to someone living in Island Bay cycling into the CBD of a morning, the fact that you have to ride up a hill is certainly a problem – but the narrowness of Adelaide Road is probably more of one. Many new cyclists find the experience of motorists going past 10cm from their right elbow quite disconcerting. Which is why I think that infrastructure is key: look at how well the existing arterial cycle routes (say, Hutt Road/Thorndon Quay, or the waterfront) get used. A car-free route from Island Bay would reduce the perceived danger, and help encourage more people to give it a go.

      I’m interested as to why infrastructure vs culture seems to be presented as an oppositional thing. To my mind, they’re a (potential) virtuous circle; as the infrastructure goes in place, more people are likely to try riding to work, which encourages the cultural aspect, and so on. And there’s another important distinction: infrastructure is a real, concrete thing (literally so in many cases), which costs actual money and requires lobbying of politicians to get it installed. Cycle culture is an intangible, psychological thing, which doesn’t cost a penny and requires people to think “hey wow, that looks like fun and doesn’t seem to difficult, I should give it a go”. They’re totally different realms. We can, and should, concentrate on both.


      1. I agree with Jack. That’s why cycling advocates work for both an active cycling culture and investment in quality infrastructure.
        CAN: more people on bikes, more often.
        What do we want?
        1. Connected cycleways in cities, and shoulders on key rural roads.
        2. On-road cycle training in schools and for adults who want to cycle for transport.
        3. A new, fresh public education programme for safe road use. for more.


      2. Simon Kennett

        I agree, too. Although I do think culture needs to lead the way. It would be quite possible to have 10% of people riding to work in Wellington with no improvement to infrastructure at all, IF we had a positive, pro-cycling culture. Then the infrastructure would probably follow (and the ‘virtuous circle’ goes round and round). In fact, that’s pretty much the story of the last 20 years of cycling in Wellington (which has seen an increase from about 1% to 2.5%+ for commuting mode share for cycling).

        To lead with infrastructure first would not necessarily lead to a major increase in cycling, if the general populace think cycle commuting is un-cool, that’s a deal-breaker. On the rare occassion I visit Auckland, I see a lot of empty-looking cycle paths – of course they have lots of challenges, but a pervasive motoring culture is at the top of the list imho. In Wellington the motoring culture faces some strong competition from PT and walking (which can be good stepping-stones to cycling as a commuter option).

        @ ilikebike – My exchanges with bus drivers have been generally pretty positive lately. Have you tried smiling or giving them a wave? Usually works a treat.


  2. Stumbled upon this during some online reading today and it reminded me of the discussion going on here. I thought I’d share:

    A consistent message thus emerges from our Davis bicycle studies: while good infrastructure is necessary to get many people bicycling, it is not sufficient for getting most people bicycling. In our studies, the effect of infrastructure on bicycling appears to be as much indirect as direct, since good infrastructure attracts bicycling-inclined residents to the area by increasing bicycling comfort and enjoyment. But, as Davis demonstrates, even with good infrastructure cities hoping to increase bicycling will need to find ways to change attitudes. For example, training programs for children and adults can help to increase confidence in bicycling ability, while promotional events may help to increase liking to bicycle. Such activities encourage more residents to take advantage of the opportunity to bicycle that good infrastructure provides.

    full article here:


  3. As the author of the party pooping post Lisa referred to, I feel I should clarify that I’ve never suggested that infrastructure isn’t important.

    However the idea that our dominant cycle culture might not be credible and attractive enough to encourage fast development of the infrastructure we need for really significant modal share is new to some. So that stirred some debate.

    So I’m glad to see the issue aired here, because I do believe our prevailing agressive, sports-dominated cycle culture is the biggest barrier to cycling’s rapid take-up.

    I tend to agree with most here, that BOTH a high value, aspirational culture AND decent infrastructure are essential for significant cycling growth – which will in turn lead to the “safety in numbers” we see in truly successful cycling societies.

    But how to prioritize? Amongst cycle advocates, this is almost self-managed: People who are motivated about infrastructure, advocate for cycleways. And people who are concerned about cycle culture, are opening our eyes to a more normalized, less aggressive approach to more satisfying journeys. Even if a bit more mutual appreciation would go to creating a more homogeneous and effective advocacy.

    But it is institutions, and the allocation of public resources that will ultimately count most, no matter how much pedaling, blogging, cycle-styling etc we do. And that’s where the current imbalance is so limiting. Those who are publicly funded to promote a more balanced modal share, haven’ t shown they have the first idea how to get people on bikes – at least not if their best idea is getting more of us into road worker dangerwear, which is most of what we see meagre cycling information campaigns spent on.

    Institutionally, we are seeing some modest improvement in infrastructure, but no effective promotion to speak of, when in practical terms, i tend to agree with Simon here that culture is best placed to lead the way, in creating a demand for infrastructure.

    This isn’t just a gut feeling – its also the main conclusion of the NZTA’s own Wellington-based research – though god knows if they’ll ever act on it.

    As long as cycling isn’t something that regular folks can even aspire to, then they won’t support the investment in infrastructure needed to make it more practical. (In the lead up to the Auckland Supercity elections, just 5% supported spending more on cycling infrastructure.)

    I’m not so sure we could hit as much as Simon’s 10% modal share without significant infrastructure improvements, but I’m positive that with truly aspirational, culturally focussed marketing, as private car advertising enjoys, we would see many more prepared to hit the road, or the footpath, on two wheels, even in the here and now.


    1. Simon Kennett

      Interesting post, Tim.

      WRT NZTA research report 426, we’re acting on it here in the Wellington region, for sure. [Having peer reviewed a couple of drafts of the report, it was motivating me before it was published, but you should give others a chance – the wheels of local government have a modest cadence].

      We have a great workplace travel programme that helps people get back into active transport (including a bike buddies scheme) –

      Our online journey planner is about to be complimented by a new set of Regional Cycling Maps which feature everyday cycling on all the cover panels.

      Our main office has groovy bike racks (under cover) right by the front door, and our pool bikes in the main foyer.

      We also need to address valid safety concerns, but on the whole we stress that the positive aspects of cycling outweigh the risks.


  4. “…in New Zealand, there is no ground swell of support for an equitable transport system let alone quality cycling infrastructure. That’s why Councils will struggle for a mandate to build dedicated, separated cycle paths on arterial roads. It’s not the lack of money or engineering expertise. It’s about the unwillingness to remove car parking or allocate car space to cycling”.


    1. Simon Kennett

      Very true, however attitudes are shifting in the right direction. There is more support for cycling amongst the wider community now than, say, a decade ago. Evidence for this includes much increased budgets for cycling infrastructure and an increase in the popularity of recreatiional cycling. Cycling imagery is generally seen as positive now, and is often used in the marketing of non-cycling products (including Council long term visions).


  5. Pingback: What Comes First; the Infrastructure or the Bike? | Bike Lane Living

  6. Jack J. Jiang

    The cycling culture vs the infrastructure has been an area of interest for me for a while.. I was stuck on this topic for at least 5 month during my research..
    The cycling culture sure is growing quietly but steadily in the western countries, and the authorities then might do something on infrastrcture about keeping and perhaps growing that cycing culture.
    While cycling culture and infrastructure go hand in had, I think that improving the planning and design methodologies, cycling infrastcrure delivery methods and the overall quality of the infrastructure should be researched further.
    There is no doubt that authorities would like a ‘green’ image, therefore spendings on cycling infrastructure is just a matter of time. However, when that time comes, how and what are we going to spend that money on?


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