The "financial health" benefits of biking and walking

By Ben Mack

The benefits of encouraging biking and walking outweigh the costs by ten to one, according to a new study from Victoria University of Wellington and the New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities. Will it be something cities in Aotearoa take into account when planning for the future?

Does walking and biking pay? Of course, it’s a lot better for our health than driving everywhere. But a new cost-benefit study published by Victoria University of Wellington and the New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities has found that a walking and cycling programme is a good return on investment. In other words: it’s also good for cities’ financial health.

 Biking and walking makes good financial sense. Photo credit: Camilla Rutherford.

Biking and walking makes good financial sense. Photo credit: Camilla Rutherford.

The study – conducted in New Plymouth and Hastings – found the benefits of walking and cycling, especially the positive health effects and reduction in carbon emissions from having fewer cars on the road, outweighed the costs of building better facilities and educational campaigns by ten to one.

Victoria University Associate Professor Ralph Chapman says there hasn’t been a “robust” analysis of the economic benefits of New Zealand’s Model Communities Programme (MCP) – with “model communities” defined as urban environments where walking and cycling are offered as the easiest transport choices for people to get around.

 Walkers in Kelburn, Wellington. Photo credit; Julian Apse.

Walkers in Kelburn, Wellington. Photo credit; Julian Apse.

In short, the MCP funded investment in New Plymouth and Hastings in cycle paths, walking and cycling facilities, cycle parking, “shared spaces,” cycle skills training programmes, and media campaigns and events like “Share the Road.”

The study estimated the benefits of health and other outcomes by comparing New Plymouth and Hastings with two similar cities not participating in the MCP. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the research found the most important economic benefits were health gains from use of “active transport” – in other words, that walking or biking around was better than remaining sitting when driving a car or riding public transport.

 Hagley Park in Christchurch - photo credit; Julian Apse.

Hagley Park in Christchurch - photo credit; Julian Apse.

The study estimated that the annual benefits were two lives saved, plus reduced rates of cardiac diseases, diabetes, cancer, and respiratory diseases – all things numerous other studies worldwide, of course, have shown walking and cycling reduce.

Says Chapman: “An estimate of the reductions in transport-related carbon emissions showed that the carbon savings are modest compared with the health gains, but are nevertheless valuable as we transition to a low-carbon economy.”

That’s not all. “The study demonstrates that the ‘benefit-to-cost’ ratio of the investment made by two city councils together with the New Zealand Transport Agency is around ten to one,” he says. “The study provides hard evidence of the benefits of investing in walking and cycling infrastructure and educational programmes, which comfortably exceed the costs. This is particularly useful at a time when the government is finalising its policy statement on land transport.”

So what will our cities look like five years from now? Great question. But it seems planners and various officials would do well to consider the benefits of cycleways and walkways – including from a financial standpoint.

This article was originally published on Idealog Urban