Pedaling potential: Emissions reductions of cycling

A recent report from the European Cyclists’ Federation, a continent-wide advocacy group, undertakes a massive task in quantifying the CO2 savings from cycling in Europe. The report paints a rosier picture than one might expect: increasing bicycle riding alone could achieve a 60 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions from the transport sector – making up a full quarter of its 2050 emissions target. Another surprising finding: e-bikes are similar to regular bikes in terms of emissions, even though they use electricity. This is due to the fact that they allow for a longer commute, meaning they can substitute for more car trips in their model. So what does their model look like? They use a model for three different scenarios: avoiding travel, shifting travel modes, and improving travel modes to estimate how each strategy would affect emissions. Obviously, avoiding travel is not a very likely scenario, and even if it were the best from an emissions standpoint, it probably wouldn’t be good news for the economy if everyone were to stay put. In the improvement scenario, the authors warn of a “rebound effect,” whereby more efficient vehicles reduce emissions for trips of equal distance, but actually seem to induce longer trips. Therefore, in absolute, emissions could actually rise. And, they report, even without the rebound effect, improvement alone would not achieve EU emissions targets.

So, the last hope is modal shift – the replacing of car, bus, or train trips with trips by bicycle. Bicycle sharing programs and “inter-modality” investments – facilitating trips of multiple modes in one trip chain – are keys to promoting the shift. Bolder policies, such as congestion pricing, will be required discourage the rebound effect.

The report reminds us again that technology, alone, is not the answer to curbing greenhouse gas emissions. They found that innovations on transport technology, like cleaner burning and electric vehicles, will only reduce emissions by 20 percent. This suggests that the vast majority of public investment dollars, and new transport policies, should be focused on mode shift to the bicycle.

-- Terra Curtis