Now that the Paris Accord on climate change is a done deal, there’s a lot of talk about “now the real work begins”, and how people are going to have to change their driving habits, buy more electric cars, better insulate their houses, and even use less electricity in their homes.
Largely absent from this mix is the need to get more people on their bicycles. This is particularly odd because in most jurisdictions, the largest, or second largest, source of greenhouse gas emissions is the transportation sector, the bulk of which comes from motor vehicles on our roads. At the same time, we know that one of the most inexpensive and effective ways to lower carbon emissions in this sector is to get more people to use bicycles for basic transportation needs, especially for relatively short distances in urban areas.
A 2011 European study estimated that a person traveling one kilometre in a car emits 250 grams more carbon dioxide than someone riding the same distance on a bicycle. According to this study, the EU could meet 50% of is target for reducing carbon emissions in the transportation sector if people in all parts of Europe cycled five kilometres a day instead of using their cars. There was another study floating around the Paris conference by the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy and the University of California, Davis, that came to similar conclusions.
The cost effectiveness of using cycling to combat climate change can be found in Portland’s experience in investing in bicycle infrastructure. In a little over 17 years, Portland, Oregon, went from nowhere to become the premier cycling city in the States. It has one of the highest rates of bicycle commuters of any of the large urban centers in North America. Portland’s mayor said they did all of this for the “cost of a single mile of freeway”. To many, this seemed to be an outlandish statement, but it was investigated by a journalist and found to be basically true.
With this in mind, you would think that the politicians would race home from the Paris conference touting cycling as one of the more important tools for dealing with climate change. Up to now, hardly a peep about cycling, except for a passing reference in one or two articles in the media.
If they are serious about climate change, politicians are going to have to realize that well meaning provincial or municipal ‘cycling strategies’ that are funded with a little pocket change just won’t cut it anymore. Governments are going to have to set aside significant resources for bicycle infrastructure, and be ready to add a whole new transportation network in our cities in the form of separate bike lanes and related parking facilities. They’re also going to have to change legislation to make roads less car-centric, and to set ambitious targets for getting more people to bicycle to work.
In other words, there is going to have to be a subtle but important transformation in how governments perceive cycling. Instead of viewing it as a ‘nice activity’ that just happens to be healthy, environment friendly, and helpful in reducing road congestion, they are going to have to recognize cycling as one of the more important tools in their arsenal for fighting climate change. Needless to say, cycling will have to be funded accordingly.
This is going to require a bit of money, maybe a twentyfold or even a thirtyfold increase in small amount of funding currently devoted to cycling. If this sounds like a lot, consider that in Ontario, for example, the Auditor-General found that due to a number of bad political decisions, people will be paying $7.8 billion extra for electricity every year for the next 17 years. Think of what could be accomplished if only a small faction of this was spent on bicycle infrastructure projects.
Given the need to reduce carbon emissions in the transportation sector, and the cost effectiveness of cycling for doing so, it seems we have the perfect litmus test to see how serious governments, and the population in general, are about reducing greenhouse gases. If we are serious about this, expect to see cycling take on a whole new importance as a means of transportation in the coming years.
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