The bike has been around for several centuries now. Bikes, especially in Europe, represented the most important means of transport during the early 1900’s. With car ownership becoming popular in the 60’s and policies favouring motorised transport, cars very rapidly conquered our roads and knocked bicycles off their pedestal. Today, road transport accounts for over 70% of all emissions from transport (European Commission, 2019)! How much would these emissions shrink if we brought back the bike on a big scale again?
The passenger car is still the main mode of travel in Europe and the car fleet keeps growing. Paradoxically, after spending a considerate amount of money on a private car, it is parked 92% of its lifetime, 1% stuck in traffic, 2% desperately searching for parking and the remaining mere 5% driving, mostly with a lonely driver inside (Qu et al., 2017; Ellen McArthur Foundation, 2015).
Fortunately, on the other hand, efforts to promote cycling are growing within Europe. Academic research on the health, societal and environmental benefits of cycling is also rapidly expanding. Meanwhile, more and more people are perceiving cycling as part of their identity, lifestyle and even status. Biking today has clearly become more than a simple mode of transport but has grown as a key component of visions of sustainable urban mobility. Can we say that we are witnessing a comeback of the bike? And is such as simple thing as cycling truly the solution to reduce emissions in the fight against climate change?
Cycling as a mode of transport has many advantages for both cyclists and society: it is a low-cost, low-polluting, health-improving way to travel. By being affordable for virtually anyone, cycling is also one of the fairest means of transport. In short, it is hard to beat cycling when it comes to environmental, social and economic sustainability.
Pro-cycling policies have been found to be successful not only for combating traffic jams but also, more importantly, for the improvement of public health by reducing risks of cardiovascular, cancer as well as obesity morbidity. Research has furthermore demonstrated that cycling health-benefits also overshadow its related risks, such as higher intake of polluted air (Tainio et al., 2016).
Transport is responsible for about a quarter of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions and represents the only major sector in the European Union where emissions continue to rise. Nevertheless, there are some great role models: the average Danish citizen travels every year around 965km on their bike, which means that over 7% of all road transport is done by muscle power. If we could increase cycling rates in all of the EU up to the Danish level, this would meet 26% of the transport emissions reductions we need to achieve by 2050 (European Cyclists’ Federation, 2016).
A recent Cost-Benefit analysis in Copenhagen, taking into account air pollution, climate change, road wear, health and accidents, revealed that whilst each kilometre travelled by cars represents a cost to society (-€0.15/km), each bicycle km is a gain to society (+€0.16/km). The researchers also found that the current societal benefits of cycling in Copenhagen equate to €228 million per year (Gössling and Choi, 2015).
As the cost of car driving is very likely to further increase in the future, such Cost-Benefit Analyses not only convincingly demonstrate that investing in cycling policies and infrastructure is economically justified but also that the true impact of driving a car is not reflected in current costs. Due to continued urban sprawl and a lack of safe infrastructure even in the most developed nations (which can turn cycling into a terrifying experience), driving is often the most practical alternative. In a world in which air pollution causes 7 million premature deaths each year and where physical inactivity is the 4th largest risk factor for death, how can we let this happen?
Profound changes in transport choices require new transport cultures and urban re-design which increase the attractiveness of sustainable means of transport such as cycling. Yes, planning and building interventions come with a price tag but these investments yield a high rate of return from all environmental, social, health and economic perspectives. As it is us, the citizens, who will either stand for the costs or enjoy the benefits of future transport systems, it is also up to us to make our voices heard in these matters.
John F. Kennedy once said: “Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.”. In today’s era of climate change, it is more than just that if you move beyond personal health gains and also consider all societal and environmental benefits. Cycling may not be the panacea in the fight against climate change, but it is one of many simple yet effective solutions. So grab your handlebars, vote for politicians who care about sustainable mobility and try to get involved in the shaping of your environment!
Text: Nina Litman-Roventa
Photo: Jasmin Järvinen
Model: Carolina Suni
Graphics: Anna Eriksson
European Commission, 2019
European Cyclists' Federation, 2016
Gössling and Choi, 2015
Ellen McArthur Foundation, 2015
Tainio et al., 2016