A Global Shift to Cycling Would Cut Carbon and Save $25 Trillion

A new report finds big payoffs in getting people out of their cars and onto bikes.
Cyclists ride alongside a streetcar in the Mid-Market neighborhood of San Francisco for Bike to Work Day on May 14. (Photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
Nov 12, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

If more people rode bicycles to work every day, there would be far greater benefits than just less congested highways and quieter streets.

A global shift to cycling and electric biking could slash greenhouse gas emissions from transportation by more than 10 percent and save society $25 trillion by 2050, according to a study released Thursday by the University of California, Davis, and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in New York.

The report looks at how bicycling and electric biking could be increased in locations around the world, analyzing what a “business as usual” scenario for transportation would look like compared with a “high-shift cycling” scenario.

Lew Fulton, study coauthor and codirector of UC Davis’ NextSTEPS program at the Institute of Transportation Studies, said cycling accounts for about 6 percent of urban trips worldwide.

“Urban trips” are designated as rides under six miles in length, and the study found that more than half of urban cycling trips occur in the bike-friendly cities of China, Japan, and a few European countries, such as Denmark and the Netherlands.

In the United States, only 1 percent of urban trips are by bicycle.

According to the research, if the right investments and policies are put in place worldwide, bicycle and e-bike trips could account for as much as 14 percent of urban miles traveled. That could lead to huge cost reductions in new car-related infrastructure, maintenance, and fuel costs and a significant reduction in carbon emissions from transportation.

RELATED: The 20 Most Bike-Friendly Cities in the World

Jacob Mason, transport research and evaluation manager for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and a study coauthor, said the study underestimates the true savings of a shift from cars to bikes, as it doesn’t include health savings from increased exercise, lower pollution, and fewer vehicle-rel­ated injuries.

Getting non-biking-friendly cities on board won’t be simple, according to Fulton.

“We do not claim achieving our high-shift cycling scenario will be easy; rather, it will require a major commitment and policies by municipal as well as regional/national governments around the world,” he said in an email. “But we think it is quite possible, since the targets we’ve identified have already been achieved by many cities.”

Cities such as York, England; Copenhagen, Denmark; and those in China and Japan have invested in cycling infrastructure and have created a cycling culture, Fulton said.

The report lists options for making cities more bike-friendly:

  • Building networks of cycling and e-bike infrastructure
  • Implementing bike-share programs
  • Investing in walking facilities and public transport
  • Planning growth to prioritize cycling, walking, and public transport trips
  • Repealing motor vehicle subsidies
  • Adopting motor vehicle management policies such as congestion pricing, demand-based road tolling, and fees for vehicle miles traveled

“As more people cycle, there is a positive feedback loop where more people see that this is possible and become interested, and drivers become more aware of cyclists, making this safer,” Fulton said. “But governments must make infrastructure investments and create a supportive policy and physical environment (safety rules with good enforcement, for example) to get the process going.”

The new report follows a similar study published last year by UC Davis and ITDP that looked at the cost savings and emissions reductions a global shift toward more public transit would create.

“When we compare the full high-shift scenario compared to a business-as-usual case, the total CO2 savings by 2050 is actually 47 percent,” Fulton said. “So we estimate that we can cut world urban passenger CO2 emissions by almost half in 2050 with our full high-shift scenario, compared to a business-as-usual future.”