The bicycle is ten times “cleaner” than the electric car in town

City dwellers who use the bicycle for only one trip per day reduce their carbon footprint by around half a tonne of CO2 / year – © Marcos Rivas / Unsplash

  • People who cycle daily emit 84% less carbon than others, according to our partner The Conversation.
  • One way to reduce transport-related emissions – relatively quickly and potentially on a global scale – would therefore be to swap cars for cycling, e-biking and walking, these so-called “active” modes of travel.
  • The analysis of this phenomenon was carried out by Christian Brand, lecturer in transport, energy and environment at the University of Oxford (England).

In 2020, globally, only one in 50 new cars was electric. Even if every new car coming out of factories today was electric, it would still take 15 to 20 years to replace the
global vehicle fleet operating thanks to
fossil fuels.

The reductions in greenhouse gas and particulate matter emissions resulting from replacing all of these heat engines with low-carbon alternatives will not be quick enough to make a difference in the few years that remain to us.

To tackle the climate and atmospheric pollution crises, all motorized transport must be reduced as quickly as possible, especially passenger cars. However, by focusing solely on electric vehicles, we are slowing down the race towards a drastic drop in emissions.

Electric, but not “zero carbon”

This is partly explained by the fact that electric cars are not not really “zero carbon” – the extraction of raw materials for their batteries, their manufacture and the production of electricity for their operation produce emissions.

Transport is one of the most difficult sectors to decarbonize: this because of its heavy use of fossil fuels and its dependence on carbon-intensive infrastructure – we think of roads, airports and vehicles. themselves – and also how it integrates car dependent lifestyles.

One way to reduce transport-related emissions – relatively quickly and potentially globally – is to swap cars for cycling, e-biking and walking – these so-called “active” modes of travel.

Temporary cycle paths have sprung up in cities around the world during the pandemic, such as here in London © Texturemaster / Shutterstock (via The Conversation)

Measuring the impact of active travel

Active modes of travel are cheaper, healthier, less harmful to the environment and do not clutter the streets of often saturated cities.

But exactly how many carbon emissions can they save us on a daily basis? And what is their role in reducing overall emissions from the transport sector?

In a new study published in April 2021, my colleagues and I identified that people walking or cycling have a carbon footprint lower during their daily trips, especially in town.

One of the important points of our work concerns the fact that if walking and cycling are sometimes added to motorized travel (rather than replacing it), more people adopting active modes of transport would reduce emissions. of carbon from transport on a daily basis, and trip by trip.

84% less emissions for bicycles

We followed around 4,000 people, living in London, Antwerp, Barcelona, ​​Vienna, Orebro, Rome and Zurich. For two years, our participants filled out some 10,000 travel diaries. They recorded all their daily trips there: going to work by train, taking the children to school by car, taking the bus, etc.

For each trip, we calculated the carbon footprint. One result particularly struck us: people who used their bikes every day emitted 84% less carbon than others.

We also found that for someone who switched from car to bike just one day a week, their carbon footprint reduction was as high as 3.2 kg of CO₂ ; this is equivalent to the emissions generated by a car driving 10 km, a serving of lamb or chocolate, or sending 800 emails.

10 times more fuel-efficient than an electric car

When we compared the life cycle of each mode of travel – taking into account the carbon emissions generated for its manufacture, its power and its fuel consumption – We noticed whereas cycling emissions can be 30 times or more lower, for each trip, than those associated with driving a fossil fuel car; and about ten times lower than those associated with driving an electric car.

The energy and ecological impact of electric vehicles must be taken into account as a whole © I Wei Huang / Shutterstock (via The Conversation)

We also estimate that city dwellers who switch from car to bike for just one trip per day reduce their carbon footprint by about half a tonne of CO₂ over a year; they thus save the equivalent of the emissions of a one-way flight from London to New York.

If only one in five city dwellers permanently changed their travel behavior in this way over the next few years, we estimate that this will reduce emissions from all car trips in Europe by around 8%.

Lessons from the pandemic

Almost half of the decline in daily CO₂ emissions observed during global lockdowns in 2020 comes from the reduction in transport-related emissions.

The pandemic has forced countries around the world to adapt to reduce the spread of the virus. In the UK, walking and cycling were the big winners, with a 20% increase in the number of people walking regularly and an increase in the number of cyclists of 9% on weekdays and 58% on weekends compared to pre-pandemic levels. This is despite the fact that cyclists are very likely to work from home.

Active travel has offered an alternative to the car while preserving social distance. They have kept people safe during the pandemic and could help reduce emissions as isolation is eased; especially since the high price of some electric vehicles may discourage many potential buyers.

The race is therefore on. Active travel can contribute to the fight against the climate emergency further upstream than electric vehicles, while providing affordable, reliable, clean, healthy means of transport… and allowing traffic congestion to be reduced.

This analysis was written by Christian Brand, Senior Lecturer in Transport, Energy and Environment at the University of Oxford (England).
The original article was published on the website of
The Conversation.

Declaration of interests

Christian Brand has received funding from the European Union (“Physical Activity through Sustainable Transport Approaches” project) and from the UK Research and Innovation (via the Center for Research on Energy Demand Solutions and the UK Energy Research Center).

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