People for BikesPeople for Bikes

September 20, 2021

Tackling Climate Change One Ride at a Time

By: Jack Foersterling, copywriter and editor

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Research proves that bikes can help lower our carbon emissions, and making a difference might not be as difficult as we think.

Our nation, and our world, stand at a critical point for taking action against climate change. According to a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a scientific branch of the United Nations, without immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting global temperature warming to 1.5 or even 2 degrees celsius will be beyond reach. With that forecasted increase in temperature, the extreme droughts, heat waves, forest fires and floods the world is currently experiencing will likely continue to worsen for at least the next 30 years.

The report states the cause of this warming is clear: human activity. The largest contributor being the burning of coal, oil and other fossil fuels that began in the 19th century as a byproduct of the industrial revolution. One major solution is also clear: an aggressive curbing of carbon emissions is necessary.

In a world so heavily reliant on burning fossil fuels, that task might seem daunting, bordering on completely unrealistic to some. However, when you dive into the numbers, you might be surprised by how the small act of riding your bike can make a big difference in achieving these monumental climate goals.

Let’s start by looking at the big picture: According to a 2019 study from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), transportation is responsible for the largest share of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions — 29% of overall emissions by economic sector. 58% of these transportation-related emissions come from passenger vehicles. When Americans take 1.1 billion trips every day — four for every person in the U.S. — and 87% of those trips are made in personal vehicles, it’s easy to see why our emissions from transportation are so staggeringly high.

So, where do bikes come into the equation? Unsurprisingly, bikes are one of the lowest carbon-emitting modes of transportation. Private vehicles emit 0.96 pounds of carbon per mile, buses emit 0.64 pounds/mile and bikes only emit 0.07 pounds/mile — taking into account the emissions from manufacturing the bike and the food required to “fuel” the rider. Because electric bicycles require less “fuel” (calories burned) to ride the same distance as traditional bikes, they come in at an astoundingly low 0.05 pounds of carbon emitted per mile.

According to a study conducted in Europe, if 10% of the population were to replace one car trip a day with a bike ride, overall carbon emissions from transportation would drop an equal 10%. The same study showed that choosing to ride your bike instead of driving just once a day could reduce your personal transportation-related emissions by 67%. Research done by Portland State University showed that if 15% of car trips were instead taken by electric bicycle, we could see a 12% decrease in transportation-related emissions.

Now the question is, how do we get people to shift their travel from four wheels to two? Thankfully, the data is still on our side. The Federal Highway Administration’s 2017 National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) provides an in-depth look at Americans’ travel behaviors and reveals some staggering statistics. Remember that 1.1 billion trips per day number from earlier? According to the NHTS, 48% of those daily trips are 3 miles or less, and just over 20% are 1 mile or less. To view that data through a bicycling lens, half of all trips taken by Americans every day could be made by a 15-minute-or-less bike ride.

Of course, we understand that replacing 100% of one’s car trips with bike rides isn’t feasible for many Americans, but replacing just a few, short trips every week can still lead to tremendous results. Next time you jump in the car, reset your trip odometer and see how far you really travel. Odds are, it was probably a pretty short trip. Depending on where you went, you may have even spent more time searching for a parking spot than on the road itself. 

Whether you’re commuting to work, running to the grocery store for a last-minute ingredient or just stopping by to see a friend, choosing to ride a bike instead of driving will not only provide you the mental and physical benefits of getting outside and being active, it will help make the planet a cleaner, healthier, more liveable place. Combating climate change may seem like a daunting task to an individual, but if we all work together, we can make a big difference one ride at a time.    


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