Using bikes for serious emissions reduction

Bicycles in a square

According to the European Cycling Federation, if the whole of the EU cycled like the Danes, they could achieve significant emissions cuts.

If the EU cycling rate was the same as it is in Denmark, where the average person cycles almost 600 miles (965km) each year, then the bloc would attain anything from 12% to 26% of its targeted transport emissions reduction, depending on what forms of transport the cycling replaced, according to the report by the Brussels-based European Cycling Federation (ECF).

This figure is likely to be a significant underestimate as it deliberately excludes the environmental impact of building road infrastructure and parking, or maintaining and disposing of cars.

These figures are for the EU’s 2050 emissions reduction target.  The figures are even greater for 2020 targets.

Bikes are not a new technology that would require long adoption periods and high initial capital costs.  Almost everyone knows how to use them, and they are cheap.  They also have myriad co-benefits, not least of which is increased physical activity.  To get serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we should take a close look at the bike as a potential solution.

Using ECF’s study as a model and making some estimates, the Twin Cities metro could see some significant emissions reductions if we biked like the Danes, but getting there would be tough.  I’ll get to that, but first some initial thoughts on the Europeans.

  • Europeans already cycle a lot more than Twin Citians in total miles.  According to the study, in 2000 they rode 188 km (117 miles) per person, per year.  Using data from the Metropolitan Council’s Travel Behavior Inventory, I estimate that TC residents (the TBI included 20 counties) ride close to 60 miles per person, per year.  That’s probably higher for 7 county residents, but still pretty lackluster compared to our Old World counterparts.  This could relate to a lot of things – the cost of travel, origin/destination density, infrastructure design or climate.  It’s likely a combination of all of these that make cycling more attractive in Europe.They also bike a lot more as a share.  Twin Cities residents drive close to 6,000 miles per person per year and 89% of our trips are made in a car.  Biking makes up 1.5% of our trips (again, 20 county).  The ECF study mentions a 2010 survey of EU-15 residents which says that 7% of citizens say a bike is their main mode of transport.
  • The Danish are crazy (in love with the bicycle).  Imagine riding your bike ten times as many miles as you do now in a year (and probably cutting your car use by as much or more).
  • The EU goal for cutting transport emissions is 10% below 2005 levels by 2020.  This significant as we start to compare Twin Cities numbers, since our State plans identify a 30% emissions reduction in transport emissions by 2025.  When you start comparing percentages of percentages, it’s useful to keep these different targets in mind.

So what about us?  Although you might not know it, the State of Minnesota adopted an emissions reduction target in 2007.  Assuming we could increase local cycling rates significantly, what might be the impact?  How close would that get us to the State’s emissions reduction target?

Because I’m familiar with the TBI, I focused on the Twin Cities metro and looked at the percentage of emissions we’re responsible for by population.  I think it’s also more likely (though I’m not sure) that we can be more successful increasing bicycle usage in the metro versus the state given densities and the state of infrastructure.  I used population data from Met Council and the State Demographer.

Assuming trip distances have stayed flat since 2000, we probably cycled about 150 million miles in 2005, which is close to 60 miles per person per year.  The emissions savings (versus an automobile) would have been about 70,000 metric tons, which becomes a baseline which we can subtract from future calculations of savings (in other words, how much was bicycling saving us in 2005).

If we were to double the percent of trips made by bicycle by 2025 (to 3%) in the 7-county metro, we would save 190,000 metric tons from 2005 levels, which is about 2.5% of the metro’s share of reduction identified by the state for the transportation sector, and a 0.5% of the total reduction needed from the metro area.  Tripling the cycling rate (to 4.5% of trips) would save 290,000 metric tons and get us to almost 4% of the transportation emissions reductions needed for the metro and 1% of the total reduction needed.  (Unlike the ECF study, I didn’t break out the miles that were replaced between walking, busing and the car; I assumed they were all car trips.  However, I also didn’t include any lifecycle impacts of automobiles, which the ECF study did.)

If we got all the way up to Danish level of cycling (600 miles per year, per person) we might save 900,000 metric tons, which is close to 20% of the transport sector emissions reductions needed for the metro and almost 4.5% of the total metro emissions reductions needed.  To reach 600 miles per person per year would require something north of 15% of all trips to be made by bicycle, which is possible without increasing the average trip distance for which people tend to use a bicycle.  The average trip by bike according to the 2000 TBI was 2.3 miles while 28% of all trips were 2 miles or less.

(My back of the spreadsheet calculation doesn’t include an estimate of induced demand, the idea that more people riding bikes will free up more road space for autos which will likely be filled lacking additional disincentives (like a carbon tax).  If biking truly did increase significantly, you could expect some auto lanes to be converted to bike lanes, but certainly not enough to counteract the newly freed road space (cars take up a lot more room than bikes).  I’m also assuming total VMT remains flat, because if it goes up at the same time the share of trips made by bike goes up, we might not see an overall emissions reduction.)

Twenty percent of the reduction needed from transport is a significant figure.  But is this really doable?  Can we possibly increase individual use of the bicycle 10 fold over current levels?

There are northern (snowy) cities that have significantly higher bike mode share.  The Montreal region has a 7% bike mode share for trips to work, which probably indicates that the percentage of all trips is above 7%.  However, the Montreal region has 3.5 million people living at 2,200 people per square mile while the Twin Cities (7-county) is under 1,000 people per square mile.  The Twin Cities land area is also almost double that of the Montreal CMA.  No doubt those densities make a difference in how accessible destinations are by bike.

Besides density, urban design is probably the other major barrier.  Outside of the core cities, accessing destinations outside of your residential subdivision almost universally requires traveling on high-speed arterials which rarely have accommodations for bikes, and certainly don’t have the design features that make riders feel safe.

Building a 7-county region that could accommodate/encourage a 15% trip mode share for bikes would be a massive undertaking.  Infrastructure can be changed rapidly (theoretically), but land use patterns can’t.  It would probably be better to target sub-regional areas with higher densities and well-connected street grids and promote infrastructure and land use changes that would move active transportation (walk, bike, bus) shares well beyond 15%.

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