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Cycling is ten times more important than electric cars to reach cities without a grid

Globally, only one in 50 new cars in 2020 was fully electric and one in 14 in the UK. Sounds impressive, but even if all new cars were electric now, it would take another 15 to 20 years to replace the world’s fleet of fossil fuel cars.

The emissions savings from replacing all of these internal combustion engines with carbon-free alternatives won’t pour in quickly enough to make the necessary difference in the time we can save: the next five years. In order to cope with the climate and air pollution crises, all motorized means of transport, especially private cars, must be contained as quickly as possible. The focus on electric vehicles is slowing the race to zero emissions.

This is partly because electric cars aren’t actually carbon-free – mining the raw materials for their batteries, manufacturing them, and generating the electricity to run them creates emissions.

Transport is one of the most difficult sectors to decarbonise due to its high fossil fuel consumption and reliance on carbon-intensive infrastructure – like roads, airports, and the vehicles themselves – and the way it embeds car-related lifestyles. One way to reduce transport emissions relatively quickly and possibly worldwide is to swap cars for cycling, e-biking and walking – active travel, as it is called.

Active travel is cheaper, healthier, greener, and no slower on congested urban roads. How much carbon can it save on a daily basis? And what role does it play in reducing overall traffic emissions?

In new research, colleagues and I have shown that people who walk or cycle have a lower carbon footprint when they travel every day, even in cities where many people already do. Despite the fact that some walks and bike rides are in addition to rather than replacing motorized journeys, a greater switch to active travel would lead to a reduction in CO2 emissions from daily and travel-related traffic.

What a difference does a trip make?

We observed around 4,000 people in London, Antwerp, Barcelona, ​​Vienna, Örebro, Rome and Zurich. Over a two-year period, our participants filled out 10,000 travel journal entries that served as a record of all the trips they made each day, whether they were taking the train to work, driving the children to school, or taking the bus to town to lead. For every trip we have calculated the carbon footprint.

Notably, people who cycled daily had 84% fewer CO2 emissions from all of their daily trips than those who did not.

We also found that the average person who switched from car to bike just one day a week reduced their carbon footprint by 3.2 kg of CO₂ – equivalent to the emissions from driving 10 km, eating a serving of lamb or chocolate or sending there are 800 emails.

When comparing the life cycle of each driving mode, taking into account the carbon created during manufacture, refueling, and disposal of the vehicle, we found that cycling emissions can be more than 30 times lower on each trip than driving a fossil fuel Fuel car, and about ten times less than driving an electric one.

We also estimate that city dwellers who switched from driving to cycling for just one trip a day reduced their carbon footprint by around half a ton of CO₂ over the course of a year and saved the corresponding emissions of a one-way flight from London to New York . If only one in five city dwellers were to change their travel behavior permanently in this way over the next few years, this would reduce the emissions of all car journeys in Europe by around 8%.

Almost half of the decrease in daily CO2 emissions during the 2020 global closures was due to reductions in traffic emissions. The pandemic forced countries around the world to adapt to reduce the spread of the virus. In the UK, walking and cycling were the big winners. The number of people walking regularly increased by 20% and cycling increased by 9% on weekdays and 58% on weekends compared to pre-pandemic levels. This is despite the likelihood that commuters will work from home.

Active travel offers an alternative to cars that maintains social distancing. It has helped people stay safe during the pandemic and it could help reduce emissions as it eases the limit, especially since the high prices of some electric vehicles are likely to put many potential buyers off for the time being.

So the race is on. Active travel can help tackle the climate emergency sooner than electric vehicles, while providing affordable, reliable, clean, healthy and congested transportation.

Christian Brand, Associate Professor of Transport, Energy and Environment, Department of Transport Studies, Oxford University

This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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