The transportation sector is responsible for 25% of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions globally, with a staggering 45% of those emissions coming from road transport such as cars, buses, motorcycles, and taxis. This statistic far outweighs the emissions attributable to heavy forms of transportation like road freight (heavy trucks) at 29%, aviation at 11%, and shipping at 10%. In the U.S., 87% of passenger miles traveled in 2019 were by car or light truck. What’s more, as incomes rise in emerging economies, so too is personal vehicle adoption, which in many cases is coming in the form of larger vehicles like SUVs which have seen their market share increase markedly in recent years. 

These trends are at odds with global efforts to reduce GHGs (greenhouse gas) emissions and transition to sustainable forms of energy, which were recently under the spotlight at the Climate Conference (COP26) in Glasgow. The theme for the conference’s 11th day was transport; countries, cities, and automakers that were present released a statement pledging to end the sale of combustible engine vehicles by 2040 and no later than 2035 in leading markets. However, missing from this pledge were the world’s two largest automakers – Toyota and Volkswagen – as well as the world’s largest auto markets – the U.S., China, and Germany – which dealt a major blow to the pledges’ legitimacy. 

Also noticeably absent from transport day at COP26 was discussion of alternative modes of transport, such as bikes, electric scooters, and expanded public transportation. The only space dedicated to these alternate modes was at the bottom of the declaration, in which it briefly noted that “alongside the shift to zero emission vehicles, a sustainable future for road transport will require wider system transformation, including support for active travel, public and shared transport.” 

The primary focus on accelerating the shift to electric vehicles seen at COP26 is the wrong strategy for rapidly reducing GHGs from the transportation sector. Moreover, the shift to electric vehicles does not address the many other negative externalities resulting from an overreliance on personal vehicle transport. Instead of prioritizing continued car use, a smarter, bolder, and more effective strategy for transportation decarbonization would have placed cycling and other alternate modes at its center.

The Obsession with Personal Transport

The failure to include meaningful pledges on cycling and other alternative transportation modes in the COP26 declaration attracted criticism from many. For example, a joint statement from more than 180 cycling organizations worldwide was submitted to stress cycling’s important role in making rapid progress against GHG levels. 

It is not difficult to imagine the positive difference on the environment that trips by bike instead of car – whether electric or gasoline power –  can have. One study recently found that cycling or walking to your various destinations for just one day a week can reduce a person’s carbon footprint by half a tonne per year. For reference, in North America, where per capita emissions are among the highest globally, the average person emits 14 tonnes of carbon a year, while over 80% of people drive to work alone.  

These numbers are clearly unsustainable and go beyond just the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere. Cities’ obsession with personal vehicle transport, particularly North American ones, costs billions in lost productivity each year due to congestion, causes hundreds of thousands of premature deaths due to pollution, and kills and maims millions globally through accidents. Meanwhile, cyclists had 84% lower emissions from daily travel than non-cyclists, and apart from the obvious cardiovascular benefits, cycling has been shown to have positive mental health benefits such as reduced anxiety. Additionally, the amount of space in an urban area that a single-occupancy vehicle consumes compared to bikes is significant, with congestion of cars being an inevitable phenomenon under current policies and usage levels. 

Envisioning a Different Urban Future

Why, then, are world leaders at COP26 focusing primarily on switching to electric vehicles when a simpler, cheaper, and more beneficial option is available? Many possible answers include the sector’s importance to many economies, the stubbornness of drivers who may perceive cycling as too burdensome, or simply that leaders view electric vehicle promotion as more flashy for marketing purposes. One study presented at COP26 on transportation day even showed that unless 40% of miles traveled in urban areas are by alternate modes, limiting warming to 1.5C will be impossible. This reality is a far cry from current North American figures and even many European and Asian cities. Electric car adoption is increasing, but not fast enough, with prices still out of reach for most people and many manufacturers experiencing problems with output and supply chain backlogs. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, a rapid reimagination of urban planning and transportation is possible, with sidewalk cafes quickly replacing parking spots and bike sales experiencing an unprecedented increase. Policies aimed to make cycling safer and more user-friendly would surely result in even greater adoption following this post-pandemic increase. Thankfully, many cities not traditionally committed to prioritizing cycling are already shifting towards better infrastructure and adoption, such as Paris, which has seen a rapid uptick in the number of trips by bike in recent years. This decision is partly due to a concerted effort by the city to make cycling more accessible with the construction of dedicated cycling infrastructure and other incentives. 

Changing Consumer Mindsets

The switch to cycling does not have to be viewed as some insurmountable challenge facing cities, policymakers, and regular citizens. On the contrary, cycling can immediately replace a substantial proportion of trips taken in cities around the world. For example, in the U.S some 60% of all trips were six miles or less, a distance that can be traveled easily by bike, especially with the growing popularity of electric assist motors. Choosing cycling as a more common method then would hardly be a sacrificial inconvenience, as one would no longer have to worry about parking, could skip the traffic, and save money in the process. 

Accelerating the number of trips by bike will be a matter of policy and investment for municipal and national governments, one that goes beyond cycling promotion and into urban planning and development issues. For instance, advocacy work to decrease transport-related emissions by the International Energy Agency highlights the need to “orient urban planning towards dense, well-planned cities that wisely allocate street space to shared and active transport modes.” Unfortunately, such language was largely missing from that released at COP26.

To achieve positive environmental change, it will require local governments to build large amounts of dedicated bike infrastructure to address safety issues, ban personal vehicle use in city centers, and undertake public engagement campaigns. Often, these policies are usually initially highly unpopular. Still, it is undeniable that they eventually help people who are considering taking up cycling to feel more comfortable, as the case of the Burrard Bridge in Vancouver, Canada showed. 

That’s not to say that consumers should not pursue the switch to electric vehicles, as they will still be required for those in rural areas or for work purposes. The bottom line is that there is a need to reduce emissions through all possible angles. However, alternative modes of urban transportation, done primarily through cycling, are low-hanging fruit when it comes to a rapid decrease in emissions from the transportation sector. It is far easier than figuring out how to make electric planes or ships that run on hydrogen. Despite alternate models of transport largely missing at COP26, it does not mean that cities should not continue to pursue their rapid adoption and reap the economic and health benefits in the process. 

Edited by Pearl Zhou

Jack Leevers

Jack is from a small town on Vancouver Island, B.C. He graduated from Simon Fraser University with a B.A. in International Studies in 2019. Currently, his main interests lie in energy politics, environmental...