A week from now we’ll gather in Glasgow to send a strong message to the powers that be: This machine fights climate change. As we make our final push for this big mobilisation we wanted to pause for a moment and reflect how they achieve this miraculous feat.
We all know how bikes fight climate change – it’s obvious, right? Every time we hop on a bike instead of into a car, we avoid 100-200g of CO2 emissions for every kilometre we travel (there are slightly raised emissions from the additional food cyclists eat but, unless we’re fuelling our bike rides on Wagyu beef and air-freighted asparagus, they only add up to about 20g of CO2 per km – and that includes the carbon emissions from making the bike)
But that’s just one way cycling can help tackle the climate emergency. Here are five more ways that rebuilding our lives – and streets – around active travel, and especially cycling, can combat the current crisis – all of which remain the case even if all cars had magically become zero-emissions vehicles that ran on sunshine and fresh air:
1. Bikes make dense cities work
For all we might fantasise about running away to the country and living off the land, cities can be the most sustainable places to live — as long as they’re dense enough. The tenements of Glasgow and Edinburgh are actually a perfect example of the sort of ‘gentle density’ that can give people enough space to breathe while also providing affordable housing without sprawl. But car parking is the enemy of density and, once we make space for parked cars and traffic flow, we crowd out opportunities to walk or cycle. Urban motorways blight the neighbourhoods they pass through, minimum parking standards leave shops, flats and offices stranded in a sea of tarmac, and pavements on narrow streets get co-opted as parking places (be they legally or otherwise).
By enabling people to ride bikes, we can break this vicious cycle. More people cycling means more car-free households, freeing up precious space for the things we all need: turning parking to parklets, having more room for affordable housing, 24 hour bus lanes, and returning our pavements to pedestrians. Our cities become quieter, cleaner, safer and just nicer places to be, which in turn means families don’t leave, older people can stay independent longer even if they can no longer drive, and more people feel safe enough to cycle too, further freeing up space. By replacing the vicious cycle with a virtuous one, towns and cities no longer have to eat into the surrounding countryside in order to grow.
Reshaping our cities in this way will take time, but it starts with the simple step of gradually making it harder and more expensive to park a private car (without a disabled blue badge) – and repurposing that space towards walking, buses and, especially, cycling.
2. Bikes and public transport can reinforce each other
Once you have a car, leaving it in the driveway and taking a bus or a train can feel like an unaffordable luxury, especially with privatised public transport. If you have to drive to catch a train, or take a bus to sit in the same traffic you would have driven through, it just becomes easier to drive the whole way. This makes public transport less viable as fewer people use it — especially buses when services are cut and buses are caught up in traffic, making them increasingly unreliable and inconvenient and less attractive to anyone with a viable alternative.
Once you cycle enough to do without a car, the equation changes. Buses and, especially, trains, become magical extenders of your cycling range and, without the sunk costs involved in running a car, a more affordable option. You may not use the bus every day if you can cycle instead, but you’re more likely to take it than if you had a car as an alternative, helping to support bus services. It’s even better if you can take your bike ON the train or the bus – but that doesn’t have to be necessary if there’s good, secure bike parking at interchanges. More cyclists also means fewer cars holding up buses, so bus journeys become more reliable. And once people start using bikes for the ‘last mile’ – or last few miles – each individual service can reach more people without having to (literally) go around the houses, making it possible to design shorter bus routes and offer more frequent services.
Public transport has taken a hammering during the pandemic but, as COVID fears ease, it’s time to start thinking how to better integrate bikes into the transit network. Better bike carriages and bike buses might be part of that, but something as simple as bike parking at bus stops, and better cycling routes to and from bus and train stations are the obvious first step. Subsidising bike purchases, and even a car scrappage scheme to encourage people to switch to ebikes, could help remove the temptation to drive for many people – especially if combined with car share schemes for those journeys for which a car is the only practical option.
3. Getting people out of cars builds strong local communities
If the only way you see a town or city is through the windscreen of a car, you get a very different picture of it than if you walk or cycle through it instead – by definition, you’re going to be seeing its busiest streets. Ease of parking becomes a premium, making big shops in out-of-town sites more attractive than those in the centre. And in turn, just by driving through them, you can make neighbourhoods less cohesive and community focused, with people living on busy streets having fewer connections to their neighbours than those on quiet ones. We all become lonelier, divided from our neighbours by sheets of toughened glass, and by rivers of traffic and deafening noise.
Get out of the car and walk and cycle, however, and suddenly the picture changes. Even in big cities we see more of what’s going on, exchange nods and smiles, and feel like we’re part of the place rather than just passing through. We are more likely to shop locally, favouring small independent retailers who in turn invest more in the local community, cutting food miles and meaning fewer profits are siphoned off into faceless offshore investment firms. Once we feel part of a strong community we can start to act collectively and things like community gardens, repair shops, tool libraries and swap schemes can thrive. Eyes on the street make more people feel safe to walk, cycle, and stop and chat – and there are more people to keep a friendly eye on vulnerable people in the community.
Closing residential areas to through traffic – while keeping them open to people on bikes and on foot – can turn a congested rat run into the sort of low traffic neighbourhood we take for granted on newer housing estates. These schemes can meet fierce opposition, and they need to be carefully planned to make sure they don’t simply displace cars onto less favoured streets. However, once they are bedded in, most opposition evaporates – along with lots of the traffic. One way to build support for these schemes can be to start with temporary closures for street parties and play streets. The community this builds can help create the connections and hold the difficult conversations involved in making more permanent schemes a success and making sure they work for everyone, including people living on the main roads where the through traffic remains.
4. Being outside connects us to our environment
Just as we become a little detached from the cities we drive through, so to can we become detached from the environment if we spend our lives in heated or cooled comfort, gliding along smooth roads, insulated from the weather. Once ‘the outdoors’ becomes something that you make a special trip to go and see, it also becomes something you can set aside. Recent extreme weather events in Europe and North America have brought the climate emergency right to our doorsteps. However, once the fires have been extinguished and the flooding recedes, the urgency dissipates and climate change becomes a more abstract concern.
Those of us who primarily walk and cycle for transport experience our surroundings differently, and that includes the natural world. One of the massive bonuses from getting out of your car is the wildlife you see, whether you’re out in the countryside or riding through parks or along canals or even city streets. Cycling and walking with your kids gives them crucial opportunities to touch and smell and experience nature, opportunities which are so much rarer now that children spend less time playing out independently. And it is also something available to all children, not just those whose parents have the wherewithal to take them on trips to nature reserves – perhaps with their bikes on a rack on the back of the car. Many of our most ardent environmental campaigners, like Chris Packham, have spoken of how it was a profound connection to nature as children that fuels their campaigning now. But we can make the connection at any age – as long as we take the time to step outside and experience the world around us.
Focusing our efforts around the school run is one powerful way to bootstrap a generation of environmentally aware children. School streets – where traffic is restricted around school run time, are a quick measure to encourage parents to walk and cycle to school with their kids. Bike buses and walking buses – where kids can ride or walk in groups for safety in numbers – can be set up even if school streets are too contentious. Cutting traffic and removing parking also makes space in cities for nature. When you’re small enough, the tiniest of green spaces can feel like a whole kingdom. A toddler can lose what feels like hours examining a stick or a passing snail – giving them the time and space and places to do that is what will help them grow up ready to defend the natural world. And we’re going to need every eco warrior we’ve got …
5. Cycling is self-care
For those of us worried about the environment, the last few years have been tough. As warning after warning is sounded and ignored, it’s easy to feel helpless and despair about the future. Cycle campaigning gives many of us a way to counter those feelings and take back some control over the places where we live and our impact on the planet. But it’s tough. It can be tedious, thankless and sometimes unproductive work and people burn out all too frequently. Sometimes we need to put the consultation documents aside, close the laptop, put down our phones and just get out on our bikes. An hour or so spent pedalling, out in the open air, with no agenda other than to get somewhere or just get moving is sometimes all it takes to charge the battery again and return to the fray.
This is the easiest (and hardest) step to take of all. However deeply you’re involved, and however busy you have become, don’t let your campaigning crowd out the time you need to reconnect with the thing that got you started on it in the first place. That consultation document can wait. Your bike is also waiting, ready to give you the boost you need to keep on going for the long haul. Get out there and enjoy it.