Should you swap your car for a bike to reduce your environmental impact?

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In 1908 Henry Ford made the car affordable to all. He revolutionised car manufacturing with his Model T car, which used an assembly line production technique for the first time, making it quicker and easier to manufacture a car with less labour — and therefore reducing the sale price.

Since then, cars have dominated the transport industry. It’s not unusual for an average household to have two, even three or four, cars sat outside.

We’ve got used to having our own personal mode of transport, and it’s not something many of us want to give up. But cars are also responsible for a high proportion of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing heavily to climate change. So is getting rid of your car, and swapping it for a bike instead, the best option if you want to reduce your environmental impact as an individual?

The true environmental impact of cars

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Photo by Marek Szturc on Unsplash

Simply put: getting rid of your car is the number one thing you can do to reduce your environmental impact as an individual, saving an average of 2.04 tonnes of CO2 equivalent every year.

Annual carbon emissions from our cars top the emissions we generate through our oil and gas energy tariffs, diets full of meat and dairy, and inefficient homes leaking energy at every corner.

And that’s just the emissions from driving the car.

On top of that, before you even get in your new car it’s already responsible for somewhere between 6 tonnes (Citroen C1) and 35 tonnes (Land Rover Discovery) of carbon emissions.

This is due to the energy needed to extract the metals which make up the bulk of the car’s frame and the energy needed to bring all the parts together to make the car whole (metal, glass, plastic, rubber, paint etc). Plus, there’s the transportation needed to bring all the parts to one place, and to take the car to you, its new owner.

Every time you drive your car (unless it’s an electric car) you are using petroleum products as the fuel. Extracting petroleum from the earth’s core is highly energy-intensive, as well as damaging local ecosystems. Of course, when that fuel is then burnt to create energy, it also releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere — the direct cause of global warming.

At the same time, the car is also releasing other pollutants, with cars a key cause of air pollution in our towns and cities. We saw first-hand the change that can be made in air pollution from drastically reducing the cars on our roads during the UK COVID-19 lockdown.

The number of cars on our roads, and the number of journeys those cars take, is drastically increasing. Since 1990 road traffic in Great Britain increased from 255 billion miles travelled in 1990 to 328 billion miles in 2018. That’s an increase of 29%.

So should you swap to a bike?

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Photo by yichuan zhan on Unsplash

As much as you may love your car, or find it a convenient way to travel, there’s no getting away from the fact that by driving from A to B you are significantly increasing your environmental impact and carbon footprint.

Cycling, on the other hand, is a very low carbon form of transport. A 2015 study by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy concluded that a dramatic increase (about 20 percent) in cycling worldwide could cut carbon dioxide emissions from transport in our cities by nearly 11% by 2050.

Of course, manufacturing a bike does have a carbon footprint. Bike frames are usually made from steel. The World Steel Association states that approximately 1.9 tonnes of carbon dioxide is produced for every tonne of steel. So, a fairly lightweight bike is still going to be responsible for over 5kg of CO2 emissions. Add to that the transport needed to get all the parts together and to you.

But this is minimal when you compare it to a car, and can be reduced by buying a second-hand bike. And, once you have your bike, you have a zero carbon form of transport.

So, the short answer? Yes, you absolutely should swap your car for a bike. But, it’s not always that simple.

What are the common barriers to cycling instead of driving?

In an ideal world (or maybe just in the Netherlands) there are rows of workers swapping cars for bikes on the daily commute families doing the school drop-off with their tandem bike trailer, elderly couples still making their outings by bike — all with ample space dedicated to bikes and clear road signs. And there’s still plenty of space for pedestrians too, because walking is the epitome of carbon free transport.

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Typical roads in the Netherlands

In the UK, though, many people don’t feel safe cycling. Bike lanes are narrow, full of potholes, and situated right next to other lanes of traffic, so you constantly feel like you’re risking your life next to cars, taxis, and buses. Not every road even has a bike lane at all.

Plus, there’s the distance to consider — driving is quicker and considerably more desirable on rainy days.

When you get to where you’re going, it’s often difficult to find a place to lock your bike up, and impossible to find a covered space away from the eyes of opportunity-grabbing thieves.

All of this can be solved by our councils investing more money in cycling infrastructure. Design roads like those in the Netherlands, which properly divide space between motorists and cyclists. Create direct cycle routes designed for commuting, which bypass roads and go ‘as the crow flies’ to reduce the distance. Place secure bike lockers in the centre of cities. Take bike theft in the local area seriously.

What may take more effort to combat is our emotional tie to cars. Motorists tend to get very defensive when you suggest making changes to ‘their’ road infrastructure to improve the situation for cyclists.

I live in Oxford, where trials are currently taking place for pedestrianising some streets in the city centre, placing bus gates at certain entries to the city (meaning only buses can pass, and forcing cars to go around rather than through the city), and creating a low traffic neighbourhood in one residential neighbourhood. All of this has very little impact on motorists, maybe adding on a few minutes to their commute. But it would have a hugely positive impact for cyclists, making it safer and more attractive to cycle in the city centre, and thereby persuading more people to get out of their cars and traffic jams and onto bikes or their feet.

From the reaction, you’d think the plan was to take people’s cars from them, crush them, and never allow them to own one again. Anti-campaigns have been set up, and local councillors and community groups receive constant abuse on community Facebook pages for the plans.

It will take more than just increasing spend on cycling to combat this, but ultimately we can’t have it both ways. Either we prioritise cyclists and pedestrians, reduce road space for motorists, and actually do something about the climate emergency we’re already at the centre of. Or we do nothing, allow motorists to reign, and continue churning out carbon emissions from our transportation system of individual tin boxes lining up for hours on end on dysfunctional roads.

Are there any other options?

If you can’t make the switch to cycling, here are some alternative actions you could take.

  • Cycling. I know I know, this is supposed to be about options other than cycling. But even if your commute is too long to make cycling a viable option for all your journeys, it’s still worth getting a (cheap, second-hand) bike for shorter journeys — or even just for fun and exercise.
  • Public transport. If you can make a journey by bus or train instead of by car, you’ll still reduce your carbon footprint drastically, simply because more people can fit on one vehicle.
  • Car-sharing. Instead of owning your own car, could you car-share for your daily commute? Or use the local car club car at the weekends?
  • Keep your old car. Unless you have very high mileage it’s usually more sustainable to keep your car for as long as possible, because manufacturing a new vehicle is carbon-intensive. This argument is true for electric cars too — you’re still better off keeping your old car until it’s no longer road-worthy rather than buying the latest electric model.

If local cycling infrastructure (or lack thereof) is your reason for not being able to swap to cycling, make sure you use your voice to do something about that. Write to your local councillors and MPs directly to ask them to make improvements. It’s also worth looking for local cycling/active travel/liveable streets groups near you too, as they may already be working on improvement plans which you could support.

If you liked this post, you might also like my posts on other common decisions which influence your environmental impact:

Ramblings on communication and our climate crisis🌱

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