Walking and Cycling to Low Carbon

Environment Cyclist in park
image from pixabay (user: stanvpetersen)
ViewsJuly 21st, 2022

Reducing car use is imperative to reducing carbon emissions – but is active travel the answer? Joe Rossiter, Policy and External Affairs Manager of Sustrans tells us more.

Here in Wales, transport is the third highest emitting sector and whilst other sectors have seen large reductions, with transport, emissions remain stubbornly high. Indeed, carbon emissions from the transport sector are 3% higher than they were in 1990. It’s clear that the transport system as it functions now in Wakes is broken and will stop us from reaching net zero by 2050 without a significant change of course.

We know that cycling, e-biking, wheeling and walking are effective at tackling emissions from the transport sector. Not only that, active travel also comes with a host of other benefits for communities such as:

  • improving health and wellbeing,
  • improving air quality,
  • increasing social connection, and
  • bringing benefits to local economies.

While electric vehicles are championed by the motor industry as the way forward, there are still a number of challenges in delivering affordable and accessible electric cars. Aside from being prohibitively expensive, there are serious and legitimate climate concerns around the production process and disposal of e-car batteries, as well as the lack of charging infrastructure outside of major UK cities. Electric cars also have a larger impact on air quality than active travel and still rely on our communities being designed for motor vehicles.

Carbon Emissions

Cycles aren’t beyond reproach when it comes to carbon generated by production, but let’s consider embodied emissions – the carbon emissions that are fixed and belong to a product before it’s been used. The embodied emissions of the average bicycle is around 174kg of CO2 per bike, whereas the embodied emissions of the average petrol/diesel car is 6-7 tonnes and for electric vehicles it’s 10-11 tonnes of CO2.

So yes, walking and cycling can help us tackle carbon emissions, and what’s more they’re life-enhancing and enriching. Research carried out jointly by the University of Oxford’s Transport Studies Unit and Imperial College London’s Centre for Environmental Policy has demonstrated that “increases in active mobility significantly lower carbon footprints in urban settings, including cities that already have a high incidence of walking and cycling.”

We know from the study’s findings that people who switched just making one trip per day from their car to cycling reduced their carbon footprint by about 0.5 tonnes over the course of a year. If 10% of the UK population were to change travel behaviour in this way, the emissions savings would be around 4% of lifecycle CO2 emissions from all car travel.

Welsh Government have made their intentions clear, with a set of ambitious targets for promoting people ditching their cars, so-called modal shift. They are pledging that by 2040, 45% of journeys will be made by public transport, walking and cycling. This represents a 13% shift from car to more sustainable modes and a reorientation of our transport system.

Demand is indeed growing

Since 2019/20, there have been approximately 121 million more trips taken on the National Cycle Network across the UK than the previous year. At the height of the pandemic in 2020, the Network carried approximately 4.9 million users on over 764.8 million trips. These findings from Sustrans’ Paths for Everyone: Three Years On report highlight the huge appetite for active travel.

Improvements to walking and cycling infrastructure like the National Cycle Network can have profound economic and environmental benefits. If two-thirds of the Network became traffic-free and accessible to all by 2040, the economic contribution of the Network to the UK economy would rise to £3.6 billion per year. Investing in the Network, as Welsh Government have committed to, will also help reduce carbon emissions from private transport.

Our recent report into transport poverty demonstrated that most local authority areas in Wales have between 40-50% of households spending more than 10% of their income on the costs of running a car (whether they have one or not). Simply put, walking and cycling is more accessible and affordable.

What’s more, the active travel study mentioned earlier in the article showed that walking and cycling can genuinely be an alternative mode of transport, particularly for city-based populations.

As we navigate through a decisive decade, we must take urgent action to tackle the climate emergency. Decarbonising our transport system has a key role to play in us achieving net zero, and the best way to do this is through getting more people out of their cars and travelling actively.  

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