The European Cyclists Federation recently released a study that compares the CO2 emissions of bicycling to transit and driving a car. The goal of the study is to encourage EU leaders to push cycling rather than things like low emission vehicles such as electric cars as a larger part of their efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. According to the data, if bicycle use in all EU countries increased to Danish levels, they could reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by a whopping 25%.
Because Denmark has significantly higher bicycle use than most of the other countries in the EU, the study made the point that even cities with relatively low levels of cycling can realize big increases with a relatively small investment compared to the cost of developing alternative technology cars. The study cited Seville, Spain as an example of just such a city, where the construction of protected bike lanes and the addition of a bike sharing system resulted in cycling increasing tenfold in just three years.
Once again, bicycling seems to be a simple, cost-effective solution to a very complex problem. Cycling can play an important role in helping the EU meet its self-imposed emissions target, of 80% and 90% reductions on 1990 greenhouse gas emission levels by 2050.
The study is newsworthy because it went beyond simply using trip distance to calculate emissions reductions and factored in the entire life cycle of the mode of transportation. It started with the emissions from vehicle production, added the lifetime maintenance and factored in the more typical emissions related to use of fossil fuels. The study even went so far as to include the production of food and caloric intake as a fuel for people who ride bicycles.
It will come as no surprise that even if people who ride bicycles eat a lot more food, the bicycle is the clear winner for least amount of greenhouse gasses per passenger kilometer traveled. When the emissions for the complete life cycle of each mode is calculated, here’s how they stack up (results in grams of CO2 per passenger per kilometer traveled):
- Bicycle: 21 g
- Electric-assist bicycle: 22 g (e-bikes scored well due to larger range of standard bicycle and therefore greater chance to replace passenger car trips)
- Passenger car: 271 g (based on short trips similar to those a bicycle could make)
- Bus: 101 g
To download a full copy of the fact and chart filled report, click here (PDF). Before a bunch of readers jump in and comment on the photos that accompany the report, I will say that the images immediately made me cringe. Both the images show happy Europeans bucking rides and there is not a helmet to be seen, despite the fact that the report was produced by the European Cycling Federation, the leading bicycle advocacy organization overseas. The helmet issue is a tricky one for advocacy organizations like the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, but I thought this was a good place to discuss it a bit.
Let me begin by saying that the staff at the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin are bicycle advocates, not helmet advocates (FYI, there are helmet advocates). Our job is to get more butts on bikes. Of course we want to do that in a responsible manner, and part of that is teaching bicycle safety. The staff at the Bike Fed are all League Certified Instructors, trained and insured to teach children and adults.
When we teach, we typically start our safety classes with a statement that riding a bicycle is already an incredibly safe thing to do if you ride sensibly within your abilities and follow the rules of the road in traffic. In fact, most statistics show it to be safer than driving a car, even if you don’t wear a helmet.
Even though we know this to be true, and many bicycle safety experts I know don’t wear helmets when riding in urban traffic, at the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, when asked, we always advise people to wear helmets. In fact, you cannot even get on a bicycle in one of our safety classes without one. Is that hypocritical? It think it is a bit, but it also recognizes that the US is not Europe.
The US does not have the cycling culture, the driving culture if expecting to see cyclists, or the bicycle infrastructure of most European countries. It doesn’t matter if I can prove it is ten times safer to ride a bicycle than it is to drive a car, a significant percentage of the Bike Fed’s members want us to promote helmet use. It doesn’t matter if there hasn’t been a cycling related death in years in downtown Milwaukee, if I show a photo of someone without a helmet riding a bicycle down the bike lanes on Water Street, I am going to be admonished by a number of our readers.
As bicycle advocates, we often point to places like the Netherlands or Copenhagen as cycling nirvana. We push our cities to build Dutch-style cycletracks, we laud the percentage of people riding in Copenhagen, but we conveniently ignore the fact that most people there do not wear helmets.
Cycling for transportation is becoming more mainstream in the US. The majority of trips taken by bicycle are now transportation related rather than for recreation or sport. As more and more people choose to hop on bikes for short trips around town, anecdotally it looks to me like I see a decreasing percentage of people wearing helmets. Perhaps that is inevitable as more people ride.
I know that bringing up the helmet topic is a bit like discussing politics at the Christmas dinner table - best avoided if possible. Generally I try to avoid it, but I have to confess that because I now represent the Bike Fed and a number of our members are strong advocates for helmets, I have stopped photographing many of the things I used to feature on the personal blog I used to write, Over the Bars.
What do you think about the helmet debate? Should we stick to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” plan, always advocate for helmets or is it OK to reflect the fact that many people don’t wear helmets?