Here’s what happens when countries use bicycles to fight emissions

Transport produces approx a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, and passenger cars account for more than half of that number. As such, almost every plan for future emissions reductions includes some variant of getting people out of internal combustion engine vehicles—typically in electric versions of the same vehicle. But a few countries have found an alternative way to cut emissions: Denmark and the Netherlands both have bike-centric transport, banning many people from the car altogether.

An international team of researchers decided to investigate what factors enabled these countries to make this shift and what might happen if more countries adopted a similar transport focus. Two conclusions are clear: it is difficult to obtain reliable data on bicycles, and bicycle-oriented transport could avoid emissions equivalent to those of a decent industrialized country.

How many bikes are there?

We have very good numbers on motor vehicle usage through government mandated registration and registration dates. This is almost never the case with bicycles, so the researchers had to estimate the number of bicycles present in most countries. To do this, they took manufacturing, import and export figures and combined them in a model with information on how long bikes typically last before being scrapped. The data goes back to 2015, so it’s a bit out of date as the pandemic has boosted cycling in many countries. But the countries they were able to estimate for account for 95 percent of global GDP.

Vehicle usage data is not available in every country. In some cases it was estimated based on local data from the country; in others, the estimate was derived from countries with similar demographic characteristics.

At least in sheer numbers, bicycles are far more common than cars, with over 4.5 billion bicycles produced since the 1960s, about 2.4 times the number of cars. More than half of these have landed in just five countries: China, the US, India, Japan and Germany, with China owning almost a quarter of the world bicycle total. However, per capita figures varied quite a bit, with smaller, more affluent countries having the highest bike-to-body ratios. Places like Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway all have more than one bike per person.

Overall, the researchers divided the countries into five categories. One of these categories included countries with low GDP and few cars or bicycles. In another category, which includes China, Chile and Brazil, car ownership grew rapidly but from low levels, and bicycle ownership increased slowly or not at all. A similar category included the same pattern, but assumed higher levels of ownership of both vehicle types. This included places like Italy, Poland and Portugal.

The category, which included countries such as Australia, Canada and the US, had high ownership percentages for both bicycles and cars, but tended to use the cars much more frequently. Researchers attributed this in part to their “huge expanses of land.” Finally, the developed European countries category was characterized by very high bicycle ownership and stable car ownership, but with citizens who actually use their bicycle. Here the authors suggest that “basic transportation needs have already been met, and the pursuit of greener and healthier living has fueled the increase in bicycle ownership.”

There are some strange cases. Some affluent societies, such as Japan and Switzerland, have many cars but a spectacular public transportation system that reduces their use. Some wealthy European nations, like Norway, have weather and terrain that discourage cycling. And a number of countries with high road fatality rates, such as Brazil, Russia and Thailand, also have low levels of cycling.

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