To fight climate change, we need to start biking like the Dutch

If people around the world were as enthusiastic cyclers as they are in the Netherlands, we could cut an impressive amount of planet-heating pollution. The Dutch use bicycles to get around more than folks in any other country, cycling about 2.6 kilometers (1.62 miles) a day.

If that was the trend across the world, it would slash 686 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution a year, according to the authors of a new study published this week in the journal Communications Earth & Environment. That’s enormous — roughly equivalent to erasing one-fifth of CO2 emissions from passenger cars globally in 2015.

Cleaning up pollution from transportation is a huge piece of the puzzle when it comes to slowing down the climate crisis that’s causing more brutal heatwaves, droughts, fires, and storms. Transportation currently makes up a quarter of fuel-related greenhouse gas emissions globally, with half of that coming from passenger cars.

Replacing those gas-guzzlers with electric vehicles gets a lot of media attention as a sure-fire way to keep the climate crisis at a more manageable level. But that transition is happening slowly, and it doesn’t go far enough in reimagining a more sustainable future for transportation.

The bigger picture, beyond cars, includes communities designed to make it easier for people to get around by public transportation, on foot, and on bicycle. Bicycles, in particular, are great for replacing car trips that might be too far to walk and too short for transit, the authors of the new study point out.

They found that bicycle production has actually grown faster than car production between 1962 and 2015. But owning a bike doesn’t cleanly translate to actually using that bike regularly, their study shows. That’s the case in the US, where bicycles tend to be used more for leisure than commuting. Bicycles were used for less than five percent of daily trips in most of the countries studied.


Animated historical per-capita bicycle ownership versus per-capita car ownership from 1962 to 2015. Denmark, Italy, China, and Angola are highlighted with trending lines.
Wu Chen, SDU Life Cycle Engineering, Department of Green Technology, University of Southern Denmark

The difference in the Netherlands and similar countries like Denmark, where there were high rates of owning and using a bike to get around, the paper says, often boils down to culture and environment. Bicycling might be seen as more dangerous, the paper notes, in some places with high traffic death rates where cyclers might have to navigate through streets crammed with cars.

To get over those kinds of humps, the new paper calls for “worldwide pro-bicycle policy and infrastructure.” That might look like more protected bicycle lanes or strategies to overcome the world’s driving addiction through carbon taxes or congestion pricing.

This study is the first to put together a worldwide dataset on bicycle ownership and use by country between 1962 and 2015, according to its authors. They pulled together information from the United Nations, travel surveys, journal articles, and industry reports. They ultimately included 60 countries representing 95 percent of the world’s GDP and bicycle production, import, and export.

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