The Netherland is famous for many things, but probably nothing says ‘Dutch’ like their love for bikes. The Dutch use bicycles to move around more than in any other country, cycling an average of about 2.6 kilometers (1.6 miles) a day. If the whole world biked as much, over 680 million tons of CO2 emissions could be avoided every year, a new study found.
We knew that cycling is good (both for you and for the environment), but it’s good to put it into perspective. If the whole world would adopt an active cycling lifestyle (which of course, is a big ask), we’d cut down the rough equivalent to the annual emissions of Germany — or one-fifth of CO2 emissions from passenger cars globally.
Implementing more cycling into the global transport sector is more important than ever. Global transportation currently accounts for one-quarter of global emissions. Half of that is from passenger cars, whose demand is expected to grow three times by 2050, raising emissions.
“Dating back to the early 19th century, bicycles have a longer history than motorized cars. Nonetheless, they play a marginal role in transport in most world countries,” the researchers wrote in their paper. “This indicates a substantial untapped potential of increasing cycling trip shares worldwide to reduce transport related GHG emissions.”
Bikes and greenhouse gas emissions
As they seek to clean up their transport sector, governments and companies have turned towards electric vehicles, with almost seven million units sold last year. Vehicle sales are regularly tracked and published, but nothing like that happens with bikes, although the production and distribution of bikes are much older. Basically, we don’t really have good international data on how many people use bikes and how much.
With this in mind, a team of researchers has compiled the first global dataset of bicycle ownership and use by country, dating back to the early 1960s, using statistical modeling to fill in the information gaps. They found that global production of bikes between 1962 and 2015 outdid that of cars, with China accounting for two-thirds of the sales.
While in 1962 about 20 million bicycles were produced, that number rose to 123 million by 2015. That’s much more growth than cars, which went from 14 million to 67 million in the same period. However, all those new bikes don’t mean people are using them much. In most countries, bikes accounted for less than 5% of all trips, the study found.
The ones to use it the most, among the 60 countries reviewed in the study, were Denmark, Japan, Sweden, and, of course, the Netherland. In each of those countries, bikes were used for more than 15% of trips. One in four trips in the Netherlands was made on bikes, with bikes seen not as a leisure activity but instead as a mode of transport.
Taking the Netherlands as a reference scenario, the researchers estimated the climate benefits if other countries would follow the same patterns. Countries would save 686 million metric tons per year if their citizens cycle 2.6 kilometers per day like the Dutch. This is approximately 86% of the national carbon emissions of Germany or around 20% of emissions from cars in 2015.
The researchers also noted that countries like the Netherlands have much lower rates of obesity than other countries. They estimated that, globally, we are already avoiding about 170,000 deaths annually due to cycling. But this could grow much more. If everyone cycled like the Dutch, 780,000 deaths would be avoided per year, the study found.
While they acknowledge that expanding cycling patterns globally would be challenging, the researchers suggest taking advantage of the learned lessons from Denmark and the Netherlands. These include, for example, proper bicycle lanes planning and construction, pro-bicycle education and culture, and policies to discourage car use through tax, the researchers conclude.