How much pollution could be prevented if we all cycled to work?

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Image via Flickr Creative Commons from Brett Jordan

Any regular commuter must surely have noticed that more and more people have opted to switch from driving and public transport to cycling over the last few years. There’s been a concerted effort on the part of central and local government to get more people to take up cycling. Employers have also been invited to participate by setting up a cycle to work scheme, which enables them to loan cycling equipment to employees. Employees can then, if they wish, buy that equipment at the end of the initial period at a low price. The physical and mental health benefits of cycling are well documented, but equally important is the impact it can have on reducing carbon emissions.

In an era where it seems we’re all worried about our individual carbon footprints, it’s not hard to see why so many people are opting to ditch the car, bus, train or tram in favour of cycling into work. An article from Bikeradar.com makes clear just how much difference switching to cycling can make to the environment. It takes just five per cent of the materials used to manufacture the average car to make a bike, which gives you some idea of the difference taking cars off the road in favour of cycling can actually make. But there are more environmental benefits of cycling than just that.

The article also points out that around a quarter of the UK’s carbon emissions come from road transport, which is rapidly overtaking industry as Britain’s biggest polluter. Around 70 per cent of air pollution in UK towns and cities is produced by road transport – whereas cycling produces absolutely no emissions whatsoever. It also points out that if all journeys of less than five miles were completed by bike rather than by car, 44,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions would be saved every week. This is the equivalent of heating 17,000 homes. Average rush hour traffic speeds in London stand at around 7mph, and reasonably adept cyclists can be expected to average around 13mph. This makes cycling almost twice as fast as taking the car.

Another article from the Worldwatch Institute observes that the popularity of cycling varies quite widely in different parts of the world, but singles out northern European cities as being the global leaders in encouraging more people to take up cycling. According to a study from researchers at Rutgers University and Virginia Tech University, a number of cities in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany report cycling rates of above 20 per cent for urban trips, with some reporting rates of more than 30 per cent.

It wasn’t always that way, though. In fact, cycling in Amsterdam declined from 55 per cent of trips after the end of World War II to 25 per cent in the 1960s as a consequence of suburbanisation. From the 1970s, a series of measures aimed at encouraging more people to take up cycling were adopted in the city, including secure cycleways, traffic calming, and secure parking. As a consequence, 85 per cent of Amsterdam’s residents now say they ride a bike at least once a week. This is surely testament to what can be achieved by careful long-term planning.

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