Global shift to bicycling could save world trillions of dollars, 10 percent of transport emissions

A new report co-authored by UC Davis shows most cities around the world could approach the kind of high bicycling rates enjoyed at UC Davis, where nearly half the students and employees commute by bike. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis photo)
A dramatic global shift to increased cycling and electric biking, or e-biking, could cut energy use and carbon dioxide emissions from urban transport by up to 10 percent by 2050 compared to current estimates, while saving society nearly $25 trillion dollars. That is according to a report by the University of California, Davis, and the New York-based Institute for Transportation & Development Policy.

The report, “A Global High Shift Cycling Scenario,” takes a comprehensive look at the future of cycling for urban transportation.

“This is the first report that quantifies the potential carbon dioxide and cost savings associated with a worldwide shift toward much greater use of cycling in urban areas,” said report co-author Lew Fulton, co-director of the STEPS Program within the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis. “The estimated impacts surprised me because they are so large. The costs saved in lower energy use and reducing the need for car travel, new roads, and parking lots through 2050 are substantial.”

Cycling’s enormous potential

Currently, cycling accounts for about 6 percent of urban trips worldwide, more than half of which occurs in China, Japan and a few European countries, like the Netherlands and Denmark. In the United States and Canada, only 1 percent of urban trips are by bicycle.

According to the study, the right mix of investments and public policies can bring bikes and e-bikes to cover up to 14 percent of urban miles traveled by 2050 — ranging from about 25 percent in the Netherlands and China to about 7 percent in the U.S. and Canada. The potential is enormous when considering that typically more than half of all urban trips worldwide are less than 6 miles and potentially could be done by bike.

“This study shows the profound impact that cycling can have in developing countries like India and China, where much of the infrastructure has yet to be built,” said co-author Jacob Mason, transport research and evaluation manager for the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy. “Building cities for cycling will not only lead to cleaner air and safer streets — it will save people and governments a substantial amount of money, which can be spent on other things. That’s smart urban policy.’

A pro-cycling culture in Davis

Davis, California, home to UC Davis, has witnessed the health, economic and environmental benefits of creating a bicycle-friendly culture:

  • More than 20 percent of employed Davis residents usually commute by bicycle, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
  • 46 percent of UC Davis students and employees travel to campus by bicycle, while 7 percent walk or skate, according to the 2015 UC Davis Campus Travel Survey, conducted by UC Davis Transportation Services and the Sustainable Transportation Center, which is part of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis.

The city of Davis also created the nation’s first bike lane, first citywide system of bike paths, and installed the country’s first bicycle signal heads on traffic lights.

Both the town and university have received widespread acclaim for their efforts. The League of American Bicyclists named UC Davis a Platinum-level Bicycle Friendly University and the city of Davis a Platinum-level Bicycle Friendly Community.

“This represents what’s possible by building excellent cycling infrastructure, focusing on safety, and generally building a pro-cycling culture,” said Susan Handy, who is not a study co-author but is director of the National Center for Sustainable Transportation at UC Davis and a professor of environmental science and policy. “Most cities around the world should be able to approach the kinds of bicycling rates we enjoy in Davis, as well as those achieved by so many in Europe, China and Japan.”

The research was supported by the Union Cycliste Internationale, the European Cyclists’ Federation, and the Bicycle Suppliers Association.