We need more bicycles, not bigger cars!

Despite all warnings that climate change is getting out of control, we don’t seem to be willing to do much about it, at least not in the case of transport. Did you know that transport is one of the worst contributors to climate change?

In the UK, road transport accounts for about two-thirds of all emissions of four (out of eight) of the pollutants that are targeted by the National Air Quality Strategy. Overall, transport is the third largest source of CO2 emission and at the same time the fastest growing.
Now, you might think that people in the UK use their cars more often than others do, maybe due to the bad weather. Unfortunately, that is not the case. In fact, the figures are worse for many developed countries. Worldwide, transportation accounts for 22% of energy use and 27% of carbon emission (please bear in mind that this is on average with a large population having restricted or no access to energy at all).

Of course, a major reason is increased mobility. Whereas thirty years ago even our parents used to travel only a small percentage of the miles that we cover nowadays, we got used to make daily journeys that our grandparents would have done once a year.
Is that necessary? Do we really have to travel so much?

In Switzerland, it is estimated that 45% of the total overall mileage is caused by leisure activities, and of course, the bigger part of that is done by car. What is even more worrying is that most people use their car to drive to some place where they work out (gym, tennis court, running track etc.). Does that make sense? Why not riding your bicycle to the gym or walking to work, skipping the elevator and not having to go to the gym at all?

I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t do sports, so I better leave the subject. Also, because what is worse than the increased mobility is the fact that technical improvements have helped little to reduce overall energy consumption of cars. Instead of using energy-poor ones, we prefer to drive bigger cars: a study in Germany revealed that in the years between 2000 and 2010 on average cars have become 19 centimetres longer, 15 centimetres larger and 25 centimetres higher. The result is – wait, I’m not talking about the energy they use – that park spaces as they used to be, are not big enough anymore! You can imagine yourself what impact that will have.

In Australia, there were an estimated 16.0 million vehicles registered at the end of 2010, of which passenger vehicles made up 76.9% (considering a total population of 26 million, this is probably one car for all people that are able and old enough to drive). Motor vehicles traveled an estimated 226,632 million kilometres. While the distance traveled increased by 8.2% compared with 2006, the number of vehicles increased by 11.8% over this time.
Unfortunately, this makes Australia one of the worst traffic polluters worldwide, still far behind the US, but ahead of most other developed countries.passenger transport carbon emission countries

The average fuel consumption for passenger cars was over 10liters per 100km, despite the fact that today it is possible to buy a car that consumes less than 7 litres per 100km – and here I’m talking about a four door gas-powered car. Of course there are also hybrids or smaller cars that have even better performances. The good news is also that energy friendly cars don’t need to be tiny, ugly of whatever. Check it out.

However, this post wasn’t meant to target at the use of cars only but, rather, to reveal some important facts and figures about the traffic related pollution. One important point that most people are not aware of is the fact that public transport doesn’t come for free as regards energy consumption (as it doesn’t in economic terms either). The graphic below shows how energy use for different modes of transport compares. What we can learn from it is that trains and buses are not as green as most people would expect and that car sharing (with a minimum of four passengers) might be energy friendlier than using a train. And, most important – however, less surprisingly – walking and riding a bicycle are by far the most eco-friendly modes of transport, bicycling being even more energy efficient than walking.

energy consumption per mode of transport.pdf

So, if there is one conclusion I would like to share with you, then it’s this: every form of engine-driven or supported mode of transport uses energy. Public transport doesn’t automatically have to be green. It is usually greener than individual transport (not to mention the reduction in traffic congestions), but not emission free. So, whenever and wherever you can walk, ride your bicycle and ask yourself it is necessary to make the planned trip. And if you use your car, why not sharing with your neighbour or work mate?


About blaubear

Born in 1973 in a small village in rural Switzerland and into a society largely dominated by cows (not only was the human population of one-hundred-and-forty outnumbered by them, but politics were driven by unreasonable subsidies for diary products) I was connected with nature from early age on. Observing nature on one hand and the deficiencies of a dysfunctional Swiss agricultural policy with farmers that had lost connection to the land that provided their income on the other, I soon started to question society and the meaning of life. Suffering also under a farcical public education I developed curiosity to discover on my own. That was how I soon learned that little of what I had been taught was true. Skepticism and interaction with people from for me new cultures fostered my interest for the world and eagerness to leave a life shaped by federalistic layman-ship. At the age of twenty-three I hit the road for the first time, an event that later translated into passion. Traveling between cultures has since become part of my life. At the age of thirty-three I finally realized my dream and did a degree in Environmental Engineering from which I graduated in 2009, only to leave Switzerland once more for my "real home" Spain. Unfortunately, the stay was a short one: a couple of months later I was offered a job in Southeast Asia, where I worked and also lived (with some interruptions, e.g. I live in Melbourne since late 2012) ever since. Having worked for a Japanese company earlier in my life, I soon felt captured again by Asian culture and thinking which makes a lovely contrast to my European heritage. My journey through different countries and cultures has taught me that regardless of how different our thinking and values are, no matter what approaches we take, we all can learn from each other. And if we are open enough to see the common instead of pointing out the differences, then we have a chance to live in harmony and peace: Life is all about integration, not exclusion! It's an old wisdom that "knowledge is power", as such I never get tired of being around new people, having interesting talks, and reading lots of good books. I hope that my blog can contribute to the conversation.
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8 Responses to We need more bicycles, not bigger cars!

  1. A motivating discussion is worth comment. I think
    that you need to publish more about this issue, it may not
    be a taboo matter but typically people don’t talk about such topics. To the next! Cheers!!

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  8. Patrick S says:

    Hi Urs – am a big cycling enthusiast too, but I’m a bit worried about some of the figures used in that table you’ve included in the article.

    Yes, for public transport you definitely have to differentiate between theoretical most efficient energy use when always full, vs actual average loads in practice.
    BUT – several databases I’ve looked at show trains, and even buses, coming out as more efficient than even hybrid cars in reasonably well-run public transit systems.
    See for example figures quoted in Prof David Mackay’s “Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air”,
    Japanese trains:- 6 KWh per 100 p-km
    Japanese buses:- 19 KWh per 100 p-km
    London trains:- 15 kWh per 100 p-km
    London buses:- 32 kWh per 100 p-km
    Toyota Prius:- ~40 kWh per 100 km

    Judging by the unit being used in the table in your article of “person miles per gallon”, I would guess the figures there are for the USA. There are a lot of factors there than might explain low efficiencies of buses in that case :- very low density and dispersed land-use patterns, very low cost of auto fuels make buses relatively unattractive, poorly planned systems relatively unappealing, buses being socially looked down-upon, etc.

    Finally even in a ‘cycling utopia’ we will always need public transit for longer-distance travel, for those with mobility issues that mean they can’t cycle, and for those going out on the town to have a few drinks, who we might not want riding for safety reasons 😉 As a a Swiss-born world citizen you should be proud after all that cities in your country like Zurich have taken public transport to a fine art!

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