Bikes Aren't Just Transportation, They Are Climate Action

CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter/ e-bikes in Copenhagen

They may be the single best way to decarbonize transportation.

California Governor Jerry Brown kicked off the Global Climate Action Summit with a big announcement, so big that according to David Roberts of Vox, it "was so out of left field and yet so profound in its implications that few in the media, or even in California, seem to have fully absorbed it yet." He has declared that by 2045, the state will be totally carbon neutral -- the entire state economy. As Roberts notes, this is a very big deal.

SB 100, the bill Brown signed on Monday, commits the state to clean electricity by 2045, but electricity only accounts for about 16 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions. Brown’s executive order would commit the state to doing something about the other 84 percent — transportation, building heating and cooling, industry, all the many and varied energy services that rely on direct fossil fuel combustion rather than electricity.

That's a tall order. How are we going to decarbonize transportation? We can't all drive Teslas. Over at Greenbiz, Andrea Learned suggests a new emphasis on bikes and e-bikes. She writes:

In this traffic-congested, climate-change-challenged year of 2018, bikes are finally being seen for the urban mobility and last-mile tool that they are. Writers for publications from Wired to Grist to Streetsblog [what is TreeHugger, chopped liver?] are proclaiming the many wonders of the bike’s swiss army knife-like utility. City dwellers across the U.S. are seeing more people of all sizes, shapes and colors on bikes pedaling past downtown traffic jams.

Claudia Wasko

Markus Schmitt and Claudia Wasko of Bosch at CES/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But we have not stressed their role in the climate crisis (Well, I have, but we are chopped liver). Learned calls for the bike and e-bike industry to rally around "Bikes for Climate" or #bikes4climate. She speaks to Claudia Wasko of Bosch (whom I met a few years ago at CES) about how bikes are no longer toys but are in fact now becoming serious tools.

But then during the first century of bicycles, the bike was mainly known as a tool, and until of course a better tool came about, the personal automobile. But as cars rose in popularity over the past century, the bicycle didn't die, but its use case, especially in America, definitely evolved from tool to becoming more and more a recreational toy used for cruising along beach sides or shredding down mountainsides, for instance. And with the rise of pedal assist e-Bikes over the past decade, and thanks to other factors such as cycling infrastructure improvement, the bike use case pendulum is finally swinging back from a toy to more tool for more and more people, especially city dwellers who commute relatively short distances.

Bikes are climate action

George Monbiot gets it. The bike is a serious tool for climate action. They are cheap, they take up less space and have less embodied carbon than any other mode of transportation other than shoes. We have quoted analyst Horace Dediu who paraphrases Marc Andreessen on software and says, “Bikes have a tremendous disruptive advantage over cars. Bikes will eat cars.

Learned calls for active collaboration. "Climate action leaders, please introduce yourselves to bike and mobility industry leaders. We have the citizen interest and the pedal power to help reach Paris Agreement targets."

But it will take more than just the bike industry; we need better bike infrastructure. It has to be part of a larger system of safe bike routes and decent bike parking. However, we have seen this kind of transformation before, per Horace Dediu:

As Dediu sees it, first the disruptive technology arrives, then the suitable environment follows. Early roads weren't smooth enough for the first bikes and then cars. Early cellular networks couldn't handle smartphone data. But with time, the world adapted to fit the promising technology. Bike lanes are already growing worldwide.

Andrea Learned is really on to something here. Bikes are not just transportation. If a fraction of the attention and money was devoted to them instead of electric and autonomous cars, they could make a real dent in the carbon footprint of transportation.

If we are serious about carbon, then we have to get serious about bikes and e-bikes. Say it again: Bikes are Climate Action. Read it all at Greenbiz.