Hop on a bike and cut emissions

The newest report on climate change is grim: we have 12 years to dramatically cut our carbon emissions. If we don’t, there are enormous risks: worse heat waves, more droughts, species loss, melting ice sheets, rising sea levels. It’s already too late to stop climate change, but we have just 12 years to avert the worst. This is scary stuff.

12 years. What can we accomplish in 12 years? A lot, if we focus on fast and cheap solutions, like cycling.

Halifax adopted a new mobility plan in December of 2017. I did not work on this plan, but I am a big fan. It will increase options for cycling, transit and walking. The plan’s targets are to decrease car trips from 77% of trips to 70% of trips, by 2031. That’s a 30% decrease (7 percentage points) in the share of car trips in just 13 years. That’s ambitious. But, the city will continue to grow, meaning the absolute decrease in car travel (and emissions) will be under 30%. Also, buses emit greenhouse gases – people switching from cars to buses won’t go directly to zero emissions. So, if we successfully implement Halifax’s mobility plan, our transportation emissions will decrease by somewhat less than 30% in 13 years. This is of course a simplification, but it should suffice for a quick blog post.

This isn’t to criticize the mobility plan, which I think is great. This is to put into perspective the types of changes we need to make, and how fast we need to make them. We have 12 years to dramatically cut carbon emissions. 30% is only a start. We also need to continue sharp emissions cuts between now and 2050. This isn’t even to stop global warming, this is simply to keep things from getting really out of hand.

12 years to make deep emission cuts. A few decades after to further reduce emissions by perhaps 80% to 90%. That means we need to be more ambitious than the mobility plan. It means we need solutions that are cheap and can scale quickly. I love transit, but it doesn’t meet those criteria (not for the 12 year window at least). Ordering buses takes time, and buses emit greenhouse gases. Rail lines, busways or bus lanes take years to design, build and finance. Switching to electric transit vehicles will take a lot of time and a lot of money, and the power source still needs to be green. The same problem exists for private vehicles and company fleets. Transit is part of the long term solution. Electric vehicles are part of the long term solution. A green electrical grid is part of the long term solution.

Right now, we need fast and cheap. We need a solution that can scale. Bikes fit the need. They are inexpensive vehicles. A nice new bike will run around $1000, and used bikes are much less. They are quick enough for short trips. They are much smaller than cars, so they take up less road space and need less parking space. And critically, the basic infrastructure already exists – except for a few highways, you can bike on any public street.

Sadly, it’s not safe or fun to ride on Robie Street, Bayers Road or Portland Street. Even many of our side streets aren’t great for cycling. But, there are solutions. We need more bike parking. We need protected bike lanes. We need safer intersections. We need local street bikeways. Because this means retrofitting existing streets, not building from scratch, costs are reasonable and timelines are quick. Halifax is implementing two kilometres of local street bikeways at a cost of $1.1 million. That’s $500,000 per kilometer, give or take. A 100 km network would cost about the same to set-up as a commuter rail line to Bedford, but would cost very little to operate once built.

12 years is not a long time. Thankfully, bikes provide us a cost-effective way to provide large numbers of people with zero-emission transportation. Bikes (and bike infrastructure) are inexpensive and can scale up fast. Cities like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Portland and Montreal have all shown that good options for cyclists means more cyclists, even in the winter. The growing popularity of e-bikes also suggest there are new options for tackling Halifax’s intimidating hills.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the challenge of climate change. But our choices make a difference. Personal choices like cycling more are quick and easy ways to reduce emissions. But we also need societal change, which means hard work. Halifax has a strong mobility plan, but maybe we can look at implementing the plan faster. Also, determined people at the Halifax Cycling Coalition and Ecology Action Centre are working hard to make cycling easy and safe. We need more of these volunteers supporting cycling.

Just 12 years. I’m off to pump up my bike tires.

About the author

Sean Gillis

Sean is a professional urban planner. He's interested in how cities work to connect people and ideas. Sean's passionate about transportation, design and public spaces. He works for Halifax Regional Municipality. The opinions in his posts are his own.