Bikes and trains, the tandem to tackle the climate crisis

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Instead of just declaring 2021 the year of rail, the EU should make it the decade of train and bike. [Photo: PKP intercity]

Bicycles and trains have become the mobility keystone of the ‘new normal’ with great potential for the green European recovery. The EU must ensure they go hand-in-hand, according to the European Cyclists Federation.

The European Cyclists Federation is a group dedicated to promoting cycling as a sustainable and healthy means of transportation and recreation. 

During the coronavirus pandemic, some city mayors were quick to adapt transport systems to make them safer. New bicycle lanes have been popping up a bit everywhere, as well as some national plans to boost the train for this summer.

In order to promote safe and sustainable domestic tourism, many regional or national authorities like Luxembourg or the region of Trieste, in Italy, are promoting this form of multimodality.

The Belgium government has even announced 10 free train journeys for all citizens, with a bike place included. But despite this rise in demand, some rail operators like the northern Italian Trenord and the Dutch NS have decided to ban bicycles on board for safety reasons.

This bike&train combination was already popular before the lockdown as one of the best alternatives to reduce transport’s environmental footprint in Europe.

In order to confront climate change, 76% of Europeans walk or cycle, or intend to do so, while 68% prefer trains to planes for trips that take five hours or less. So the two greenest, most efficient means of transport ever invented now emerge as the way to prevent the collapse of mobility.

However, these two means of transport are still far from being meant for each other in many parts of Europe. Actually, before COVID19 it was also really difficult to move around Europe carrying the bicycle on the train.

If citizens are pushing to move on pedals and rails, how is it possible that many European rail services operate without sufficient or any capacity for cyclists?

The main issue lies in the weak approach of the EU Rail Passengers’ Rights Regulation concerning bicycle carriage. The EU law is currently open for amendments in trilogue between the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council.

This presents a unique opportunity for the EU to make a significant step towards the multimodality of bicycles and trains. The time to build bridges between the two best alternatives to carbon-intensive car and plane trips has come.

Eight bikes per train

A simple demand is to ensure that all European trains will include a designated space for the carriage of a minimum of eight assembled bicycles. We believe the EU could boost both means of transport if passengers were entitled to travel with their bicycles on all train lines, including high speed, long-distance, cross border, and local services.

The requirement to provide a minimum of eight bicycle spaces per train has been supported by the Parliament and already implemented successfully in countries like Germany and Poland.

In the case of Polish InterCity trains, the number of passenger seats has only decreased by 6 with this infrastructure (from 360 to 354), proving that the loss of capacity due to the bicycle compartment is very low.

Faster, easier and greener

The potential of bicycles and trains combined to decarbonise the transport sector, responsible for a quarter of all emissions in the EU, is huge.

A German study estimated that 27.4% of the emissions of the transport sector could be saved through an integrated and multimodal approach. Moreover, the combination of this duo provides the highest speed and flexibility more than any other.

The train is the fastest option for those distances that are too long for the bicycle, and the bicycle speeds up the journeys between the station and the origin/destination.

Given that 75% of the trips in the EU are shorter than 10km, this time-efficient solution seems very attractive for many European commuters. On the other hand, the bike-train-bike mode is increasingly demanded by cycle tourists, who prefer to bring their own bike with them on holiday and are more likely than the average tourist to use public transport.

Another brick in the ‘Next Generation EU’ wall

Late last month the Commission unveiled a €1.85 trillion recovery plan to relaunch the bloc’s economy, which was seriously hit by the pandemic.

The Next Generation EU’ proposal includes a 25% climate spending target, of which a large part will be allocated to the railway sector. There is no better time to carry out these structural reforms and provide 8 bicycle spaces in all European trains.

The Commission said at the beginning of March that train travel should be given special attention as part of the European Green Deal agenda, suggesting that next year should be the ‘European Year of Rail.

In order to achieve the 90% CO2 emission reduction in transport by 2050, the Commission will have to extend it to the “European Decade of Trains and Bicycles”.

To break the dependence on private vehicles, the EU will need to enable easy multimodality from home to anywhere. The bike-train combo fits as the best answer.

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