A shift to cycling, not only electric cars, is needed to cut urban transport emissions

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

"There is no conceivable way to achieve the world’s and the European Green Deal’s ambitious and urgent climate goals without a shift to significantly more cycling in our cities and towns," writes Jill Warren. [Mickis-Fotowelt / Shutterstock.com]

Released on Tuesday (14 December), the European Commission’s efficient and green mobility package aims to cut transport emissions by making urban mobility cleaner. But electrifying our vehicles is not enough: To reach Europe’s Green Deal goals, cycling must be championed, writes Jill Warren.

Jill Warren is the CEO of the European Cyclists’ Federation.

Yesterday, the European Commission adopted the “Efficient and Green Mobility” package with transport proposals geared towards achieving the European Green Deal goal of reducing transport emissions by 90% and implementing key actions of its Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy.

These included legislative proposals for the revision of the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) regulation and the Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) directive, as well as a new European Urban Mobility Framework, that all aim to “set European mobility on track for a sustainable future.”

Transport is quite rightly a key focus area of the European Green Deal and the fight against climate change. Worldwide, transportation is responsible for 24% of direct CO2 emissions from fuel combustion.

Road vehicles account for nearly three-quarters of transport CO2 emissions, and these numbers are not decreasing.

In recent years, a lot of hope, money and lobbying efforts have been placed in the electrification of vehicles as the key to reducing carbon emissions from transport. This is no doubt important, but it can only be part of the solution.

Even if all new cars and trucks were electric now, it would still take decades to replace the world’s fossil fuel fleet – even in Europe. And the electrification of vehicles will not help solve other endemic societal problems in our cities such as traffic congestion, the unfair distribution of urban space and the systemic lack of physical activity.

Last month’s COP26 laid bare just how much the electrification of motorised vehicles has been dominating the public discourse on transport emission reductions.

The COP26 draft Transport Declaration was entirely focused on the electrification of vehicles, until pressure from activists and a coalition of NGOs and a last-minute intervention by the European Commission achieved the inclusion of this sentence:

“We recognise that alongside the shift to zero emission vehicles, a sustainable future for road transport will require wider system transformation, including support for active travel, public and shared transport.” Finally!

Indeed, there is no conceivable way to achieve the world’s and the European Green Deal’s ambitious and urgent climate goals without a shift to significantly more cycling in our cities and towns.

Cycling for daily mobility is one of the best solutions we already have to reduce transport emissions, combat climate change and ensure our planet is habitable for generations to come.

More cycling makes a big difference. Research shows that cyclists have 84% lower daily CO2 emissions than non-cyclists. Switching from a bicycle to a car saves 150g of CO2 per kilometre.

E-cargo bikes cut carbon emissions by 90% compared with diesel vans. Cycling or walking instead of taking the car once a week can reduce a person’s carbon footprint by about half a tonne of CO2 over a year.

With most car trips today being less than five kilometres, the potential for cycling to replace such trips and mitigate climate change is enormous. This must be supported by policies and investments at every level that serve to further leverage this potential.

Against this backdrop, it was encouraging to see the Commission in its new European Urban Mobility Framework outline its most ambitious approach yet to fostering and enabling more sustainable mobility such as cycling.

It not only acknowledged that electric vehicles are only part of the solution, but placed a “clear priority” on the development of public transport, walking and cycling, and connected, shared mobility services.

This is truly significant, as it marks the first time that the European Commission has declared the development of sustainable transport modes – including cycling – to be the clear priority in the urban context. And with seven out of 10 Europeans living in cities, as Executive Vice-President Timmermans reminded us yesterday, this matters.

The European Cyclists’ Federation’s initial take is that there is a lot to like in the new Urban Mobility Framework, with many of our long-standing advocacy demands reflected in it. If properly followed through on, they will make a significant contribution to transport emission reductions.

This framework comes not a minute too soon, given the sheer impossibility of achieving the climate policy’s ambitious goals, including through the 100 Climate-Neutral Cities by 2030 mission, without a major shift towards more cycling.

Besides the prioritisation of truly sustainable mobility, among the elements of the package we welcome in particular include:

  • The requirement for over 400 cities on TEN-T urban nodes to adopt Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans (SUMPs) that also serve to increase cycling levels
  • Plans to accelerate the deployment of cargo bikes and e-cargo bikes for urban logistics and last-mile deliveries, as an integral part of Sustainable Urban Logistics Plans (SULPs)
  • The call to ensure better integration between public transport and shared mobility services and active mobility
  • The call for cyclists and pedestrians to be given sufficient road space, including through safe and separated infrastructure
  • Plans to launch a programme for the collection of urban mobility data for harmonised indicators, including on modal share.

With the launch of this “Efficient and Green Mobility” package, the opportunities for cycling have never been greater. And this is good for our citizens, cities and climate.

As always, however, the proof is in the pudding. Whether cycling’s enormous potential for slashing emissions, reducing traffic congestion and improving air quality and health is actually realised will depend on whether, how, and how quickly progress is made on the Commission’s stated intentions in the coming years.

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