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Policymakers at all levels, from municipalities to the federal government, are actively seeking cost-effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and mitigate climate change impacts. They would do well to consider the findings of a 2014 study, “Meeting the climate change challenge: a scan of greenhouse gas emissions in B.C. communities.”

The authors of this study noted a lack of standard means for estimating GHG emissions at the community level. This may explain why there are no global estimates of the potential contribution of bicycling and walking (“active transportation”) to reducing GHG emissions.

Nonetheless, the researchers found that “transportation, more than buildings, is a strong driver of overall GHG emissions,” that “a low-carbon community in B.C. is one that has low GHG emissions from transportation,” and that “the percentage of commuting trips by car” is a major determinant of GHG emissions from individual households. 

One of the most important things we as individuals can do to combat climate change is to use alternatives to cars for frequent, shorter trips such as commuting to work or school, shopping, and attending recreational and cultural activities.

The study also had good news for policymakers: with sound transportation and land use planning, “income and population size need not be barriers to achieving significant GHG reductions.”

Whether we encourage active transportation is a matter of societal and individual choice. Attitudes matter. Just as some people continue to deny the reality of climate change, some motorists resent cyclists, as evidenced by their reactions to Ontario’s new “one-metre” rule.

Weighing benefits and risks

People also have serious misconceptions about the health risks of active transportation: accidents and breathing motor vehicle pollutants. Don’t these outweigh any benefits of walking and cycling? 

No. Far from it.

A 2010 study (“Do the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks?“) examined the life expectancy of individuals in the Netherlands who shift from car to bicycle transport. Its authors concluded that “beneficial effects of increased physical activity are substantially larger (3-14 months gained) than the potential mortality effect of increased inhaled air pollution doses (0.8-40 days lost) and the increase in traffic accidents (5-9 days lost).” 

A 2011 study in the British Medical Journal of a bicycle-sharing system in Barcelona, Spain also found that “health benefits of physical activity from cycling… were large compared with the risks from inhalation of air pollutants and road traffic incidents.”

The latter study’s authors acknowledged that they lacked baseline fitness and exercise level data for people who switched from motorized commuting to cycling. If new cyclists were already fitter than the average commuter, their health gains may have been overestimated. Conversely, “people who had more sedentary lifestyles could have benefited more from the shift to cycling than those who already participated in sports and exercise activities.” Researchers also noted that they may have overstated risks of breathing pollutants by using air quality data for major roads and not accounting for “the ability of cyclists to choose less trafficked routes, hence reducing their exposures.”  

To be specific about the health benefits of active transportation, a 2008 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine concluded that:

“Walking, bicycling, and using mass transit (which often includes walking) for commuting purposes… enhances psychological well-being and reduces risks of mortality, cardiovascular disease, stroke, colon cancer, diabetes mellitus, and depression.”

Safety in numbers

What about accident risks? Dr. Jeff Jackson, co-ordinator of the outdoor adventure program at Algonquin College in the Ottawa Valley, is an internationally recognized risk management expert. Speaking at the Ontario Trails Council’s recent annual conference, he said that “[t]he safest bike trails are those that have the most users. For bike lanes along streets, motorists get used to seeing bikers. Hence, more bikers, fewer accidents — it’s counterintuitive.” 

Indeed, a study published in 2003 found that “the likelihood that a given person walking or bicycling will be struck by a motorist varies inversely with the amount of walking or bicycling.” This has been observed repeatedly in different countries and circumstances. This study’s author noted that it is unlikely that cyclists and pedestrians are more cautious when their numbers are larger; hence it must be that the behaviour of motorists is controlling the likelihood of collisions with walkers or cyclists. 

Other research shows that this “safety in numbers” effect requires a certain critical mass or threshold. Furthermore, additional factors are involved: active transportation tends to grow with better cycling and pedestrian infrastructure — especially when cycling lanes are segregated from motor vehicle lanes.

Another counterintuitive phenomenon is the economic impact on local businesses of replacing on-street car parking with bicycle lanes. Many more bicycles can be parked in a given area than cars, but do cyclists spend money? A recent Globe and Mail article, “How small businesses are learning to love bike lanes,” says that “businesses publicly denouncing bike lanes are still common, but shops, bars and restaurants are starting to back bike infrastructure and reach out to a new and growing customer base.” It cites a Portland, Oregon research study that found motorists spent more money per visit, but cyclists visited more often and spent 24 per cent more per month than customers arriving in cars. 

A shift to active transportation is fundamental to an overall strategy to combat climate change. Transportation and land use policy are key in this regard, along with greater efforts to inform the public about the economic and personal health benefits of this shift.

Ole Hendrickson is a retired forest ecologist and a founding member of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.

Photo: M. Accarino/flickr

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Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson is a forest ecologist and current president of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley. Ole Hendrickson is an ecologist, a former federal...