Get on your bike: Study shows walking, cycling and e-biking make a significant impact on carbon emissions

2 February 2021

Cycling, e-biking or walking can help tackle the climate crisis – even if you swap the car for active transport just one day a week - according to a new study led by researchers from the University of Oxford’s Transport Studies Unit.

Emission targets are unlikely to be met without a significant move away from motorised transport, according to the researchers, and shifting to active transport could save as much as a quarter of personal CO2 emissions from transport.

Published in the journal Global Environmental Change, this is the first study of the carbon-reducing impact of city-based lifestyle changes and it reveals that increases in active mobility significantly lower carbon footprints, even in urban European contexts with a high incidence of walking and cycling.

‘By following nearly 2,000 urban dwellers over time, we found that those who switch just one trip per day from car driving to cycling reduce their carbon footprint by about 0.5 tonnes over a year, representing a substantial share of average per capita CO2 emissions,’ says the lead researcher, Oxford’s Dr Christian Brand. ‘If just 10% of the population were to change travel behaviour, the emissions savings would be around 4% of lifecycle CO2 emissions from all car travel.’

Dr Brand says, ‘Our findings suggest that, even if not all car trips could be substituted by bicycle trips, the potential for decreasing emissions is huge.’

Researchers found active travel substitutes for motorised travel – and increases in cycling, e-biking or walking over time independently lowers mobility-related lifecycle CO2 emissions. And swapping the car for a bike or e-bike for just one day a week – or going from ‘not cycling’ to ‘cycling’ – drastically lowers mobility-related lifecycle CO2.

The analysis comes as UK, and the world, enters the 2020s - what needs to be a ‘decade of action’, if global goals to limit rising temperatures are to be met. Ahead of this November’s COP26 UN climate summit in Glasgow, countries are expected to submit enhanced pledges to tackle emissions.

To put this into context, for the cities in this study, average per capita CO2 emissions from transport (excl. international aviation and shipping) ranged between 1.8 tonnes of CO2 per person per year in the UK to 2.7 tonnes of CO2 per person per year in Austria. According to the Global Carbon Atlas, average per capita CO2 emissions from all activities were eight tonnes per year in the UK (on a consumption basis).

The largest benefits from shifts from car to active travel are for business travel, followed by social and leisure trips, and commuting to work or place of study. The finding that those who already cycled had 84% lower CO2 emissions from all daily travel than non-cyclists further shows the population benefits of travelling actively that already exist.
The study collected primary data on daily travel behaviour, journey purpose, as well as personal and geospatial characteristics in seven European cities and derived mobility-related lifecycle CO2 emissions over time and space.

Statistical modelling of longitudinal panel data of 1,849 study participants was performed to assess how changes in active mobility, the ‘main mode’ of daily travel, and cycling frequency influenced changes in mobility-related lifecycle CO2 emissions.

Dr Brand says, ‘A typical response to the climate crisis is to ‘do something’, such as planting more trees, or switching to electric vehicles. While these are important and effective, they are neither sufficient nor fast enough to meet our ambitious climate targets.

‘Doing more of a good thing combined with doing less of a bad thing – and doing it now is much more compliant with a ‘net zero’ pathway and preserving our ‘perfect planet’s’ and our own futures.

‘Switching from car to active mobility is one thing to do, which would make a real difference, and we show here how good this can be in cities. Not just for the climate but also for reducing social inequalities and improving public health and quality of urban life in a post-COVID-19 world.’

Cities across the world will need to increase investment in high-quality infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists and incorporate policy and planning concepts that require a fairly radical rethink of our cities and is likely to reduce inequalities because the concepts involve mixing different population groups rather than maintaining the model of residential zoning by socioeconomic status currently used.

Notes for Editors

For more information or interview requests, please contact [email protected] or [email protected]

Brand, C., Götschi, T., Dons, E., Gerike, R., Anaya-Boig, E., Avila-Palencia, I., de Nazelle, A., Gascon, M., Gaupp-Berghausen, M., Iacorossi, F., Kahlmeier, S., Int Panis, L., Racioppi, F., Rojas-Rueda, D., Standaert, A., Stigell, E., Sulikova, S., Wegener, S., Nieuwenhuijsen, M.J. (2021) The climate change mitigation impacts of active travel: Evidence from a longitudinal panel study in seven European cities. Global Environmental Change 67, 102224.

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About PASTA:
The EU-funded project PASTA - Physical Activity Through Sustainable Transport Approaches - aims to connect transport and health by promoting active mobility in cities (i.e. walking, cycling or e-biking, including in combination with public transport use) as an innovative way of integrating physical activity into our daily lives. As part of the PASTA project, researchers have listed a number of good practices for cities to promote active mobility.

Further info:

  • The study reported here is the first study of lifecycle carbon emissions effects of changes in active travel in cities - active travel (walking or cycling for transport) is considered the most sustainable and low carbon form of getting from A to B, yet the net effects of changes in active travel on changes in mobility-related CO2 emissions are complex and under-researched.
  • The methodology, metrics and findings are applicable to many cities across Europe and provide much needed empirical evidence for exploring transport and climate futures at the global, national, and local levels

The Transport Studies Unit (TSU)
Since 1973, the Transport Studies Unit has established an international research reputation in transport research. Based within Oxford's world-leading School of Geography and the Environment, the TSU approaches global transport challenges from social science and holistic perspectives. This approach allows TSU researchers to ask questions that might not be asked in other sectors, building a comprehensive picture of the complex challenges facing transport today and in the future.

The University of Oxford
The university has been placed number one in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the fifth year running, and at the heart of this success is our ground-breaking research and innovation. Oxford is world-famous for research excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe. Our work helps the lives of millions, solving real-world problems through a huge network of partnerships and collaborations. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of our research sparks imaginative and inventive insights and solutions.