The carbon value of cycling

Particularly in developing countries, economic resources often limit opportunities for implementing high-cost vehicle improvement technologies, which suggests that investments in programmes avoiding CO2 emissions, such as NMT projects, may be more suitable and feasible.

Besides directly reducing emissions through modal shift, these projects may also have substantial co-benefits such as public health and traffic safety benefits. Non-motorized transportation, particularly cycling, has great potential because it is a cheap mode of transportation and can be used by even the poorest; the investment costs for infrastructure are much lower than for private motorised traffic infrastructure; in dense and congested urban areas the bicycle is as
time-effective as motorized traffic; and, of course, it is a zero-emission transportation mode.

In the context of the climate change debate, the ‘opportunity costs’ of a bicycle trip are the additional CO2 emissions that are generated when the traveller selects an alternative, motorised transportation mode for his or her bicycle trip. In terms of avoided CO2 emissions, therefore, cycling provides significant ‘opportunity benefits’.

The problem with assessing the carbon impact of cycling, however, is that cycling has an intrinsic zero- emission value, making it difficult to attribute (direct) carbon benefits.
In economics, the concept of opportunity costs is commonly used to value goods or services which are difficult to valuate. For the evaluation of the external effects of CO2 emissions of transportation, opportunity costs are often referred to as avoidance costs. Consider the climate effects of a person who can make his daily trip to the market by bicycle or car. Suppose the person chooses to go by bicycle.

Based on the principle of opportunity costs, the avoidance costs of using the bicycle for this trip are: the avoidance costs of the bicycle trip itself, minus the avoidance costs in case of the alternative action, ie using his alternative mode, the car.

The avoidance cost of the bicycle trip is zero but the avoidance cost of the car trip is the volume of CO2 emitted during the trip, leading to a negative net environmental cost. The use of the bicycle for the trip thus has an ‘opportunity benefit’.

The climate value of cycling represents the total amount of avoided CO2 emissions by all bicycle trips, which is the summation of opportunity costs of each bicycle trip in the study area. The climate value of cycling is calculated based on a prediction of the most likely alternative (substitution) mode for each bicycle trip and the calculation of the additional CO2 emissions for that trip by the alternative mode.

The fact that the climate value of cycling is higher in places with large motorisation rates indicates the importance of cycling mobility as a CO2 emission mitigation strategy in developed cities. However, even though developing cities have smaller marginal climate values of cycling, it is expected that many of the developing cities of today will be the developed cities of tomorrow. For example, in Beijing the cycling modal share has decreased from 38.5% in 2000 to 23% in 2007, while the car modal split has increased from 26.5% to 32.6% in the same years.
When citizens from lower socio-economic strata improve their economic status they will also change their mobility preferences. In the absence of decent bicycle facilities, it is more likely that private motorised transportation will be used. Guidance in the form of investment in bicycle facilities is therefore of vital importance in creating a sustainable transport future. The climate value of cycling model can assist in estimating the benefits of cycling and thus, appraise the carbon impacts of cycling.

This article appeared in our newly published Guide to Low Carbon Transport, which features other low-carbon-transport projects and possibilities in South Africa and beyond – ahead of COP17.

To read the full paper about the carbon value of cycling, search for roel Massink, Mark ZuidgeesT, Jaap riJnsburger, olga l. sarMienTo and MarTin van Maarseveen (2011) The cliMaTe value of cycling, naTural resources foruM (uniTed naTions)



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  1. gvanwyngaardt says:

    The oportunity benefits of cycling have to be reduced by the amount of additional calories consumed to fuel the cycle trip vs the essentially sedentary activity of driving a motorised vehicle. And since the vast majority consume a diet containing products of the animal agriculture block which is a higher producer of gases responsible for climate change caused by humans the benefit is much smaller than it apppears at first.

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