If flying is a sin, what is cycling?

This article was published in 2007, in Newsletter 73.

This article is reprinted by kind permission of London Cyclist, the members’ magazine of London Cycling Campaign.

‘Instead of using cars, faith continues to be placed in the view that if only the travelling public can be persuaded to use buses … the problem will be resolved.’
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What informs our personal decisions when they have to be made on the basis of balancing our selfish and altruistic instincts? Sadly, evolution has led to the former generally winning out. However, some consolation can be drawn from evidence throughout history that communal survival has entailed sublimating the gut response, ‘when the chips are down’, of self-interest.

We face a cataclysmic future from climate change unless the amount of fossil fuels being used is decimated. The attractions of further and faster travel have led to a huge increase in our mileage by car, train and especially, aeroplane, and to government attempts to add to the infrastructure to accommodate it. We urgently need to reverse this policy direction as it is incompatible with protection of the global environment. Growth can be decoupled from fossil fuel use but by no means to the extent required now. It is essential that we stop deluding ourselves that sufficient change can come about through technological development or voluntarily – through better information and exhortation as to why we must do so.

This means that government must make it mandatory that we all share responsibility for limiting greenhouse gas emissions from our energy-intensive lifestyles. This will only be possible through the medium of carbon rationing, that is an annual personal allowance for everyone. It is highly encouraging that July’s Energy Review includes reference to the virtues of this approach. Opposition from vested interests in some obvious sectors of business, such as international tourism and air travel operators, cannot be allowed to stand in the way of a speedy political consensus being reached on this. The future condition of the planet is too crucial to be treated as a party political issue.

With rationing, all aspects of our fossil fuel-dependent activity will come under scrutiny casting the future of transport and policy on it in altogether a different light. The inevitable consequence will be an accelerating decline in the demand for travel. Just consider: the average UK person’s annual carbon dioxide emissions for transport by car and public transport alone (or just one passenger’s round flight from London to New York) are about three times the amount that can be allowed for their use of fossil fuel for a year if we are to prevent serious destabilisation of the global climate.

So where does this leave cycling? Just look at transport policy and you will see that cycling’s supremely well-qualified role in relation to climate change is largely concealed because policy makers judge public transport to be the panacea for most of our transport ills, including the ecological ones. And so the case continues to be made for higher levels of investment to improve the quality of its services. Instead of using cars, faith continues to be placed in the view that if only the travelling public can be persuaded to use buses or, where available, the underground, for more of their urban journeys and the train for their inter-urban journeys, the problem will be resolved. But, taking proper account of average vehicle occupancies, carbon dioxide emissions per passenger mile by public transport are not much lower than those of car users.

Personal carbon allowances will strongly motivate people to cycle – and to stop flying! (It certainly does not help to wear blinkers when reading the London Cyclist, unless one wishes to ignore the irony implicit in articles and ads in recent issues promoting flying when a bicycle is used to the airport or at the destination!).

As the allowance of emissions will have to be ratcheted down year-on-year from the current annual average of 10 tonnes to just over one tonne, people will wish to make an increasing proportion of their journeys by cycle – to work, school, leisure destinations and the shops (with home deliveries becoming commonplace). Locational decisions, including where to live, will be taken from the perspective of whether journeys can be made by cycle. Apply the simple r2 equation, and it becomes obvious that, within any time-slot available for travel, cycling provides a catchment of potential destinations over 12 times as numerous as does walking.

No longer will the cycling lobby have to invest so much of its energies in the promotion of cycling and of local authority provision for it. Cycling will necessarily become the primary means of travel and transport investment will logically be directed to improving conditions for it. Roads will become safer and less polluted as, to minimise fuel use, traffic volumes and speed will decline. At the same time, the regular exercise entailed in cycling will lead to a marked improvement in the health of the nation, thereby leading to a reduction in the burden on the NHS from treating ill-health.

From a position of moral rectitude, cyclists should justifiably see themselves as being in the vanguard of championing environmental causes, particularly this key one of climate change.

Mayer Hillman, Senior Fellow Emeritus, Policy Studies Institute