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Active travel can greatly reduce CO2 emissions in the city

For people living in urban areas, ditching the car on the daily commute just once per week can significantly lower their carbon footprint. Experts at Imperial College London report that “active travel,” such as walking and cycling, can help tackle the climate crisis.

The researchers found that shifting to active travel could save as much as a quarter of personal carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from transport.

The study is the first of its kind to investigate the carbon-reducing impact of city-based lifestyle changes. The results suggest that increases in active mobility can even lower carbon footprints in European cities that already have a substantial number of people that walk and cycle.

“Our findings suggest that, even if not all car trips could be substituted by bicycle trips, the potential for decreasing emissions is huge,” said study co-author Dr. Audrey de Nazelle.

“This is one more piece of evidence on the multiple benefits of active travel, alongside our previous studies showing cycling is the best way to get around cities for both physical and mental health, and that promoting cycling helps tackle obesity. This should encourage different sectors to work together to create desirable futures from multiple health, environmental and social perspectives.”

The study was focused on nearly 2,000 people in seven European cities. The team collected data on the participants’ daily travel behavior, as well as information on the location of their homes and work spaces.

The experts used statistical modeling to analyze how changes in the mode of daily travel may influence traffic-related CO2 emissions.

“We found that those who switch just one trip per day from car driving to cycling reduce their carbon footprint by about 0.5 tons over a year, representing a substantial share of average per capita CO2 emissions,” explained study lead author Dr. Christian Brand from the University of Oxford.

“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.”

The study revealed that individuals who already cycled had 84 percent lower CO2 emissions from all daily travel compared to non-cyclists. The greatest benefits of switching to active modes of transport were for business travel, followed by leisure trips and commuting to work or place of study. 

“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,” said Dr. Brand.

“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 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.”

According to the researchers, this will not only be good for the climate, but also for reducing social inequalities and improving public health and quality of life in urban areas. 

“To improve active travel take-up, 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,” said Dr. de Nazelle.

“This is in turn 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.”

The study is published in the journal Global Environmental Change.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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