Does bike commuting impact your carbon footprint? And how much?

Many bike commuters cite reducing carbon emissions as their reason for biking. Does switching from a car or bus to a bike reduce one’s carbon footprint and by how much?

Two people in bike lane

Photo by Ajith George 

Japan, China, the Netherlands, and Denmark collect the most data on carbon emissions and bikeable cities. These countries have large cities with bike infrastructure utilized by a good portion of their populations.

The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), cited by Streets blog, studied how biking could reduce carbon emissions by a substantial amount.

Currently bikes and e-bikes make up 6% of miles traveled in world cities. If by 2050, bikes and e-bikes make up 14% of travel in world cities, there would be an overall 11% reduction in carbon emissions.

The statistics above focus on the world community and carbon emissions. How does daily commuting by bike, bus, or car affect one’s individual carbon footprint? The European Cyclists Federation has person to person statistics.

If you take a bus or car out of the equation the carbon emissions drop dramatically. To produce a bike produces, on average, 5 g of CO2 per km ridden. Bikes do not require fuel in the same sense of cars and buses, so the ride does not release any more carbon emissions. Food intake, and the energy which it produces to help a cyclist propel their bike, is the final piece of a bike commute carbon footprint. Cyclists on the average European diet will add 16 g of CO2 per km ridden. The amount of CO2 released changes based on the cyclists' diet. In particular meat has a very high carbon footprint.

The comparison of CO2 released during production and per km is 313 g of CO2 for a car and 16 g of CO2 for a bike. This presents a clear picture: commuting with a bike reduces an individual’s carbon footprint significantly.

If we are to reach the goals expressed above, and reduce our global carbon emissions via increased bike usage, the ITDP suggests making several global changes including:

-Developing large-scale networks of bike infrastructure

-Implementing bike-share, with an emphasis on connections to transit

-Revising laws to protect cyclists and pedestrians

-Investing in walking and transit

-Coordinating regional land use planning with transportation investments

Investing in alternative transportation, particularly transportation that yields significantly less CO2 than the standard transportation (personal vehicle) is important work for cities when it comes to achieving our climate change goals.

If you are looking to reduce your carbon footprint, reducing or eliminating your automobile travel is a great way to do it and research shows that it does have an effect.

When looking at large-scale change, cities and nations need to start implementing infrastructure that supports behavior change to reach our climate change goals. If we are not doing this, folks are less likely to ride their bikes or walk rather than use a personal automobile because they feel unsafe doing so.

At Our Streets Minneapolis, we believe that all streets should be safe for all people, particularly those using the most vulnerable modes of transit: biking, walking, and rolling. If you’d like to work towards a Minneapolis that has more of the infrastructure listed above consider joining one of our work groups which meet once a month to discuss advocacy and volunteer opportunities around important bikeways and pedestrian work.


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  • Ken Clark
    Here’s an article: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-politics-bicycling/washington-state-lawmaker-backpedals-after-saying-cyclists-pollute-by-breathing-idUSBRE92405V20130305 and here’s another: https://komonews.com/news/local/lawmaker-apologizes-for-comment-on-bicyclists-breath-11-21-2015 where a lawmaker in Washington State made the same claim. You’ll see, at the bottom of the two different articles, two prominent climate researchers who point out that the claim, and the concept of bicyclists’ breathing counting as greenhouse gas emissions, is ludicrous. If that were to make sense, you’d see emissions inventories counting the breathing of all animals as CO2 emissions. Remember the problem is “fossil” fuels. Unless you think cyclists are eating fossil fuels (and fossil fuel for farming is already counted under the agriculture emissions), this makes no sense.
  • R T
    I disagree Ken, it clearly states the 16 grams is to operate the bike (fuel).
    It’s comparing to carbon footprint operating a car which also needs fuel.
    The comparison is valid imo. Physical activity recommendations are irrelevant to whatever you consider the ‘climate change calculations’ to be.
    There are obviously more than enough people who drive and don’t exercise. It’s easy to see that your claim is misleading at best…
  • Ken Clark
    For people finding this in the future, part of that analysis is ludicrous. That study looked at the amount of calories the cyclist used compared to a sedentary motorist. But all the health authorities point out that human beings need exercise. If the motorist is taking care of their health, they’ll at some point go for a walk, run, or bike, hit the weights, or some other exercise. For the most part, the cyclist will have done that as their ride. Both the health and GHG emissions authorities agree it’s just bogus to count the cyclist’s food as an emission like that. (And even if you did, that study assumed the calories came from proteins.) The CO2 released from biking on a regular bike is zero for climate change calculations.

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