As world leaders gather in Copenhagen to negotiate international strategy to lower global greenhouse emissions, I'd like to share a vision for part of the solution. Greenways and other improvements in bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure can make make a huge impact lowering emissions in the coming decade. Some economists and politicians who drag their feet regarding climate action complain that lowering emissions could come with a difficult price tag. But at least half of Obama's 2020 goal can be achieved alongside large savings if we seize the opportunity to increase our use of renewable human power for transportation.
In 2009, US greenhouse gas emissions are ~10% above the goal Obama and the House have set for US emissions in 2020 (17% below 2005 levels). So, how do we lower pollution levels in the 2010s?
Transforming our Transportation System from Polluter to Solution
Transportation is currently one of the biggest polluting sectors, accounting for ~28% of US greenhouse gas emissions (US EIA, 2008). Carbon dioxide-spewing cars, trucks, and planes make up most of our national means of transportation. According to a recent study, only ~12% of Americans utilize active transportation regularly today (9% walk, 1% bike, and 2% take the bus or train). By increasing the bicycling and walking share by just 12.5% per year in the decade to come, we can achieve an active transportation share of more than 36% in 2020.
Such an increase in walking and cycling would cut transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions by over 20%, translating into a >5% drop in total US emissions (especially alongside the recent fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks). That's more than half the goal Obama is aiming for over the next 11 years, and it comes with serious savings rather than costs. The shift would lower our need to import expensive oil by 25% or more than $60 billion per year (based on $70/barrel oil this would cut our trade deficit by more than 10% from 2009 levels). And by reducing demand for oil, it could help prevent a huge spike in oil prices in the 2010s as oil production becomes more difficult from hard-to-reach sites such as deep offshore fields and polar regions.
A 36% share for active transportation is not far-fetched, since countries such as The Netherlands and Sweden already enjoy 50-65% shares. And the health benefits from more active transportation would help keep health care costs from rising so quickly in the future.
There are some investments necessary to make this transition a smooth one. We need to foster more respect between drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. And we need to improve cycling and walking infrastructure -- building greenways so that non-motorized users have a safe, accessible route without competition with dangerous cars and trucks.
The East Coast Greenway is a perfect example of a transportation corridor that is vital to achieving a 36% active transport share. By connecting neighborhoods to schools, work, and play within cities and between cities, this developing 3,000-mile greenway makes everyday use and long-distance travel achievable by everyone from children to seniors. Where financing is lacking for greenways, we are incorporating low-cost but high-impact improvements in bicycling infrastructure such as bike lanes and signage to achieve the safest route possible in the near-term. And we look forward to working with our friends at the Alliance for Biking & Walking and elsewhere to make this vision one that communities and regions all over the US and beyond can embrace.
While efficiency, solar, and wind power are poised to provide the remaining emissions reduction, an increase in the use of our own renewable muscles can help stabilize our global climate in the decade to come. Achieving emissions reductions never felt so good!