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Better Bike Infrastructure Could Save Cities $25 Trillion (And Slash Carbon Emissions)

If the rest of the world biked even a quarter as much as Amsterdam by 2050, our cities would be a better place.

Better Bike Infrastructure Could Save Cities $25 Trillion (And Slash Carbon Emissions)
Car dependence shouldn’t be a given for newly-developing cities. [Top Photo: Flickr user Elvert Barnes]

A couple of years ago, New York City hit a cycling milestone: 1% of trips in the city now happen on a bike. It’s actually a huge increase from the past, and other cities are growing in similar ways–though cycling is still a tiny fraction of places like Amsterdam. What would happen if the whole world started biking a little more like the Dutch capital?

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If the rest of the world biked about a quarter as much as Amsterdam by 2050–where around 40% of trips happen by bike now–cities could save nearly $25 trillion dollars, according to a new report from the University of California-Davis and the Institute of Transportation and Development Policy. Carbon emissions from urban transportation would drop almost 11%, whereas if current trends continue, they’d double.

“A cycling city can provide an enormous amount of mobility at really low cost compared to a car-oriented city,” says Lew Fulton, one of the co-authors of the report.

Flickr user Elvert Barnes

Cities would save money because they’d have to build fewer roads, and people would spend less to buy vehicles or on parking. The report didn’t include many of the other ways that cities can save money from an increase in bike commuters–like lower health costs because people are getting more exercise and fewer cars are pumping smog into neighborhoods. Cities with fewer cars also have fewer fatal traffic accidents. The report also didn’t calculate how much cities could save in productivity costs if people aren’t stuck in traffic for hours.

“We already have situations in the developing world where there’s gridlock,” Fulton says. “I’ve been in cities like Delhi or Nairobi where it’s just stunning how bad the traffic is–even when only about 5% of people are getting around by car, it’s already completely clogged.”

As the developing world grows now, and more people start to drive, there’s an opportunity to get future commuters on bikes or e-bikes instead. “It’s almost like saying let’s design cities more like European cities and less like American cities,” he says. “In the rest of the world, an awful lot of cities are still developing and don’t have that much infrastructure yet, so they could go either direction.”

Flickr user Richard Masoner

The report outlines steps that cities can take to encourage more biking, from bike share programs and better infrastructure to change policies that make it easy to drive.

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In cities in the U.S., where cycling rates are low, the scenario considers what would happen if 7% of trips happened on a bike. It’s an ambitious but not unimaginable goal; in most cities, more than half of all trips are less than about six miles, an easily bikeable distance for many people. (In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio originally aimed for 6% modal share for bikes by 2020, though he’s since backtracked).

Some cities are already quickly approaching the targets laid out in the report, like Seville, Spain, where cycling mode shares increased from 0.5% in 2006 to 7% just seven years later.

“We think it can happen almost anywhere if the right policies are put in place,” says Fulton. “I guess it just comes down to will it be just a dozen or 20 cities around the world that become cycling cities? Or can we make it a much bigger revolution?”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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