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A convenient truth: the role of cycling in a sustainable transport system



Investing in improving cycling infrastructure is a no-brainer for the economy, the environment and our health, writes Alec James of cycling charity Sustrans.

This article originally appeared in Blue & Green Tomorrow’s Guide to Sustainable Transport 2014.

Let’s get straight to the point – cycling is arguably the closest to a single sustainable transport solution that the UK has. It’s affordable, healthy and sustainable. More Britons on their bikes will boost the economy, save our ailing health system and give the environment a second chance.

Today, the UK’s streets are clogged with increasing numbers of motor vehicles and the air we breathe is noisy and polluted. It’s affecting our health, our environment and our quality of life. Motoring is burning a hole in our pockets as the high costs of forced car ownership condemn millions of Britons into transport poverty. And the national purse is suffering too, as congestion hampers business and the NHS struggles under the increasing burden of physical inactivity.

Urgently increasing cycling levels is as close as we’re going to get to a silver bullet for these issues.

While we are starting to see a small shift away from the heavy car dependence that’s typified the UK’s transport system over the last century, it’s not happening fast enough. Nearly 20% of all journeys in the UK are between one and two miles. On a bike, this would take less than 10 minutes, yet incredibly 60% of these short journeys are made by car.

And while some sustainable transport methods are enjoying a recent resurgence – bus usage in London has seen a year-on-year increase since 1998 and rail travel is at its highest level since 1928 – government statistics show cycling to be static and just 2% of journeys.

So why should a mode of transport, so seldom used by the majority of Britons, form the backbone of a sustainable transport system?

The personal benefits of travel by bike are enormous. While cycling is great for your health and for the environment, for most of us it’s savings to our time and our money that count.

Bicycles are clean, quiet and very effective for short to medium journeys. They can also provide an important link between short and long distance travel by allowing to people to travel easily to and from train stations and bus stops without the need for a car.

Jumping on your bike is often faster than driving – in central London the average traffic speed is just 9mph – and purchasing and maintaining a bicycle is a low-cost alternative to the costly burden of car ownership.

But what about savings to the national purse? Cycling road infrastructure provides the fastest turnaround in the provision of urban transport as well as the greatest value for money. In a recent study from the Department for Transport, the cost benefit analysis of a new cycle route in comparison to a road was 22:1 in favour of the cycle route (half of the economic benefit was in augmented health service savings).

The health benefits of walking and cycling on the National Cycle Network were worth £460m in 2012, using the World Health Organisation tool for calculating health economic impact. And with more than 35,000 people in England alone dying each year due to a lack of physical activity, something really must be done to get the UK moving.

A recent report from UKactive revealed approximately a quarter of all adults in England were failing to do anywhere near enough physical activity to benefit their health. Cycling is a great way to integrate exercise into a daily routine, and can help prevent conditions such as cancers and heart disease. In fact, all four UK chief medical officers say that walking and cycling are among the easiest and most effective ways forms of physical activity.

Despite the many obvious benefits of cycling, most people cite traffic fear as the number one reason stopping them from travelling by bike. Speeding traffic, a lack of dedicated space for cyclists and dangerous junctions all contribute to a reluctance to use two wheels to get around.

Addressing that fear won’t be easy. The UK government must invest in high quality infrastructure with good signage and direct routes on quiet paths and roads. We need to tackle road dangers by slowing motor vehicles right down and making sure HGVs have the correct safety equipment like mirrors and side bars, as well as expanding cycle training in schools and workplaces to equip people with the knowledge and confidence to take to two wheels.

Cycling could truly revolutionise the UK’s transport system by making our cities more liveable, our travel costs more affordable and our lifestyles healthier and more active. It’s a no brainer for personal finance and for the wealth and prosperity of the UK.

Alec James is press officer at Sustrans, a leading UK charity enabling people to travel by foot, bike or public transport for more of the journeys we make every day.

Further reading:

Setting the sustainability wheels in motion

Sustainable transport: why it matters

Cycling: sustainability on two wheels

Get on your bike

The Guide to Sustainable Transport 2014


Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?



self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo |

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.


Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.


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