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From Mode Shift to Frame Shift: How Cycling Can Help Solve Global Warming

Tony DutzikTo transportation planners, when a new person gets on a bike, it’s called a “mode shift.”

For many of us who have taken up cycling, however, the change is deeper than that. It represents a frame shift — a change not just in what we do, but in how we see and understand transportation in our cities.

Cyclists understand that leaving the car behind doesn’t inherently require self-sacrifice. Biking is often simply better than driving — cheaper, healthier, certainly more fun and even, in some circumstances, faster.

Cycling shifts our mental maps of our cities and towns. Shops, parks or entire neighborhoods that might be too far away to reach on foot or a hassle to reach by car, suddenly become accessible on a bike. If driving a car puts far-away places within our reach, cycling often helps us better reach places close to home.

And, cyclists … well, we see things, things that change and challenge us. We witness first-hand the growing peril of distracted driving. We see the dangers vulnerable users experience in navigating our cities. And we experience it all face-to-face, not from behind a car windshield.

So, unsurprisingly, cycling advocates tend to ask some deep questions about our transportation priorities, such as: Why can’t we seem to make room on our roads to allow people who want to travel via an efficient, zero-carbon mode of transportation to do so safely?

The answer, we know, is that governments tend to enshrine moving private cars rapidly through our streets as the overarching goal of transportation policy.

We know the consequences of that way of thinking for people using our streets, but we might not often think of what it means for the planet. Our auto-centric transportation system currently produces about five percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. In large part because of how much we drive, the average American produces roughly three times as much carbon dioxide pollution from transportation as the average resident of the United Kingdom, France or Germany.

All that will soon need to change. World leaders committed last year in Paris to hold the increase in global temperatures to less than 2° Celsius — the threshold at which many scientists believe the most dangerous impacts of climate change will become inevitable. To achieve that target, America must cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050.

Meeting that target is going to require changes in technology to make our cars more efficient and able to be powered by renewably generated electricity. But it is also going to require some frame shifts.

That’s where cycling and cycling advocates come into the picture.

Cycling advocacy at its best challenges us to consider not just how we can repower our cars or coax people out of them at the margin, but also how we can build great communities where people are free to bike (or walk) anywhere they need to go.

Building those kinds of communities is central to the fight against global warming. Research tells us that residents of compact cities and towns produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than those who live in sprawling, auto-oriented areas. Cities that are bike-friendly enable people to get around without the congestion, noise and pollution that comes with cars, making living in a compact city or town area better and more attractive.

Bicycling’s track record in transforming transportation in cities is strong, with examples ranging from long-time European bike meccas like Amsterdam or Copenhagen to, increasingly, global cities like New York and London. Electric vehicles and shared, autonomous cars may someday (and perhaps quite soon) facilitate a mass shift to low-carbon transportation, but bikes are actually doing it right now.

Cycling advocates also have a proven track record of advocating for values-driven policies that translate into real-life changes that make our communities better. By championing Vision Zero and Complete Streets, bicycle and pedestrian advocates have argued that safety and accessibility for all users is more important than maximizing throughput of cars. What would happen if we drew similar, values-driven bright lines when it comes to climate? What if every transportation and infrastructure decision our governments made — from the large to the small — was evaluated through the lens of how it can move us toward our emission reduction targets? How might that shift where we invest our resources?

Bicycling isn’t the whole solution to global warming, but bike advocacy provides examples and perspectives that can be used to advocate for much-needed transformation of our cities and our transportation system.

If we want to solve global warming, we all need to experience a profound shift in our priorities and the frames through which we view the world. Cyclists and bike advocates can help show the way.

Tony Dutzik is Senior Policy Analyst at Frontier Group