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A carbon-neutral city? Not without more and more bicycling

Is bicycling about being super green and eco-friendly?

Not for everyone.

People choose to bicycle for all kinds of reasons. Some do it because it is cheap, others do it because it is the fastest and easiest way to get around, while others do it for a bit of exercise. People live unique lives, and bicycling fits into those lives in unique ways.

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In Copenhagen, where about half of residents ride bicycles for transportation, only one percent said they did so primarily for environmental reasons. 56 percent say they bike because it’s the fastest and easiest way to get around.

That said, it is impossible to be an urban environmentalist without being in favor of more bicycling. There is no feasible concept of a sustainable city that does not include a whole lot of bicycling as a key part of a larger sustainability plan.

While Copenhagen residents—who, by the way, are apparently among the happiest in the world—do not bike mainly for environmental reasons, Copenhagen is currently aiming to be a carbon-neutral city by 2025. And if you think they could even dream of stating that goal—let alone having a shot at achieving it—without such a high rate of bicycling, then you are fooling yourself.

Among US cities, Seattle is among the most promising as a someday-sustainable city. With a dense and walkable population center, strong transit system (well, for a US city, anyway) and a growing call for an all-ages-and-abilities bike facility network, Seattle could make a serious run at being a sustainable city that serves as a model for other cities around the nation. But we are not going to get there unless we find a way to fund these efforts in an accelerated and serious way. We are not doing so today.

From Cascade Bicycle Club’s 2012 Seattle Bicycle Report Card

Here’s an example of what a serious attempt might look like: Instead of spending only 2 percent of the city’s transportation budget on bicycle-related projects, which is lower than the current commute mode share for bicycling in the city, why don’t we spend an aspirational amount on bicycling projects? If we seriously want to increase bicycling to 6 percent (or more)  of the commute traffic by 2015, then why not spend 6 percent or more of the transportation budget to try to get there? Or are we not actually serious about achieving this goal?

It’s not rocket science, it’s simply investing in projects that make it easier, safer and more direct for people to bike and walk to accomplish their daily tasks.

The majority of Seattle voters support building more safe bicycle facilities. So let’s stop talking about it and do it. We might just have a shot at being a sustainable city while we’re at it.

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14 responses to “A carbon-neutral city? Not without more and more bicycling”

  1. Fnarf

    While I support more bicycling always, I take issue with your contention that Seattle is “among the most promising” cities, or that it is a “dense and walkable population center”.

    Seattle is not dense; it’s extremely sprawling. It’s not anywhere on the list of densest incorporated places. Seattle is less dense than even that bugaboo of “car culture”, Los Angeles. And while there are a few neighborhoods that qualify as dense, they are walled off from each other by almost impenetrable barriers both natural and manmade. Not just the hills and waterways, but the freeway and the dangerous bridges and appalling arterials and long, long stretches of nothingness between neighborhoods. Even with a dedicated bikeway, even the best of these routes like the Aurora/Dexter corridor would be godforsaken chores to cross, with nothing of interest to see or do from one end to the other for miles.

    And the worst? Crossing the city east-west is a nightmare everywhere, even for cars, let alone bikes; for pedestrians it is often not even legally permitted.

    1. Aggregate density statistics (even population-weighted ones) totally miss some of Seattle’s advantages.

      By population-weighted density, our metro area is even less dense than San Jose and Silicon Valley. But that’s because Silicon Valley’s auto-sprawl is much more dense than ours, not because its San Jose’s urban core is dense and walkable. They built a comprehensive, tight network of freeways and mega-arterials and laid waste to pedestrian and cycling routes. We have a network of pedestrian and cycling routes in most places. A lot of Seattle’s future infill growth will happen in Snohomish County, which could come to resemble Silicon Valley… but we have the opportunity to do better. In particular, we won’t build the number of freeways they did because we know better now.

      And our small size is something of an advantage going forward. Consider Chicago, which is bigger, denser, and has a better urban transit system. But there, as here, the majority of people live in the suburbs. The extent of Chicago’s sprawl is positively massive. Naperville and Schaumburg are booming western suburbs of Chicago, and they’re almost 26 confusing miles apart by bike. As far as Google can tell they’re essentially not connected by transit. Our booming eastside suburbs of Bellevue and Redmond are 8 miles apart; once you’ve escaped Bellevue to 520 it’s easy to ride the bike path along there to Redmond. By transit, a frequent local street-based connection exists, and during commute hours there are various faster options. And generally, when you look at access from the entire region, Bellevue and Redmond are reasonably accessible by transit or cycling to far more of the region than any part of Chicago but the Loop and its immediate periphery. This isn’t just about these particular examples; decent transit connections between Chicago suburbs are the exception (and mostly exist only as parts of services oriented toward downtown), not the rule. Here a pretty decent chunk of the region has a one-seat ride to Bellevue. Even sleepy Kirkland has frequent transit service to three different towns (Redmond, Bellevue, and Seattle — each service flawed but basically plausible because of the short distances involved).

  2. Having lived in Copenhagen it is hard to say Seattle can become like that. We have so many hills here. In Copenhagen the most strenuous hill was Valby Bakke. Yeah, even the word sounds like gentle slope. If you tell me to bike up James I might throw a hissy fit.

  3. Yes, Seattle has hills. So what? Nobody is suggesting that 100 percent of us make 100 percent of our trips by bike. If Copenhagen can do 50 percent in its colder wet climate, could we do 25%? If James is too steep, maybe not that trip by bike, but how about the one through downtown or along Broadway? If Avalon is too steep, how about along California? Or, an electric assist? The fact that we are not so dense works FOR cycling as a key part of a sustainable transportation system here. It is not dense enough for a really dense train and streetcar system, but it is compact enough that most people able to ride a bike can ride to at least some of their major destinations by bike, or ride a bike to a transit station or bus stop. The cities that are the most promising are the cities where people decide they will ride someplace they need to go, and they do it.

  4. Zero impact Northgate?

  5. […] Portland reviews the Ray LaHood era fondly and speculates about who might come next at U.S. DOT. Seattle Bike Blog reports that Copenhagen is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2025, and wonders what it would take for […]

  6. Jack Whisner

    Technology has solved some problems: the third chain ring helps climb steep hills; wool and Gortex answers rain. Safety is the issue.

  7. pqbuffington

    Oh man…this is where the problems become interesting as well as quite difficult, i.e. potentially expensive. As someone who rides the fabled (ha!) Seattle-to-Bellevue-to-Seattle route Monday through Friday all the year, to say it is only 8-12 miles each way misses some key obstacles, namely elevation gain/loss, but also weather and even stand-alone distance for that matter.

    Indeed, Denmark’s infrastructure is simply amazing, not really that fancy, but in excellent condition and well thought out. And, as many have stated and even counter-stated, Copenhagen is flat…as such, a person on a cheap and heavy piece-of-junk-single-speed cruiser can get all over Copenhagen with surprisingly little physical effort. This is not something Seattle topography and/or infrastructure will allow for some time.

    That being said, I am all for ramping up what we can as soon as we can (most especially, safety improvements and respective traffic controls which are a big part of Copenhagen’s success), but Seattle’s walking and cycling requirements, however solvable, are not simply cultural issues.

    1. Sure, biking from Seattle to Bellevue and back isn’t easy. But it’s a hell of a lot easier than biking from Chicago to Schaumburg and back.

      We aren’t compact everywhere, we aren’t as compact as some European cities, but we’re a lot more compact than many US cities simply because we’re smaller, and that gives us options. If we decide to do so, we can grow without increasing travel distances.

      1. pqbuffington

        Hey Al,

        My point is not who has the most heroic (as if riding a bicycle ever needs to be heroic) commute. In fact, that is the biggest problem with not taking the car is that all other options seem heroic, or extraordinarily demanding, in their own way…but the distance between Bellevue and Seattle is not decreasing anytime soon nor is the elevation gain/loss nor is the wet weather diminishing.

        And, if we are to use Copenhagen as the benchmark, then we have to look at the whole picture… I have ridden in Copenhagen and across a fair amount of Denmark; Danes do not appear to ride that far however frequently they do ride. In fact “…A typical [Copenhagen] cyclist uses the bicycle within five kilometers…” (Brian Hansen, head of Copenhagen’s traffic planning | New York Times, 7/17/’12) This is the reason for the construction, at substantial cost, of their new bicycle super-highways: simply to get people to increase their bicycle commuting distances…and again, it is all flat.

        I only wish we could begin to do such things here, but if Denmark/Copenhagen has to work so hard, we are going to have to work that much harder, on an order of magnitude even, to achieve anything even close. In short, our problems, i.e. existing distances and the respective elevation gain/loss, are well beyond any Danish traffic engineer’s worst requirement and they are not easily solved by scaling additional chain rings, Gore-Tex and wool.

  8. Fedde Huistra

    Your comments reach the world.
    In Spain we are doing the same big effort to encourage people going by bicycle. If we globally can get some more awareness of this issue, maybe politicaly spoken this will be a hot item on the agendas of the desicion makers.
    Thank you for your comment
    on twitter @Fedde_huistra

  9. Gary

    As for being “carbon neutral” the amount of fossil fuel spent digging the waterfront tunnel as well as the LINK tunnel is huge. It’s going to be a looooong time before we offset the amount of carbon spent doing those tunnels then running electric trains in them vs the cars.

    I’m not saying that tunnels aren’t worth digging just that rarely is the “construction carbon spent” used in these “carbon neutral” calculations.

    And yes bicycle riding & walking is the simplest, easiest to implement, healthiest, least expensive cost and carbon wise, alternative to our current driving habit. And I love monorails.

  10. I like you pqbuffington. You make sense. We need to make biking feel normal for people who drive and people who want to bike. For Danes it’s normal, so normal people bike without helmets, gasp! I live in the Rainier Valley and we have a certain population that knows bicycling but don’t do it here because all they see are the fancy pants people. My bike looks like home to them. Bike infrastructure seems to stop south of the 1-90. Getting from down here up through Capitol Hill everyday with a kid or even alone is a challenge. I am not training for anything, just getting from point A to B.

  11. Mike Lindblom

    Last weekend biking through Lincoln Park, I saw an older couple with a tandem bicycle, and a supplemental gasoline powered engine attached! LOLZ

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