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Global climate action, meet the bike industry — now, collaborate

Bicycles can make powerful progress along the path to reducing carbon pollution. But "unusual suspects" are missing an opportunity to work together.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve been hearing a lot more about bikes and bike share programs in the U.S. This is good news, but with regard to the urgency of lowering carbon emissions in cities, to what end? While the bike momentum seems to stem from younger generation's urban uptake, especially, we are yet to see the needed push at the climate action leadership level. 

The bike use case

As an armchair bike advocate with a strong climate action network who continually scans for the topic, the disconnect between the two sectors seems odd. Given that, I decided to learn more about the bike industry side in a recent phone call with Claudia Wasko, VP and general manager of Bosch eBike Systems Americas.

 Wasko framed the topic as being about "bike use case," which resonated with me as a "bikes for climate" (#bikes4climate) communication insight. I bet we can all appreciate the difference between tools and toys in this urgent matter.

The bicycle has gone through various tool-or-toy stages. The earliest appearance of the bike as a tool developed as a response to pollution from a volcanic eruption. Because this natural disaster had harmed crops, one community was tragically forced to convert its previous go-to transportation, horses, into food. 

As Wasko further explained:

But then during the first century of bicycles, the bike was mainly known as a tool, and until of course a better tool came about, the personal automobile. But as cars rose in popularity over the past century, the bicycle didn't die, but its use case, especially in America, definitely evolved from tool to becoming more and more a recreational toy used for cruising along beach sides or shredding down mountainsides, for instance. And with the rise of pedal assist e-Bikes over the past decade, and thanks to other factors such as cycling infrastructure improvement, the bike use case pendulum is finally swinging back from a toy to more tool for more and more people, especially city dwellers who commute relatively short distances.

Yes, indeed. In this traffic-congested, climate-change-challenged year of 2018, bikes are finally being seen for the urban mobility and last-mile tool that they are. Writers for publications from Wired to Grist to Streetsblog are proclaiming the many wonders of the bike’s swiss army knife-like utility. City dwellers across the U.S. are seeing more people of all sizes, shapes and colors on bikes pedaling past downtown traffic jams.

Bikes finally may be being recognized for what they’ve always been, a simple and sweet answer to a bevy of society’s greatest ills. This is exactly how John Burke, CEO of Trek Bicycles, put it in a 2016 Forbes piece. (Full disclosure: I am currently test-riding a Trek e-bike):

I think the next 20 years are going to be the time for the bicycle. The bicycle sits at the intersection of environmental issues, health issues, congestion issues — three major problems in the world. And the bicycle is a simple solution. And you're seeing more and more cities make investment in the bicycle infrastructure. 

People are "turning in their car keys for a set of bike keys," as Wasko put it. In so doing, more families are also converting to a cargo bike in place of their second car. Still, I’m not sure that city, state and global climate action decision-makers are really seeing the vast opportunity in getting more citizens on bikes.

Unusual suspects collaboration 

Wasko thinks the bike industry, at least, is doing a good job collaborating, especially in its more recent emphasis on e-bikes, for their climate action market opportunity. She mentioned how Bosch and its competitors, such as Shimano and Yamaha, all have a presence at events and conferences addressing the topic of urban bikes:

So, we do not see the competition here, but we see here the industry, which needs to undertake common efforts to communicate eBikes and their potential. We also work with the biggest advocacy group in the U.S., for example, People for Bikes and also the Bicycle Parts Supply Association. And within those advocacy groups, we have formed dedicated committees, like the eBike committee where we come up with strategies for how to create a better awareness for the category and also initiatives. 

If the bike industry players are aware and connecting with one another, are they then bridging their knowledge to climate action leadership? Not likely. As Barb Chamberlain, who happens to be Washington state’s director of active transportation but was not tweeting in a professional capacity, put it during a recent Twitter chat:

This makes me wonder a few things: Are climate action leaders aware of the lengths to which bike industry folks are already collaborating? Are they both making attempts to learn from what’s happening in each other’s sphere? 

Talking with Wasko, I definitely got the sense that Bosch eBike Systems, for one, Is prepared to step into a bikes for climate action thought leadership role. Perhaps we need a match-maker here:  City and state climate action leaders, she’s easy to find on LinkedIn.

Science confirms: Bikes are climate action

If science is what climate action leaders are waiting for in order to commit to, support and amplify bikes as a GHG emissions reducing tool, they’ve got it. Just look at the electric bike solution defined by Project Drawdown, with what I’d consider a pretty solid climate action leadership pedigree on its team. Here’s the summary of their view on the e-bike’s potential carbon lowering potential:

In 2014, e-bike riders traveled around 249 billion miles, largely in China. Based on market research, we project travel can increase to 1.2 trillion miles per year by 2050. Shifting from cars will drive that growth, which promises to be greatest across Asia and in higher-income countries. This solution could reduce 1 gigaton of carbon dioxide emissions and save e-bike owners $226 billion by 2050.

Or, consider the recent paper "written by biophysicists with the BIOS Research Unit in Finland who were asked by the U.N. to contribute research for the U.N. Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR), which will be released in 2019." Again, if you consider the United Nations a credible source (which I know climate action leaders do), read this: 

"Walking, biking and electrified public transportation should all be emphasized in the world’s cities, the scientists wrote."

Finally, several years ago longtime transportation reporter Angie Schmitt argued that bicycling could cut carbon emissions from transport in cities by 11 percent "if cities around the world make a strong, sustained commitment to promoting bicycle travel."

The science exists and is easy to find. So, what’s the #bikes4climate holdup?

A call for active collaboration

Since COP21, #cities4climate initiatives have gained significant steam. It was through my own 2015 NGO-related work that I first saw the potential of bikes in those efforts. I’ve been waiting to see the global organizations jump in on the topic.

While there obviously have been many more U.S. cities opening up to bike share programs of late, the broader support of biking as transportation that reduces GHG emissions — especially in short trips — does not get amplified enough.

We have the citizen interest and the pedal power now to help reach Paris Agreement targets.
Remember how Wasko framed it: The "bike use case" here is that bikes are a climate action TOOL, in capital letters. We need an active and engaged conversation among the unusual suspects.

September’s conference schedule offers collaborative conversation opportunities at bike share/transportation conferences and climate action leadership summits including: The North American Bike Share Association and Better Bike Share Partnership event last week; the Global Climate Action Summit this week, Walk/Bike/Places the following week in New Orleans; ClimateWeek NYC rounding out the month.

What if a conversation about the opportunity of #bikes4climate was on every agenda, with panels of high-level leaders from both sectors swapping wisdom and finding collaboration points? The expertise, history and innovation foundation for such work is there if you look for it, with all stakeholders not quite realizing they’ve remained in their own corners.

Climate action leaders, please introduce yourselves to bike and mobility industry leaders. We have the citizen interest and the pedal power to help reach Paris Agreement targets.

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