Use Your Feet and Bicycles to Help Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

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Written by Chris Schneidmiller

Walking and bicycling are not just means of locomotion – If used in place of gas-powered vehicles at sufficient levels, these approaches for getting from place to place can contribute to global reductions in the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are driving climate change.

Advocates around the world are working to make their communities more friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists, building on decades of similar efforts. Many of these groups are eager for volunteers to join their campaigns.

“Given that transportation is the leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, reducing emissions from transportation is an essential part of fighting climate change,” said Ted Villaire, communications director for the Chicago-area advocacy group the Active Transportation Alliance. “With more than half of all trips in the US under three miles, there are enormous opportunities for more people to walk or bike for many of those trips. The problem is the lack of good infrastructure for people walking and biking.”

This contribution to reducing greenhouse gasses is small but not negligible In a 2013 report, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that improvements to promote “nonmotorized” means of transport, such as walking or biking in urban areas, could cut on-road vehicle GHG emissions by close to 1%. The nongovernmental Congress for the New Urbanism and others have put the concrete impact of a walkable environment at 4 tons of lower greenhouse gas emissions annually, versus a suburb that relies more on vehicles. By comparison, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, just one “typical” passenger vehicle emits 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) each year.

But everything counts in an all-hands-on-deck call in the battle against climate change. And there are many additional benefits to increasing the ease of walking and bicycling to a community, Villaire said. He cited costs savings to individuals who can walk and bike more, along with advancements in environmental justice and improved community health.

Paris-based professor Carlos Moreno developed the concept of the “15-minute city” – a municipality in which most services are no more than a quarter-hour away from any location by walking, biking, or public transit. The idea has caught on, in different forms, in cities ranging from Barcelona, Spain, to Kirkland, Wash.

But this requires a community in which walking or bicycling is safe and accessible, which is not the case in many locations around the United States, particularly spread-out suburbs. So how do we get there?

The U.S. Surgeon General points the way: “All Americans use roads, and most people across the country use sidewalks and live in communities that have planned how their land will be used. Transportation, land use, and community design planners have the power to increase opportunities for walking and improve the pedestrian experience by designing and maintaining communities and streets to make them safe and accessible for people of all ages and abilities.”

Along with having high-use locations such as schools and employment sites within walking distance, streets and sidewalks must be designed and managed so that they are safe and easy to use, the Office of the Surgeon General said. Many parts of the community can then promote walking: Schools, for example, can establish routes for students to safely walk from home, while employers can encourage their staff to walk through incentives such as flexible work time.

This work can take many paths, as demonstrated by the long work of the Active Transportation Alliance (ATA) and its partners in the Chicagoland region. “Repeatedly voicing your concerns with elected leaders pays off,” Villaire stated. “When leaders know that people want streets that are safe and welcoming for those who are walking and biking, leaders will listen. When leaders know that community members want public transit that is fast and reliable, leaders tend to support those initiatives.”

Within a long list of accomplishments, the Active Transportation Alliance and other local groups spent decades making the case for separate paths for pedestrians and bicyclists for the Lakefront Trail along Lake Michigan in Chicago. As of 2018, what had been an 18-mile mixed-use trail was divided into an 18-mile bicycle trail and an 18.5-mile pedestrian trail. The update reduced congestion on the trail and created “a better overall park experience,” according to the Chicago Park District.

In 2021, ATA supported state legislation in Illinois that would require the state to pay the full cost of infrastructure for walking or bicycling on state roads. Previous law had forced local municipalities to pay 20% of the cost, a burden that hit low-income areas particularly hard, according to ATA. Following a public campaign in favor of the bill, with support from thousands of individuals, Illinois House Bill 270 was signed into law in August 2021.

The Active Transportation Alliance (among many like-minded groups around the United States) is seeking volunteers to “join a community of advocates helping promote walking, biking and public transit throughout Chicagoland.”

And as your communities become more walkable and bikeable, Earth Hero can help you reduce your reliance on vehicles. Here are Earth Hero actions you can take for biking or walking instead of driving. 

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