Bikes took a back seat at COP26. Advocates urge Canada to make them a priority in its climate plan

The COP26 summit has ignored bicycles as one of the cheapest and most efficient tools to fight climate change by focusing almost entirely on promoting a global shift to electric cars, cycling advocates say. 

Cycling groups say focus on electric cars short-sighted in fighting climate change

A cyclist rides on one of Toronto's permanent bike lanes on Monday. Cycling and climate advocates are decrying the lack of discussion at the COP26 summit about bicycles as a cheap and effective tool for reducing carbon emissions and fighting climate change. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

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When Gabriel Rivett-Carnac and Lyn Elliott decided 18 months ago to buy out the remainder of their lease and sell their car, they calculated their annual cost of owning it was about $12,000 — especially with the commercial liability insurance for Rivett-Carnac's work as a freelance photographer in Ottawa.

"I've absolutely loved not having to deal with all of the ... mental space that having a car can take up in your brain," said Rivett-Carnac, 37, whose two-and-a-half-year-old son, Ren, loves riding in both the front cargo basket and the cycling stroller attached to the back of the family's Dutch-made Babboe Mini cargo bike.

"There's a lot of conceptions out there that, like, if you don't own a car, it's because you're rich. My wife and I live in a one-bedroom apartment in a big apartment building. We're not rich, but we've made specific choices that have allowed for this."

One thing he says he hopes will improve soon is the amount of room for bikes on the road.

"You realize very, very quickly that there's no space out there, and navigating the space that is there is very challenging," Rivett-Carnac said. "It's frustrating. And you know, sometimes it's scary."

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Electric cars promoted at COP26

As more Canadians take to the road on two or three wheels instead of four, cycling advocates say COP26, the United Nations climate change conference taking place in Glasgow, has ignored bicycles as one of the cheapest and most efficient tools to reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change by focusing almost entirely on promoting a global shift to electric cars.

The summit's focus on Wednesday turns to transport, with a schedule that the COP26 president's program says "will bring together leaders from across the sector to accelerate the transition to 100 per cent zero emissions vehicles" and "galvanize action to decarbonize the harder-to-abate forms of transport: aviation and shipping."

Many advocates say the summit has failed to seize upon an unprecedented opportunity created by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced cities around the world to reduce capacity on public transit to limit transmission of the coronavirus and rapidly repurpose streets and other public spaces previously dominated by cars for pedestrians and cyclists to use.

While some panel discussions at the summit have talked about the need to bolster active transportation — walking, cycling and non-mechanized wheelchairing — a quick scan of the COP26 program for any mention of "bikes" or "cycling" brings zero results.

The crisis of a changing climate "clearly shows people can't keep doing the same things and experiencing the same conveniences," including driving all the time, when cheaper zero-emissions alternatives, such as bikes and e-bikes, are readily available, said Kimberley Nelson of Vélo Canada Bikes, an organization that aims to encourage Canadians to cycle more often and to increase cycling infrastructure.

"Everyone's talking about doing all of these other things, like phasing out the combustion engine, but all of those things take time," Nelson told CBC News in an interview from Calgary.

WATCH | Ride along Toronto's new bike lanes:

Ride along Toronto's new bike lanes

2 years ago
Duration 5:14
Take a time-lapse ride-along tour of Toronto's streets that starts without bike lanes and then travels on some of the new cycling infrastructure the city has introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While global leaders barely mention bicycles, Nelson said she's encouraged by "quick wins" in cities such as Paris, Montreal, Berlin and Toronto that are doubling down on their own actions by increasing cycling infrastructure because they've already seen returns on the investments they've made.

"We learned during the pandemic that building bike infrastructure can take a week, in some cases. It's just a matter of shifting where your priorities are," she said. "But it seems with COP26 that these lessons have been lost."

Summit is 'a missed opportunity'

Vélo Canada Bikes recently joined more than 180 cycling organizations around the world in signing a letter addressed to global leaders attending COP26, asking them to commit to "urgently leverage the solutions that cycling offers by radically scaling up its use."

Cycling "represents one of humanity's greatest hopes for a shift towards a zero-carbon future," the organizations write in the letter. They call on countries to invest in building safe and high-quality cycling infrastructure, as well as providing direct incentives for people and businesses to switch from automobiles to bicycles for more of their daily trips.

Jill Warren, CEO of the European Cyclists' Federation, which represents member organizations in 40 countries and is one of the lead signatories of the joint letter, said she views COP26 as "very much a missed opportunity."

"It's not surprising that so much attention is given to the electrification of vehicles because the entrenched interests of the automotive industry continue to be strong," Warren told CBC News in an interview from Brussels before she travelled to the conference.

Advocates argue that getting more people to ride a bike instead of driving is the best hope and fastest way to reach net-zero emissions globally by 2050, which is a key goal of COP26. A recent Oxford University study that collected travel activity data in seven European cities found that cyclists had 84 per cent lower life-cycle CO2 emissions than non-cyclists.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, active transportation improves our health, economy, transport systems and the environment by providing an opportunity to be physically active on a regular basis, increasing social exchanges, reducing road congestion, contributing to reduced greenhouse gas emissions and saving money on gas and parking.

"It's always important to recognize that the climate crisis is going to have to be tackled from a range of actions," Bike Calgary president Molli Bennett said. "But if you're not considering active transportation, you're missing an affordable tool that's easy to utilize and comes with so many additional benefits."

Urban Canada's future

Census information shows most Canadians live and work in cities and surrounding areas with a population of 100,000 or more and that most individual car trips are short excursions under 10 kilometres.

This year, the federal government announced a $400 million Active Transportation Fund over five years to help build new and expanded networks of pathways, bike lanes, trails and pedestrian bridges, as well as to support active transportation planning and stakeholder engagement in communities.

Liberal MP Andy Fillmore, parliamentary secretary to the infrastructure and communities minister, has been tapped by the Trudeau government to develop and implement the fund. He told CBC News this week that the government will soon start accepting applications for funding.

Fillmore also admitted he was shocked that COP26 organizers weren't showcasing bikes and active transportation more prominently.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, left, stands next to an electric concept race car on display at the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, in Glasgow on Nov. 2. (Evan Vucci/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

"We've got to keep our eye on the ball, that the modal shift we need is to get people out of vehicles — unless they're trains or buses — and into active transportation," he said.

NDP transportation critic Taylor Bachrach said that while the $400 million commitment represents "more on the table than we've ever had before as a country," both Transport Canada and Infrastructure Canada need to offer more incentives for people to take up cycling in smaller communities, as well as cities.

"The reality is that we haven't come up with a more efficient way to move humans through space than the humble bicycle," said Bachrach, who recently had his cargo bike customized with a portable desk for his constituency work in his northern B.C. riding of Skeena—Bulkley Valley.

Bike paths are filled with cyclists during rush hour in downtown Vancouver in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic changed commuting habits and forced cities to repurpose streets for more pedestrian and cycling use. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Currently, all green vehicle rebate incentives being offered in Canada are just for electric vehicles, said Nelson, of Vélo Canada Bikes. E-bikes range in price from about $1,500 to $9,000. Most e-cargo bikes start at $2,500, but larger and higher-end models can cost as much as $15,000. Regular cargo bikes start at about $3,000.

"Not many people can afford to go out and buy a $60,000 electric vehicle," she said. "But they could, with incentives, be able to afford and replace their family car with a cargo bike or an electric bike."

In a statement to CBC News on Tuesday, Infrastructure Canada said the federal government welcomes the "growing availability" of e-bikes, but that its mandate is to support public infrastructure "primarily owned and operated by provinces, territories, municipalities, and Indigenous communities, rather than programs providing supports or incentives to individuals."

The inevitable "what about the cold?" question makes Bennett, of Bike Calgary, laugh.

"I think people would be surprised how easy it is, and how much warmer it is," she said. "If we built up proper infrastructure and services like snow-clearing and lights and connections to public transit, you'd be shocked how many people would grab their bikes, especially for short trips."

A cyclist rides on a snow-covered pathway in Calgary. Bike Calgary president Molli Bennett says proper infrastructure and improving services such as snow-clearing, lighting and connections to public transit would help entice Canadians who are reluctant to ride bikes in winter over safety concerns. (Mike Symington/CBC)


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