Encouraging people to cycle or walk in cities will not only help the environment but improve health, air quality and help the economy

Claire Bonham Carter

San Francisco launched its bike share programme last week. There are now 350 powder blue bikes available from 35 stations around the downtown waterfront, Market Street (a main thoroughfare in the city) and the Caltrain station which links with the South Bay (home of Silicon Valley). This is the beginning of a scheme set to expand to 3,000 bikes by 2014. San Francisco, following hot on the heels of New York’s scheme launched earlier in the year, now joins around 43 cities in the US with such a program.

San Francisco was already a bike-friendly city, with a Bicycle Coalition that has over 12,000 members, and an expanding network of bright green bike lanes. But the hope is that the bike share scheme might help more people leave their cars at home, particularly those for whom the walk to the office from a transit stop is just a little too far and biking all the way is not an option. It is one small part of the city’s plan to reduce carbon emissions and this, like many other climate action strategies, has multiple benefits beyond just reducing emissions.

The co-benefits of climate action is the theme of this year’s Carbon Disclosure Project global cities survey report, which was completed by 110 cities. The results provide strong evidence that climate action strategies are serving a multitude of functions – including resiliency, improving health and supporting long term economic competitiveness.

Greenhouse gas reduction as a goal for a policy directive can be a hard sell for city mayors despite the significant evidence that our climate is changing. However, a story about improving health and increasing economic competitiveness that overall leads to a better place to live can be much more compelling. The CDP’s ‘Wealthier, Healthier Cities’ report shows that 91% of the reporting cities think that climate change action presents an economic opportunity, citing development of new industries, increased attention to environmental concerns, increased efficiency of operations and increased infrastructure investment as some of the sources of that opportunity.

Increased health is another unlikely co-benefit of increased climate action. Many adaptation and mitigation strategies encourage individuals not to drive a car for daily needs through improving access to transit, improving bicycling facilities – and perhaps bike share schemes – as well as providing shady street trees and other green infrastructure. Fifty-five per cent of mitigation activities reported to CDP directly or indirectly encourage biking and walking. Not only will the alternatives of taking transit, bicycling and walking lead to fitter people but there should also be improvements in air quality because of less congested streets. Buenos Aires has installed more than 100km of bicycle paths, encouraging residents to take advantage of the city’s free bicycle program. As the city government notes, “Bicycles are one of the most economical means of transport, while at the same time improving health”.

The data in the two CDP reports and infographic website should be used by cities as a positive message regarding climate action planning to their constituencies. Such a message can also help with private investment in cities, and encourage companies to wish to relocate in places that will be resilient to future climate change, and provide an attractive, healthy environment for their workers.

Claire Bonham-Carter is a principal and director of sustainable development, design and planning at AECOM