Environmental Benefits of Bicycling and Walking

A man walks his dog down the sidewalk in Lake Oswego, Ore.Motor vehicles create a substantial amount of air pollution. In fact, according to the EPA, transportation is responsible for nearly 80 percent of carbon monoxide and 55 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions in the U.S. Not surprisingly, many metropolitan areas do not meet the air quality standards specified in the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. Although individual cars are much cleaner today than they were in earlier years, if total traffic continues to grow, overall air quality will deteriorate. Moreover, every day cars and trucks burn millions of barrels of oil, a non-renewable energy source.

Pollution facts

  • A bicycle commuter who rides four miles to work, five days a week, avoids 2,000 miles of driving and (in the U.S.) about 2,000 pounds of CO2 emissions, each year. This amounts to nearly a five percent reduction in the average American’s carbon footprint (World Watch Magazine, 2010)
  • Motor vehicle emissions represent 31 percent of total carbon dioxide, 81 percent of carbon monoxide, and 49 percent of nitrogen oxides released in the U.S. (The Green Commuter, A Publication of the Clean Air Council).
  • Research in Washington indicates that a 5 percent increase in walkability results in 5.6 percent fewer grams of nitrogen and 5.5 percent fewer grams of volatile organic compounds being emitted by vehicle travel.
  • Atlanta's SMARTRAQ analysis states that travel patterns of residents in the region's least walkable neighborhoods generated about 20 percent higher CO2 emissions than travel by those who live in the most walkable neighborhoods—about 2,000 extra grams of CO2 per person each weekday.
  • The SMARTRAQ air quality analysis found that each step up a five-part walkability scale results in a 6 percent reduction in Nitrous Oxides and a 3.7 percent reduction in Volatile Organic Compounds.
  • 60 percent of the pollution created by automobile emissions happens in the first few minutes of operation, before pollution control devices can work effectively. Since "cold starts" create high levels of emissions, shorter car trips are more polluting on a per-mile basis than longer trips (League of American Bicyclists).