Opinion: Why did COP26 organisers fail to mention cycling for transport?

The bicycle industry had many visitors to COP26, but in terms of stage presence and demonstrations of a vehicle that stands to offer significant emissions reductions the event is missing an open goal. Ben Knowles, Founder of PedalMe writes on a widely held view that big business is trampling on the agenda…

Amazing, passionate people doing great work; people making a difference; people wanting to make a difference. The people I spoke to were genuinely uplifted and lit up by the work that we’re doing at Pedal Me and the impact that we could be having. They wanted to help. From random people in the street to the CEO of Eurostar – people were positive, warm, uplifting – and willing to put themselves on the line to make a difference.

But there was a problem.

I went up to Glasgow on a wing and a prayer. Because we consistently experience really fast growth rates and are an extremely lean startup, I didn’t know until Monday that I’d be able to escape from the day to day operations, so I didn’t get the planning time I would have liked. I didn’t have tickets to the COP26 blue zone. So maybe my experience wasn’t representative of everything that was going on, but other’s who did make it in suggest huge voids existed on key transport discussions.

But even that’s a bit of an issue because here at Pedal Me we’ve got the fix for decarbonising about 60% of commercial urban logistics by >90% – more than anyone else will be able to, I think.

Those who know me will know that I am a grade A blagger; I charmed, sweet talked and tricked my way into events in my boots and pink hat amongst a forest of suits.

And I repeatedly found the same problem at COP26.

At any event that I could get into where there were decision makers, influential leaders of businesses and the like – the events were controlled by those that had money. More specifically, car makers.

At each panel that I saw involving transport there would be an introduction from a car maker – and then no representation of walking and cycling – the open goal fixes for decarbonising transport and cities.

The car makers are throwing money at these events to pitch themselves as the solution to the problem with electric cars. But each of these electric cars costs us about eight tons of carbon to make (if made in the UK). Those are enough to build three of our bikes and cover 300,000km – before an electric car even gets out of the garage. For standard (i.e. not carrying 150kg or 300kg of cargo!) bike/e-bike use, you could probably get double this distance. That’s not to say electric cars have no part to play, but a panel on the decarbonisation of transport that talks mainly about electric cars and not mainly about bikes, nor public transport, is entirely missing the point and the opportunities.

As a former transport planner, and a scientist, who has spent the last ten years of the life studying transport and its impact on humans, and how to help people travel in the ways they tell us they want to, I can tell you: the solutions for de-carbonising transport are walking for short trips; bikes for medium trips; public transport, or public transport plus bikes for long trips.

Decarbonising logistics and deliveries is about cargo bikes; cargo bike use paired to rail links; and Hydrogen powered or electric HGVs while we rebuild our rail network. It’s not about motors – electric or not.

Transport is the domain I’m expert in and if what I saw of the discussions on transport reflects what was going on in other panels on transport, and in other domains, with rich incumbents being able to control the discussion and divert if from the genuinely useful options, then I’m very worried about whether we’re going to be able to materially change course in time to avert disaster. The latest studies put us beyond a terrible scenario long before most commitments made thus far kick in.

How do we change this? Because, if I’m right, we urgently need to.

COP26 has been incredible, exhilarating, uplifting – but also soul crushing, dispiriting; I need your help change the conversation.

Incredible, exhilarating, uplifting: Amazing passionate people doing great work; the people that I spoke to genuinely lit up about the work we’re doing and the impact that we can have.

But also soul crushing, dispiriting: The car lobby capture of COP26 (and I worry that that means big money incumbents capturing other sectors too).

I saw panels about the de-carbonisation of transport being prefaced and heavily influenced by staff from Volkswagen and Ford. These companies do not have the fix for the problems that we’re facing (although all contributions are welcome, of course). Electric cars cannot possibly decarbonise transport fast enough. But their manufacturers do have the money to get on the stage and frame the debate, and prevent more meaningful fixes being given the airtime that is needed. That is a problem for all of us.

What I learnt: I need to be able to get on those platforms by having the money and influence so I can change the conversation; or help others to do so. I would like to explore with others in the cycling industry how we can collectively capitalise on future opportunities. Let’s talk.

We cannot create radical change by using the same kind of thinking that got us into this mess.

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