The world through two wheels

What cycling has taught me about the climate crisis

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

The bicycle is one of the simplest forms of transportation on the planet. Cycling has the possibility of inspiring fresh perspectives that are linked to its up-close and visceral mode of moving through urban spaces.

As 19th century New Yorker Dr. K. K. Doty is often quoted as saying, “cyclists see considerably more of this beautiful world than any other class of citizens. A good bicycle, well-applied, will cure most ills this flesh is heir to.”

Cycling has changed my views on politics and society, and it has altered my previously held notions about how communities might best approach the climate crisis from a transportation perspective.

I recently returned to commuter cycling after nearly a 20-year hiatus. I resumed biking in 2020 for both cost and environmental reasons. While experiencing Winnipeg differently on trails, bike lanes and congested roads, my views on climate action changed.

First, cycling helped me realize that bicycles work much more effectively than electric cars to promptly address change.

Public conversations about low-emission transportation have often focused on electric vehicles, including increased ads during major events like the Super Bowl. Despite reducing emissions, these vehicles don’t offer a natural alternative to reducing car dependence. Plus, heavier electric vehicles will add further strain to already-crumbling roadways.

Currently, 50 per cent of Winnipeg’s carbon emissions come from transportation. Meanwhile, 69 per cent of trips are done by car, compared to two per cent by bicycle.

However, last spring, Manitoba Public Insurance reported a notable increase in claims for pothole damage from previous years. To put it simply, if Winnipeggers continue to rely on cars, local streets will see more wear and tear due to aging and ongoing climate change.

Instead, the city should invest in urban density and active public transportation. The United Nations has said countries should invest 20 per cent of their transportation budget into pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure, such as walkways, trails and bridges, to slash emissions.

Most importantly, my experience commuting by bike has been a stark reminder of the urgency of the climate crisis and how action must be taken now, not later. From cycling in extreme heat to severe downpours, I have felt the direct impacts of the climate crisis and can anticipate a future with increased extreme weather events.

These events are already causing dents in the country’s financial coffers. Insured damage from Canadian severe weather events totalled $2.1 billion in 2021 and is expected to total $139 billion by 2050.

People must act quickly rather than wait as car manufacturers build electric vehicles in the hopes consumers switch from gas cars. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2018 said the world would have until 2030 to slash 2010 carbon emission levels by 45 per cent, while reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. We need to tread more lightly now.

The late Indigenous actor, poet and activist Chief Dan George put it well: “We are all part of Mother Earth. She sustains us, and we must sustain her in return.” Cycling has changed my understanding of and approach to climate action, demonstrating the importance of treading lighter now and using past technologies (and a new twist with electric bicycles) to sustain the planet.

Adam Johnston is an active- and public-transportation advocate. Follow him at or on Twitter at @adamjohnstonwpg.

Published in Volume 77, Number 23 of The Uniter (March 23, 2023)

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