UC Davis expert to take pro-cycling message to Paris climate conference

UC Davis transportation expert Lewis Fulton, who will make a presentation at a worldwide climate conference in Paris, is a strong advocate for cycling as a climate-healthy measure.
UC Davis transportation expert Lewis Fulton, who will make a presentation at a worldwide climate conference in Paris, is a strong advocate for cycling as a climate-healthy measure. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

UC Davis transportation expert Lewis Fulton gave up his car years ago. He commutes on a red Trek hybrid bike from his Davis home to a West Village office where he’s on the faculty at the Institute of Transportation Studies. When it’s grocery time, he and his wife grab bikes with paniers.

The 54-year-old academic may bike locally, but he’ll be promoting the activity as a global climate change solution when he heads to Paris this week for a crucial U.N.-sponsored climate change conference known by its acronym COPS 21. That conference seeks to meet a daunting challenge – to forge an agreement by 190 countries to cut back on carbon emissions and prevent catastrophic climate change.

Fulton knows the streets of Paris well – about four years ago, he biked to his job as the head of the transportation program at the International Energy Agency. Before that, he rode from his home in Virginia into Washington, D.C., where he worked at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Fulton estimates that in one year his bicycling translates into one ton of carbon dioxide not emitted into the atmosphere.

“There is a lot of potential for CO2 reduction in transportation,” Fulton said. “The main part of it is that countries set some kind of targets for 2030 and beyond for some kind of carbon system.”

Fulton’s latest research describes how nonrecreational bicycle use can impact a country’s greenhouse gas emission goals, and how it can be done inexpensively. Titled “A Global High Shift Cycling Scenario,” the report finds that a dramatic increase in cycling and electric bike use would save the world a cumulative $6 trillion in vehicle purchases, operation and related infrastructure costs between 2015 and 2030.

Fulton would love to see more people commute to work and take care of the demands of daily life on a bicycle. It’s an ambitious goal. His research estimates that in 2015, bicycles accounted for only 6 percent of urban trips worldwide.

He sees a model in Davis, which has the highest share of total people cycling of any U.S. city, at 20 percent, according to Fulton’s research. The next highest is Boulder, Colo., at between 10 percent and 12 percent. Sacramento, at best, has a 5 percent share, Fulton said. “There are not many cities in the U.S. that have more than a 5 percent mode share,” he said.

It wasn’t an accident that Davis became a cycling capital, said Daniel Sperling, founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies.

“Davis is like a living lab – where we you see what works with policy,” he said. “Davis was not always a bicycling town. It really took specific effort to make cycling safer by closing off roads to cars and more importantly, building new infrastructure for bikes.”

With Gov. Jerry Brown and other VIPs from California heading to Paris, the state will represent a vanguard in climate change legislation, having set a goal of a 40 percent reduction in carbon dioxide by 2030.

“That’s more aggressive than anything we have at the U.S. level or most of the developed world,” said Fulton. “In Paris, the California delegation will be making the point that ‘Look, we’re already committed to doing this so you should consider these targets.’ 

Brown’s administration sees increasing bike travel in California as one of many tools that can be used to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets, said Ken Alex, director of the governor’s Office of Planning and Research.

“Californians travel 332 billion vehicle miles a year,” said Alex. “The more we can switch to active transportation, including cycling and walking, the more we improve travel, health and quality of life outcomes and help reduce fossil fuel use.”

Recent state legislation is already modifying roadways – including sidewalk and bike lane improvements to Howe Avenue in Sacramento that Brown approved in 2013. The California Department of Transportation has also come up with five-year strategic plans that call for tripling bicycling trips by 2020.

Among international model cities, Copenhagen, Denmark, had a relatively small cycling culture as recently as the 1970s. Adding more dedicated bike lanes and other cyclist-friendly amenities helped the city become a cycling powerhouse, Fulton said.

Duplicating that in American cities won’t be easy. “We’re in a tougher position here to cycling because we have this infrastructure that is very car-oriented,” he said.

As for the conference’s larger goals, Fulton hopes that COPS 21 won’t follow the examples of previous meetings in Copenhagen and Kyoto, Japan, which were largely seen as unsuccessful in setting an effective carbon-reduction plan. Fulton will be speaking far from the throngs of press and security attending to world leaders in the conference’s main meeting halls. He’ll be speaking largely to other policy wonks and transportation delegates from other countries.

“At least almost every major economy now has indicated they will have targets that they will commit to now, including the U.S.,” said Fulton. “President Obama has committed to some of our targets – and that will be a big part of this.”

Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz