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What do car sales have to say about bicycles?

Recent news has fanfared that for the first time since World War II in many European countries the sale of bicycles has exceeded car sales on a unit basis. While this proves to show that cycling as a healthy and environmentally friendly way of transportation is gaining attraction, there are other stories behind the data – for example, in Estonia bicycle sales topped car sales over three-fold!

Image courtesy of arztsamui /

In fact, bicycle sales have been well larger than car sales for at least 15 years in Estonia and considering the relative scarcity of money, it may have been like this ever since the two-wheeler was invented. But due to rapid economic growth, Estonia’s car dealers have seen a doubling of new cars sold between 2000 and now, up from 10 000 new cars per year to 20 000 in 2012 (peaking at 30 000 passenger cars during the boom years). In spite of increasing personal wealth, bicycle sales have only inched from 51 000 to 65 000 per year in the last 14 years. But that’s still a lot more bicycles than cars.

In 2012, a figurative 1.5% of the population bought a new car in Estonia, while the same values for Finland, Sweden and Germany were 2%, 3% and 3.8%, respectively. While Estonians can’t afford to buy more cars per capita, the ones they do buy tend to be among the largest and most uneconomical within the European Union – only neighbouring Latvia tops Estonia for the heaviest, largest and most carbon emitting new cars bought.

During the last couple of years, carbon emissions from new sold cars have steadily declined, mostly due to ever more stringent EU regulations that have forced car manufacturers to improve their engine efficiencies. The EU target for carbon emissions from new cars set for 2015 is 130 gCO2 per km, which has already been achieved by many European countries, with the notable overachiever being Denmark with its 117 grams of CO2 per kilometre. That comes as no surprise as the Danes also buy the smallest and lightest cars in Europe. Estonia comes in the opposite end of the spectrum with its 150 gCO2/km, which in itself is an improvement from the 185 gCO2/km value they had in 2005.

It has become apparent that the most economical engines are either too underpowered or too expensive. Thus, it makes sense that on a low budget, people tend to opt for something in between, which logically means that it cannot be the most carbon-friendly engine. This is especially the case with Estonians and Latvians who buy larger and heavier cars than their European counterparts and must compensate the additional mass with a larger engine.

However, power does not directly translate into carbon emissions. For example, Luxembourgers bought the most powerful cars in Europe on average (108 kW), while the associated carbon emissions were far from the largest – Luxembourg comes a solid 13th among the 27 member states. One might suspect that these were not cheap vehicles.

Bipedalism is still an ongoing trend around the world, so why not make use of our legs and walk or pedal instead... even if it is to save up money for buying a new Tesla electric car.


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