More than just a sore taint?
May 14, 2008 1:38 PM   Subscribe

Does riding a bike really help the environment? Mr. Green at the Sierra Club says don't over think it, but a couple of folks trying to measure the energy cycling uses aren't quite sure. There are plenty of excuses for not to riding your bike, but is there a rationale? If you want a go at calculating this yourself, here's a handy guide to the variables.

"Mankind has invested more than four million years of evolution in the attempt to avoid physical exertion. Now a group of backward-thinking atavists mounted on foot-powered pairs of Hula-Hoops would have us pumping our legs, gritting our teeth, and searing our lungs as though we were being chased across the Pleistocene savanna by saber-toothed tigers. Think of the hopes, the dreams, the effort, the brilliance, the pure force of will that, over the eons, has gone into the creation of the Cadillac Coupe de Ville. Bicycle riders would have us throw all this on the ash heap of history." —P.J. O'Rourke

"After your first day of cycling, one dream is inevitable. A memory of motion lingers in the muscles of your legs, and round and round they seem to go. You ride through Dreamland on wonderful dream bicycles that change and grow....When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race." —H.G. Wells
posted by Toekneesan (48 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Kill yourself and you'll eliminate your carbon footprint. Seems easy enough to me.
posted by photoslob at 1:44 PM on May 14, 2008

Here's a few questions off the top of my head:
How much energy is used actually making the car? What about the bike? How much energy is the machinery using to extract the raw materials? How about the energy used in shipping oil vs. shipping food? Energy used growing the food? What about other fluids in a car other then gas? What if I don't eat more and just let my overweight self lose pounds? What if we add in all the extra energy used to create and maintain the roads for the cars? And all that signage too?

Where is the line drawn?
posted by Mach5 at 1:49 PM on May 14, 2008

There's always WNBR. (NSFW?)
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:50 PM on May 14, 2008

It's things like this that make me think mankind will end not with a bang but endless bean-plating.
posted by drezdn at 1:51 PM on May 14, 2008

This is kind of a bogus analysis. He assumes that if you burn say, 500 or so calories commuting each way, that 500 calories has the same 'carbon footprint' as the rest of the calories you would have eaten during your daily life while still driving.

But that's not accurate. For example, suppose you eat each day 2,000 calories. And you eat all kinds of stuff, including beef, pork, etc. Meats are probably the most calorie inefficient types of foods.

If you add on to that 500 calories of rice or grains, rather then 500 more calories of beef, then the net CO2 output from that 500 calories won't have gone up much at all.

On the other hand, if the bike ride takes the place of some other exercise you'd otherwise be doing, then the net CO2 produced will be zero.


One thing anti-environmentalists love to do is 'calculate' the CO2 produced by doing some thing (call it X) to reduce CO2 emissions by replacing something else (call it Y), by calculating all the carbon emitted by every 'ancillary' activity. And then they say that X produces more CO2 then Y, but they never bother to calculate the 'ancillary' activities of Y.

For example, if you drive your car, you might be more likely to stop off and eat fast food, thus increasing your carbon frootprint.

A more common example would be whining about how much oil it takes to build a solar plant, without bothering to whine about how much oil it takes to build an oil-burning plant.
posted by delmoi at 1:55 PM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

What we need is a way to make energy from plates of beans.
posted by never used baby shoes at 1:55 PM on May 14, 2008

What the hell is all this about taints?

Riding a bike long distances for the first time (or the first time in a long while) tends to cause a bit of ass pain.
posted by delmoi at 1:56 PM on May 14, 2008

What we need is a way to make energy from plates of beans.

A port in the seat of your car runs to the intake manifold and the gas from the beans mixes with the regular fuel for added energy and NOx reduction.
posted by caddis at 2:01 PM on May 14, 2008

What we need is a way to make energy from plates of beans.

I'd worry about the carbon emissions.
posted by Peter H at 2:03 PM on May 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

In the new order we'll be happy to let you ride in a Cadillac, Mr. O'Rourke, a nice, long black one, and all your friends too, in their own caddies behind you in procession-- but it will be a one-way trip, I think.
posted by jamjam at 2:04 PM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

From the second link:

How much oil is used in producing the food I will eat to power than ride? I’m still looking for appropriate sources, but I’m hearing numbers like 100 Billion gallons of oil is used annually in production, packaging, and delivery of US food. Assume 300 M people, consuming 2,500 kCal/day, 365 days / year, and you get 0.4 gallons of fuel used for 1,000 kCal of food.

Who there. Not all calories have the same carbon footprint - this is not a safe assumption at all, if based on the US food production average. If you care about carbon footprint, you probably already choose a more plant-based, less meat-based diet and eat locally whenever you can, so your calories wouldn't have the same average cost as someone else's.

Besides, if you don't bike 38 miles a day now and you start biking 38 miles a day, your body's energy demand will indeed go up. But if you were overweight to begin with, that might simply bring you into balance with what you're already eating - you might not need to eat more. If you already work out to the equivalent of 38 miles a day, you're probably fueling with sufficient calories already and can just skip the gym.

The Sierra Club answer is simplistic and not especially logical. The others are just rife with assumptions that we don't have to make when comparing driving and biking for efficiency. I wish people with this kind of drive for systems analysis would start working on their local food infrastructure systems instead of looking for rationalizations to drive a few miles to work in air-conditioned comfort, listening to reports of global climate doom on NPR.
posted by Miko at 2:10 PM on May 14, 2008

This report is assuming that people in cars eat less than people who ride bicycles and therefore cyclists would require more foods to be produced.
That is absolutely silly science.
Yes, cyclists may burn more and car drivers may burn less but that does not mean they eat less. And maybe it says something about the number of Americans who are overweight and need to burn more.

I don't know. As I look down Olympic Blvd in L.A. it seems pretty obvious to me that if every car was replaced with a bicycle there would be no car emmissions, no gridlock, a lot more people in shape and maybe people actually talking to one another and making connections they can't do in cars when they [mostly] drive alone.
posted by Rashomon at 2:16 PM on May 14, 2008 [8 favorites]

Mankind has invested more than four million years of evolution in the attempt to avoid physical exertion

posted by ssg at 2:17 PM on May 14, 2008

maybe people actually talking to one another and making connections they can't do in cars when they [mostly] drive alone

Some of us like driving precisely because it lets us avoid other people. The more a form of transit isolates me from society, the better. Of course, the real answer is to neither bike nor drive to work, but telecommute. This solves both the transportation energy problem and the people issue.
posted by wildcrdj at 2:24 PM on May 14, 2008

A little googling and calculating came up with this.

A gallon of ethanol represents about 77,000 BTU or 19,416 kcal. It takes about 21 lb of corn to produce 1 gallon of ethanol. A car running on ethanol will can travel about 11 miles on one gallon (ethanol has less energy than gasoline).

A human riding a bike will need about 400 kcal to cover 11 miles at a fairly quick pace. Drinking straight ethanol probably wouldn't be the best food source, but eating some kind of corn product wouldn't be too bad. According to my "food counts" book, one pound of fresh corn kernels has about 400 kcal.

Admittedly, under ideal conditions, a car can go much faster than a bike, and may be a more pleasant vehicle in bad weather. Sweet corn for human consumption is different from the kind that goes into ethanol production. So this is a little bit apples-to-oranges.
posted by adamrice at 2:25 PM on May 14, 2008

So much stupid, so little time...
posted by Mister_A at 2:27 PM on May 14, 2008

If you drive a Hybrid it actually kills 500 kittens.
posted by Artw at 2:29 PM on May 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

One little tidbit I picked up somewhere long ago is that a bicycle is the most energy-efficient way to move a human, in terms of calories spent over distance. More efficient than walking, driving, riding a horse, etc. Of course, I don't have a source for that.
posted by hydrophonic at 2:37 PM on May 14, 2008

If you drive a Hybrid it actually kills 500 kittens.

So the choice is driving a hybrid or masturbating for (roughly) a year and a bit?

Finally, someone has put peak oil into terms I understand!
posted by maxwelton at 2:37 PM on May 14, 2008 [3 favorites]

i know it doesn't add anything to the thread, but after taking the time to look at this, i think i deserve the chance to say that this is dumb.
posted by snofoam at 2:41 PM on May 14, 2008

These comparisons are generally pretty ridiculous, and the two linked comparisons are no exception. The first has a whole lot of text and numbers, but the conclusion is only based on the energy in fuel used by a car and the energy in the food used by a cyclist (to be fair, the conclusion is marked tentative, but I don't think that excuses it). The second one is even worse as it is almost entirely hand-waving.

In any case, the main conclusion of these analyses should be that the current US food production system is incredibly stupid.
posted by ssg at 3:05 PM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just a word from the near side of the edge regarding P. J. O'Rourke -- he's joking. Treating that quote like it is a manifesto is... probably not the best use of anybody's time.
posted by abulafa at 3:14 PM on May 14, 2008

wildcrdj: The more a form of transit isolates me from society, the better.

jamjam: In the new order we'll be happy to let you ride in a Cadillac, Mr. O'Rourke, a nice, long black one, and all your friends too, in their own caddies behind you in procession-- but it will be a one-way trip, I think.

This what you had in mind, wildcrdj?
posted by PM at 3:15 PM on May 14, 2008

Mankind has invested more than four million years of evolution in the attempt to avoid physical exertion

Explain to me then spinning classes.
posted by ikahime at 3:15 PM on May 14, 2008

This also assumes you're going to eat more to "fuel" your trip. Most likely, you will eat the same amount and be less overweight than the rest of the country.
posted by the jam at 3:18 PM on May 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

What about increased smug emissions?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 3:20 PM on May 14, 2008

I'm thinking about getting a bunch of hats made with the words "Carbon Emission" on them. Then everyone can buy their own Carbon Emission Cap, and feel good.
posted by never used baby shoes at 3:50 PM on May 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

What about increased smug emissions?

Smug is a non-greenhouse emission. It doesn't pollute, it just bothers the neighbours. (But they own a dog that produces bark emissions, so they don't get to complain :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 4:17 PM on May 14, 2008

Mankind has invested more than four ten million thousand years of evolution inventiveness in the attempt to avoid physical exertion death and discomfort.

...starting to make sense.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:22 PM on May 14, 2008

Ooops; wrong WNBR. Here's the right one. (NSFW)
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:25 PM on May 14, 2008

abulafa: "Just a word from the near side of the edge regarding P. J. O'Rourke -- he's joking. Treating that quote like it is a manifesto is... probably not the best use of anybody's time."

P. J. O'Rourke once did a signing in my bookstore and I got to have lunch with him, and while I agree he's a humorist, I'm not sure he was joking.
posted by Toekneesan at 5:06 PM on May 14, 2008

1) Bizarre assumptions: bicycle repair (light skilled labor) is per dollar as carbon intense as car repair (uses heavy machines, parts created by heavy manufacturing from steel). A somehow believe auto manufacture to be heavier and require more steel than bicycle.

2) Population level bicycle cost is acknowledged to be inflated by the large number of very lightly used bicycles. This should have no bearing on the impact of their use.

3) Bicycle time is considered "lost" requiring additional laborers to make up the difference! This is nonsensical; there isn't a pool of workers-on-ice that gets called upon, so no increase in carbon-activity occurs when labor efficiency declines. Furthermore, almost no occupations count commuting time as part of time worked. Additionally, time bicycling should be reallocated from the 30-45 minutes of daily exercise which is considered necessary for good health.

4) No accounting whatsoever of the energy cost of supplying fuel to autos. Gasoline does not magically refine itself, nor does it appear in your car's tank without shipping. In addition, the infrastructure of petrol stations has significant construction and maintenance costs.

5) No accounting whatsoever is made for road infrastructure, which is significantly higher for autos per mile and especially per trip..

6) No accounting whatsoever for the effects of each on human health. Human disease and mortality is extremely expensive. Bicycles are a form of exercise which promotes good health. Autos produce particulate, sulfurous, ozone, and other emissions which are quite bad for it. In addition, autos have a very significant accident-related mortality.

7) No accounting whatsoever for the enormously greater amount of space and structure used to house autos relative to to bicycles. A parking spot around me costs >$200/month.

8) The debate is rarely if ever to ride an auto or a bicycle the same distance. It's to ride an auto a longer distance in the same time.

9) As others have pointed out, there is little to no justification for the idea that people require more food because of biking. In any event, an addition to raw calories probably comes from carbohydrates for many people rather than the incredibly-expensive animal protein.

10) Read the food cal/fuel cal appendix. He pretty much acknowledges it to be voodoo. The Cato institute (who can be relied on to pick a conservative/made up high number for this purpose) state ethanol to have a $1 to $1.4 subsidy per gallon. That's a 24%-34% subsidy, not a 900% (10x) subsidy. Ethanol in a refined product, indicating that inputs, distribution, and handling have been taken into consideration, and it's about 1.3 Food Cal / Fuel Cal. More complex foods (ethanol is already as complex as flour, rice, etc) certainly are worse, but aside from beef probably not 10x worse. If the differential calories on your bicyclist come from a baked potato or more bread instead of a second slab of steak (how I think most people eat if they're still hungry at diner?) then the inputs are dramatically different that this guy is assuming.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:18 PM on May 14, 2008 [4 favorites]

11) Profit!

posted by fuzzypantalones at 5:37 PM on May 14, 2008

They have World Naked Bike Ride t-shirts.

Just sayin'.
posted by jimmythefish at 5:42 PM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

In the good weather months, when I ride my bike to work and on errands, I do indeed eat! In the cold months, when I take the bus or drive. I don't eat.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 6:08 PM on May 14, 2008

This is so stupid. The bicycle is greener than the car in every instance, unless perhaps you have 20 people in a Yugo, going no faster than 20 mph. It's just mental masturbation to think otherwise. Well, it was kind of funny though, sorry for even trying to be serious.....
posted by caddis at 6:10 PM on May 14, 2008

Too bad that WNBR site isn't scratch-n-sniff. I bet it would smell like hippy.
posted by photoslob at 6:18 PM on May 14, 2008

I'm glad to see Maxwell's demon has found gainful employment.

In all honesty, I am quite certain that, pound per pound, the internal combustion engine is more efficient than me on a bicycle. Pound per pound.

The thing is, I only need to move, maybe 325 pounds back and forth to work each day: my delicate linebacker-esque frame, my knapsack of papers and what not and my laptop. Now I can add in:

A) A Trek 7200 weighing 25-30 pounds.
B) A Volvo V70 weighing 3500 pounds.
C) A Ford F250 weighing 6000 pounds.

I'm not thinking that the internal combustion engine is 5970 pounds worth of more efficient.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:25 PM on May 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

Energy is money. Think of it this way: the cost of the energy needed to get the food to your plate is (more or less) recovered by the money you spend on said food. Exercise more = eat more = spend more. Thing is, when you park the car for the summer and bike, are you spending more or less overall (cost of food vs. cost of gas)? Spend less (total) on food and gas = consume less energy.
posted by hangashore at 9:41 PM on May 14, 2008

Show me a car with the same mechanical efficiency as a bicycle and I'll happily sell my bike.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:56 PM on May 14, 2008

Using a bike is cheaper, it is far more ecological, it is healthier. It's better for your karma (you're not contributing in turning earth into a desert or junkyard) and mental health : the feeling of freedom one can experience when riding a bike is absolutely different from the feelings you can experience in your car. A bike is approximately as fast as a car in city traffic (what's the sake of going faster anyway ?) and it's so easy to park a bike. Even if you have a hundred miles to go, you can still take your bike, if the means of transportation allows it (in France, you can take your bike in trains, for instance). My car has been parked in front of my house for such a long time now that I had to tell the police it isn't a wreck (they keep checking for having stolen or abandoned cars removed). The painting has been destroyed by winter snow and summer sun. Someone has stolen the logo on the radiator fence. I don't care. Let it rot in hell. Just love my bike.
posted by nicolin at 2:40 AM on May 15, 2008

I don't really ride my bike to save money, or the enviornment, or for exercise or anything like that. I just do it to piss people off.
posted by fixedgear at 2:58 AM on May 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

They also may save energy since much of the energy people expend riding them might be expended anyway for recreational exercise.

Ding! Ride your bike to work and kill your gym membership. Just think of all the electricity you'll save not powering those machines, lights, condom machines, etc.

And what the jam and robot made of meat said.

For me, however, I've always assumed it would be more energy efficient to walk or ride the bus than to bike. There are the chain lube/parts/maintenance, etc. that require shipping/petroleum/etc.

Riding the bus assumes that individual ridership levels don't affect total resource use. Though they probably do, I'd guess it's a small effect. I.e., the buses are running anyway--riding them instead of biking seems like it would use less resources.

However, I consider biking to/fro work my exercise and then pretty much none of this factors in.

Last thought - there is a major boost to the social capital of a neighborhood/city (IMO) when more people bike and walk instead of drive cars. There are many other factors involved with walking/biking/driving and "the environment" than just energy efficiency. For example, drivers seem to litter much more than bicyclists, but that might be a stereotype.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:09 AM on May 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also, riding a bicycle necessitates living reasonably close to your place of employment. (I just noticed the second "measure" link.)

If you live 20 miles from work, that's a tough load to carry, imo. You're much better off taking public transport at least part of the day. Or else, yeah, carbs are cheap.

Living close to your place of work is essential to energy efficiency in your commute. That's a no brainer.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:13 AM on May 15, 2008

day = way
posted by mrgrimm at 10:22 AM on May 15, 2008

Utter contemptuous crap. Especially because they pull in the most remote peripheries w/r/t cycling but fail to account for even the most proximal periphery stemming from using an automobile. They'll consider the cost of generating the food I eat but not calculate the cost of exploration, extraction, shipping, refining, and shipping again the cost of petrol? It's the new SCIENCE! I think my most favorite thing of all is that even with every possible advantage given to using fossil fuels the best they can establish is that it might be a wash...if you squint a little...and tilt your head to the right.
posted by Fezboy! at 3:27 PM on May 15, 2008

contemptuous contemptible
posted by Fezboy! at 3:28 PM on May 15, 2008

What is most interesting in analyzing fuel efficiency is getting a clearer picture of mass transit. It isn't the solution to energy problems extending into the suburbs or for long distance. They barely break even with an efficient automobile that is half-full, and a small car can be maximized more efficiently, and owners can be tolled for their empty seats. I think that if the problem is assumed to be urban sprawl, they might agree that the best solution is to build civilization more efficiently. As a quick fix with long term consequences, height restrictions on all buildings could be eliminated.
posted by Brian B. at 10:50 AM on May 18, 2008

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