By John Yoder
During a northern Indiana mid-winter cold snap, when the county roads are salted or slick, when my nose drips outrageously just walking 30 feet to the mailbox, when the cold and snow keep my bike hanging on the wall in the garage more than I’d like, and when my motivation for riding the indoor trainer has headed south, I find that I can tolerate the gloominess of the outside world better if I take time to remember what a fantastic machine the bicycle is. Indeed, it is a machine like no other humankind has invented: super-efficient, environmentally friendly and economical.
Reviewing the cycling literature on those themes makes me proud to have chosen the bicycle as my recreation-transportation choice for the benefits it yields for individuals, our communities and the future of the planet. Or, as H.G. Wells put it in a justly famous quote:
“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.”
Here are a few quotes about the bicycle that illustrate the three benefits I mentioned.
Bicycles are Efficient
The bicycle is a marvel of efficiency. Indeed, the bicycle is “more energy efficient than any other [machine] devised, ever, by anyone. A human on a bicycle is more efficient (in calories expended per pound and per mile) than a train, truck, airplane, boat, automobile, motorcycle, skateboard, canoe, or jet pack. Cycling is more efficient than walking, which takes three times as many calories per mile. Pound for pound, a person riding a bike can go farther on a calorie of food than a gazelle can running, a salmon swimming, or an eagle flying.” –Sierra, March/April 2008, p.49. quoted from Seven Wonders for a Cool Planet by Eric Sorensen and the Sightline Institute (Sierra Club Books, May 2008).
In a 1973 study by Vance Tucker of Duke University published in the “Journal of Experimental Biology (68 (9):689-709), Tucker compared bicyclists to humans, animals running, birds flying and fish swimming, as well as to people in motor-powered cars, boats, trains and planes. His conclusion (as reported by Gabe Mirkin, M.D.): “Humans riding on bicycles are more energy-efficient than any other animal and any other form of transportation.”
Mirkin continued: “The less energy per weight you use to travel over a distance, the more energy-efficient you are. Tucker found that the most efficient creature without mechanical help is a condor. With mechanical help, the cyclist comes out on top. Here is a partial list, ranked from most to least energy-efficient: human on a bicycle; condor; salmon; horse; human in a jet plane; human walking; human running; human in an automobile; cow; sheep; dog; hummingbird; rabbit; bee; and mouse. (http://drmirkin.com/fitness/bicycles-are-most-energy-efficient.html)
Bill Strickland, editor of “Bicycling” magazine, made a similar point: “the bicycle is the most efficient machine ever created: Converting calories into gas, a bicycle gets the equivalent of three thousand miles per gallon” (“The Quotable Cyclist”).
Bicycles are Environmentally Friendly
The difference in the impact of people moving by motor vehicles versus a bicycle is stark: while a person on a bicycle burns no fossil fuel and exhales minimal carbon dioxide, we know that: “In 2015, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation accounted for about 27 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making it the second largest contributor of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions after the Electricity sector.
“The largest sources of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions include passenger cars and light-duty trucks, including sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks, and minivans. These sources account for over half of the emissions from the [transportation] sector”
“The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) estimates that if Americans living within five miles of their workplace (about half the population, according to the U.S. Census) rode a bike to work just one day a week, it would save almost five million tons of global-warming pollution every year. That’s like taking a million cars off the road entirely”
While it’s true that it takes energy to build a bicycle frame and wheels, the energy needed to produce the most demanding bicycle – a carbon fiber frame – is meniscule compared to the energy need to produce a car. I don’t have an authority to quote on that score; I’m just making an estimate.
Bicycles are Economical
Cycling can save lives and money. According to a 2011 study by the University of Wisconsin of 11 Midwestern cities, “if the residents ran half of their short-distance errands (under 2.5 miles) on a bike for only four months out of the year, it would prevent 1,100 deaths and save over $7.3 billion in healthcare costs annually. Healthcare savings would result from accident reduction, better fitness, and increased air quality, which would in turn reduce cases of heart attacks, asthma, and strokes. Cycling may even improve the health of some people who don’t ride, because as ridership increases, air quality improves for everyone, not just cyclists.”
A 2011 University of Northern Iowa Study found that “Iowa’s 175,000 recreational riders and commuters saved an estimated $87 million in health care costs. The savings were in the form of treatment for diabetes, breast cancer, heart disease, stroke, and colorectal cancer” (Both quotes from http://lasesana.com/2012/10/12/bikeonomics-the-economics-of-riding-your-bike/ ).
For the individual, the cost to own and drive a typical sedan for a year, according to a 2014 study by AAA, was $8,876. (At that time, gas cost $3.278 per gallon, so the cost would be somewhat less today.) AAA included in that cost-per-year figure insurance, “routine car maintenance, tire replacement, depreciation, financing and licensing, registration, and taxes” (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-much-does-it-cost-to-own-a-car-in-2014/ ) I can own and ride a bike for a hundred dollars a year or less.
The bicycle’s efficiency, environmentally friendliness and economic benefits are three pragmatic virtues that begin to explain its appeal for me, despite society’s love affair with the car. Or is the appeal something else?
“Perhaps people like the world they can see from a bike, or the air they breathe when they’re out on a bike. Or they like the bicycle’s simplicity and the precision with which it is made. Or because they like the feeling of being able to hurtle through air one minute, and saunter through a park the next, without leaving behind clouds of choking exhaust, without leaving behind so much as a footstep” — Gurdon S. Leete (http://www.quotery.com/quotes/it-is-curious-that-with-the-advent-of-the-automobile/).
These quotes remind me – when I’m out of sorts about Northern Indiana’s unfriendly riding conditions – that my bicycle is a remarkable machine, one that is good not only for my health and wealth but also for the well-being of the planet.
John D. Yoder is a recreational cyclist, former cycling commuter and League of American Bicyclists cycling instructor. He has been active for over 25 years establishing the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail, a rails-to-trails project connecting Goshen, Middlebury and Shipshewana, Indiana (www.pumpkinvine.org).