Published Somedays

Three Step Plan to a Better Society

(updated: Apr 2, 2009)

So I was thinking about the simplicity and efficiency of bikes the other day (yeah, that's a surprise), and how the basic underlying design has not changed for years. The materials certainly have, as technology trickles down and bikes get lighter and stronger at the same time with new and better materials and computer-aided design. However, what I really want to point out is just how efficient bikes are as a mode of transportation vs. the automobile, no matter what they are made of.

I've talked to a lot of non-biking folks out there, and many of them say that cycling does not matter, that's it's not going to make a difference. Our country is too big, and things are too spread out. The fallacy in this logic is that first of all, the reason things are so spread out is precisely because we've had easy access to a highly energy-dense abundant energy source: oil. Without all the attributes of this resource in play simultaneously, I believe our cities would be a lot more compact and pedestrian and bike friendly.

The second thing wrong with this logic is related to the brilliant efficiency of the bicycle. A human plus bike weighs only about 200lbs, whereas a car with a single occupant (typical) can run well over 2000lbs. When you consider the slower speed and cross-section (reduced wind resistance) and tire contact area (reduced friction and inertia), the energy spent per mile on a bike is so much less than that for a car. That's why cycling can have a huge impact on energy usage.

Now how much energy is actually expended riding a bike? I know from riding a bike with a Wattmeter on it that I can easily generate an average of 150 Watts for an hour (150 Watt-hours or Wh). For comparison Lance Armstrong can generate 500 W for 20 minutes, and an average 430 W, with peak wattages of up to 1800 W! Now consider that 1 liter of gas contains roughly 10,000 Wh of chemical energy. And note that a typical automobile is 30% efficient at converting that energy. So for a typical one hour ride, say, a 1/2 hr each way commute to work, I use the equivalent of about 3 tablespoons of gasoline!

This is the reason bikes matter. Because that same trip in my car uses about a gallon of gas. So by substituting even a few short trips by car (when a car is least efficient) by bike, and noting that 40% of all trips are two miles or less, the reduction in fossil fuel usage can be dramatic.

So next time you're filling up your tank, just think about the incredibly rich energy source you just put in your tank, because that is why good alternatives to oil are hard to find. And then look around you at all the large vehicles clogging the roads - in a few years, maybe 5, maybe 10, maybe 20, they will mostly be gone.

So here is my three step plan. I've kept it simple so folks will remember it, and it's easy to communicate:

Step 1: Start riding a bike.
Step 2: Get someone else on a bike.
Step 3: Connect homes to schools to businesses with bike paths.

I realize there is a big gap between step 2 and 3, but based on what I've seen over the last few years of just how insanely fast developers have been able to transform the landscape, I don't think it is too unreasonable to expect to accomplish if that is the will of a community's citizens. Notice I say citizens, because up until recently we've been labeled as consumers, and it has been Wall St. exploiting consumers that was driving massive over-development. Well, those days are gone now.

This simple three-step plan is the solution. And everything needed to implement it already exists. Yet we have some of the greatest minds in the country currently racking their brains trying to solve the wrong problem: finding other means for running all the cars. The assumption here is that we must remain car-dependent. But that makes about as much sense as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.


Filed Under: General Entries > North Carolina > Wilmington


1. MLB said...

The gap between steps 2 and 3 of the plan can be minimized in Wilmington with better planning and better continuity between already existing features such as the East Coast Greenway, Cross City Trail, (not yet completed) and other multi-use paths around town. A network of Rails to Trails can be built from old abondoned railroads and there is also the possibility of a linear park around the city. An example of such a park that can be used by both pedestrians and cyclists to commute is the Old Croton Aqueduct. A 26 mile linear park that used to be part of a 41 mile aqueduct which supplied NYC with fresh water.
Only problem is back to the one you pointed out, we're trying to build more efficient cars instead of building an infrastructure that does not depend on them.

Apr 2, 2009 @ 11:24 PM

2. Bryan said...

Another way to think about the gap between Steps Two and Three is to recognize that there are already high-quality connections between these places; we merely need to alter the dynamics of them just a bit. And that can be accomplished largely by going crazygonuts with Step Two.

Apr 3, 2009 @ 5:40 AM

3. Ben said...

Food for thought...

Check out Article 14, Section 5, Clause 1 of the North Carolina Constitution:

-"It shall be the policy of this State to conserve and protect its lands and waters for the benefit of all its control and limit the pollution of our air and water, to control excessive noise..."

It seems to me that those who are in office have the Constitutional necessity to do what is best for the environment.

While I'm on the political aspects of it...

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
-United States Declaration of Independence

In essence, those who have the ability to take action have the responsibility to take action. We can't just sit around and do nothing, when the ability to make a difference is there. To quote "This American Life" radio host Ira Glass:

"Don't be one of those people who reaps what others sow."

This is what I tell people when they ask me why I ride a bike.

Apr 3, 2009 @ 6:11 AM

4. MLB said...

True, however many people that I talk to would like to commute by bike but fear for their lives on our roads. It\'s just gonna take work and lots of people.

Apr 3, 2009 @ 6:16 AM

5. Bryan said...

It's all about the numbers. When there's one of you, you worry about traffic. When there's a thousand of you, you are traffic. So every single person we can get to ride a bike makes every single one of us safer. (Well, assuming we can keep them off the sidewalks.)

Apr 3, 2009 @ 8:18 AM

6. Bjorn said...

having lived in germany with frequent visits to get to see what a true bicycle utopia looks like...
between the bikes and the streetcars...most city people dont even have drivers liscences
My 65 year old aunt rides her 50lb dutch bike to work everyday rain or shine...and it rains almost every day there...
{i miss the days of cycling around with a 12 pack in my basket and a baguette sticking out my rucksack}
but now that im here [hampstead]....between the no sidewalks and the no shoulders...i'm not gonna go elbow to elbow with semi trucks and old ladys on the phone....
once gas goes back up to $5.00 a gallon you'll get a lot more support I bet

Apr 3, 2009 @ 8:54 AM

7. Sir- Conspiracy-Theory said...

None of it matters. Planet X will make its 3,600 year return sometime around 2012-2014. Google it if you have no idea what I am talking about.

Apr 7, 2009 @ 7:45 AM

8. SBA said...

I was an amateur astronomer who almost became a professional one and I have never heard of Planet X or if I have, it was total BS, which it is. So that's what the 2012 movie is about? The world will not end from some planet, comet, asteroid, or anything else. It will end for us because we breed like yeast and consume everything.

Apr 12, 2009 @ 9:27 PM


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