Mark Lukach

Just How Green Is Your Bicycle Commute?

by , 08/15/11

bicycle commute, eco-friendly commute, carbon footprint

With bike sharing and committed bike lanes on the rise, it seems like biking would be the no-brainer option for an eco-friendly commute, and yet some critics ponder if biking is actually better than taking the bus or a cab. But fear not, bike riders of the world. The evidence is in at Slate.com, and it is convincing: biking is the greenest way to get to work.

bicycle commute, eco-friendly commute, carbon footprint

Biking is so much better for the environment than driving a car. Obviously. I mean, it should be obvious, right? There are several key questions at the heart of this issue. First off, the carbon cost of producing a bicycle, shipping it, and maintaining it. While that might negligible, it’s definitely something that needs to be taken into consideration when truly trying to understand your bike’s carbon footprint, and it’s hard to determine, because most bike manufacturers don’t release such information. And I’m not talking about the green-by-design bicycles, of which they are many, but your run of the mill ones, made of steel or aluminum.

According to Shreya Dave, a graduate student at MIT, the carbon cost of manufacturing a bicycle is about 530 pounds of CO2. (Read her full conclusion here.) It’s pretty obvious that the manufacture of a car produces much more carbon, but if you don’t own a car, and ride the bus or the subway, the math gets a bit trickier.

Shreya broke things down by looking at a mile-for-mile carbon imprint, and assumed that a bike rider ate a fairly normal American diet, and bikes 2,000 miles a year, or about 8 miles every work day. And remember, we’re not talking about riding for fun, but riding in place of driving. Big difference. In this scenario, the bike beats the car by a long shot, at a rate of 10 to 1.

But cyclists need to eat more to compensate for the burned calories. Or at least, that’s what the critics complain, and eating in America is a fairly carbon-heavy process. Which is why Shreya talked in terms of a “normal American diet,” one that relies upon imported meats and processed food, as compared to exclusively locally sourced, organic food.

And yet, the bike still wins out. The carbon output by a bus is 2.6 times greater than a bicycle, and the subway is actually worse. It’s hard to be precise, but it’s likely around 4 times that of a bike.

Even without an environmentally conscious diet, and traditional design methods for your bike, the evidence seems to put the argument to rest. Your commute will be the greenest if you bike there. So jump on the saddle, and get pedaling.

Via Slate

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1 Comment

  1. hamish wilson August 16, 2011 at 9:51 am

    The smelting of aluminum has released really pernicious GHG with very long lifespans, but this seems ignored. All modes except for walking would have a boost if this were included.

    My tires come from rather far away – and I think most of ours are. Was all that transport energy factored in? Bikes are still best of course…

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