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Is commuting by bike worse for climate change than driving a small car?

mtaratootmtaratoot Member, Premium Posts: 6,328 Member Member, Premium Posts: 6,328 Member
It's Bike Commute Week and Bike Commute Month!

Working from home half time or more, I got out of the routine habit of commuting by bike. I'm starting again. Biking is fun, contributes to fitness, and can reduce emission of greenhouse gasses compared to driving a car. Or maybe it doesn't always do the last one.

I remember reading years ago that commuting by bike isn't always as ecologically beneficial as we might think. The article was about a study that showed a cyclist who ate meat would contribute more greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere than a driver of an efficient automobile. It had to do with the extra calories needed to fuel your body for the commute and the high carbon price of beef. Of course you get a personal health benefit by getting your body moving, and the great thing is you can choose what foods to add to your menu to fuel that commute. A quick consultation with the Oracle of Google shows that this information is still relevant, for example:

https://www.bicycling.com/news/a32936547/low-carbon-diet-study/ is from a bicycling community. One interesting thing it mentions is that for SHORT trips where your car is not running as efficiently as when it's fully warmed up, your pedal-powered commute produces less CO2. So maybe cutting out those shortest trips is the MOST important.

https://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/are-meat-eating-cyclists-worse-for-the-planet-than-drivers provides some estimates of how many emissions are created from various vehicles.

I thought about posting this in the General Health Fitness and Diet area, but it might be more interesting here.
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Replies

  • mtaratootmtaratoot Member, Premium Posts: 6,328 Member Member, Premium Posts: 6,328 Member
    mtaratoot wrote: »
    I remember reading years ago that commuting by bike isn't always as ecologically beneficial as we might think. The article was about a study that showed a cyclist who ate meat would contribute more greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere than a driver of an efficient automobile. It had to do with the extra calories needed to fuel your body for the commute and the high carbon price of beef.

    How does a cyclist who eats beef compare to a driver who eats beef? Are we going to assume every calorie burned on the bike is replaced with beef? That's not a reasonable assumption for a lot of reasons. What if the cyclist is a vegetarian? (That's me!)

    What is the environmental cost of manufacturing a car vs a bike? How about shipping it halfway around the world? (My car weighs 3,500 pounds, my bike weighs 18, cargo ships burn the dirtiest fuel.) What's the environmental cost not only of burning gasoline but getting out out of the ground, refining it, and again shipping it? In the past, wars have been fought over oil, I suspect there's a large carbon footprint in that. And the micro plastic contamination of the environment from tires rubbing against the road scraping particles off? Four giant tires, or two little ones? Similar question for using the brakes, there's a lot more braking force in a car due to higher speeds and mass.

    It sounds like your real question is about the environmental cost of meat and bikes are kind of a red herring?

    Excellent observations, and I don't disagree with any of that. Along similar lines, when someone suggests I replace my 24-year-old pick-up with a vehicle that uses less fuel, I consider that over the 24 years I've owned it, it only had to be built ONE TIME. That's often the biggest environmental impact of cars and trucks - manufacture. Shipping too gets built in. I do know quite a few folks who have been car-free for years. That's a huge commitment, and I think their impacts are less than mine irrespective of their diets. Some are meat-free. Along those same lines, choosing to be child-free has a huge impact on what we're responsible for.

    I think the idea with these studies is that most of us who ride bikes also have a sedan, pickup, or some other fuel-powered conveyance. The only statement they are making is that if a cyclist uses hamburgers to fuel the extra energy required to move themselves around town versus riding on a couch with a windshield, there's an unseen impact. I was surprised when I read about it years ago, and it just came back to my mind during bike commute week.

    For full disclosure, I was a vegetarian/pescatarian for about 30 years for a number of reasons, and am now mostly an omnivore.

    The idea here isn't comparing the overall environmental impact. It's just about greenhouse gas. It's not a red herring; it's red meat :wink: Bicyclist or not, our food choices do have a wider impact. I just remember finding it interesting that there's more emissions in the equation if I choose to ride my bike versus some other method. Maybe not my truck; it gets less than 20mpg except under certain conditions.



    edited May 17
  • mtaratootmtaratoot Member, Premium Posts: 6,328 Member Member, Premium Posts: 6,328 Member
    I should also add that I'm no saint with respect to driving. I hitch up a trailer with a raft on it and sometimes drive for DAYS just so I can float down a river.... for days or weeks. I also toss canoes and/or kayaks on a roof and drive an hour or four to paddle for a day or three.
  • mtaratootmtaratoot Member, Premium Posts: 6,328 Member Member, Premium Posts: 6,328 Member
    steveko89 wrote: »
    Perhaps as consumers we shouldn't feel like we're being held accountable to decades of malpractice by industry and lack of proper government oversight...

    Can you please clarify what this means with respect to the particular question at hand?
  • mtaratootmtaratoot Member, Premium Posts: 6,328 Member Member, Premium Posts: 6,328 Member
    steveko89 wrote: »
    mtaratoot wrote: »
    steveko89 wrote: »
    Perhaps as consumers we shouldn't feel like we're being held accountable to decades of malpractice by industry and lack of proper government oversight...

    Can you please clarify what this means with respect to the particular question at hand?

    IMO getting caught up in going above and beyond as individuals, we need to be able to collectively hold industrial users and governments accountable for their inaction or blatent disregard for the impacts to the planet.

    I'm not saying we shouldn't care what impact we have as individuals, but in my judgement what damage we can mitigate as consumers is dwarfed by and will not overcome the consistent negative acts by industry and corporations that are permitted by lawmakers who are either too uneducated to understand the science and/or paid handsomely by interested parties to legislate like they are.

    I say this as an Environmental Engineer employed by a Fortune 500 company. As a business the goal is compliance, not environmental stewardship, and in most cases those targets are a ways apart. We're only just getting to a point where an emphasis on sustainability and efficiency is being evaluated independent of an ROI or IRR. Even that seems to be driven by expectations of our larger shareholders or a desire to have some readiness for further regulation if the GND comes to pass.

    Thanks for the clarification. Good points all. A corporation exists to increase the wealth of the shareholders; externalities be damned. I doubt that, as an individual, I will be able to say that I've done "all that I can" because I do make choices that have negative environmental impacts. I will be able to say I'm doing SOMETHING. Helps me sleep. I need sleep. Just not those weird dreams lately.

    I doubt I will live in a world where corporations take it upon themselves to look past the bottom line to make decisions that include the externalities, but this is really just about the impact of fueling a bicycle commute with a ribeye.
  • ninerbuffninerbuff Member, Greeter Posts: 45,210 Member Member, Greeter Posts: 45,210 Member
    mtaratoot wrote: »
    It's Bike Commute Week and Bike Commute Month!

    Working from home half time or more, I got out of the routine habit of commuting by bike. I'm starting again. Biking is fun, contributes to fitness, and can reduce emission of greenhouse gasses compared to driving a car. Or maybe it doesn't always do the last one.

    I remember reading years ago that commuting by bike isn't always as ecologically beneficial as we might think. The article was about a study that showed a cyclist who ate meat would contribute more greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere than a driver of an efficient automobile. It had to do with the extra calories needed to fuel your body for the commute and the high carbon price of beef. Of course you get a personal health benefit by getting your body moving, and the great thing is you can choose what foods to add to your menu to fuel that commute. A quick consultation with the Oracle of Google shows that this information is still relevant, for example:

    https://www.bicycling.com/news/a32936547/low-carbon-diet-study/ is from a bicycling community. One interesting thing it mentions is that for SHORT trips where your car is not running as efficiently as when it's fully warmed up, your pedal-powered commute produces less CO2. So maybe cutting out those shortest trips is the MOST important.

    https://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/are-meat-eating-cyclists-worse-for-the-planet-than-drivers provides some estimates of how many emissions are created from various vehicles.

    I thought about posting this in the General Health Fitness and Diet area, but it might be more interesting here.
    Ah, wait till lab grown meat becomes more popular.

    A.C.E. Certified Personal and Group Fitness Trainer
    IDEA Fitness member
    Kickboxing Certified Instructor
    Been in fitness for 30 years and have studied kinesiology and nutrition

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  • NorthCascadesNorthCascades Member Posts: 10,457 Member Member Posts: 10,457 Member
    I've considered the extra food I eat as a cyclist, in terms of environmental impact and also my budget. 🙂 I haven't looked deeply and could be wrong, I've always assumed that as fuel, rice and even iced cream have less impact than gasoline. Part of my math has always been that most people eat a lot more calories than they need; as comfort, entertainment, or whatever.

    I've always assumed the biggest environmental impact from cycling is the consumables: chains, tires, brake pads, and cassettes. And the lubricant.

    I've known for many years that meat had a very large carbon footprint. I was a vegetarian before I learned that so it didn't fit into my choice, it would today.
  • PAV8888PAV8888 Member Posts: 8,195 Member Member Posts: 8,195 Member
    I find that a lot of environmental issues and "solutions" are red herrings, shell games, and your basic marketing.

    Not excluding clean energy which does not look THAT clean when all factors are factored in. Then again you have to start somewhere.

    Then again billions and billions increasing will use more resources. Then again our world (and retirement) are predicated on increases (or at the very least status quo) not decreases.

    Will Malthus meet Hawking??!?!? :pensive: ETA: well what would you know... apparently Hawking did go that road and was refuted, just like Malthus was--to date. :hushed:
    edited May 17
  • cwolfman13cwolfman13 Member Posts: 39,306 Member Member Posts: 39,306 Member
    The whole premise seems extraordinarily flawed to me. I'm a cyclist and I eat beef sometimes...pretty much the same amount of times as i would just being a motor vehicle operator. Add to that, I eat in general as a regular exerciser and cyclist as I did when I was a couch potato...the only difference is that when I was a couch potato I got fat.
  • mtaratootmtaratoot Member, Premium Posts: 6,328 Member Member, Premium Posts: 6,328 Member
    steveko89 wrote: »
    mtaratoot wrote: »
    steveko89 wrote: »
    mtaratoot wrote: »
    steveko89 wrote: »
    Perhaps as consumers we shouldn't feel like we're being held accountable to decades of malpractice by industry and lack of proper government oversight...

    Can you please clarify what this means with respect to the particular question at hand?

    IMO getting caught up in going above and beyond as individuals, we need to be able to collectively hold industrial users and governments accountable for their inaction or blatent disregard for the impacts to the planet.

    I'm not saying we shouldn't care what impact we have as individuals, but in my judgement what damage we can mitigate as consumers is dwarfed by and will not overcome the consistent negative acts by industry and corporations that are permitted by lawmakers who are either too uneducated to understand the science and/or paid handsomely by interested parties to legislate like they are.

    I say this as an Environmental Engineer employed by a Fortune 500 company. As a business the goal is compliance, not environmental stewardship, and in most cases those targets are a ways apart. We're only just getting to a point where an emphasis on sustainability and efficiency is being evaluated independent of an ROI or IRR. Even that seems to be driven by expectations of our larger shareholders or a desire to have some readiness for further regulation if the GND comes to pass.

    Thanks for the clarification. Good points all. A corporation exists to increase the wealth of the shareholders; externalities be damned. I doubt that, as an individual, I will be able to say that I've done "all that I can" because I do make choices that have negative environmental impacts. I will be able to say I'm doing SOMETHING. Helps me sleep. I need sleep. Just not those weird dreams lately.

    I doubt I will live in a world where corporations take it upon themselves to look past the bottom line to make decisions that include the externalities, but this is really just about the impact of fueling a bicycle commute with a ribeye.

    No doubt. Working for such a large company has made me jaded, but I agree that making choices as an individual to at least mitigate one's impact does ease the conscience and shouldn't be discounted. I should've been more clear in my initial post that it's important to keep those expectations in perspective; it may ease one's mind to do what we can and/or deem an acceptable choice in the name of conservation, but looking at the big picture, the singular impact of those choices by the individual will do little to halt the planet's decline. However, collectively putting pressure on governmental officials and corporations to make changes will have an exponentially greater impact. Relating to the questions posed biking while eating meat vs. driving, that conclusion is dabbling in minutia when there are bigger stakes at play.

    I am not the least bit worried about the Planet. It will be fine for a long time after our species is gone.

    I agree that the whole premise I proposed is "dabbling in minutia." It may be true that every little bit helps, and if we can change how we approach these issues collectively, perhaps there's a difference that can be achieved.

    I think it's been over 20 years ago that I read about the first study about this. It was an eye-opener to the impact of some practices that we participate in from a distance. It definitely could be a divisive issue, which is why this was the right place to post.

    Many thanks for keeping it a civil dialogue. I don't have any answers, but I do like to spend a little mental energy thinking about it. I actually wonder sometimes why it's even important to me. I don't have kids, and even as rapid as climate change is happening, I'll be long dead before our species is extinct or even suffers from the consequences.

    You're right about keeping this in perspective. It's small potatoes in the big scheme of things. At the same time, I remember the first time I stumbled across this information it helped put into perspective that there are a LOT of little things we do that may have consequences we wouldn't have ever considered because.... who the hell would have thought that riding a bike could end up contributing more CO2 to the atmosphere than driving a car? Not me. But then I learned. I want to keep learning, and fortunatetely, I get to.
  • mtaratootmtaratoot Member, Premium Posts: 6,328 Member Member, Premium Posts: 6,328 Member
    I've considered the extra food I eat as a cyclist, in terms of environmental impact and also my budget. 🙂 I haven't looked deeply and could be wrong, I've always assumed that as fuel, rice and even iced cream have less impact than gasoline. Part of my math has always been that most people eat a lot more calories than they need; as comfort, entertainment, or whatever.

    I've always assumed the biggest environmental impact from cycling is the consumables: chains, tires, brake pads, and cassettes. And the lubricant.

    I've known for many years that meat had a very large carbon footprint. I was a vegetarian before I learned that so it didn't fit into my choice, it would today.

    One reason I don't currently have a mountain bike is because I never replaced the last one that was stolen. Another reason is I'd be tempted to put a rack on my truck and drive to really fun places to ride. I do that to hike. I do that to paddle.

    One way bikes are like automobiles is that, perhaps, the biggest environmental impact is from the manufacturing process of the bike itself. Same with paddled. I don't want to admit how many paddles I own. Bike tires; I buy very durable bike tires. They are a lot smaller than truck tires, and have a smaller impact from their manufacture. They also last a lot fewer miles. I am curious how much difference there is between the manufacture of a pair of Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires several times over versus four 31" BFG A-T T/A meats every 60,000 miles. The disc brake pads and rotors on the front of my bike probably put a similar pollutant into the environment as the disk pads and rotors on my truck, but at a MUCH lower level because of the inertia you mention. But I replace them much more often.

    I think bikes are great. I honestly think that overall we make a lower environmental impact by riding a bike than driving a truck. That's all the more reason I found this idea of CO2 emissions being more from cycling interesting.

    And thanks for the interesting dialogue.
  • mtaratootmtaratoot Member, Premium Posts: 6,328 Member Member, Premium Posts: 6,328 Member
    PAV8888 wrote: »
    I find that a lot of environmental issues and "solutions" are red herrings, shell games, and your basic marketing.

    Not excluding clean energy which does not look THAT clean when all factors are factored in. Then again you have to start somewhere.

    Then again billions and billions increasing will use more resources. Then again our world (and retirement) are predicated on increases (or at the very least status quo) not decreases.

    Will Malthus meet Hawking??!?!? :pensive: ETA: well what would you know... apparently Hawking did go that road and was refuted, just like Malthus was--to date. :hushed:

    I think this is the real issue, but it's one many people don't like to admit. The rock upon which we all live has a carrying capacity for our species. It would be awesome if we, with our big brains, could recognize this and do all we can to make sure we slowly change how we do business so that we never have to find out what that number is. I would love to think we could evolve beyond war and find some way to prevent or reduce the impact of future pandemics that surely we will face. The only way to do that is to consider that maybe we have enough humans.

    And now I'm getting way outside of the initial question about CO2 emissions from a beef-fed cyclist being greater than from driving a Yugo. Or Civic. Or maybe even a Tacoma. I've derailed my own thread. Sorry.
  • MaltedTeaMaltedTea Member, Premium Posts: 5,644 Member Member, Premium Posts: 5,644 Member
    GCN says we can have the best of both worlds. I introduce to you, the Drycycle

  • NorthCascadesNorthCascades Member Posts: 10,457 Member Member Posts: 10,457 Member
    PAV8888 wrote: »
    I find that a lot of environmental issues and "solutions" are red herrings, shell games, and your basic marketing.

    Not excluding clean energy which does not look THAT clean when all factors are factored in. Then again you have to start somewhere.

    Then again billions and billions increasing will use more resources. Then again our world (and retirement) are predicated on increases (or at the very least status quo) not decreases.

    Will Malthus meet Hawking??!?!? :pensive: ETA: well what would you know... apparently Hawking did go that road and was refuted, just like Malthus was--to date. :hushed:

    This reminds me of a quote, "give me a one handed economist" by Harry Truman.
  • sijomialsijomial Member, Premium Posts: 18,552 Member Member, Premium Posts: 18,552 Member
    I've experimented with different eating strategies over the same 200km event from all carb gels/sports drink plus beetroot juice, to cereal bars/sports drink to enjoying all the free food on offer including bacon and egg roll in the morning plus homemade cakes eaten while sitting on a cricket pitch in the afternoon.
    I've yet to experiment with fuelling with beef though!

    My cycling calories are running at about 200,000 cals per year but I doubt much of that extra comes from meat, not that plants have no environmental impact of course.

    A quick look at my Strava records and it appears in the last few years I've done about 23,000 miles on my recreational bikes (just a few rides included some business mileage replacing car use). Some of my recreational rides on the other hand do include taking the bike somewhere to ride in different areas so additional car miles.
    Roughly 5,000 miles using a bike instead of a car for local trips, it always strikes me as slightly odd that the car park at my gym is always busy when most of the fitness conscious clients live locally. Don't get me started on the subject of the traffic chaos at my local schools when they have a 1 mile radius catchment area!

    A dietary change during the pandemic was to institute a red meat once a week rule at the instigation of my "eco-warrior" daughter. I do think it's a useful exercise to review your personal environmental impact.

  • neanderthinneanderthin Member Posts: 7,657 Member Member Posts: 7,657 Member
    Sounds legit.
    edited May 21
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