Eco-Friendly Bicycling

The full name of this website is “EcoVelo: Eco-Friendly Bicycling”. A few people have asked what we mean by “eco-friendly bicycling”, since all forms of bike riding produce no pollution. We define eco-friendly bicycling as, “Using a bicycle in place of a polluting vehicle to reduce our environmental impact.” This could mean a single trip to the grocery store or a full-blown car-free lifestyle — as long as a car trip is replaced, the impact has been reduced and the activity falls into what we think of as eco-friendly.

Partaking in an activity that produces no pollution is not the same as reducing your overall environmental impact.

Typically, all forms of bike riding are assumed to be eco-friendly. You get on a bike, you go for a ride, and no fossil fuels were burned in the process — it seems pretty obvious and intuitive. Even bicycle racing, on its surface, appears eco-friendly. But upon closer inspection, recreational bicycling is only “eco-neutral” in the same way watching television or playing basketball are eco-neutral. Partaking in an activity that produces no pollution is not the same as reducing your overall environmental impact. You wouldn’t say “eco-friendly television watching”, even though watching television produces no pollution.

This is not a dig on recreational bicycling. The fact that it’s a healthy, enjoyable activity has its own value and rewards. Plus, (and most importantly) it may eventually lead people to riding a bicycle for transportation. But let’s not delude ourselves; riding solely for pleasure doesn’t replace a car trip or take a single car off the road. If we really want to reduce our environmental footprint, we need to look at bike riding as a healthy and enjoyable way to replace motor vehicle trips.

27 Responses to “Eco-Friendly Bicycling”

  • beth h says:

    I think the challenge here is that our national infrastructure is based on the freeways that connect cities, rather than the smaller roads inside of cities that connect neighborhoods (ineeded, many neighborhoods were completely wiped out when the freeways were expanded in the 1960’s and 70’s). As a result, bicyclists in America must be willing to ride longer distances and/or go a fair distance out of their way to enjoy a quieter, safer route. Bike commuters in this country are still largely seen as either rock stars, or as freaks. Neither distinction, nor the challenge of navigating a car-centric infrastructure, does much to promote bike commuting among those who currently ride only for pleasure.

    Among my friends, there is a division: those who ride and those who don’t. Among those who ride, most of them ride more and/or faster than I do. They are mostly supportive and friendly, understanding the reasons that I do not (or cannot) ride faster or father. Among my friends who do not ride, I’m seen as some kind of rock star, which is pretty far from the truth and which mostly intimidates them away from trying bicycling for transportation. Even my partner, who is willing to ride with me now and then on warm, sunny days, admires my bike-centric lifestyle but has no desire to emulate it.

    ..:sigh::..

  • Karl OnSea says:

    So I guess you mean this isn’t eco-friendly riding then? ;-)

    (Picture is from the Texas Tailwind blog on WordPress).

  • brad says:

    There’s at least one way in which recreational cycling can reduce your environmental impact, and that’s with a cycling vacation. Instead of taking the car or plane for our early-summer vacation this year, we’re going to ride from our home in Montreal down to Burlington, Vermont, and cycle around a good portion of Lake Champlain before riding back home.

  • Fred C says:

    I beg to differ that recreational riding is only eco-neutral. It depends on what my alternative activities would entail if I was not out on my bike. If not riding I could instead be doing one of the following…..
    – Watching TV which I contend is not eco-nuetral but is using up valuable fossil fuels to
    generate the electricity.
    – Playing video games or surfing the web.
    – Driving my car to the gym for a much needed workout.
    – Flying an airplane
    – Racing a cigarette boat
    – etc.etc. etc…..
    From this perspective, my recreational riding can be considered an eco-friendly activity. By choosing this form of recreation over these alternatives, I am in fact reducing my impact on the environment.

  • Alan says:

    Good points, Beth.

    Bike rides are social events for most people in the U.S. They also provide a friendly competitive outlet for many people. Still though, very few people think of bicycle riding as transportation here.

    Since we started riding predominately for transportation, we rarely ride with others. It’s almost become a foreign idea. I mean, we don’t go for recreational car rides with friends, so why would we do that on bikes? I know it’s not realistic to compare driving a car to riding a bike (though plenty of people enjoy driving cars), but when you start thinking in terms of bicycling for transportation, the concept of riding purely for its own sake starts to seem a little odd, almost indulgent. It’s a subtle shift in thinking that has gradually taken hold of us over time. I try to save my knees for those days when I can replace car trips instead of just going for a long ride on the weekend for fun, then hoping that my body holds up during the week when I need it.

    As an aside, bike touring is akin to vacationing on a bike. In a substantive way, it may reduce one’s impact because it replaced a vacation that would otherwise have been made by motor vehicle (car, plane, train, whatever). In my mind, it’s always a matter of what is substituted.

  • charles says:

    Hmmmm…………while I understand and agree that using a bicycle is the most efficient way to get around its probably not the most pollution free way. I mean, the pollution that comes from making a bicycle and all the stuff that we use when riding and maintaining one has to be considered in the grand scheme not to mention the cost of decent roadways. Really when you get down to it, humans and animals for that matter create pollution. There is no getting around that and short of vaporizing yourself you can’t deny the effect you have on the environment regardless of whether you bicycle or not. I think it is a good and noble endeavor to use a bicycle to get around but don’t expect anyone else to notice or care much. You have to do it because you enjoy it, certainly not because you are being forced to. While the Chinese are buying more autos and abandoning the bicycle we Americans wax philosophical about the virtues of the bicycle. Its an odd phenomenon. The Dutch seem to have the ideal cultural understanding of the bicycles role in society. The problem is, many of us can’t afford to live in the idealized world of flat terrain and chocolate and I’m no Dutch hater, I just don’t have enough gold…..yet!
    If you haven’t watched the movie Goldmember then you probably won’t get my weak attempt at humor.

  • Alan says:

    @Charles

    The question isn’t whether we have some impact, but how much of an impact. The pollution generated in manufacturing automobiles is orders of magnitude greater than what is created in manufacturing bicycles. Then you have to look at the pollution generated over the life of the vehicle: tailpipe emissions, oil changes, tires, and on and on.

    Of course, though less efficient, walking wins hands down in the low impact department.

    “I think it is a good and noble endeavor to use a bicycle to get around but don’t expect anyone else to notice or care much.”

    My experience has been precisely the opposite of this. We get many nice comments and questions from people who are sincerely interested in our bikes, and what it takes to ride a bicycle for transportation.

  • Lynn says:

    I think it’s important to encourage people to start with recreational riding before pushing them to try commuting or running errands on a bike. Many adults have not ridden a bike since they were teenagers, and the thought of riding on the streets alongside speeding cars and trucks is enough to scare them away from even trying. Simply riding around the neighborhood or on a bike path in a park is the best way to get started, then short trips to the library or store via the back roads, until eventually the rider becomes confident enough to ride longer distances and on busier roads. Riding with an experienced friend really helps, too.
    In my opinion, safety and fun are the two biggest factors to get people riding. Recreational riding combines both and can be the first step towards “eco-friendly bicycling”. That’s how it happened for me, anyway.

  • Alan says:

    @Lynn

    Well said, and I wholeheartedly agree.

  • Duncan Watson says:

    The point about TV not being eco-neutral has been made. Cycling tends to be more eco-friendly than basketball and other sports due to the lower facility impact. Also since cycling CAN be transportation, there is a percentage of cyclists who don’t drive to a cycling location. I know that my neighbors just ride around the neighborhood, that the local kids just get on their bikes and ride. Not being a kid anymore or having kids I don’t know if a bike is transportation to kids anymore. From the outside parents seem to keep kids in a bubble now as compared to my childhood. But when I grew up all kids treated their bikes as transportation as well as recreation. I certainly didn’t drive to ride.

    Driving isn’t the only eco impact that we do. Cycling does address more than one aspect of ecological impact. It tends to reuse facilities developed for other purposes, it can be used as transportation, it is efficient, it is fun. I personally often combine cycling with sightseeing. Riding to locations such as Mt. St Helens, or through a mountain pass means I get some of the same thrill as rock climbing due to the exploration and the sense of accomplishment that I did it under my own power.

  • Ows says:

    I can’t see that there’s an argument here. Surely we can all concur that compared to the ecological impact of producing a car on a factory line, the ecological impact of producing a bike pales in comparison?
    Bicycling is both transportation AND recreation – in one. Transcreation, if you will. Or Recreportation, even!

    Either way, it’s fun.

    It’s bike time, baby!

  • Alan says:

    @Ows

    It’s the middle of winter and it’s cold and wet outside – of course there’s an argument!! ;-)

    I like “transcreation” – I’ll have to figure out how to use that one on some unsuspecting soul.

  • charles says:

    Alan,

    Love your site by the way. I agree with you too, I just don’t’ enjoy the same experiences with people being interested in the whys and hows of using a bicycle to get places. In my experience, most think bicycling for transportation is quaint but somewhat odd and generally risky. Maybe it depends on where one lives. I will use my bike as long as I am able and I will take the opportunity to convey to others the why of it all when the opportunity arises. In the meantime, I’ll continue to bicycle because I enjoy it.

    I had a recent comment made to me that cyclists should not use the roadways because they (cyclists) are not taxed for their construction and maintenance. I’m curious what some of us think or know about this subject.

  • Alan says:

    Thanks Charles, I’m glad you enjoy the site.

    Regarding who pays for roads, According to the Federal Highway Administration, 92% of the funds for local roads—the ones most often used by bicyclists—come from property, income, and sales taxes. So even if a bicycle rider doesn’t own a car, she’s paying more than her fair share, particularly if you take into consideration the much higher wear-and-tear on roads from motor vehicles versus bicycles.

  • Ron Georg says:

    Howdy–

    The idea that riding a bike instead of driving a cigarette boat makes the act of cycling a reduction in carbon footprint is a specious argument. It’s like saying that because I’ve chosen not to kill anyone today, I’m saving lives.

    Here in Moab, hordes of people drive hundreds of miles to ride dozens. They load up their SUVs with bodies and toys, and they often feel (and express) a disingenuous disdain for others who use motors for recreation. While I share their concerns over the excesses of motorized recreation, I can’t say I admire their lifestyle choices, especially when they believe their recreation justifies choosing ridiculously large vehicles.

    Even in more localized situations there’s a similar effect. Bike paths are notorious for inspiring people to drive in order to ride. People who point to crowded bike paths as shining examples of green transportation often ignore the crowded parking lots at the trailheads. And after the path users get home, change out of their superhero bike costumes, and have a shower, they load back into the cars to go out and shop for dinner.

    Given that recreational riders here very rarely even ride their bikes from their hotels to our local restaurants (the parking lots are filled with cars with bikes on the racks), I can’t say that I see much evidence of utilitarian philosophy seeping into their endorphin-laden gourds.

    Of course, having worked as a mountain bike guide and a mechanic, and owning at least one woefully impractical bicycle, I do have to issue my own mea culpa here. But I am learning, as I hope we all are.
    Happy Trails,
    Ron Georg
    Moab

  • Ows says:

    @Alan
    I’ve discovered that “transcreation” doesn’t officially mean anything, but it’s being used more and more by translation services as a business-speak moniker for their work…
    However, in searching, I did come across a few articles on Google which stated:

    “‘Transcreation': Gaining Momentum”

    – which, as you can imagine, made me laugh loudly!

  • Duncan Watson says:

    Just because some MTBers in Moab are driving large vehicles to ride trails doesn’t discount the neighborhood cycling done from peoples homes. Recreational cycling is a large array of users and actual activities. Saying that because some are taking their SUVs to a trailhead means all recreational cycling is not eco friendly is a patently untrue. p doesn’t not imply q.

    Recreational cycling can be free of transportation costs and even when it does, cycling locations are numerous and close to most people. Now I am an outlier but I was car-free for 8 years and am now car-lite. I have ridden directly from my house for the last 9 years and also for the 13 years of my childhood, as well as 4 years of college (no car there either). I only started putting my bike on/in my car when I got a full time job and later gave that up.

    OTOH, my rock climbing hobby had me packing up my bags and heading out with friends to Smith Rock, Arapiles, the Gunks, etc. Lots of SUV, Van, station-wagon usage, even in my car-free days, as it wasn’t my car.

    The point is not all cycling is eco-friendly but the potential is there to eliminate the transportation costs and I for one often do and have. I also posit that child use of bikes is often free of transportation costs. I know that from age 5 through age 18, I didn’t ever put my bike in a car just to go for a ride.

  • Marty says:

    Cycling gives me a spiritual calmness and a oneness with nature. It gives me short term and long term achievable goals. Riding 15 miles on January 1st just to get my 1st mileage logged, on a blistering cold day, warms my heart. I get excited when I complete my age in miles on my winter birthday week. Writing my BLOG sipping a glass of wine after a great cycling day makes me feel serene. Commuting to and from work makes that day special. Realizing after a few days off, my car has not moved, amazes me.
    I have become more foot print conscious. I recycle, I use home filtered water instead of store bought, I use fluorescent bulbs, and I drive a fuel efficient sub-compact, but that is not why I ride.
    I just ride because it makes me feel good.

  • Ron Georg says:

    Howdy–

    Duncan, I’d say we’re on exactly the same page. I didn’t say all recreational riding is not eco-friendly. I couldn’t agree more that riding from home is a positive, healthy choice (though I agree with Alan’s premise, that it doesn’t exactly reduce a carbon footprint). My examples all involved people who didn’t make that choice, but who still seem to believe they’re doing the world a favor.

    I’m also teaching my daughter to embrace the same ideals, towing her to school each morning on her trail-a-bike. She’s welcome to ride the bus if she chooses, but I won’t drive her to school. So far, she’s not taken the bus to kindergarten.
    Happy Trails,
    Ron Georg

  • Audeamus says:

    “Be the change you want in the world…”

    Yes, transportation bicycling instead of driving or instead of driving miles to go is more environmentally correct. Duh.

    That said, I do often hang a bike on the back of my little four-banger and go to a nice trail system outside of the city on a sunny Saturday or Sunday afternoon, or I’ll go for a short pleasure ride in the old neighborhood nearby. But when I ride to work or to a store in my civvies, not only am I saving gas by not driving (especially a short distance, which is the least efficient way to use a gas-powered car) people see a “normal person” on a bicycle, and not some young dude or dudette thrashing along in full lycra and highly specialized (ha) shoes out for a “training” or “fitness” ride. And that little bit of guerilla theater can change things one dull, insensitive mind at a time.

  • Scott Wayland says:

    Interesting discussion. The goal, of course, should be to encourage BOTH recreational and transportation cycling. Like Duncan, so much of my recreation used to be rock climbing and mountaineering. I can’t even begin to calculate the thousands of miles I and my friends logged to get to and from different climbing areas. Four hours of driving each way for a weekend was common. Whole summers spent on the road the ultimate goal. I’ve made eight separate driving expeditions to the Canadian Rockies from California. It boggles my mind.

    These days, I have less interest in climbing–natural after thirty years in the sport, I suppose–but I have to admit that the driving aspect as really influenced my thinking. Where I currently live, we have to drive a minimum of one hour twenty minutes to get to a decent climbing area, and we have none whatsoever in our local area. More and more, we just don’t want to pile into a vehicle and drive. We get so much fun and satisfaction out of hopping on the tandem and riding to a yoga class or running some errands.

    As far as recreation goes, we do much more bike touring than anything else these days. On a personal financial note, we purchased a VW Eurovan camper for way too much money about a year or so ago, and we only use it occasionally. It’s not paid off and won’t be for years. In retrospect, it was probably a poor decision. In part, the purchase was fueled (pun intended) by all our fond memories of climbing trips all over the West. We rationalized as the “second home” that we would never be able to afford.

    But what happened when we had a few weeks off between fall and spring semester this year? We loaded up the tandem and hit the desert for a nearly three week tour—and it was bloody fantastic. We could have done a long drive to climb in, say, Arizona, but the bike pulled us in.

    I’m not saying we’ll never use the VW again or that a car-free life is realistically in our future, but we certainly feel the pull and do strive to be car-lite!

    Ramble mode off.

    Carry on.

    Scott

  • Tom says:

    In my case, the irony is that my bike commute uses more gas than my recreational cycling. I put the bike on the rack and drive 7 miles to get past some nasty sections of road, then bike the remaining 14 miles in to work. When I ride recreationally, I bike right from my house, no car involved, (most of the time).
    However, if you calculate the mileage of my car divided by the total commute mileage, I’m getting 105 mpg on my commute.

    Regarding who pays for roads, I have one word for that TANSTAAFL.
    There
    Aint
    No
    Such
    Thing
    As
    A
    Free
    Lunch

    Everybody pays, whether you own a home or not. Whether you use the roads or not, you pay.

  • Duncan Watson says:

    Scott makes a good point that I only alluded too. When I was a climber I would regularly drive 3+ hours one way to a climbing destination and then drive back that evening. My friends or partners that didn’t want to do that I called wimps. When I lived in NYC area I went to the Gunks and when I lived in the Portland area we drove to Smith Rock regularly. In retrospect the experiences are ones I treasure, but it wasn’t green activity by any means.

    Now I am older and slower, I am happy to exercise my lifelong hobby of cycling instead. Additionally I do believe Ron and I are on the same page, I was just emphasizing different aspects of the sport.

  • Alan says:

    I had similar experiences but in a different sport. I spent a decade driving all over the West harassing wild trout and steelhead, as well as flying all over the western hemisphere chasing bonefish, permit, and tarpon. Now I get my thrills at the local greenbelt less than 3 miles from my house; I just have to look closer and appreciate the little things more.

  • Alan says:

    “Watching TV which I contend is not eco-nuetral but is using up valuable fossil fuels to generate the electricity.”

    Not to be nit-picky, but just FYI…

    Some utility companies are starting to offer the option of 100% renewable (solar/wind) electricity to customers willing to pay a small premium. We’re fortunate to have the option of paying 1.5 cents extra per kilowatt hour to recieve 100% new wind and solar energy produced at wind turbines in Northern California and solar energy facilities in our home town. So in our case, TV watching is, in fact, eco-neutral.

    For anyone who’s interested, you may want to check with your local utility. Our local program is not well publicized and I suspect more people would participate if they knew it was an option – this could be the case in your area as well.

  • Scott Wayland says:

    Alan: That power option is nice. We used to have that here, in a region with more wind turbines than almost anywhere else (Tehachapi), but for some reason, the program was canceled. We had an account with Green Mountain Energy. Oh, well, we can look out about ten miles across the valley and see scores of turbines making clean energy night and day.

    Scott

  • Helton says:

    The way this post was written makes one believe that we MUST ride te bikes instead of cars because we have a debt to the environment, or because it is a rather necessary hygienic measure.
    I agree that replacing a polluting vehicle is already a good reason to ride to work, for example, but there are even better reasons to do that, specially psychological ones (satisfaction, subjective well being).
    As of being eco-friendly, the carbon load and its consequences aren’t the only menace brought by heavy car use: also are the excessive space occupied, the lots of animals hit by cars on highways, the interference caused by the cars’ noise on reproduction cycles of, e.g., some birds, the exploitation of ores and such for “feeding” auto-related industries, the soil impermeabilization caused by asphalt and concrete tarmacs, and so on.
    I dont mean diminishing your point or your post, but someone could think that the point of it all is too focused in carbon-load, and I think it isn’t.

    Best regards

    Helton

 
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