Friday, 22 July 2011


Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.
H. G. Wells

(As always, if you are pressed for time, scroll down to the WHAT CAN YOU DO section.)

Most of the time I find that people are able to place a comforting bubble of ‘I’m only one person’ and ‘what I do doesn’t really make a difference’ between their everyday choices and world events.  As I type this, we are presently in the middle of a record-breaking heat wave.  Given the reality of global warming, and the increasing impact on our daily lives here in the Northern Hemisphere,  this entry comes at one of those rare times that one can directly link one’s actions and choices with global issues. The Underdevelopping World struggles to a far greater degree (for example, the horrible famine going on in Somalia), and I am in no way trying to say that the discomfort that those of us in the North feel can, in any way, be compared to the devastation being experienced by so many.  Not yet, anyway.  However, most people I know struggle with this degree of heat and humidity, and it is therefore a golden opportunity to ambush you all, Dear Readers, and begin a discussion regarding transportation and personal choices.

When I began researching this topic, I was pretty sure that I knew what the hierarchy of responsible choices regarding daily transportation would look like. (Obviously, ‘choice’ implies that you have some options, and the number of choices available differ between places and personal circumstances.)  I began taking pictures of bicycles and motorcycles, trying to get interesting looking pictures and options for you. 

I didn’t work very hard in getting pictures of cars or buses or SUVs, partly because I thought they were kind of boring (my personality coming out here), and partly because I was sure I was going to try to encourage you all to use bicycles and motorcycles more often.  One of the best parts about writing this blog is that I prove myself wrong so often, and I end up learning so much.

Like many, I had assumed that motorcycles were a much better environmental choice than cars, that they used less gas and therefore produced fewer greenhouse gases, and that given a choice between a car and a motorcycle, the motorcycle would win.  Motorcycles are also easier to park,

easier on the budget, and given some of the newer designs, like the CanAm Spyder,

much more stable.  I was wrong.

Oh, not about the ‘cool factor’,

or the parking, or the gas mileage.  Those are all valid reasons to choose a motorcycle over a car.  However, in terms of environmental cost, the motorcycle isn't as 'earth friendly' as you might assume. 

“The reason for this discrepancy is that motorbike engines are still far less advanced in terms of fuel efficiency than petrol-powered cars. A paper published this year by scientists at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research compared the individual emissions performance of seven motorbikes against the average performance of 17 "Euro III"-standard petrol-powered cars on sale in 2001. It found that the HC and CO emissions were "all, and often significantly, higher" for the bikes than the cars. For example, when comparing a 1997 124cc Piaggio Vespa against the cars under urban driving conditions, the scooter emitted 36 times more CO per kilometre, 141 times more HC (an effect largely caused by a bike's carburettor, which can be greatly reduced through the use of fuel injection systems), 1.7 times more NOx, but 6.3 times less CO2 than the average car. Surprisingly, a 1999 BMW 1130cc bike was on a par with the scooter in terms of HC and CO emissions, much better for NOx, but predictably worse - about four times worse - on CO2.”  (Source here.)

In fact, emission standards regarding motorcycles have been at a standstill for about 30 years in  North America, and while Canada changed its standards in 2006, and the EPA was supposed to bring in new standards in 2010, even if enacted these standards will take quite a while to make a noticeable impact. Europe, which is slightly ahead of us, also has not seen a great reduction in emissions.   Further complicating the issue is that the average motorcycle is being manufactured to be more and more powerful, as more and more people choose to buy them.

So, CO2 emissions would improve, but NOx, CO and HC emissions would increase if a motorcycle is chosen instead of a car or SVU (and these are the ‘smog’ emissions).  To further confuse matters, motorcycles help decrease congestion and traffic jams, so the average time travelling would be reduced.  If you want to cloud the issue, you can start to calculate the benefits of using an electric motorcycle, or an electric car, or electric or hydrogen bicycles.  (However, electric power is not as ‘green’ as most people think, and can be controversial as well, given nuclear waste issues and environmental damage done by hydroelectric dams.) 

So, having read the evidence, I decided that I needed to do some thinking regarding cars and motorcycles.  With relief, I started research bicycles and walking, knowing that this part of the blog entry would be straightforward….(I just never learn!) 

One of the interesting things about doing research over the ‘interweb’ is the amazing variety of dreck that one can find.  One article I found mentioned that the true carbon footprint of a bike had to include the cost of shipping bikes from manufacturers to stores (and of shipping parts, etc.) I thought that that was a reasonable point.  However, any real calculation would have to include the cost of shipping cars and car parts, and motorcycles and motorcycle parts, so I’m fairly certain that bicycles would ‘win the day’ in any case.  Then I started hitting the articles that spoke of the necessity of including the environmental costs of the the food a biker consumes in order to get the energy to ride the bike.   

Now, those of you who actually know me know that I’m a vegan, and that I take my food politics seriously.  I try very hard not to be preachy, and to respect everyone’s right to make an informed choice, as I expect them to respect mine.  I understand the notion of reducing one’s ‘footprint’ and environmental impact through responsible consumerism (in every sense).  I try to live my life by adhering to many of these principles.  In my humble opinion, articles that use this type of comparison as a sneaky way to introduce food politics and vegetarianism/veganism are irresponsible, misleading, and unethical.

For one thing, I don’t know a single person who gets up in the morning, calculates how many calories s/he will need to sit in a car and drive it vs. riding a bike to work, and then plans his/her meals accordingly.  This is rubbish.   Also, when it is taken to such a degree that arguments are made advising readers that walking to the store is worse for the planet than hopping in a car, based on the assumption that the walker is eating an all-beef diet, then I start getting angry.  (By the end of my research I was actually surprised that I hadn't stumbled across an article citing how the higher breathing rate of a cyclist was worse for the planet than the respirations of a driver.)

Every source I know states that one uses calories more efficiently if one is fit, that one weighs less (on average) if one is fit, and that therefore fewer total calories are required by a healthy fit person than by one who is sedentary and overweight .  This means that the amount of food consumed by a biker will, on average, be lower than the amount consumed by one travelling in a car, and that food becomes (once again) a non-issue in this debate.  Now, it is entirely true that carbon emissions (and other environmental issues) are impacted by the types of food we choose, but that is an entirely different issue from whether or not biking to work is worse for the environment than taking the car.
So, what can we conclude from the long and rambly discussion?  (Sorry guys, it’s hot and I’m tired and just not very clear today.)  Here are my conclusions:

Whenever possible, walk.

When you can’t get ‘there’ walking, then use a bicycle.  

When you can’t get ‘there’ just by bike power, combine biking with public transportation.

When you have longer distances to travel, take public transportation. (You can see my discussion on public transportation, and environmental issues in June 26, 2011’s blog entry entitled The Joys of Public Transit.)
When this is not an option, then car pool.  The more people who travel in a car, the fewer cars and motorcycles are on the road, and everything from pollution to traffic jams and travel time will be reduced.
Use a motorcycle, or use a car, but be thoughtful about its use and the choices you are making. 

If you are buying a used car or motorcycle, do your research and calculate carbon emissions and environmental impact.  Make this part of your buying criteria.
When purchasing new cars or motorcycles, calculate carbon emissions and environmental impacts, make this part of your purchasing criteria, and let dealerships know that this is one of the reasons that you are choosing to buy, or not buy, their product.  Nothing fuels change in the market place like profits and loss of sales!
(Here are some great sites to help you: here, here, and here.)

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