Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution

8. Like to Bike

Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of riding a bike.

John F. Kennedy 

A simple but significant step forward on my path of self- transformation and transcendence of fossil fuels has been to ride a bike. Biking is a wonderful catalyst for mindset change. It’s so good, in fact, that today I ride not to be low-energy, but because I love to ride.

Getting back on my bike

During my first year in California, I didn’t bike; the idea didn’t occur to me. There was still dissonance between my intellectual understanding of global warming and the way I lived day to day. Instead, I rode a large, 35-miles-per-gallon motorcycle the six miles to and from Caltech.

As I became more aware of the interconnectedness of the components of our predicament and my daily actions, burning gasoline increasingly began to feel wrong.

Eventually it occurred to me to bike. I owned a sturdy bicycle—a sturdy old touring machine that had once carried me across 1,000 miles of erstwhile prairie— but it was sitting, neglected, in the back of my parents’ garage in suburban Chicago. During a visit one Christmas,1 I asked the local bike shop for a box and shipped it west.

What a revelation! The first time I biked to Caltech, the feat seemed epic. Somehow a bike made traveling six miles through the suburbs into a grand adventure. I felt unsteady and awkward at first, but after a few days, biking began to feel good—as if I were flying—a feeling I’d taken for granted as a kid. As my body grew stronger and I gained confidence, I cut my commute time in half. The neighborhoods along my route became familiar. I came to rely on biking as my primary exercise.

I started doing as many errands as possible on my bike. I began bike-towing my kindergarten-aged kids to and from school. I carted groceries home in their bike trailer. My bicycle trip radius expanded, and I learned to use public transit to expand it even more. I came to see Altadena and Los Angeles through new eyes. Today, I still enjoy urban exploration by bike, which has a unique magic.2

Why I like to bike

Yes, cars are faster over long distances and keep out bad weather. But bikes are better than cars in just about every other way:

  • Biking is more fun.
  • Biking keeps me fit.
  • Biking across town is often faster than driving.
  • Biking cures my blues.
  • There are no traffic jams on a bike.
  • Bike commutes, unlike car commutes, don’t leave me frazzled—and won’t lead to divorce.3
  • Biking prevents sickness, at least for me.4
  • Biking saves serious money.5
  • Bikes are far easier and cheaper to maintain than cars.6
  • A good bike can last a lifetime; most cars are junk after eight years.7
  • Car ownership is a web of obligations and expenses; biking is simplicity and freedom.
  • Biking supports local businesses.8
  • Bikes are easy to park—right next to your destination.
  • Biking is the antidote to urban sprawl, and over time will lead to more beautiful neighborhoods.
  • Biking is quiet.
  • Biking leaves the air clean and doesn’t cause respiratory disease.
  • Biking is safer for you and for others (more on this below).
  • Biking is sexy.
  • Biking is adventurous.
  • Biking is great thinking time.
  • Biking reminds me to enjoy the ride.

Our bodies are made to move!

Biking is actually safer than driving

Let’s carefully address the question of whether biking is more dangerous than driving. Biking does carry risk, and should be under- taken with care, but research unequivocally shows that riding a bike is safer than driving a car. This truth probably comes as a surprise. It surprised me, at least.

As you’d expect, the risk of injury on a bike is higher. But people who bike regularly are so much less likely to die from heart disease (heart attacks and strokes) that on balance biking is safer. When all causes of death are taken into account, and when aver- aged over a large enough population, it turns out that bicycling is roughly ten times safer than driving (not bicycling) because the health benefits outweigh the risks.

De Hartog et al. estimated that the physical exercise due to bicycling 4.7–9.3 miles (7.5–15 km) per day9 adds between 90 and 420 days of life expectancy, whereas the risk of accidents subtracts between 5 and 9 days and the risk of increased inhaled air pollution from motor traffic subtracts between 0.8 and 40 days.10

Overall, their best estimate is that the benefits of a modest (three miles each way) bicycle commute outweigh the risks by a factor of nine.11 Biking is also less likely to kill others, but that’s a separate effect.

This result is corroborated by several other studies. To give one example, Rojas-Rueda et al., who studied Barcelona’s bike sharing program, estimate the biking benefit (in all-cause mortality) to be well over a factor of ten.12 On the other hand, I couldn’t find a single peer-reviewed study concluding that driving was safer than biking.

In my opinion, this is revolutionary information. Because of it, I now think about biking and driving in a completely new way. The studies also demonstrate the dangerous human tendency to ignore risks from gradual processes such as heart disease (or global warming), and to give too much weight to risks with lower likeli- hood but higher immediacy

Finally, it’s possible to tip these already great odds dramatically further in your favor by biking smart: ride sober,13 follow the rules of the road,14 avoid dangerous situations,15  wear a helmet,16 and use lights at night.17

Why are there more bikes in Europe?

Once, when I still flew on commercial airplanes, I took a trip to Hannover, Germany, to meet with astrophysics colleagues. What struck me most immediately about Hannover—especially coming from Los Angeles—was its bicycle traffic.

Hannover has an extensive system of segregated bike tracks along city streets. Bicycles are accommodated in the street system as equals to cars and pedestrians, not as an afterthought. The countryside around Hannover has a network of bike paths18 running along rivers and lakes connecting the small surrounding towns.

And people in Hannover make great use of their bike infra- structure. Students, business people, mothers with kids, elderly folks are all out rolling along together on the segregated tracks. A friend lent me his mom’s old bike, so I rode everywhere, including to the gravitational-wave detector in nearby Sarstedt.

In Los Angeles, by contrast, bikes have barely registered in the urban planning consciousness. Bike infrastructure here typically consists of signs suggesting that motorists “share the road,” and there are few bicycles on the roads. In the Pasadena urban core, I can ride for miles and I might see two other bicyclists. One Sunday in 2014, during a seven-mile ride from Eagle Rock back to Altadena, I counted the car and bike traffic. I tallied more than 800 cars19 but only one other bike.

In the US, 0.6% of commutes are on bikes20 versus 25% in the Netherlands.21 So the average Netherlander gets on a bike about 40 times more often than the average American. In Amsterdam between 2005 and 2007, residents got onto bikes more often than they got into cars.22 What accounts for this stark difference be- tween the US and Europe? As a biker who thinks about these kinds of things while happily biking along, I’ll suggest three inter- connected reasons.

The first is mindset. As the nation was settled, space was some- thing to be conquered; land was something to be “improved.” This historically adversarial sense of space, along with the emergence of a cultural fetishization of convenience (convenience as progress) in the mid-20th century, intensified a national love affair with cars.

Americans equate cars with speed, status, power, and freedom. If we think of bikes at all, we think of them more as recreational toys than as serious transportation. We’ve lost the ability to imagine a world not dominated by cars.

The second reason is urban sprawl, the physical imprint of this mindset. Cities and suburbs in the US tend to be more spread out than in Europe, with vast parking lots for cars and poor integration between residential and business districts. European cities were built before cars existed; their compactness makes them bike- friendly. In Europe, there’s simply less distance between where you are and where you need to go.

The third reason is a lack of bike-friendly infrastructure in the US, an unsurprising side effect of the car’s cultural dominance.23 Unlike bikers in Europe, bikers in the US must deal with mega- intersections, hostile and distracted motor traffic, and too-narrow roadways with traffic whizzing by, all while managing the risk of being doored by someone getting out of a parked car. Because of this lack of infrastructure, biking here is thought of as too dangerous. In Europe, segregated bike tracks that connect residential neighborhoods to shops, schools, and places of work increase both actual and perceived safety, making biking viable for even timid or elderly riders.

There’s evidence that if bike infrastructure improves, more people ride, which leads to still more bike infrastructure and still more riders. This in turn changes the culture and makes biking seem normal and less dangerous, which causes even more people to ride.

There’s also a safety in numbers effect: when there are more bikes out, motorists are more aware of bikes. Every doubling of the number of bikers in a community reduces risk of injury from motorists by over 30%.24 This increases the real safety of biking. It also increases the perceived safety of biking. Biking encourages more biking. In the long run, a culture of biking could even reverse ur- ban sprawl, because bicyclists tend to advocate for policies that encourage local businesses and compact, integrated neighborhoods.

Climate impact of biking vs. driving

Of course, another major advantage of bikes is that they emit less CO2 than cars. However, despite what you may think, biking isn’t necessarily emissions-free.

Let’s compare a mile of driving to a mile of biking. A typical car gets 25 miles per gallon, and burning this gasoline emits 0.5 kg CO2 over a mile.25 It also took fossil fuels to manufacture the car; the climate impact embodied in a typical car is between 9 and 20 tonnes CO2e.26 Cars typically last 150,000 miles, so embodied emissions add an additional 0.1 kg CO2e. A typical driven mile therefore emits a total of 0.6 kg CO2e.

Now consider a typical biker. Riding a bike burns about 50 kilo- calories per mile above the resting rate.27 Producing the food for a typical vegetarian28 for one year creates 1.5 tonnes CO2e (see Chapter 9) which comes out to 0.1 kg CO2e per 50 kilocalories— one vegetarian bicycle mile. A typical meat-eater doubles this, and a proficient organic gardener or freegan could perhaps zero this out. The embodied emissions of the bicycle come out to an insignificant 0.004 kg CO2 per mile.29

On a per-mile basis, then, a 25 mpg car emits six times as much as a vegetarian on a bike. This is a fair comparison for long cross- country trips. But most of our trips are short, in-town trips; and when on a bike, I’m more likely to combine such trips and to choose nearby options like local mom-and-pop businesses. For these trips, I tend to drive about four times as far as I bike to accomplish equivalent tasks. On this basis, the car emits 20 times as much as a vegetarian on a bike, 10 times as much as a meat-eater on a bike, or 500 times as much as a freegan30 on a bike.

While biking has less impact than driving, it still has impact. Or, to be more precise, our existence has climate impact according to how our food is produced, and biking is like an intensification of our existence. Riding a bike is certainly more biospheric than driving a car—the biosphere made our bodies, and it’s great fun to use them—but ultimately riding can only be as biospheric as our food.

It might be surprising that four meat-eaters on a long-distance bike trip would emit less if they shared a hybrid car. But the take- away message shouldn’t be “cars aren’t so bad.” It should be “our food system is awful!”

Sharon’s perspective

Sharon rides 40 or 50 miles per week, most of it on her bike-plus- train commute to the University of California, Irvine. I asked her for her perspective as a woman bike-commuting on urban streets.

“As a woman commuting to work, I need to bring an extra out- fit and be willing to mess up my hair.

“I need to carry my bike up and down stairs in the train stations, because the elevators are slow and crowded. It’s always hard to find space on the train, especially at rush hour. Some people are grumpy, and some are helpful.

“When I get on my bike, I feel as though I’m putting myself at risk. There’s one part of my ride where I say to myself, ‘This is the dangerous part.’ I have to cross several lanes of traffic coming off the freeway in order to get to the bike lane on the far side. We need some actual bike infrastructure, not just arrows painted on the street.

“People don’t bike because everything about our infrastructure is designed for the convenience of cars. Biking is an uphill battle. It’s easy to jump in a car, but biking requires planning and maybe even a kind of underground knowledge.

“Despite it all, I like to bike. It’s fun, it’s healthy, and it involves me in the sensual embodied world even more than motorcycling does. It’s delightful to go from Altadena to Irvine without using acar.”

For those who don’t bike yet, I urge you to put down this book and go for a short bike ride. If you don’t own a bike, borrow a friend’s or take a test ride at the local bike store. I think you’ll be happy you did. For the rest of you, bike on!

Biking tips
    • I have a bike rack with panniers and a milk crate on top (mounted with U-bolts and cable ties). I prefer not wearing a backpack while biking.
    • I carry a spare tube, tire levers, and a small pump in my pannier. The day you don’t have your flat kit, for whatever reason, will be the day you get a flat five miles from where you need to be in 1⁄2 hour.
    • Due to the minimal bike infrastructure in Los Angeles, I ride aggressively for my own safety. I take the space I need to be safe while remaining aware of the changing traffic situation. When I make left turns, I act like a car, taking a lane.
    • Watch out for dogs. An unleashed dog once ran out directly in front of my wheel and I was down, all in a split second. Luckily, my only injury was a badly bruised hip.
    • The worst injury I’ve experienced in my life so far was on a bike. I was a teenager, riding at night with no lights and not a care in the world on a very dark street, and I rode into a parked car. They rebuilt my nose, and I spent several days in the hospital. Biking is safer than driving, but it isn’t risk-free.
    • Ride smart and minimize that risk. This means, at a minimum, knowing what specific traffic situations are dangerous and avoiding them. Please study bicyclesafe.com31 carefully—it’s well worth the few minutes it will take.
    • If you need an electric assist to get up hills, you can buy a kit that uses a small sprocket to drive the chain.
    • I respect traffic rules; it’s better for bike advocacy. Except for one thing: I don’t come to a complete stop at every stop sign. Stop-as-yield is the law in Idaho for good reasons: it makes biking safer and easier, and enhances overall traffic flow.32
    • Pro tip: When you get to a red light, position your bike over the induction coil embedded in the road to change the signal.
    • Don’t procrastinate on bike maintenance. Having a bike in perfect working order is wonderful.
    • If being on a bike makes you happy, bike with a smile and a wave.
  1. At that time, we still made a Christmas pilgrimage to Illinois, loading the family onto an airplane every year. We’ve stopped doing this and are no worse off; see Chapter 10.
  2. Notes from a recent long ride to an event on the other side of Los Angeles: “I could have taken public transit, but I didn’t want to miss the bike ride. It was powerful—I felt powerful. Thought it was out of my comfort zone a little but then realized it was well within. And I made all these connections. To places I’d driven to. To the layout of the city. To the city’s efforts to make better bike paths. To the neigh- borhoods. To the sky. To my own amazing body. It felt really good, in my body. Also in my mind and my spirit.”
  3. Worse car commutes are correlated with higher divorce rates. Annie Lowrey. “Your Commute Is Killing You.” May 26, 2011, [online]. commute_is_killing_you.html.
  4. Scientific source: Ingrid J.M. Hendriksen et al. “The associationbetween commuter cycling and sickness absence.” Preventive Medicine 51(2) (2010). [online]. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2010.05.007. Anecdotal source: For several years before I started biking, I suffered through a series of sinus infections, about one per year. Since getting back on my bike in 2009, I’ve only had one (during a period when I was biking less), and I’ve hardly been sick at all. Biking makes me feel generally great.
  5. Biking saves our family more than $2,000 per year at the 2016 IRS mileage rate of $0.54 per mile, after accounting for the $150 or so per year we spend on bike maintenance. This presumes that one bike mile ridden replaces one car mile ridden (it actually replaces more, because on a bike I plan my trips carefully), and it doesn’t include indirect savings such as not needing a gym membership or seldom getting sick.
  6. For every hour I spend keeping my bike in good shape, I likely spend 20 or more keeping my old car, Maeby, growling along. Maeby is much more complex, and can break in many more ways.
  7. Herb Weisbaum. “What’s the life expectancy of my car?” NBC News, March 28, 2006. [online]. -consumer_news/t/whats-life-expectancy-my-car/.
  8. Errands on bikes are bound to be local, simply because it requires an investment of personal energy.
  9. For example, shifting from a car commute to a bike commute.
  10. Jeroen Johan de Hartog et al. “Do the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks?” Environmental Health Perspectives 118 (2010). doi:10.1289/ehp.0901747. Estimates are based on life table calculations applied to a population of 500,000 people aged 18–64. Note that in a small number of extremely polluted cities, such as Delhi, India, breathing the air can outweigh the benefits of the exercise: Nick Van Mead. “Tipping point: Revealing the cities where exercise does more harm than good.” The Guardian, February 13, 2007. [online]. -cities-exercise-more-harm-than-good. I find this horrifying, and a great argument for clean air policies such as carbon fee and dividend (Chapter 14).
  11. How does this result translate to US roads? De Hartog et al. used 2008 accident statistics from the Netherlands, where the mortality per passenger mile (in the 20 to 70 year age group) was 4.3 times higher for biking than for driving. Unfortunately, biking is more dangerous in the US, where the mortality per passenger mile was about 7 times higher for biking than for driving (there were 11 car deaths per billion passenger miles in 2011; and 680 bicycle deaths [2011] over 9 billion bicycle miles): US DOT, Federal Highway Administration. National Household Travel Survey 2009. [online]. Adjusting the factor of nine from de Hartog by the ratio 4.3/7 implies that biking in the US is only 6 times safer for one’s overall health than driving. However, de Hartog et al. analyzes bicycle trips that occur in traffic 100% of the time. But about one-half of my commute is on a bike path through a nature preserve with no traffic, and the same is true for Sharon’s commute. If this is typical, it might cut risk exposure approximately in half, bringing the overall safety factor in the US back up to about ten.
  12. David Rojas-Rueda et al. “The health risks and benefits of cycling in urban environments compared with car use: Health impact assessment study.” British Medical Journal (2011). [online]. doi:10.1136/bmj .d4521. In one year in Barcelona, 182,000 residents using the bike sharing system, compared with car users, experienced annual changes in mortality of 0.03 additional deaths from road traffic incidents, 0.13 additional deaths from air pollution, but avoided 12.46 deaths due to physical activity (a benefit to risk ratio of 77).
  1. A disproportionate number of bicycle accidents and fatalities involve the cyclist breaking rules of the road or otherwise violating common sense. For example, a 1992 study observing bikers in Palo Alto found that 15% of cyclists rode against traffic, and their risk of an accident was 3.6 times as high as those riding with traffic: Alan Wachtel and Diana Lewiston. “Risk Factors for Bicycle-Motor Vehicle Collisions at Intersections.” Institute of Transportation Engineers Journal 64(9) (1994). [online].
  2. Such as getting crushed by a right-turning vehicle when a light turns green because you weren’t far forward enough or far back enough: Michael Bluejay “Ten Ways Not to Get Hit—Collision Type #5: The Red Light of Death.” Bicyclesafe website, updated May 2013. [online].
  3. I was unable to find reliable research quantifying the safety margin provided by a bike helmet. A simple thought experiment is enoughfor me: in the unlikely event that I find myself flying headfirst towards concrete, I’d want a helmet on my head. However, it’s better not to get hit in the first place.
  4. Incredibly, only 15% of riders use lights at night: City of Boston. “Boston Bicycle Plan.” Boston Transportation Department, 2001, p. 14. [online]. /bicycle_plan.pdf. Nearly 1/2 of US biking deaths occur after dark without bike lights, although only maybe 3% of rides happen after dark: City of Cambridge. “Bicycling Rules of the Road.” Community Development Department, 2011. [online]. /transportation/gettingaroundcambridge/bybike/rulesoftheroad. For goodness sake, if you ride at night, use lights!
  5. Some terminology of bike infrastructure: bike paths are car-free bicycle roads; bike tracks run alongside car roads but are physically separated from them; and bike lanes are space on car roads, demar- cated only by a painted line, and are often situated between traffic and parked cars.
  6. I restricted my counting to cars on my route, which didn’t include the thousands of additional cars I saw on the freeway that parallels part of the route.
  7. 20. Brian McKenzie. “Modes Less Traveled: Bicycling and Walking to Work in the United States: 2008–2012.” US Census Bureau (2014). [online].
  8. Netherlands Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Man- agement. “Bicycle Use in the Netherlands.” Cycling in the Nether- lands, 2009, section 1.1. [online]. /bestanden/CyclingintheNetherlands2009.pdf.
  9. “Over the period 2005–2007 inhabitants of Amsterdam used their bikes on average 0.87 times a day, compared to 0.84 for their cars.” CROW Fietsberaad. “Amsterdam: For the first time more transfers by bike than by car.” News article, January 22, 2009. [online]. fietsberaad .nl/index.cfm lang=en§ion=Nieuws&mode=newsArticle&news Year=2009&repository=Amsterdam:+for+the+first+time+more +transfers+by+bike+than+by+car.
  10. In the US, these priorities are baked into the metric that state departments of transportation use to design and evaluate roadways: Level of Service (LOS) means the rate of cars passing through an intersection.
  11. Peter L. Jacobsen. “Safety in numbers: More walkers and bicyclists, safer walking and bicycling.” Injury Prevention 9 (2003). [online]. doi:10.1136/ip.9.3.205. This study was prompted by the Pasadena CityCouncil in 1998 (which I naturally find interesting). The evidence for the safety in numbers effect is overwhelming, and there are many other studies.
  12. At 11.3 kg CO2 per gallon, which include upstream emissions; see Chapter 9.
  13. See Constantine Samaras and Kyle Meisterling. “Life Cycle Assess- ment of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Plug-in Hybrid Vehicles: Implications for Policy.” Environmental Science & Technology 42(9) (2008). Supporting information. [online]. doi:10.1021/es702178s; Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark. “What’s the carbon footprint of . . . a new car?” Guardian Green Living blog, September 23, 2010. [online]. /23/carbon-footprint-new-car.
  14. Jay Schwartz. “Calories burned biking one mile.”, November 2, 2013. [online]. -burned-biking-one-mile/. Yes, this does mean that Tour de France riders eat about four times as much as the spectators watching them.
  15. This assumes 3,800 kcal of produced food and 2,100 kcal of consumed food per day, the difference being wasted food
  16. Using a ratio of typical car and bike weights, and assuming a 40,000- mile bike lifetime.
  17. Considering only the embodied impact in the bike.
  18. Michael Bluejay. “How to Not Get Hit by Cars: Important Lessons in Bicycle Safety.” Bicycle Safe, May 2013. [online].
  19. Kurt Holzer. “Bike Law attorney Kurt Holzer makes a compelling case for the ‘Idaho Stop.’” blog, January 27, 2016. [on- line].
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