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Science Wednesday: Burning Environmentally Friendly Energy

2009 May 13

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

About the author: Barbara Klieforth is the Acting Associate Center Director for Drinking Water in the National Center for Environmental Research at EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She is also a life-long committed cycling commuter.

image of author standing next to her mountain bicycleWhile ‘being green’ is not the only reason I bike to work (it’s also fun and faster!), it is something I think about – especially since I do some of my best thinking on my commute into the office. As a scientist I was trained to be a critical thinker, but as an EPA scientist I have be more thorough than ever because we have to substantiate doing new research and our science directly impacts people’s lives. So, especially now during national ‘bike to work’ week, I find myself wondering how to quantify the environmental benefits of my 6.5 mile ride to the office. Economically, bike commuting is a no-brainer: I easily save thousands of dollars a year biking versus driving. But, in strictly environmental terms, is commuting by bike worth the risks it poses (including forgetting such things as dress shoes!)? There are lots of cool online tools that calculate the environmental benefits of biking (e.g., Go by Bike Challenge, EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator), but one of my favorite sites simply compares the energy costs per kilometer of different forms of transportation.

In other words, the bicycle is an extremely efficient mode of transportation, and I am definitely saving plenty of energy per mile (good thing I have lots of personal calories to spare!). Less fossil energy burned = less polluting emissions. I know from some of my current focus at work on the geologic sequestration of carbon dioxide that technological solutions to environmental problems we could be helping prevent in the first place are incredibly daunting. So I’d say no further research is needed to confirm that there are substantial environmental benefits to bicycling as a means of transportation. I can do something today to decrease pollution, reduce usage of fossil fuels, and have some fun on the way!

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Tom Smith permalink
    May 13, 2009

    Way to go Barbara. I’ve been commuting by bike, (weather permitting), the last 12 years on my 17 mile trip to work. I too have always tried to do my share in conservation, and hope my next job is within 20 miles so I can continue. I really miss the daily commute on two wheels.

  2. Mary Wigginton permalink
    May 13, 2009

    Barbara – thanks for inspiration to get back on my bike. When I was younger (pre-kids and husband), I biked everywhere. Now it’s intimidating to get back out there with all the traffic. I live in metro DC and found some great classes for people like me who want to get back out there – Confident City Cycling!

    http://www.waba.org/events/education.php

  3. Richard Albores permalink
    May 14, 2009

    Nice bicycling sandals, Barbara ;-) The benefits of cycling both environmental and emotional are clear! Now if we can only figure out how to sequester the CO2 we bicyclists emit doing that, we can reverse climate change that much quicker…

  4. Cynthia Nolt-Helms permalink
    May 14, 2009

    Barbara,
    I, like Mary, used to bike a lot pre kids! This weekend I finally put the rack back on my old commuter bike and am looking forward to bike commuting to the office! I know it is fun and I even really enjoyed sweating all the way home in the hot muggy summer months around DC. After a day at the office, I always arrived home in a better mood after pedaling up the hills between the office and my home! I’m looking forward to that this summer too!

  5. Lisa Verdonik permalink
    May 14, 2009

    Hey Biking Sister!

    To me biking every day is a no brainer. I get my exercise. I don’t have to put up with traffic or pushy people on the metro or fight to find a parking spot. It takes me the same amount of time or less than driving becaue if I were to drive, even though I am only five miles away, it takes me 40 minutes easily to get through traffic and then find a place to park. It would be insane to drive/metro when I can have a fabulously enjoyable bike ride that takes about 25-30 minutes. If I were to take the metro, it would still take me about 30 minutes since I would have to get to the metro and switch trains etc.

    I keep a number of suits and shoes at work for when I need them and mostly wear comfortable clothes and/or bring clothes that can be rolled up easily into a backpack.

    I am sure many other people could bike if they could just make it a habit. It’s easy, fun, clears your mind in the beginning and end of the day, is cheap, and hey having a small carbon footprint is icing on the cake!

  6. Mike Messner permalink
    May 15, 2009

    You forgot (?) to mention that you also serve as Bicycle Coordinator here at EPA-East. Thanks for that – and thanks for including a photo in your blog. Now I have a face to associate with all those helpful email messages!

  7. Joe permalink
    May 15, 2009

    Liked your blog entry. And while I agree, as a bike commuter, that it is hands-down the best way to travel, I think the website you liked ( http://www.exploratorium.edu/cycling/humanpower1.html ) doesn’t put science behind its assertions. While it may take less energy to travel in terms of kilocalories, that calculation does not take into account the environmental impacts of growing the food we eat, especially with our industrial agriculture system, the environmental impacts of transporting and marketing that food, nor the waste impacts every human produces especially since bikers are eating more food. This is especially true of meat-eating cyclists.
    Here are articles that discuss the environmental impacts of providing power to human-powered transportation:
    http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/03/19/be-green-drive/
    http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/05/01/more-analysis-of-the-environmental-impact-of-walking-vs-driving/
    http://www.pacinst.org/topics/integrity_of_science/case_studies/driving_vs_walking.pdf
    Granted, he looks at walking, but someone should be providing a scientific analysis that looks at all impacts of cycling, including what the cyclist eats and the overall environmental impacts of that food, creation of the bike (steel/carbon/aluminum), and waste products.
    Food for thought…..

  8. Trinys K permalink
    August 19, 2010

    Barbara,
    Agree with you activity as to remind me several year ago, I go every where by Bike even going to school or playing with friend. Thank for remind me with photo graph on your blog. some time we need special dress shoes to attend each occasion..

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