Bicycling: bad for the environment?

August 3, 2006 | By | 5 Replies More

Here’s a provocative article about why bicycling might, in the long run, be harmful to the environment.  Here are the author’s main conclusions:

  1. Human-powered transportation can substitute for trips by single-occupant automobiles.
  2. This substitution has a direct and immediate benefit of reducing energy consumption, even accounting for the latent energy content of the food required for human power.
  3. A substantial increase in the use of human-powered transportation would engage a substantial number of currently sedentary people in physical activity.
    Physical activity by previously sedentary individuals increases their longevity, and therefore their overall energy consumption.
  4. Depending on the characteristics of the population that adopts human-powered transportation, there may be little net environmental benefit associated with an increase in human-powered transportation.

Of course, if we carry their argument to its logical conclusion, the best thing humans could do for the environment would be to become extinct, so I doubt their research is going to attract many supporters.  Still, it’s a good example of how beliefs we take for granted can be grossly incomplete if we fail to consider the long-term consequences.

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Category: Energy, Environment, Health

About the Author ()

Grumpypilgrim is a writer and management consultant living in Madison, WI. He has several scientific degrees, including a recent master’s degree from MIT. He has also held several professional career positions, none of which has been in a field in which he ever took a university course. Grumps is an avid cyclist and, for many years now, has traveled more annual miles by bicycle than by car…and he wishes more people (for the health of both themselves and our planet) would do the same. Grumps is an enthusiastic advocate of life-long learning, healthy living and political awareness. He is single, and provides a loving home for abused and abandoned bicycles. Grumpy’s email: grumpypilgrim(AT)@gmail(DOT).com [Erich’s note: Grumpy asked that his email be encrypted this way to deter spam. If you want to write to him, drop out the parentheticals in the above address].

Comments (5)

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  1. Mariann says:

    With his logic, we should be against fitness of any kind.

  2. Erika Price says:

    On a massive scale, the author's suggestion makes sense. But as you said, the argument hinges on "who" adopts this bicycling behavior. I would guess that most people who opt for bicycle commuting, for example, would already have above average physical health (which doesn't mean much considering overall health in this country). Let's say such a person already attempts to schedule regular exercise into their day, and they decide to bicycle to work to make exercise easier. If someone actually strives to get exercise, they already enjoy better health (and a longer lifespan) in the first place. I don't think the morbidly obese will take up bicycling any time soon- and I don't think bus use extends lifespan, so we don't have much to find disconcerting.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    This article brings to mind Jay Forrester's work. Not many people usually consider that there is a long-term downside to having people, in the aggregate, live healthier lifestyles. As the author of the cited article points out, the article is merely one example of the "interplay among population, individual energy consumption, and environmental impact." To the extent that the article opened my eyes to this usually overlooked feedback loop, it was a success.

    On the other hand, the article seems to be a category mismatch. From a public health perspective, should the long-term environmental impact of the existence of lots of (healthy) humans ever discourage us from keeping humans healthy? I think not. Otherwise, we'd have to start concerning ourselves that hospitals and nursing homes are too successful (or food inspectors or highway designers, for that matter).

    Or maybe the "paradox" of the article should cause us to come to grips about the availability of effective birth control pills and devices, to make sure that every child is a wanted child. After all, once a child is born, it seems a oxymoronic to be frustrated that measures improving his/her health tend to put long-term strain on the environment.

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    Further to Erich's comment, indeed, Jay Forrester's work appears in many places, once one knows to look for it. Speaking of healthy lifestyles: one more example is the use of safety features in cars (airbags, anti-lock brakes, all-wheel drive, traction control, etc.). Common sense would seem to suggest that vehicle fatalities should have dropped significantly, but they haven't. Why? Apparantly now that people feel even more invincible in their cars, they take more risks: they drive faster, more recklessly, and in worse weather than they might have done without the safety features.

    Likewise, it has also been suggested that as the tools and techniques of cardiac-related surgeries have improved (angioplasty, balloon catheterization, stents, multiple bypass surgery, bariatric surgery, minimally-invasive surgery, etc.), they have actually *worsened* America's obesity epidemic. The theory is that the availability of such treatments has made Americans less afraid of obesity — they can feel more free to eat themselves into oblivion and not exercise, because they know they can have surgery to fix their future health problems.

    This is why feedback loops are so insidious, and why Jay Forrester's theories of system dynamics are so powerful. No matter what someone does to try to improve a situation, the situation will likely change in a manner that tends to negate the improvement effort. If a city builds bigger roads to reduce traffic congestion (Boston's Big Dig comes to mind), more people will be attracted to the improved roads and congestion will worsen. If a city builds low-income housing to reduce its homeless population, it will attract homeless people from neighboring cities and potentially increase the city's homeless population. If cars are made safer, it will cause people to drive more recklessly. If healthcare is made better, it will cause people to eat more recklessly. Make students take achievement tests (and make teacher bonuses conditional on good test results) and teachers will merely teach to the test. National parks and ski resorts currently struggle with the problem of emergency rescue: as rescue efforts have become more successful, patrons of such facilities have tended to take greater risks — hiking without backcountry survival skills or skiing in more dangerous terrain. It's like the old joke about off-road vehicles: a four-wheel-drive vehicle doesn't reduce your odds of getting stuck, it just makes the tow truck come farther when you do get stuck.

    We could even add religion to this list: religion ostensibly helps some people aspire to a higher moral standard of living, by giving them hope for a heavenly afterlife (or a threat of hellish punishment), yet that same religion can cause other Believers to become suicide bombers, in the belief that it will hasten them to that same heavenly afterlife (or their enemies to the hellish punishment).

    At the risk of appearing chauvinistic, the women's "liberation" movement is another example: women in the 1960s and 1970s joined the labor force in the hopes of liberating themselves from housework. The result: dual-income families rapidly drove up the cost of real estate in the late 1970s and 1980s, to the point where many families now have no choice but to be dual-income…and many women are now saddled with both their career jobs *and* their family's housework. And how about all those "labor-saving" appliances: do Americans have more leisure time today than they did a century ago, or less? Probably more, but probably not as much more as people believed those appliances were going to create.

    Bush's so-called "war on terrorism" is another example: the future will tell whether his aggressive, dictatorial, "pre-emptive" methods of fighting global terrorism will improve, or worsen, America's risk of being attacked.

  5. Heidi says:

    The paradoxical feedback loop here is apparent but we have to evaluate the values that are involved. If a population that chooses to commute with human power requires an increase in nutrition as fuel, is the combustion of said fuel to the similar detriment as the combustion of carbon based fuels. Also the factor of growing the fuel for human power (food) must be considered. It takes less time and energy to grow a carrot (which you hope the cyclist chooses over a cheeseburger) than for the earth to create enough pressure and heat to create an equal quantity of fossilized fuel.
    The biggest downside is the human will live longer than their obese neighbor, but hey, at least they will be healthier- thus needing less medical care. Their impact might be the same as the short-lived obese neighbor, but at least they lived a healthier life for longer…
    I live in CO and ride my bike to the bus (my school is 20 miles away) as long as snow is not falling. Everyone should if you ask me 🙂

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