To quote a wise man in big glasses and a sparkly top hat: And all that science, I don’t understand. It’s just my job five days a week.
Awhile back I wrote a blog about John Childress, a computer code writer and an aficionado of geeky-cool who had chosen to live in Madison sight unseen more or less purely because of the city’s great rep for biking. In the course of our conversation John mentioned that his background was in engineering and that he had done some poking around on the relative efficiency of biking as opposed to other less ennobling means of getting around.
He sent me a paper, much of which is Greek to me. Some of it (the symbols) is literally in Greek and all the rest of it is certainly written in geek. But here’s John’s point: it takes much less energy to move people or goods on a bike than on any other form of transportation. You already knew that but you might not have had the numbers. Now you do.
His calculations compare the following modes:
- A Toyota Corolla with a standard gas engine is 1.8% efficient.
- A hybrid bus running at 75% of capacity is 5.9% efficient.
- An electric El train in Chicago at 75% capacity is 9.9% efficient.
- And, are you ready? A bike is 80.2% efficient!
Why are cars so inefficient while bikes are so stingy? Mostly it’s because cars are way too heavy and overpowered for the purpose. Most of the car’s power is expended on moving the vehicle itself and not its relatively light payload. That
Corolla, for example, tips the scales at about 2,800 pounds while the average American man weighs only 185 pounds – even in these days of the obesity epidemic. (The average American man would, of course, weigh less if he spent more time on his bike and less in his Corolla.)
I am that average man, weighing exactly that svelte 185 pounds, but most days I ride my fixie to work, which comes in at only 23 pounds. So you can have 2,800 pounds moving 185 or 23 pounds moving the same 185. There’s more to it than that, but that’s the basic reason for the stunning efficiency of the bike.
It all comes down to matching the mode to the purpose. Getting to work from my home in Madison to our downtown office just doesn’t require any more power and weight than my 23 pound bike. But I drive to our Milwaukee office because I can’t spend several hours commuting each way and I drive when I pick up lumber because that’s just the most practical way to do move that much bulky weight.
The lesson isn’t that cars are bad or unnecessary; just that we use them more than we have to in order to get the job done.
Turns out rocket men just burn their fuse up here alone.