Let’s Start Calling Bicycling Renewable Energy

Video still: Streetfilms/Clarence Eckerson Jr.
Video still: Streetfilms/Clarence Eckerson Jr.

Earth Day just happened. Spring is in the air, flowers are blooming, and so are politicians who call for renewable power. Support for renewable energy has become a constant in U.S. politics and is only getting stronger. We ignore, however, one abundant form of renewable energy — a human being on a bicycle.

Bicycling needs neither technological breakthroughs nor government subsidies. Even better, it’s a substitute for oil (whereas wind and solar displace natural gas and coal). What’s more, this form of renewable energy directly addresses other ills, from chronic disease to urban air pollution.

Why should a human being on a bicycle be considered renewable energy? Simple. We can’t be depleted. We require no combustion of fuel to pedal. And we emit no pollutants (okay, maybe a little bit of methane while bicycling). And, like wind and solar, we are a home-grown form of energy.

To fuel the bike, the cyclist must eat a bit more food to obtain energy to push the pedals. But that food is a form of renewable energy — it ultimately comes from the sun. And thanks to the bicycle’s marvelous efficiency at converting mechanical power to forward motion, the required energy input is minimal.

According to the Encyclopedia of Energy, bicycles can cover a given distance using one-thousandth of the fuel that an automobile uses. If we were to rely on crop-based fuels for automobiles, there would be a concern about using up all our farmland to provide fuel for transportation. Not so with using food to fuel humans riding bicycles.

It’s with reduction in oil use that bicycling really trumps the other renewable resources. Wind and solar displace electricity, which in the U.S. is generated almost entirely with coal and natural gas to the extent fossil fuels are used. Accordingly, windmills and solar panels displace very little petroleum. It’s our transportation sector that is oil-based, which means that bicycling principally displaces oil.

Even in cities like New York, where the electrically powered subway is the mainstay of mobility, bicycling displaces some car or taxi trips. And in most of the 50 states, miles ridden on bikes translate directly into less gasoline burned and less oil imported.

Even better, unlike wind and solar, bicycling doesn’t demand large public subsidies to thrive. All bicycling requires is a modicum of protected space on the road and the legal right to be there. New York City has been one of the cities leading the way here, showing that increasing the space reserved for cyclists on the roads can lead to significant increases in bicycling — the number of daily cyclists has been increasing and there are now 750,000 people who bicycle at least occasionally in the City. While the controversy associated with these measures has not ended, they might be viewed differently if we viewed them as the promotion of renewable energy.

We provide sidewalks for walking (another, albeit less efficient form of renewable energy) and we all agree that our city needs a great public transit system. If we want to truly encourage renewable energy, why isn’t there a connected protected bike lane network that will enable all of us, even a child, to go where their hearts leads them by bicycle in the city?

So, let’s change the discussion on renewable energy. When we support renewable energy like wind and solar we should not forget to add the one staring us in the face when we look in the mirror — us, especially on a bicycle. From now on, when you support renewable energy, make sure to include bicycling and, if you’re not a person who bicycles, maybe you will understand better why public promotion makes sense.

  • Jeff

    Honestly I find the whole “It’s good for the environment” thing to be very alienating to a lot of people. It makes it sound like cyclists are all making some kind of sacrifice and then patting themselves on the back for “being green.” Sure, I bike, and I care about the environment, but there’s very little relationship between the two for me.

  • Joe R.

    I agree. I bike because I love to bike. It has nothing to do with being “green”. In fact, I find the whole idea that people need to sacrifice something for the good of the planet to be a little alienating. In the end the little guy can do very little to affect real change. The change has to come from the top down. Yes, renewable energy is key, as are finding more efficient ways to do things we need to do, like travel, light our cities, grow our food, etc. If we do these things in a sustainable manner, people need not alter their lifestyles at all. However, the average person isn’t in any position to change the fuel their transportation uses, the way their food is grown, etc.

    If we want to get more people cycling we need to make it safer and faster than the alternatives. The “being green” angle is at best a marginal appeal to a very small segment of the population. So the real answer is more non-stop, completely segregated bikeways. It’s also encouraging mass production of more efficient alternatives to the already very efficient bicycle, such as velomobiles. We can also appeal to people’s wallets. So long as bicycles are as fast or faster than alternatives, the fact they save money in an era where workers have little cash to spare is a huge selling point. That’s actually the reason I used to do a lot of utility cycling when I was younger. Never mind a car, there were many times I couldn’t even afford subway/bus fare. So it was either bike, or don’t make the trip.

  • Jesse

    I wish I could upvote you more than once

  • Reader

    Surveys of people in places like Copenhagen put environmental concerns at the very bottom of reasons why people bike. The top reasons usually have to do with convenience, speed, reliability, and cost. That it’s good for the environment is a benefit that has accrued to bike-friendly cities precisely because they’ve checked those boxes first and made it easy for people to choose cycling over other modes of transportation.

  • Adrian Horczak

    We need more green infrastructure. That includes more green bike lanes!

  • JarekFA

    Right. I bike commute because:

    (i) Have you seen the fucking state of the MTA lately?!?!?! You get one 15 minute headway during the PM rush and you want to pull your hair out -15 minutes on bike and I’m half way home,

    (ii) I like to be in control of myself. I like to be able to control where I’m going. The freedom of being able to travel freely in New York City. I can stop wherever I want and run into a store and pick anything up on my way home. On my way to work. You really can’t get that in a car in the City. You can go further and in limited circumstances (but not as many as you’d think), you can go faster. But my travel time rivals cars and subways based on the Tortoise v. the Hare principle alone. From Greenwood Heights, I can be in Sunset Park Chinatown in 11 minutes door-to-door. I can be at Prospect Heights flatbush/6th ave in 13 minutes. I can be at Crown Heights getting a beer at Berg’n in 17 minutes. I can be at Brooklyn Bridge Park in 15 minutes.

    (iii) it feels good and health. I sit at a desk 9-11 hours a day. I eat like shit. I’ve got diabetes on both sides of my family. I doubt I can run a mile in under 10 minutes. But the 30 minutes each way of bike riding, gives me, without me realizing it, a ton of exercise. When I went from a 2 mile (round trip total) to a 10 mile bike commute, my blood pressure (I lost my father to heart disease) numbers improved dramatically and my glucose readings went from near pre-diabetic to 100% normal/healthy. This will literally add years to my life.

    I bike commute because it’s convenient. Because it saves time. Because I sneak in exercise without feeling like I have to lug myself to the treadmill or having to allocate time. I miss out on all the MTA breakdowns and I only notice it at times because “wow, downtown Brooklyn seems to have a lot of cars on the road tonight” I see and feel the city in ways that you’d never notice or appreciate otherwise. You see how easy it can be and how ridiculous it is we allocate so much road space to private car storage. I highly recommend it for everyone and suggest we mandate it for our city electeds.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Always worth viewing again.

  • steely

    the most powerful implication of bicycling = renewable energy is not marketing, as folks say below, but to shift policy, subsidies and incentive structure.

  • qrt145

    I agree, but given that it was just Earth Day I’ll cut the author some slack. I assume the target are people who want to be “green” and not transportation mavens. In other words, I read it as “given that you want to be green, have you considered the bicycle?” and not “you should bike because it’s green!”.

    Different people bike for different reasons. I do it mostly because it sucks less than the subway.

  • Joe R.

    This might be a good thing to mention to people who think they’re green because they drive a Prius or put in a few LED bulbs. I might say to them that’s a good start, but if you really want to go green ditch the Prius for a bike. While I’m at it, I might also mention ways to cut electricity use far more than changing out a few bulbs would.

  • Vooch

    My bike arrived on time today

  • Joe R.

    Funny you mentioned diet. I’ve told many people that I think exercise is a far bigger factor in overall health/longevity than diet. A person who eats like shit but exercises regularly will probably live way longer than someone who eats healthy but is sedentary. There are also many schools of thought on what constitutes healthy eating. A lot of fad diets have people ending up in hospitals due to lack of nourishment. Warren Buffett has a very interesting take on diet:


    The health food fanatics might dismiss this but I’ll take the fact he’s 87 and still going strong as evidence he may be on to something.

    I find I feel like shit when I don’t exercise, regardless of my diet. I feel great when I do exercise, again regardless of my diet.

  • Richard Miller

    Exactly, people should bicycle because its fun, and lawmakers should support it because its a form of green energy, and the only one that promotes public health.

  • Komanoff

    Do I infer from your last sentence that you finally* replaced your decades-old fridge with a new model, thus reducing your electricity consumption by (rough guess here:) 1,200 kWh a year (which equates, in CO2 terms, to avoiding nearly 2 gallons of gasoline a week)?

    * = I’m referencing the interminable convo in this space last winter, in which several of us tried to nudge/bludgeon Joe to just do it.

  • Jesse

    Never seen this before. It’s great but… damn he needs some gloves. I can’t bike without gloves if it’s less than 50 F out. Something about how the handlebars conduct heat away from my hands.

  • Elizabeth F

    Can I point out what should be obvious, that bikes are not renewable energy? They are a means of transportation, not energy production. They’re a great form of transportation, one that uses very little energy of any kind — but efficient use of energy is different from a renewable energy producer.

    As for how the bike is powered — first of all, bikes use so little power that it barely matters whether or not they are powered by renewable energy. An e-bike that you charge with solar panels counts as renewable energy-powered transportation, although its carbon footprint is only very slightly less than an e-bike powered by coal-fired electricity. If we all switched from cars/buses/trains to coal-powered e-bikes, we’d already be 90% of the way to decarbonizing our transportation.

    But it’s hard to make the case that manual powered e-bikes run on “renewable” energy. Because for every calorie you eat, about 5-6 calories of fossil fuel are expended. Our agricultural system is an incredibly inefficient form of energy production. Until/unless we eat sustainably (which is simply not possible these days, given the high population densities and distance we live from food production), it is disingenuous to give the “renewable energy” label to bicycles.

  • Joe R.

    Actually, I posted about that a few months ago. You must have missed the posts. I had the new fridge delivered on December 13, 2017. Here it is in my kitchen:


  • Komanoff

    That’s fantastic, Joe. Thanks for sharing. Have you noticed the drop in your monthly Con Ed bill? How many kWh’s are you saving each month? Let us know, please. Bravo!

  • Joe R.

    There’s a definite reduction compared to last year, although it’s hard to pin down the number. I might get a better handle on it now that we’re entering months where we need neither heating nor cooling. In the winter I need to run an electric heater in whatever room my mom is in. How much the heater is run depends on the outdoor temperature. That has hidden the actual energy reduction from the new fridge in noise. Our last few months show a reduction of 5 to 15 kw-hr/day compared to last year. Some of that is doubtless due to the new fridge. The rest might be from the fact that this winter was mostly milder than the year before.

    In theory the new fridge should save about 1200 kw-hr annually if you count the reduction in A/C use because it throws off less heat in the summer.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Not if you are the working class hero from Wisconsin who drinks Miller High High Life. No heat is getting through the calluses plus the layer of fat.

    The basket is normally used to carry all the tools from job to job.



Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change

Image © Peter Calthorpe & Marianna Leuschel Editor’s note: Today we are very pleased to begin a five-part series of excerpts from Peter Calthorpe’s book, “Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change.” Keep reading this week and next to learn how you can win a copy of the book from Island Press. I take as […]

How Do We Make Clean Transportation Part of the National Discussion?

Like Joe Biden, Barack Obama also mentioned Amtrak in his acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention, but only in reference to his running mate’s preferred mode of transportation. There were many, many things to be excited about yesterday, but any livable streets advocate anticipating a call to rebuild and expand our nation’s transit infrastructure, […]

Separating Myth From Fact on “Cash for Clunkers”

As debate rages on in the capital over whether to keep assisting the auto industry by giving out more "cash for clunkers" rebates, two assertions are becoming commonplace: the program is helping diminish U.S. oil consumption, and the program is not paid for with new money. Photo: AP The first argument was reiterated on Friday […]

What Went Unsaid at Last Night’s Debate

At last night’s presidential debate in Nassau County, the best opening for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to talk about transportation policy came when undecided voter Phillip Tricolla asked the following question of the President: QUESTION: Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it’s not policy of his department […]