Going out and hitting the urban roads every day on my bicycle I think about the modern system of transportation a lot. I have a front row seat to the pure idiocy of the situation.
It is difficult to find the best place to start but let us start from the perspective of efficiency. During prime commuting time, I estimate that >90% of cars are transporting 1 person. Each car weighs between about 1800 pounds (Smart Car) and 7500 pounds (Ford F-350). Even in the best situation for efficiency, a 400 pound human driving a Smart Car (if that is even physically possible) is 82% car and 18% flesh and therefore requires 82% more energy (using an uncomplicated calculation of such things) than if the human walked.
This inefficiency is compounded by many other factors…
The most obvious factor being the internal combustion engine (ICE). As Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, continuously points out, there are thousands of moving parts in all ICE-powered vehicle (paraphrased). Each part that moves is subject to all kinds of non-linear, non-mechanical uses of energy. The energy contained within liquid fuel must be converted to mechanical energy at enormous costs in terms of energy (mostly heat and light). If all of this is not bad enough, liquid fuel is inefficiently extracted from the earth, inefficiently transported, often half way around the world, inefficiently refined, and inefficiently delivered to your local petro station by an incredibly inefficient diesel-powered 18-wheeler.
Unfortunately, the Rube Goldberg nature of this system does not end with huge vehicles and ICE. The physical space required to support this infrastructure is massive. For the United States alone, there are over 4 million miles worth of roads, a number exacerbated by people’s willingness to drive on average 40 miles per day to work. Because most individuals have at least one motor vehicle, the current system also requires at least two parking spots per car, one at home and the other at work. This results in the total area within the US currently reserved for cars at approximately the size of the state of Wisconsin. This is a conservative estimate because there are other infrastructure considerations like area dedicated to mining iron ore to build these large frames or corn fields from which ethanol is produced to burn.
Other considerations that are not insignificant are the effects of pollution on the human condition, which include but are not limited to the mostly toxic air we breath in cities. I am acutely aware of this abomination. Riding in the epicenter of smog I bear witness to pounds of soot rolling out of tail pipes everywhere I look. Then when I reach a nice lookout point facing westward towards the Rocky Mountains, I feel saddened by the thick haze we as a species created.
How can we improve on our current system? I would be very satisfied if all able-bodied people biked to work like I (and some others) do as this addresses many of the problems I have expanded upon in other posts. The ratio of flesh to transportation device in my daily commute is roughly the opposite of the previously mentioned 400 pound man driving a Smart Car. I also require no petro; trails/bike lanes are 1/4th the width of standard car roads, and I require no additional paved parking.
Nonetheless, big problems like this can never be solved by the actions of millions of individual humans. The vast majority of folks probably have not even recognized the above things as a problem, let alone have they considered doing anything close to the amount of effort required to bike to work every day.
The point of part un, in this multi part series, is to not complain the problem away, but to introduce the problem from my perspective. Naturally, my exposure to the problem has led me to plan for the potential solutions. Stay tuned as I expand upon Making a Winner Out of a Loser.
Follow me on Twitter @Bcasualbiker and as always comments are welcome.