(originally published in California Cyclist)
We cyclists see ourselves and our sport as kind to the earth, "green." At stoplights, we look in through the safety glass and feel superior to car drivers, callous polluters closed off from nature in glass and steel boxes. We're green, we think; they're not. Right?
We know bikes don't burn petroleum fuel like cars; bikes don't pollute the air with exhaust or fuel vapor. Bikes use less material and energy in their construction. Beyond those givens, what's so green about riding?
Not all riding is green. Seems to me cycling's green only when it keeps us from driving, when it freezes our cars in our garages. Meaning, unless I'm forgetting something, cycling's green only when we're riding INSTEAD of driving. Otherwise, we're fooling ourselves calling our bike riding green.
Let's say you drive your car 15,000 miles a year, the national average last time I heard, and you "get into" cycling big-time: you ride four or five thousand miles in 1998. But--you put the same 15,000 miles on your car. Is your cycling green? Or are you spewing the same number of particulate brown meanies into the air and feeling superior to driver-polluters while you turn yourself into a bronzed god or goddess in your spare time?
I commute five miles each work day on my bicycle. If I weren't a cyclist, I suppose I'd drive a car or ride a motorcycle. Those five are the only miles I do that are essentially kind to the earth, because I do them on a bike instead of in or on a motor vehicle.
My training rides are fun but they aren't green. I'm on my non- polluting bike for those miles, true enough, but I'm not keeping a car off the road. I'm not going somewhere I would've gone in a car. I wouldn't do those same loops in a car; there'd be no point to it. I've seen those roads before.Bike commuting truly is green but bike commuting is difficult. Takes grit. It's cold in the winter and wet when it rains. Commuting reality for most of us is mean streets clogged with one-person carloads of tight-jawed, resolutely uncharitable motorists. Freshly oiled, cocked, and locked, if you know the expression.
Bicycle racing is exciting but it isn't green either. Racers and support people fly and drive to and from events. Motorcycles and cars, sometimes dozens, precede and follow big races. If watching a race inspires a few spectators to pump the tires on their old ten-speeds and ride to work instead of driving, that's racing's one ecological saving grace.
Big group bicycle rides, centuries and the like, aren't green either. Participants drive miles to events, filling the parking lots at start/finish to overflowing with cars--convenient, irresistible cars. Drive 220 miles, ride 100.
Even bike touring is not necessarily green. I'm thinking of tours that involve long airplane or automobile trips. If you cycle the Green Mountains after flying to Boston, renting a car and driving to White River Junction, Vermont, are you walking gently on the earth or are you merely taking an athletic vacation? Start and end a tour at your door, a tour you just might have done in a car, and you've done something you could call green.
Even though green is "in," I don't believe bicycle commuting is growing. [Editor's note: According to a study by Elliott Gluskin (ca. 1997), bicycle commuting has almost doubled in the U.S. in the last eight years. But that's still not much.] Tough and scary as it is, commuting attracts mostly cycling true-believers. Hey, maybe you're a true-believer yourself, or on your way to becoming one.
Listen, true-believer or true-believer-to-be: if you want to put your muscles and resolve where your ideals are...if you want to do what you can for the water and the air and your health and the health of fellow Americans--put in the miles where they matter.
Ride your bike to work. Run errands on your bike. Ride your bike whenever you can. Leave your car(s) parked. If you don't own a car, don't buy one. Ride.
You might find you like it.