As I speed my way down death alley (aka University Ave.) on my bicycle each day I think about how wonderful it would be to not fear for my life each time I leave the house on two wheels. I am green with envy (ha!) hearing about Denmark’s bike superhighway and efforts to encourage cycling when bikers in my city must protest against the potential removal of existing lanes.
There are obvious environmental benefits to replacing cars with bikes. The only emission from my bike is the dust I stir up with my super speediness! And while everyone knows that pedal power is fossil fuel free and doesn’t generate pollution, bikes also have many other less obvious, indirect benefits.
Material & Space
To start, bikes require much less material than a car. Some vehicles weigh over 4,000 pounds whereas bikes weigh in around 10-20 pounds. Less weight means less material – less steel, plastic and rubber. This means less energy and resources were needed to make my bike and in turn, my bike generated less relative waste when those materials were mined, refined, produced and distributed.
The other important factor about bikes is that they take up less room. I don’t need a parking spot for my bike. It is locked up on my balcony. I don’t need six paved lanes, I just need a few feet. Since bikes are much lighter they also don’t damage pavement as much as cars and heavy trucks, meaning less road wear, tear and repair. Maintaining and reducing the overall amount of paved space is important since paved spaces contribute to surface run off and associated soil erosion, water pollution and flooding. Since bikes don’t leak gasoline, antifreeze or other toxic substances (maybe a little bit of chain oil) the water runoff from paved spaces used primarily by bikes is likely to be far less detrimental than runoff from roads heavily used by trucks and cars. Reducing toxic run off is really important since water running into those open road sewers often flows directly into nearby lakes and rivers.
As well, dark paved surfaces can attract and hold heat, making cities hotter than outlying areas (leading to more air conditioning in the summer and heat related health problems). Asphalt, used to bind aggregate material such as rocks and sand together is potentially carcinogenic and is harmful to humans, wild and aquatic life (Irwin et al., 1997). Concrete dust can contribute to air pollution and release toxins, while the concrete industry accounts for around 5% of global man-made carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions (Cement Sustainability Initiative, 2002).
With fewer cars, vast parking lots could be eliminated (or at least reduced) and wide roads could be condensed. With this space up for grabs we could build denser cities and that’s a really good thing for the environment. Residents of dense cities use less oil, water, electricity, energy, emit less greenhouse gasses and generate less waste per person than residents of suburbs or rural areas (read more about the environmental benefits of big dense cities in Owen, 2009).
The other benefit of bikes is that they’re so much easier to fix! There’s no glass windshields to break, no power windows or electronic dashboard to unexpectedly conk out, no complicated stuff under the hood. I can change a tire, install a new chain or even change things up with fancy new handlebars if I like. When an item is easy and inexpensive to repair it is less likely to ‘go to waste.’ In addition, each individual piece is smaller and requires less material compared to the same or similar part for a car.
Biking is good exercise and regular exercise makes us healthy and happy. Exercise can ease the symptoms of depression and anxiety, prevent health conditions such as heart disease and even improve your sex life! Healthy people need less pharmaceutical drugs, antibiotics, operations and other interventions, all of which have associated waste, toxins and environmental impacts. For example, the production of pharmaceutical drugs generates air, water, and soil pollutants including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and tonnes of particulate matter comprised of over 100 different chemicals (Berry, 2000). Furthermore, once drugs and antibiotics are released from our bodies they can contaminate surface and drinking water and potentially result in in antibiotic resistant organisms.
So what now?
All this being said, we obviously can’t live without motorized vehicles. We’ll always need delivery trucks and ambulances. And while public transit can substantially reduce the need for personal vehicles, sometimes we need to drive to see out-of-town family and friends, just get out of the city or take a weekend camping trip. To this end, car sharing programs like Zip Car or Autoshare offer a great solution. Sharing a car with your community means less space for parking and fewer cars overall. If these environmental benefits don’t convince you to give up your car for a bike or car sharing program maybe learning that the annual average cost of owning a car is $5925 can offer some motivation.
And if you don’t own a bike, consider joining a bike sharing program like Bixi. These rental bikes are also great options for exploring places when you’re on vacation.