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Editorial: Bicycling, the forgotten piece of energy policy

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on May 18th, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Whose cars? Our cars!

An economy putting the pinch on pocketbooks, rising gas prices, foreign oil imported from terrorist havens, a bankrupt federal infrastructure budget — all of these factors (and others) are creating a perfect political storm that could lead to a significant change in U.S. energy policy.

With about 2/3 of our country's oil consumption used for transportation, the energy policy proposals coming out of Washington D.C. correctly focus on how we power our vehicles. Unfortunately, they completely ignore the ability of the American people to power themselves.

There's a huge disconnect in the White House and on Capitol Hill on this issue.

The bottom line is this: By various estimates, about 40% of trips made in our cities are two miles or less and right now almost all of those trips are made by car.

Switch a good percentage of those short trips to bicycling and we'd use a lot less oil and have a more stable economy (more money in our pockets) and a more resilient energy outlook.

Sounds simple, but because bicycling lacks real political respect and is still seen as an "enhancement" by many, it is left out of major policy proposals. Here are two such proposals I've seen recently. The first is from President Obama (as shared on May 6th):

Obama's plan is to find more oil here in the states to use in cars, improve gas mileage in cars, invest in electric cars, invest in biofuels research for cars, and so on. No mention of investments or initiatives that might increase the use of the most energy-efficient, lowest-cost form of transportation ever invented (bicycles). That's disappointing because we all know President Obama is keenly aware of bicycling.

Policymakers Ride-21
Different forms of energy.
(Photo © J. Maus)

And today I read Oregon Senator Ron Wyden's approach to the problem. Wyden says he'll, "increase energy security and reduce dependence on foreign oil by integrating many types of cutting edge alternative fuel sources into our transportation infrastructure."

And by "cutting edge alternative fuel sources" he doesn't mean muscle power.

I played a game while reading Wyden's quotes in his press release. I imagined he was pushing for new bike policies..

"The price of oil wouldn’t matter as much if Americans had more ways to get from point A to point B without oil...

"The technology exists [bicycles]. There are already ways to use electricity and other clean fuels to power cars, trucks, buses, and off-road vehicles [bicycles]. This bill makes these technologies [bicycles] more accessible, giving Americans alternatives to energy while letting the market decide which of these new fuels will work best for different types of vehicles and for different parts of the country."

So, while electric cars and better gas mileage get the spotlight in the form of major policy proposals, all bicycling gets is a bit of cheerleading in a measly blog post.

Bicycling as a political issue is funny that way. When it comes to green-leaning speeches and photo-ops, bicycling is welcome to the table with the adults; but when it's time to get serious, bicycling is sent out of the room and made to eat at the kids' table.

Perhaps all of us advocates and concerned citizens should adopt an energy policy of our own — like how to spend more of it figuring out how to be taken seriously.

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Comments
  • BURR May 18, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    cars will never go away, but they need to be made significantly lighter, smaller, and more efficient, and alternative power sources need to be developed.

    pedal power becomes a very attractive alternative under that scenario.

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    • John May 19, 2011 at 12:32 pm

      1) Biking perceived as liberal, urban issue and would be ridiculed by conservatives. There is a need to cultivate more conservative support for cycling.

      2) To counter, biking could be grouped with other urban planning issues designed to make cities more energy efficient, like density and mass transit.

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      • BURR May 19, 2011 at 10:13 pm

        I dunno, go the politics and religion section of bikeforums.net and there are plenty of conservative cyclists...

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  • 9watts May 18, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    Jonathan,
    thanks so much for point this out. And may I suggest that this was a very skillful and apt turn of phrase:
    "Bicycling as a political issue is funny that way. When it comes to green-leaning speeches and photo-ops, bicycling is welcome to the table with the adults; but when it's time to get serious, bicycling is sent out of the room and made to eat at the kids' table."

    Perhaps you could do a piece next on how this very issue is handled more capably in some European countries? Equivalent policy documents do not give short shrift to bikes at all. I'd be happy to send you links. There is another way.

    PS very nice capture of the stretch limo down there below the bikes in the photo above.

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  • Mindful Cyclist May 18, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    I think it comes down to two things: jobs and technology.

    All of that stuff Obama is pushing will create a lot of good paying jobs. Sure, the environment may suffer as a result, but I think Americans want to protect there pocketbooks first and worry about the environment later.

    And, electric cars with fancy gadgets and new technology are sexy. While modern bikes have made a lot of strides in how much easier they are to shift and how much less they weigh, it is still simple mechanics.

    So, until we find a way to make bikes more sexy technology wise and create a lot of jobs, I think bicycles will always lag.

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    • Jack May 19, 2011 at 9:33 am

      "until we find a way to make bikes more sexy"

      Maybe PBS should air Cycle Bound once a week for a year or so.

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      • Mindful Cyclist May 20, 2011 at 12:41 pm

        Or Bicycling Magazine could start doing a swimsuit issue.

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  • Mark C May 18, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    Let's face it, most people in this country are completely addicted to the conveniences associated with moving themselves around by car. Until single-occupancy car travel is made a lot less convenient, nothing will change, and politicians will continue to pander to the majority that need to be reassured that it will always be convenient and cheap to move around by car.

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    • 9watts May 18, 2011 at 6:29 pm

      "Until single-occupancy car travel is made a lot less convenient, nothing will change"
      While this is a familiar trope, I submit that convenience is a social construct. There's far less a priori convenient about a car when compared to a bike once you start pulling it apart. Most people are habituated to jump in the car, just as I may be habituated to jump on my bike, but in terms of practical efficacy, getting from A to B quickly, easily, finding parking, etc. my bike and I can match any car plus its owner, at least around town. Plus I can haul more than the average car thanks to my bike trailer. Who's convenient, now? The crutch of 'well but if I wanted to go to the Coast on the weekend' is an ever-present retort, but I really do think it is more about habit than we tend to allow. I think of convenience a little more expansively. For me it includes the hundreds of hours per year that I don't need to work to pay for the car, gas, oil, maintenance, parking, insurance, etc. And not having to circle the parking lot on a hot day...

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    • elle May 19, 2011 at 8:24 am

      Curious if most people feel cars are more convenient. Around inner Portland at least, bike seems to be such an easier way. I don't feel I am making a sacrifice. Even if it cost more to bike than drive, I would do it. Because it is faster, more fun, and way more creative.

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  • Russ Roca May 18, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    I've had similar feelings as MindfulCyclist. Notions of progress are intertwined with technology and whiz-bang gadgets. Its hard and in someways shameful to admit that we already have the solution and all we have to do is ACT on it. It is much easier to believe our salvation will come from some quick fix technology, a dues ex machina yet to be invented than the means we have available.

    A corollary would be the obesity crises. We have the "technology" to change the problem (good food, exercise), but not the will to act on it.

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  • old&slow May 18, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    You take yourself way too seriously as usual.
    Of course cycling can help, but it is such a small part of the picture, it is not a significant part of the larger discussion.
    This is a big country and a big world.
    Does cycling help in a local scene for energy consumption?
    Of course but barely.
    In the real world of 6 billion people, cycling means nothing or next to nothing.
    Addressing population control, sustainable energy resources that can power electric vehicles, battery technology, these are meaningful discussions.
    Bicycles are local people transportation, an alternative to moving ONE person around.
    It is not a solution to moving goods, heating or cooling for 6 billion people, not a real energy solution at all.
    Good for some, but not a big part of the picture.
    I think Obama and world leaders have a bit more on their mind for the future than local transportation needs. It is small potatoes.
    Nice try.

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    • 9watts May 18, 2011 at 10:27 pm

      "Of course cycling can help, but it is such a small part of the picture, it is not a significant part of the larger discussion. This is a big country and a big world.
      Yes, and a rather full world, too, as you've probably noticed. It is so full, there's less and less room for all those freeways and SUVs and electric cars and filling stations and parking lots and junk yards and oil derricks and tanker ships and pipelines and ambulances and maimed cyclists and pedestrians and car dealerships and studded tires.

      "Does cycling help in a local scene for energy consumption? Of course but barely."

      Is there any particular reason why you see this in purely static terms? Right now, yes, bikes are small potatoes in the US. But yesterday in China they were still very large potatoes, or even water melons, and tomorrow there may be a whole lot of countries that wish they hadn't quit making bicycles domestically, that would be happy to have some of those small potato factories to expand. Look at Cuba. Overnight, figuratively speaking, they invested in bicycle manufacturing industry and all the rest (early 1990s) because they suddenly ran out of oil. And folks started biking A LOT. No thanks to static analyses like yours, I might add.

      "Bicycles are local people transportation, an alternative to moving ONE person around.
      It is not a solution to moving goods, heating or cooling for 6 billion people, not a real energy solution at all."

      Are you a troll? Did anyone here say they were heating or cooling their house with a bicycle? Most of the oil we use in the US goes for transportation. And I've yet to encounter an a priori argument for why we should favor research into electric vehicles and batteries, as you suggest, over investing in bicycles which hardly need any research, though a bit of clever social marketing might be useful. You might like batteries and electric cars, think they are wiser investments, but I'd be happy to debate you any day of the week over the specifics, the ponderous and mostly wishful boosterism that surrounds both. Talk about NOT being a solution for 6 billion people... electric cars, there you have it.

      As for bicycles being incapable of or irrelevant to moving freight, it seems you didn't read the Monday roundup two days ago. The European Union seems to think otherwise. Those cheerful people who organize moves-by-bike seem to think otherwise. Bike cargo trailer and cargo-trike manufacturers in this town would beg to differ with you. You probably think this is all small potatoes, too. Well sometimes that is what it takes. Lots of small potatoes. And before you know it we've solved our problem.

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      • aaronf May 19, 2011 at 8:10 am

        Bikes are irrelivant for moving freight until you can put an 50,000 lb excavator on your trailer and pull it across the country.

        That's fantasy land.

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        • AC May 19, 2011 at 12:07 pm

          But bikes are great for picking up a gallon of milk from the local grocery. I think its stuff like that, the %40 of trips less than 2 mile in cities, that Jonathon is writing about.

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    • Harald May 19, 2011 at 6:13 am

      Unfortunately, I have to agree. Jonathan writes about the issue in a way that creates unrealistic expectations of what cycling can do. First he mentions that 2/3 of domestic oil consumption is used for transportation. Then he talks about how 40 % of trips in cities are less than 2 miles long. So we are led to believe that if all those trips were to be done by bike, we'd reduce oil consumption by 40% of 2/3, i.e. almost one third less oil. Now isn't that awesome.

      Only that it it doesn't work that way. (Yes, this was not what Jonathan explicitly writes, but that's the way it reads). "Transportation" includes a very significant share of transporting goods that can only marginally be replaced by bicycles. 40% of trips in cities maybe be less than 2 miles, but they don't use 40% of the fuel. And not even bikeportland readers believe that we can get a 100% bike/walk modal share for those trips.

      Now that of course doesn't mean that cycling is completely irrelevant, especially since many of the other measures suggested will also only have a small impact when looked at in isolation. But in my opinion, we're doing ourselves a disservice if we throw around deceptive numbers. I wonder, for example, what would be the impact on US oil consumption if we a) double the modal share of cycling vs. b) increase motor vehicle efficiency by 20% vs. c) increase the modal share of public transport by 10%. I don't know what the outcome of such comparisons is, but these are the questions you will have to have answers for if you want to be taken seriously.

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      • Harald May 19, 2011 at 6:16 am

        Okay, on second thought: I guess politically it is an open question if we should or shouldn't be creating "unrealistic expectations." It obviously works pretty well for the oil industry, e-car manufacturers etc.

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      • 9watts May 19, 2011 at 7:19 am

        "unrealistic expectations of what cycling can do"
        I'm not sure exactly why you feel that way, Harald. From where we stand now, it of course may seem utterly ridiculous to have 100% modal share for bikes (you forgot walking). But if you turn it around and instead of thinking 'how can we persuade everyone to use a bike or walk,' think of how incredibly useful and opportune a bike will look to someone, anyone, faced with a situation such as Cubans faced starting in 1992. 'Can't afford the fuel for the damn car.' We are a far more adaptive species than we generally give ourselves credit.

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    • elle May 19, 2011 at 8:50 am

      I think you are wrong on this. The key moment is when the grid gets planned and built out. Once you do that, once you build the highways and malls and suburbs it becomes very hard to change. And in that context you may be right that the bike ain't gonna do much.

      However, the opportunity is to put the system together designed for human power. When you do that, bikes are indeed revolutionary and could significantly change the world as we know it. Our modes of travel, our daily routines, our very culture itself evolves and intertwines around the transport system we build. In the US today, that means the car. But so many parts of our system could be different.

      The idea that the bike is a side issue that really cannot impact the real world seems to rest on the assumption that where the rest of he world is going or should be going is the mistaken US model. If we keep wondering how to make the global south more like Houston, we have lost.

      But if we recalibrate and realize where we should he going now - and how - then the beautiful bike is a mighty tool that can change everything.

      Imagine: What if you could roll out of bed in Rye, NY and bike all the way into Manhattan on a completely dedicated bike corridor that was smooth, fast, and safe? Over time, how many people would do it? I think the answer is hundreds of thousands. Millions.

      This is not some delusional fantasy. Really it's about having confidence that people are smart and will adapt. As in the free market, people will pick the better product. With the right build out, the change could happen very fast. People who never had any interest in biking would take it up because it better seves their needs. In a pedal to the medal John Henry vs. the machine, product competition between the car and the bike - assuming the proper bike infrastructure - the bike would flatten the car.

      What we need is vision for how it could be. One day there was no iPhone. Now look where we are. Someone saw what could be.

      I hope one day we will look back and similarly wonder, "How did people ever live without the bike?"

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  • Max May 18, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    Cycling, the presence of more cyclists on the roads, and an increase in cycling infrastructure would (should) be received well by the nation if the connection is made that as oil demand decreases, oil prices will decrease. And savings would not only occur at the pump, but in stores also, due to reduced shipping costs. Sounds like a win-win to me.

    Unfortunately, there are two large and powerful industries which probably don't see it that way.

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    • Machu Picchu May 19, 2011 at 6:11 am

      True, but Americans have demonstrated that when fuel prices go up they make more conservative transportation choices, when fuel prices go back down, they buy people-tanks and stuff to load in them and pull with them.

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  • Dude May 18, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    Obama has tried his best to stop any drilling in the USA. He has also admitted that he wants gas to be as high here as it is in Europe. Since he has been in office gas has more than doubled in price. He has given money away to other countries so they can drill in the gulf and we can buy their oil though, sigh

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    • Chris I May 18, 2011 at 10:03 pm

      Domestic oil production has increased every year since 2003. You clearly do not understand how the oil and gas industry works. It takes a decade after a discovery to begin drilling. Obama has not been in office long enough to affect oil prices. Additionally, our share of world oil production is small enough that prices will not change significantly even if we do increase domestic drilling.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_oil_production

      Oil reserves are even lower:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_reserves

      We cannot drill our way out of this problem.

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      • Dude May 19, 2011 at 6:48 am

        Why do you want to buy foreign oil?

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        • kerry May 19, 2011 at 8:12 am

          I personally would rather not buy ANY oil. Seems like we should move past burning dead dinosaurs for fuel. A rapidly dwindling, increasingly expensive and toxic-to-extract supply of fuel, at that. So what if we drill here? We'll still have to buy oil from elsewhere as we can't meet our domestic needs, and we'll still run out at some point. Why not accept that and move on? No one magic potion is going to replace it, either. We'll need a full on combination of human-powered personal transport (bikes, walking), electric vehicles (I'm guessing esp mass transit for efficiency), tightly weatherized homes and offices, energy sources for electricity coming from multiple modes, decentralization of food and production lines, etc etc.

          Cycling and walking are highly relevant and should be a clear part of the energy policy. Public health policy, too, but that's a rant for another day.

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    • Alan 1.0 May 18, 2011 at 11:27 pm

      Here are some facts for you:

      http://www.GasBuddy.com/gb_retail_price_chart.aspx?city1=USA Average&city2=&city3=&crude=n&tme=72&units=us

      Yes, the past two months have seen gas prices spike. The 'Arab Spring' seems the likely culprit. It is still not as high as June '08.

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  • Spiffy May 19, 2011 at 7:28 am

    all this good weather is making you too cheery... your posts are hilarious!

    oh, and yes, more bicycling!

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  • Aaronf May 19, 2011 at 7:58 am

    If we assume that 40% of trips made are less than 2 miles, that doesn't really tell us what percentage of overall oil consumption is expended during these trips.  When I think about fuel expended by delivery vehicles and Tri-Met buses, which would be impractical to replace with bicycle trips, I suspect that the 40% of trips made less than 2 miles account for significantly less than 40% of the current oil consumption.  These vehicles are the ones that get the lowest mpg, of course. 

    Maybe bikes get nudged to the kids table because they don't represent a politically/strategically respectable portion of the overall oil consumption picture to be seen as a serious means of reducing oil dependency.  Let's look at the big kid's table on that graphic: Bus fleets, biofuels, wind and solar.  Maybe the White House thinks these will account for a more substantial portion of the solution than cycling.  I mean, if we could get solar power to work better and better, eventually it would be feasible to have solar powered trucks when all of the oil runs out.  Even if solar isn't ever as cheap as oil, we might be able to have an economy that somewhat resembles the one we have today.  Can't say that about cycling. 

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  • 9watts May 19, 2011 at 8:15 am

    There is nothing magical about 2 miles. My range for hauling serious cargo by bike used to be 7 miles, but then I had to do some 14+ mile hauls from Vancouver and Milwaukie and realized those worked too. If I can haul 300 lbs+ fifteen miles on a bike trailer then Joe NotUsedtoBiking can, with some practice bike himself more than 2 miles with some regularity.
    But again, this is not a static problem. No one's proposing that this shift, this transition, happen overnight. But the sooner we start thinking about this, start planning for it, get the ball rolling, the easier it may be to 'get there.' If you look around you people of all shapes, sizes, ages, and abilities are biking (see Jonathan's photos essays). It isn't just young fit people who can bike 2 miles. There are folks in this town who commute crazy distances by bike every day.

    "Bikes are irrelivant for moving freight until you can put an 50,000 lb excavator on your trailer and pull it across the country."

    What good is a 50,000 lb excavator you can't operate without oil? I'm talking about the post-peak oil period when it's hard to justify paying for the oil. We built Hwy 30 mostly with human labor. And the transcontinental railroad. The pyramids. Hello!

    Besides why would anyone want to pull an excavator of that size across the country? What are you going to throw up next as a straw man? I need to operate the elevators in the Empire State building with pedal power to prove that biking may sit at the grown up table?

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  • aaronf May 19, 2011 at 8:46 am

    What if the excavator was powered by electricity?

    I don't think people are going to willfully embrace your return to the stone age.

    If I want to move 80,000 lbs of concrete 100 miles, how many cyclists would I have to pay, how much would I pay them, and how long would it take? I bet it would be more expensive than moving the load by truck. Hard to compete internationally when you intentionally inflate your commercial transportation costs.

    The pyramids were built by slaves.

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    • francis May 23, 2011 at 12:36 pm

      if we didn't have cars, we wouldn't need that concrete in the first place...

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  • Max May 19, 2011 at 8:50 am

    The point is not to make more people bike, it is to have less people drive. And the fact is that cycling can be an effective tool to facilitate that, and is worth including in the discussion. Seattle-based Kent's Bike Blog had a great post recently called, "The Moderate Manifesto" which is deffinitely worth a read.

    Reduced cars on the road would have the added benefit of easing congestion and in turn reducing the amount of fuel wasted in traffic jams, reducing road wear, which in turn reduces road maintenance costs.

    Of course if everyone attempts to solve the problem by just converting to an alternative fuel/electric car, and continues to drive as individuals, then the congestion will only continue to increase, and the wear will be the same on the roads. The hybrids we should be promoting are electric assist bikes/trikes.

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    • Jim May 19, 2011 at 10:50 pm

      Interesting idea- hybrid bikes, gas/ electric/ pedal. Should get what? 200 mpg??

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  • 9watts May 19, 2011 at 8:58 am

    Aaronf-
    Most everything built in the last 70 years in the US was built with energy slaves (not my term).
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_Slave

    You seem to believe we can have our cake and eat it too. Good luck with that.
    http://tombender.org/societyworthlivingforarticles/smallerpies.html
    "With fossil fuels doing almost all of our work, the effect of inefficiency in our own work and our institutions has been relatively unnoticeable. The value of, and respect for, human work and skills is relatively small when energy slaves will do our work for only one-sixth the cost of the human work. As remaining fossil fuels require more work to obtain, the relative value of human work increases."

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  • random rider May 19, 2011 at 9:15 am

    I don't think anyone is suggesting that bicycles should replace all motor vehicles or that all federal investment should go exclusively into bicycle infrastructure and availability. Some in this thread are debating a straw man.

    The point I take from Jonathan's article is that bicycles can be an important part of addressing our nation's consumption of fossil fuels, but aren't mentioned in policy discussions on any level whatsoever. Will biofuels alone solve our energy problems? Will electric vehicles? Better batteries? Domestic drilling?

    None of these is a silver bullet, but all have a role to play and deserve to be included in developing a comprehensive energy / transportation policy. And so do bikes, but they are entirely left out of the equation and that is a mistake and a disappointment.

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  • 9watts May 19, 2011 at 9:29 am

    good points random rider. I'd only add that if we look at your list in terms of resilience, time to implement, affordability, compatibility with likely future energy and climate scenarios, the bike wins hands down over all of the others.
    (a) bicycles
    (b) biofuels
    (c) electric vehicles
    (d) better batteries
    (e) domestic drilling

    I don't see the bike as a silver bullet, but perhaps a silver arrow. All the others you list have huge tradeoffs (b), cannot be scaled up (b,c,d), have uncertain technical prospects (d), or represent willful disregard of the obvious (e).

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  • JE May 19, 2011 at 11:26 am

    It's all about the money, the lobbyists and the campaign donations. Not what is best for country.

    How much does GM, Ford and Chrysler spend on politicians?
    How much does Giant, Trek and Specialized spend on politicians?

    Then throw in the UAW, the banks making car loans and the oil companies.

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    • AC May 19, 2011 at 4:18 pm

      "It's all about the money, the lobbyists and the campaign donations. Not what is best for country."

      Influence pedaling is certainly part of energy policy. It is also true that Americans are not interested in giving up the lifestyle afforded them by inexpensive fosil fuels. Suggesting they may have to is extremely unpopular. (Jimmy Carter) Elections are mostly popularity contests. So, it may not be realistic to look to elected politicians for realistic energy policy.

      "How much does Giant, Trek and Specialized spend on politicians?"

      In general, bike companies do not even maximize bicycles as product, much less as a means to anything greater. They are also utterly dependent on a global supply chain made possible by cheap oil. I would not go looking there for solutions either.

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  • El Biciclero May 19, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    In the war on terror, my bike is my victory vehicle.

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  • 9watts May 19, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    "Americans are not interested in giving up the lifestyle afforded them by inexpensive fosil fuels. Suggesting they may have to is extremely unpopular. (Jimmy Carter)"
    It is curious that Carter's speech on Energy 'The Moral Equivalent of War' was actually very well received at the time. Later it was reinterpreted as unwise, a misjudgment of the American psyche, and a dozen other things. We do ourselves a disservice, I think, by repeating the mantra above that suggests somehow we here in the US are uniquely impervious to messages such as Carter offered. What may be unique about us is our susceptibility to spin.

    "The President spent much of the week trying to revive the support generated for his new energy proposals by his well-received TV speech on July 15." (Time Magazine, Monday Aug. 6, 1979)
    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,948720-2,00.html

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