Bikers, they ain't no good

Are the health benefits of cycling bad for the environment?

Published July 18, 2006 10:20PM (EDT)

If we were to take Wharton Business School professor Karl Ulrich seriously, we would have to rip our eyes out after reading his new working paper "The Environmental Paradox of Cycling."

Here's the gist. Bicycling and other means of human-powered transportation consume less energy than driving, which is good for the environment. But all that healthy exercise makes cyclists live longer, which means they end up ultimately consuming more energy than they would have had they not biked. Which is bad for the environment. After much careful calculation (during which one imagines the professor cackling in contrarian glee and alarming his graduate students) Ulrich ends up determining that there is no net gain to the environment from biking.

Ulrich founded the carbon-offset provider TerraPass and is reputed to be an avid bike commuter. Even he concedes that his analysis is a "bizarre Swiftian argument." He is not out to banish bike lanes from the land, but merely to "correctly place human-powered transportation, and physical activity generally, at the center of a basic societal tension between the quest for longevity and the environmental costs of increased population."

Basically, what this boils down to is what I like to call the Nick Cave theory of human behavior: "People, they ain't no good." We're just bad for flowers and all other living things.

But hold on there for just a second. There are holes in this argument that you can drive a biodiesel-powered Hummer through. First and foremost: Isn't it likely that biking is a kind of gateway drug for enlightened resource consumption? I see it happen here in Berkeley all the time. First you start biking around town, then you put solar panels on your roof and start worm composting your newspapers. Suddenly, you find yourself raising organic free-range chickens in your backyard and hosting weekly meetings of your local Peak Oil Awareness encounter group. (And it should go without saying that you only wear clothing woven from all natural fibers. Lycra-clad bikers beware: Synthetic fibers are EVIL. You really are destroying the world.)

Ulrich grudgingly concedes this as a possibility near the end of his paper: "Those who adopt the bicycle as a means of transportation could potentially develop an increased awareness of the environmental impact of their actions and may over their lifetimes reduce energy consumption substantially in their other, non-transportation activities."

But that's a pretty wishy-washy stance. We can do far better! For those who would rather not look at their bicycle and see the specter of drowning polar bears, I give you Paul Higgins, a research fellow at U.C. Berkeley currently working as the legislative fellow for climate change in the office of Sen. Mike DeWine, R, Ohio. In an article published in Environmental Conservation, "Exercise-based Transportation Reduces Oil Dependence, Carbon Emissions and Obesity," Higgins proposes that if "the revenue saved through decreased health care spending on obesity is redirected toward carbon abatement" we could reduce overall carbon dioxide emissions by around 35 percent. Who needs Kyoto? Just get on your bike!

Ulrich: Cyclists live longer, thus consuming more energy, bad for environment. Result: Bikers lose all will to live.

Higgins: Cyclists aren't fat, thus lower healthcare costs, providing money for carbon abatement. Result: Bikers save the world.

Could you ask for a better glass half-full/glass half-empty dichotomy?

But there's one other thing Ulrich ignores. How many bikers, having been told that their beloved mode of transportation is a waste of time, will be impelled into fits of murderous rage and start blowing up SUVs? Wouldn't the resulting population decrease compensate for the energy consumed during their longer lives?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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