David Suzuki: Burn calories, not gas: Riding your bike to work has many benefits

A U.K. man recently built a bicycle entirely out of wood, with no plastic or metal parts. Everything, including the wheels, gears, and seat, are wood. Inventor Michael Thompson, who made the “SplinterBike” on a bet with a friend, says it can travel up to 50 kilometres an hour.

What’s amazing is that, almost 200 years after the first two-wheeler was made, people are still able to come up with innovative ideas for one of the simplest and most practical and efficient transportation devices ever invented. Even though I’m impressed by Thompson’s wooden bike, and by those with bamboo or wood frames, I’ll stick with my old metal-frame bike. I’m just happy that cycling is becoming more popular all the time, and that the city where I live, Vancouver, is making life easier for cyclists.

After all, riding a bike is good for your health and the environment. As the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition points out in its promotion of Bike to Work Week (May 30 to June 5 in several Canadian cities), cycling to work is enjoyable, helps you get and stay in shape, and burns off stress. And when you consider gridlock and traffic, it’s often as fast as or faster than driving. It’s also way more efficient than car travel. According to the WorldWatch Institute, a bicycle needs 35 calories per passenger mile, while a car uses 1,860.

Reducing your need to stop at the gas pump is both good for the environment and for your pocketbook, especially as gas prices continue to rise. Private automobiles create about 12 percent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, and road transportation in general creates as much as one quarter. Riding a bike doesn’t create any emissions. And it’s not just gas that costs money. Buying, insuring, and maintaining a car, not to mention paying for parking, costs thousands of dollars a year.

Of course, cycling isn’t practical for everyone, and it’s not always possible to ride—although I’ve seen my share of die-hard cyclists even on rare Vancouver snow days. But with proper clothing and gear, many people can ride for most of the year in urban centres. And the money saved from not driving is often enough to pay for public transit or taxis on days when cycling isn’t possible.

Our cities will become more livable and our environment cleaner when more people get out of their cars and onto their bikes. But we still have a long way to go in Canada. Only about one percent of trips are made by bike here (although Vancouver is higher, at about four percent), whereas in many parts of Europe, the number is more than 30 percent. In Amsterdam, 38 percent of trips are made by bike, thanks to pro-cycling policies adopted since the 1970s.

Resistance to change is inevitable, and in Vancouver we’ve seen some backlash against the expanding network of bike lanes. Many people still believe we should be shelling out loads of money for pavement and parking lots so that individual people can propel themselves to work and shopping in a two-tonne emissions-spewing machine. Others have complained that, because the bike lanes were not immediately crammed with cyclists, they’re a waste of money and get in the way of cars and business. But as Amsterdam shows, investing in cycling and pedestrian infrastructure eventually pays off in many ways.

As more people take up cycling, it also becomes safer. Although, those who worry about the safety of cycling might be interested in a British Medical Association study that found the health risks of inactivity are 20 times greater than the risks from cycling.

For employers, the benefits of encouraging cycling are numerous. A Dutch study found that people who cycle to work take fewer sick days, and research has shown they are generally happier and less stressed. Cyclists can also avoid traffic jams and are not as likely to be late for work. And bike lock-ups cost far less than car-parking facilities.

Whether your bike has a state-of-the-art bamboo frame or is a clunky old off-roader, why not try riding it to work, and not just during Bike to Work Week? You’ll be happy you did.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation editorial and communications specialist Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

Comments (12) Add New Comment
R U Kiddingme
Not much to add to that, but being an anonymous internet blowhard means that no reasons are necessary to post something here. Anyway, excellent article David. By the way that guy is absurdly fit so I would add that VANITY and AWESOME HOTNESS is another excellent reason to bike to work, which Suzuki is far too respectable and sensible to mention.
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Fan'o Truth
What is the average distance that a cycling commuter in Europe, say Amsterdam, travels to and from work each day?
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You
FoT, It never mentions work, just "trips".

Perhaps biking to work is not reasonable for everyone (it isn't for me, so I take transit), but there are surely ways to reduce car trips by biking to stores and parks etc. I refuse to believe that we've maxed out our biking potential at 4%. Hopefully the return of some summer weather will see people pedaling again.
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Fan'o Truth
@You
Very well, then, I will rephrase the question. What is the average length of functional rather than recreational trips, that is, trips to work, trips for shopping, and trips for social purposes where the bike trip itself is not the goal but the means of transportation?

Also, to what degree can practical shopping trips be made by bicycle?
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MarkBowen
You'll have to do your own digging on that if you want hard data FoT, but I can offer my own anecdote after commuting by bike to various jobs at various distances.

For myself as a middle aged, middle fitness level individual (or so I like to believe), I've found that 12-15km is probably the upper reasonable boundary for me to commute regularly to work by bike. 12km takes me about 40 minutes, while the same trip by car in rush hour takes about 30 minutes.

That doesn't take too much extra time out of my day, and I don't get very sweaty (never had the luxury of working anywhere with change rooms and showers). A longer ride then that would probably require a shower and change of clothes.

As for general shopping and outings, anything within that distance range that doesn't require moving an item too large or heavy to fit into a backpack is not only practical, but fast and fun. And it's always nice to never have to worry about finding (or paying for) parking. All weekly grocery shops are done by bike... But not Costco runs, haha.

Just an anecdote of course, but hopefully that gives you a general idea of what's reasonable for a non super-fit person. I'm sure it would be different for people with different fitness levels, and whether or not the workplace provides showers and change rooms.

Of course, the best way to find out is to start experimenting yourself!
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Fan'o Truth
@MarkBowen

Frankly, Mark, I doubt there is any hard data anywhere on average trip lengths for cyclists in urban areas.

The only thing you've said that I wonder about is the practicality of shopping by bike, which I think would likely be difficult. Locking the bike for short stops is awkward unless it's going to remain in view the whole time and carrying even a gallon of milk is going to be a challenge. What other groceries can be squeezed into a backpack without being somewhat compromised?
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JayMacD
Most studies I have read consider 10 km to be the normal range for commuting by bicycle. There are many who commute further than that (I commute 13k each way). Also many people combine cycling and transit - i.e. rather than drive door to door they cycle to the most effective transit station and complete the journey by train/bus. Lock up facilities at transit stations is another aspect of required infrastructure.

Portland has done some interesting studies on the "20 minute neighborhood" (google that for details). Basically the assumption is that most people are willing to take up to twenty minutes to get to "functional" objectives, so the range is dependent upon typical speed. For bikes that works out to around 10 km for most people.

As for groceries I have anecdotal commentary as well. I always do standard grocery and beer runs by bike now. This weekend my small family of three used bikes to cart home groceries that had completely filled a shopping cart at the store. It took some creative thinking to load it all on the bikes, but now that we've done it and know how to do so it will be easier in the future. You'll never use a bike for the mega Costco runs or for getting big ticket items, but for most grocery runs to local markets (and liquor stores!) it's perfect. I have been pleasantly surprised by how much I can do by bike since I started riding regularly two years ago - and in the process I've dropped about 60 pounds and am fitter and healthier now than I was in my teens.

It is worth trying. Expect some inconveniences at first, work through them and enjoy the rest of the benefits. Your wallet and waist will thank you :)
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You
Sounds great Jay. I can't wait to replace my bike now that I'm out of Burnaby and in a bike-able area.
As for "Locking the bike for short stops is awkward". I feel that parking a car for short trips is also awkward most of the time. Of course it will always depend where you live and where you're going, but I still believe that at least some car trips can be replaced by biking.
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JayMacD
@FoT: Putting heavy items in a backpack and riding is not a good idea in the first place. It gets the centre of gravity too high and makes riding more dangerous. Invest in a rack and panniers (about $75 investment or a tank of gas for most cars) and carry much more than a gallon of milk. If you want to be hard core get a cargo bike and carry as much (or more) than a small car.

Locking is trivial. Get a decent lock and lock it in plain view of passersby. It's easier than finding parking.
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Fan'o Truth
@JayMacD and Marc

Thanks for your anecdotal information. I find it a lot more time consuming getting a bike parked and locked than a car. And if you're worried about the front wheel, the seat, etc., parking and locking a bike will become a major operation. Agreed, you don't want a heavy load in a back pack, if you're committed to shopping that way you'll need some other type of carrier.


For most people the real issue is the value and productivity of personal time. If a shopping trip is going to take one hour by bike but half an hour by car, why not do the half hour shopping trip in the car and then a separate half hour bike trip as a ride at faster speeds and with greater aerobic benefit because you're not carrying anything but yourself?


Do you suppose that either the City of Vancouver or Metro have done any surveys or analytical work on cycling at all? They cite promotion of cycling, along with walking, as their solution to moving more and more people without moving more cars or building more freeways (which they vehemently oppose) or raising taxes too much to pay for additional transit systems. Given that, is it possible they've done any actual work on the issue in terms of research? If so, I wonder where one might find any of their reports on the issue?
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???????????
@F'o'T:

So if you doubt that the data exists why did you ask for it in the first place? Moreover, why are you so anti-biking? If you don't want to ride, you don't have to. It would be better for your health, and better for the environment, but David Suzuki never said he was gonna come kick your ass if you keep using your car. And yes, I totally 'suppose' that the city has done a lot of analytical work on cycling. They have also looked at what other cities have done both recently and historically. It takes a little bit to get the wheels rolling (see what I did there?) but in the end it will pick up speed. Do what you want, but trying to trivialize peoples opinions given in good faith by calling them anecdotal in a condecending manner is just plain rude. Your (negative) emotional attachment to this issue is evident by your apparent need to reply to everyone else who posts here and doesn't agree with you.
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Neale Adams
The City of Vancouver's analytical work on cycling can be found at http://vancouver.ca/engsvcs/transport/cycling/index.htm.
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