16 April 2011

Bicycles Are Faster Than Cars

Langebro Stand
We're no strangers to the legendary 'Energy and Equity' essay by Ivan Illich from 1976. We have the first chapter here on Copenhagenize, but Andreas sent us a link to an excerpt from it at No Tech Magazine.

Which then led us to discover that the good people at Clever Cycles have slapped the whole essay on their site.

This excerpt is about how bicycles are faster than cars. As Andreas puts it, "Calculations are from the 70's, but I like the idea of the overall miles pr hour comparison between modes of transport, and am thinking that the figures might even be more advantageous for bikes these days."

"The model American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes, and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it."

"The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour. In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people manage to do the same, walking wherever they want to go, and they allocate only 3 to 8 per cent of their society’s time budget to traffic instead of 28 per cent. What distinguishes the traffic in rich countries from the traffic in poor countries is not more mileage per hour of life-time for the majority, but more hours of compulsory consumption of high doses of energy, packaged and unequally distributed by the transportation industry."

"Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometer of flat road at an expense of only 0.15 calories. The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man’s metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion. Equipped with this tool, man outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines but all other animals as well. The bicycle lifted man’s auto-mobility into a new order, beyond which progress is theoretically not possible."

"Bicycles are not only thermodynamically efficient, they are also cheap. With his much lower salary, the Chinese acquires his durable bicycle in a fraction of the working hours an American devotes to the purchase of his obsolescent car. The cost of public utilities needed to facilitate bicycle traffic versus the price of an infrastructure tailored to high speeds is proportionately even less than the price differential of the vehicles used in the two systems."


Khal said...

As usual, thanks for making us think.

Todd Scott said...

Maybe bikes are faster than the space shuttle too!

tstreet said...

The article,sadly, is becoming obsolete as the Chinese have decided to join the auto rat race to hell. Status apparently requires that one devote a big bulk of one's life to the machine.

Thanks for making biking sexy. I was riding my bike to work 36 years ago and was, no doubt, considered somewhat insane and unbalanced. Now, at least in some quarters, it is considered somewhat more respectable.

Kevin Love said...

Here in Toronto, cars are perhaps the slowest means of urban transportation. An exerpt from:


"The speed limit on city streets might be 50 km/h but don't expect to go that fast on Spadina Ave. in rush hour.

Ditto for Adelaide, or Richmond, or Dundas, or Yonge, or Dufferin, or ... you get the point.

According to a transportation ministry traffic report, the average speed of a car travelling south on Spadina between Bloor St. and Lake Shore Blvd. during the evening rush hour is just 11 km/h.

On Adelaide St. between Bathurst St. and Yonge St. in the late-day rush, the average speed of a vehicle is just 13 km/h. The crawl-like rates of, um, speed, are highlighted in the ministry's 2008 Travel Time Study, which covered 280 km of highways in Toronto and 800 km on 24 major city arteries."

Lim Soo 林蘇 said...

it is sad that chinese, most of them, are after fancy fast car now.

Glenn said...

I've done the math on my truck, which I bought used and have had for 19 years. Including amortized cost, fuel, insurance, maintainance and repairs, and calculating the hours I work to pay for it all; my truck goes 24 miles per hour, which is twice as fast as my bicycle, which I have owned for about the same time.

Ivan Illich's logic only holds for people who buy new cars every few years. Those of us who buy used cars, take care of them and use them for a long time actually do quite well.

Still, the bike is two orders of magnitude less of a burden on energy and resources, and I'll be able to afford fuel as long as I live.

Marrowstone Island
Washington State,

Anonymous said...

Most people spend more a year on just the fuel for their cars than I did to buy a whole sparkly new bike which should last ten with minimal additional costs. To be fair, you could throw in the additional train and bus trips I'll make for longer trips, but it's still not much.

Thoreau proposed something like this: instead of speed = distance / time, real-world speed calculations should also factor in the cost of getting there.

kfg said...

Glenn - The speed of a motor vehicle is wage/hour dependent. It is also environment dependent, being higher the less urbanized the area of operation. It wasn't city folk who created the first "car culture," it was country folk.

"my truck goes 24 miles per hour"

My bicycle is capable of it (for an hour or so), but my happiness no longer is.

Anon - Most people spend more a year on their car, before they've put a drop of fuel in the tank, than they might spend on two bicycles . . . and a new wardrobe.

kfg said...

Anon - P.S.; perhaps inspired by Thoreau Illich's calculations DO include the cost as time calculations in figuring the actual average speed of transportation.

Other factors include time and cost-time expended in maintenance and repairs, which rise with the level of specialist technician time and equipment needed to affect them.

These sorts of calculations need not be restricted to transportation, but can be made for all of our "labor saving" devices.