Can bicycles really make a difference in fighting global warming?
I had been pondering this question for several months, especially as I watched my colleague Tom bike to work from his home in Menlo Park to our office in San Francisco with an assist from the special bike cars on Caltrain. Tom was riding almost every day, rain or shine. He encouraged me to try it, but I didn’t think it was possible from my home in the Berkeley hills. My regular routine was to drive my 15-year old Honda Accord to North Berkeley and park the car in a lot, ride the train into downtown San Francisco, and walk the rest of the way to the office. The major hurdle to biking the Berkeley section was the 700 foot elevation change in 2.1 miles, which would be fine going down, but would require an arduous climb back up.
I also hadn’t owned a bicycle since I was in graduate school 20 years ago. After a little research, I bought a pretty basic Giant brand bike with hybrid tires, upright handle-bars, a cushy seat and 24 gears. It cost me $469 plus another $90 for a helmet, front and back lights, and a good lock. Nothing fancy, but the bike salesman said it would do the job.
I started riding in June. What a rush to go down the hill! Wind in my face, views of the City by the Bay, and no worries about finding a parking spot. I took the bike on BART and then rode from a San Francisco station to TerraPass. On the way home, I did everything in reverse. The hill was a bear, but I found that if took it slow and steady and used my gears I could actually make it all the way up without having to walk the bike. And it was an excellent workout. I arrived home drenched in sweat and pleased with my surprising accomplishment.
Thus began a major change in my personal transport. Having the bike in the city, I started using it to go to meetings in the middle of the day. I rode all the way out to the Presidio to watch Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) launch its Climate Smart carbon offset program. I rode to Mission Bay to hear Mayor Gavin Newsom speak about the city’s commitment to reducing its carbon footprint. Sometimes I rode to meet friends for lunch on San Francisco’s restored Embarcadero.
Along the way I learned some bike commuting tricks. I kept several sets of clothes at the office, including a suit and tie if important meetings came up unexpectedly. I installed a rack on the bike and used bungee cords to secure my backpack. I found seating areas on BART where I could put the bike’s kickstand down and read my newspaper.
After a month, I could feel my legs getting stronger and I wasn’t huffing and puffing up the hill so much. I looked forward to the ride home, both for the exercise and the chance to decompress from long days working at TerraPass. I also found that I could use the bike for errands, e.g., grocery shopping, trips to the library, or sporting events at the university. Each time I had to go somewhere, I asked myself: is there any reason I can’t go by bike? Some weeks I realized that I never started up my car.
Now it’s been five months of biking to and from work every day. I feel healthier and I’ve gained satisfaction from “riding” the TerraPass talk. This weekend I measured my gasoline usage from January to May (115 gallons) and June to October (55 gallons). My auto-related carbon emissions dropped from 2,249 pounds to 1,031 pounds over a comparable five-month period.
I’m not saying everyone can make such changes in personal transportation. But if 20% of urban dwellers in the U.S. would shift from a car to a bike as their primary way to get around town, it would add up to a lot of tons of real carbon reductions.
Update: I called GEICO today to see if they would lower my insurance rate because I’m driving less. They did.
Photo available under Creative Commons license from flickr user Payton Chung.