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The bicycling paradox revisited

Last week we reported on some research from UPenn professor Karl Ulrich, who also happens to the founder of TerraPass, that came to the contrarian conclusion that bicycles offer little benefit to the environment. The nub of the argument is that bicycle riders are healthier than non-cyclists, and their increased longevity places a drain on energy resources that largely cancels out the gas savings from cycling.

The post sent little ripples through the blogosphere,* jumping from these pages to Salon magazine, and thence to the New York Times and myriad other web sites.

Reactions to the research varied widely, but most were critical. It goes almost without saying that only a handful were critical of the paper’s actual arguments, which few bothered to read. Rather, they were critical of the paper’s conclusions (or, more accurately, perceived conclusions), usually on the grounds that the conclusions are icky.

I thought it would be fun to dig back into this issue, partly as an exercise in web anthropology, partly because the paper itself is interesting and deserving of consideration, and partly because many readers did raise thoughtful points.

Before I begin, I’d like to state up front and for the record that we at TerraPass strongly recommend you replace time spent in your car with time spent on your bicycle. For numerous practical reasons, doing so will almost certainly offer large benefits to the environment and to your own health.

On to the issues raised. Many critics alluded to “holes you could drive a truck through,” so let’s take a look at some of these truck-sized holes.

Hole #1: The paper assumes that moving people from cars to bikes will increase their food intake, but lard-assed Americans already eat way more than they need, so this assumption is invalid.

This actually might be a fair point. It’s not clear to me that all people will increase their food consumption when they start exercising, at least not by the full amount assumed in Ulrich’s paper. Indeed, another study has suggested that drawing down the fat stored in Americans’ bodies could provide a meaningfully large source of emission-free energy.

The problem here is that food is not the major part of the effect that causes the bicycling paradox. Increased longevity is. So this is more of a mini-hole.

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