A different kind of efficient

I like to ride my bike around town. Not only for fun but also to run errands and even to get groceries. Upon hearing this most people say something to the effect of “that’s nice, but I couldn’t do that”. When I ask why not, it’s usually some variation of “it’s too slow” or “it’s not efficient”. When I probe further, I realize people define efficiency in personal transport as “total time taken to arrive at my destination”. If that’s your only yardstick, yes, I’ll probably never cover 10 miles in 10 minutes on a bike. But to accomplish that feat, you had to use a non-renewable energy source to fuel tiny explosions that spin a shaft really fast in order to move a 3500 pound steel and plastic cage to get your 150 pound body to your destination. You have to pay for that fuel, and at the rate that we’re using it up, it’s only going to get more expensive. You’re even burning that fuel while you idle, hitting the brakes to prevent the explosions from propelling you forward! You’re accumulating wear and tear on the car, and you’ll eventually have to pay for the maintenance. You also ever so slowly damage the roads, whose maintenance you pay for in the form of taxes on your fuel.

Let’s compare that with biking. I concede that it takes more time to get to your destination. So by all means don’t do it if you have a deadline with real consequences. But outside of such scenarios, all energy burned is renewable, you don’t contribute to pollution or damage the roads. It’s true that bikes still require maintenance, but they are much simpler machines than cars and hence easier and cheaper to maintain. Plus you get some fresh air, and don’t get angry at anyone cutting you off or get impatient being stuck in a traffic jam.

And maybe driving is not more efficient, even if time is your yardstick. After all, most people say they want to stay active. But we’ve engineered movement out of our lives so thoroughly that we’ll go to the gym a couple times a week to move artificially. Let’s say it takes you 20 minutes of roundtrip driving to run the errand. Then you go to the gym for an hour. That’s 80 minutes for your errand and physical activity for the day. Conversely, let’s say it takes you an hour to bike for your errand. That’s 60 minutes for your errand and physical activity. Now which is more efficient?