Bike commuting = less CO2 + cost savings + good mood

July 31, 2009

I wish I could report that “environmental reasons” were behind my decision to start commuting by bike. But the real motivation was much simpler: I’m a cheapskate and biking saves money.

Yet three years and some 24,000 kilometres after switching from the train to the bike, I’ve discovered a number of useful fringe benefits beyond being frugal and reducing greenhouse gas: the daily exercise from the 40-km round trip each day puts me in a good mood, makes me healthier, liberates me from the hassles of semi-reliable train timetables and makes me a bit lighter as well.

No matter how lousy or stressful or full of irritations the work day might have been, by the time I’ve arrived home on the western fringe of Berlin from the city centre after an almost always enjoyable 50-minute bike ride, I feel transformed back into a happy human being. It’s magic.

Rain is a pain. And strong headwinds can be annoying. But even if I get soaked I still usually arrive home with a smile on my face — unperturbed even if some @&%?”$! motorist nearly ran me off the road. In the morning on the way to work, the bike ride often transforms my sleepy head into one spinning with ideas.

I got the idea, for instance, for this feature (click here) on the way to work one morning while backed up behind more than 40 other bikers at a traffic light. Peter Kupisz, the friendly lawyer quoted in the story, told me he thrives on the feeling of the wind blowing in his face. “On some days it feels sort of like I’m galloping on a horse through the middle of the city,” he said. I know exactly what he means.

The only drawback to my cycling habit is that I usually have to switch to the train when roads and bike lanes turn icy or are covered with snow in January and February. Being locked up in packed train carriages is not exactly conducive to being in a good mood by dinner time — so my family looks forward to March even more than I do. “Why don’t you ride your bike to work?” is a comment I sometimes get from my wife during those winter months. What she actually means is: “You’re in a rotten mood, go away!”

What I’ve noticed over the last two years is that the number of bike commuters has been growing steadily, and not just during the summer months. The main boulevard through the centre of Berlin is sometimes packed, seriously packed, with hundreds of cyclists on their way to work. It’s an amazing sight and reminds me of scenes from the 1979 movie Americathon when everyone in Los Angeles is riding bikes on the freeways instead of cars because the world has run out of oil.

Admittedly, what makes this bike commuting in Berlin all a bit easier is the good fortune that we have a shower in our building. It would certainly be a bit more difficult without that.

This being the environmental blog, I decided to figure out how much CO2 saved by riding the bike about a total of 8,000 km per year. If I drove the car that distance instead it would be about 1,280 kg of CO2, according to this online carbon footprint calculator . If I took the train, it would be about 320 kg of CO2 per year. On bike, the calculator says it’s 0kgs of CO2. But I’m not sure how to quantify any accidental emissions of methane.

Reducing CO2 is obviously a noble aim, but the more important saving is to my bottom line. If I were to drive the 8,000 km to and from work in a car each year, it would cost about 730 euros and use 560 litres of fuel. If I were to buy an annual pass on the train, it would cost 670 euros. Aside from the occasional flat tyre, biking doesn’t cost anything after the initial investment.

If any further arguments on behalf of bike commuting were need, I could mention the calories burned. This calculator estimates 880 calories burned per journey — or about 1,500 calories per day. One final advantage: in Germany, the tax laws allow you to write the distance of your commute off your taxes. So, incredible as it may seem, I actually get paid by the government, or more accurately by other taxpayers, for biking to work. It doesn’t matter if you drive, bike, walk or hitchhike to work. The annual tax writeoff for a 40-km commute is about 1,400 euros.

More and more people in many places around the world seem to agree that biking is the way to go, as my colleague Chang-Ran Kim noted in her blog (click here). As much as I liked the film Americathon, I just hope the bike lanes don’t get too crowded too soon. Getting stuck in a bike traffic jam might just wipe that smile off my face by the time I got home.

PHOTO: Erik Kirschbaum on his bike to work REUTERS/Claudia Roszak

8 comments

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[...] the wonders of the internets. On his blog page, Reuters correspondent Erik Kirschbaum mentioned a 1979 movie called ‘Americathon’. [...]

You are completely right about all the benefits. One therefore is left wondering why so few people cycle, and what it would take to encourage more to do so.

Posted by steve hayes | Report as abusive

It’s a great film, isn’t it? I was about 18 at the time and it’s left a lasting impression on me. I sometimes daydream about cycling to work down the middle of the road with thousands of others on their bikes. It obviously didn’t happen by 1998, as the film predicted. But maybe by 2048?

Posted by Erik Kirschbaum | Report as abusive

We should take a look at the Netherlands were they have more bikes than people, the whole infrastructure is bike friendly and they have special lanes just for bikes.

I just biked to work today for my first time and I couldn’t agree more. I feel so much better and I feel so liberated from my car! The connection with nature is great, too. I can’t wait to make this a part of my daily routine.

Posted by Tim | Report as abusive

Hi Tim — I’m glad you had such a good experience. I hope you can stick with it. Even though I got drenched in the rain this morning on the way in, I was a happy camper at work all day — looking forward to the evening ride home. Have a nice ride home!

Posted by Erik Kirschbaum | Report as abusive

Great perspective! Thanks for your insight Erik. For a much more refined, accurate and meticulous “calculator” for biking carbon offsets – http://www.cityryde.com/software/

I think this is a great angle to take on the climate challenges we are facing. Small changes that makes a bigger difference. In Copenhagen we have a great biking culture, but we can get much better. Traffic jams and pollution rates risis..

This is a great article! It blows my mind that you get that kind of rebate on your taxes. I really hope the US government sacks up and replicates this. I just started commuting by bike this summer. I picked up a Montague folding bike that I keep in my trunk for part of the distance to work and then pull it out and ride for the remainder. I’m hoping by the end of the season to have enough fitness and confidence to try to whole ride. Really it’s a great way to ween yourself off of a vehicle.