Scott Stoll logo world traveler. A bicycle wheel and the globe symbolizes Scott's journey around the world on a bicycle.
A pile of broken bicycles.
A pile of broken bicycles heading to the scrap metal yard.

Is bicycling bad for the environment?

Top 10 reasons bicycling is bad for the environment

Food for thought about the consequences of our everyday actions.

Note: Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating anyone give up riding their bicycles. If anything, I’m making a point that humanity, especially the United States, has built an unsustainable infrastructure that is inherently unfriendly to what it means to be human. And, driving a car is thousands of times worse. A quick internet search shows that there are about 1.5 billion cars and only 1 billion bicycles. So only one in eight people have access to either one.

  1. Law of entropy. Everything is bad for the environment because everything consumes more energy than it produces. The real question: Can humans live in harmony for the life of the planet and sun?
  2. The infrastructure of today’s society is inherently non-sustainable. Perhaps if our societies were designed around bicycles or trolleys, I wouldn’t be writing this. However, our societies are built around cars, which means rebuilding the roads, subtracting lanes from the cars, or impeding traffic. What is the environmental cost of increased traffic jams (time driving) or reduced parking spots and circling vehicles? (This legal issue halted San Francisco’s bicycle progress for 4 years.) Indeed, whole communities would have to be rebuilt on a more medieval European scale.
  3. Indirect use of petrol. Most cars that pass a bicycle will slow down, swerve and then accelerate. This constant indirect acceleration and deceleration of passing vehicles use more gasoline than simply driving your own car slow and steady. Compound that by bad drivers, angry motorists and even overcautious motorists creating a mini-traffic jam as they wait to pass the bicyclist.*** Also just riding a bicycle produces about 65-260 grams of CO2 emissions, depending on what you eat. A car burns about 440 grams of CO2 emissions per mile. See the Eco-Footprint Label for a description of how much fuel is used to produce a can of corn.
  4. Increased food consumption. The cost of food is approximately 1/2 gallon of oil per 1000 food calories, or about 17 times (up to 54x*) more energy is used to grow the food than is gained by eating the food. In other words, every time we eat we are indirectly consuming petrochemicals And sometimes we are actually eating the petrochemicals (see below).
  5. Increased lifespan. The active lifestyle of a bicyclist is estimated to add at least 2 years to your life, which indirectly increases the population and energy consumption.**
  6. Increased chance of serious bodily injury to the bicyclist due to accidents (and on a lesser scale simple wear and tear, such as worn-out joints, smog-damaged lungs, overexposure like sunburn and dehydration) and the related costs of medical care and equipment. (25% of the average American’s working life is devoted to paying for healthcare.)
  7. Being cool. The environmental cost of bicycles, clothes, tools and high-tech gear, especially in addition to a car, or additional modes of transport, like trains, buses and cabs to support the car-less bicyclist.
  8. Cold beer and hot showers. I think just about everyone loves a cold beer and hot shower after a day of cycling; however, some research studies have concluded there is not even enough energy (renewable or not) to produce a hot shower or a cold beer every day for every citizen of the planet until time’s end, nevermind the cost of manufacturing and transporting these materials.
  9. Angry bicyclists. Being a bicyclist myself I hate to admit it, but lots of us, particularly the gearheads and fanatics types, just plain have bad attitudes. And bad attitudes correlate not only into increased backlash in most of my points but also if you are metaphysically inclined, the bad attitude is polluting the atmosphere with a bad vibe.
  10. Lost time and energy. Bicycling takes time and can be exhausting, which could drain resources and passion away from all other endeavors, including saving the planet, and/or increase the resources needed to recover.

In summary

Here’s an idea that will make your head spin. The Omnivore’s Dilemma says: “Unless you grew up on organic food, most of the kilo or so of nitrogen in your body was fixed by the Haber-Bosch process.” The Haber-Bosch process is the method used to make ammonium nitrate fertilizer out of petroleum. Nitrogen is one of the body’s basic but essential building blocks like carbon. So, this means: if you are the average American, approximately two pounds of your body weight or about 1% is literally composed of petroleum by-products, most likely Saudia Arabian oil.

So considering conservative estimates show it takes approximately 0.5-1 gallon of oil to grow 1 bushel of corn (not including processing this into other foodstuffs and shipping them to your store), and corn is used to make sugar, starch, feed cows (accounting for beef and dairy products) and tens of thousands of other things, and considering when you are eating corn-based products, you are essentially eating oil, it makes me wonder if riding a bicycle, burning more calories and thus eating more, and demanding more food be grown and shipped, is an environmentally friendly thing.

Copyright © 2010. Please attribute

You might also like The Eco-Footprint Label.


*”The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Michael Pollan. The Penguin Press.

**“The Environmental Paradox of Bicycling,” Karl Ulrich. University of Pennsylvania.

***What’s the carbon footprint of an email?

If you enjoyed this story… 

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Subscribe to get new stories in your inbox. 

If you are feeling generous, even $1 helps keep me caffeinated and inspired. Or make an anonymous gift from my Amazon Wishlist.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More stories like this

Have you ever wondered how much breathable air is on Earth, and if we'll ever run out? Our atmosphere is paper-thin relative to a basketball, and we use its oxygen to power internal combustion engines, create electricity, and manufacture products (cement, chemicals, plastic). Worse, we are destroying the plants that make more breathable oxygen.
Does anyone describe the philosophy of our roads in one word? Is it efficiency? Is it cost? It appears to me there is no guiding principal. So why not build stuff optimized for what it means to be human? Not only is this street redesign optimized for health and happiness, but it also 2–4 times as safe and energy efficient. These ideas have been rattling around in my head for years, and I've finally decided to give them life in this quick sketch.
This graph illustrates the exponential growth of the human race and the consumption of non-renewable resources. The question isn't if the population will stop growing/consuming, but when?
Footprint in the sand

Subscribe to my newsletter ​

I enjoy sending short stories about my adventures. I also send updates with free worksheets, new books and inspirational ideas to help you live a more joyful and meaningful life.