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Articles & Essays
by John Schinnerer

The Most Efficient Engine

Would you be in favor of a diverse transportation system capable of providing increased mobility to the majority of the world's people with minimum environmental impact and small investment demands? What is it, you ask, this efficient, inexpensive, and rehumanizing system? Why, human power, of course!

Human Powered Vehicles (HPVs) are typically ignored when studies are done and plans made concerning transportation alternatives. That's a crying shame, because in the world as a whole HPVs are the true workhorses of society. Despite the enormous resources that are squandered to support automobiles, most people in the world will never own one. The bare fact is that the greatest share of the world's transportation needs can be and are being met by human power.

Bicycles outnumber cars on our planet by two to one; each year bicycle production outpaces automobile production by three to one. In fact, bicycles in Asia alone transport more people than all the world's cars! There's a bridge in Guangzhou (Canton), China, that serves as the main artery over the Zhujian river. It has three narrow lanes in the center for motorized transport; outside that, on either side, are bicycles lanes that provide almost twice the width available to the cars and buses! During the rush hours in Asia, bicycles account for two-thirds of all the vehicles on the road.

What can human power do? In Bogota, Colombia, the city's largest bakery has a fleet of 900 delivery tricycles, which deliver to over 60,000 shops. In Asia, bicycles and tricycles transport almost anything one can imagine; in Nicaragua, health workers use them to reach remote villages and farms. Australian and northern European postal workers deliver mail by bicycle. Dairy deliveries go by bike or trike in Kenya, and in the U.S. fearless bicycle messengers outpace gridlocked inner-city traffic. In Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, 5,000 tricycles circulate much of the city's fresh food, coal, scrap metal, and various materials for recycling.

Police forces in London, Victoria (British Columbia), New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle, and numerous other towns and cities worldwide have bicycle patrols. The benefits realized include greater mobility and a friendlier, less intimidating presence. This leads to greater effectiveness in enforcement and better community interaction with and support of law enforcement personnel.

Compared to internal-combustion vehicles, bicycles truly shine, because their "engine" is the human body. For example, a typical human engine can power a bicycle for three and one-half miles on the calories from a single ear of corn! No distilling or refining other than what our bodies naturally provide is necessary.

Bicycles use less energy per passenger mile than any other form of transportation, including walking. A medium-sized car uses approximately 1,860 calories per passenger mile; public buses average 920, rail transport about 885, and walking roughly 100 calories per "passenger" mile. A bicycle comes in at about 35 calories per passenger mile!

Not only are bicycles most efficient to propel, they also take far less energy (and lower levels of technology) to produce than motorized transport. The energy and materials needed for one medium-sized car can produce one hundred bicycles! Starting up a bicycle production or repair and maintenance business requires very little capital; the amount of money needed is insignificant compared to what is required to manufacture, maintain, and repair automobiles. Bicycles are also more space-efficient than cars. That is, more people on bikes than in cars can move through a given lane in a given amount of time. Cars are in fact the least space-efficient form of transport on the planet.

In the U.S., bicycles are most often thought of as toys; only about one in forty is used regularly for commuting. Yet the majority of car commutes are the most inefficient possible use of an automobile. More than half of all commutes in the U. S. and more than three-quarters in the U. K. are less than eight kilometers (about five miles). This is a reasonable cycling distance; it is also the range in which internal-combustion engines get the poorest mileage and emit the most pollution.

Besides placing drastically less stress on our environment, human power also benefits the engine - the human body! The advantages of regular, sustained exercise are already well documented, and bicycling is a low-impact form of exercise as well. Studies have shown that workers who commute by bicycle are happier, more alert and more productive than average. Traffic stress from automobile commuting, on the other hand, has been shown by a University of California study to raise blood pressure, lower frustration tolerance, promote negative moods, and lead to aggressive driving. Human power is clearly a healthier choice!

With governments everywhere struggling with huge deficits, both internal and external, investment in human-powered transport is much more affordable than any competing option. This is especially true for third world countries. In industrial nations, where cars have accustomed all too many people to "private" forms of transportation, bicycles offer a "private" method of transport that is nonetheless low-impact in all ways, including the investment to develop it. Human power frees individuals and societies from the costs of auto dependency - injuries and deaths, pollution, congestion, and the depletion of a nonrenewable fuel source.

Some cities, states, and even entire countries have already recognized the fantastic potential of human-powered transportation and taken steps to enhance and promote it. In China, bicycle avenues with five or six lanes are common, as is plenty of safe and convenient bicycle parking. The government provides a monthly allowance for cycling to work. The Palo Alto, California city government pays its employees by the mile for business travel done by bike. Alza Corporation, in the same town, pays bike-commuting employees a dollar per day. Numerous northern European countries provide extensive, coordinated bikeways in both urban and rural areas complete with traffic signs and signals of their own. Bike paths in Sweden and other European countries are plowed in the winter!

More and more large urban transit districts (including Seattle, Washington and San Diego, California) have buses with exterior racks for commuter bicycles. Trains in Europe have portions of baggage cars set aside for "wheel in, wheel out" bicycle transport. Pro-bicycle planning in numerous western European countries has had excellent results. Bicycles and tricycles account for 20-30 percent of all urban trips in Denmark and Holland - up to 50 percent in some towns! In these two countries, and in Germany, bicycle owners outnumber non-owners.

There are simple, inexpensive solutions to the majority of the present obstacles to increased use of HPVs. In urban areas with effective mass transit, "bike and ride" capabilities can be added. Bicycles designed to fold, pack away, or otherwise take up as little space as possible (when carried on public transit vehicles, for example) have been available for decades. Existing "motorways" often need no more than lane markers and signs to provide adequate access to human-powered vehicles. New roads can automatically include this space in their design and construction, as it is far cheaper to build it in that to add it later.

Fundamental changes in current transportation policies at all levels of government will greatly aid progress in these areas. Planning and design in all areas and scales needs to take into account the true cost of automobile transportation and the benefits of reducing it - a natural outcome of increased emphasis on human power! Local grassroots bicycle advisory councils are needed (and are emerging everywhere) to guide planners and politicians out of the dark and smoggy ages of the urban auto kingdom and into the new, human-friendly world of cleaner air, smaller quieter streets, and more HPVs.

James McGurn, author and cyclist, has this to say: "The bicycle is the vehicle of a new mentality. It quietly challenges a system of values which condones dependency, wastage, inequality of mobility and daily carnage...there is every reason why cycling should be helped to enjoy another golden age." Think about it. The list of benefits for both individuals and societies is almost as long as the backup at your local intersection during rush hour.

Copyright © 1997 John Schinnerer

Originally published in "Affordable EcoTransportation Sourcebook," a publication of the Big Island Electric Vehicle Association

Copyright © 2010 John Schinnerer
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