The Green Machine is Not the Most Efficient Thing in the Universe … But So What!

by Glenn Reeves on August 25, 2012

You’ve probably heard the saying “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”. It applies to anything “free” actually, not just lunches. Even if you don’t pay for something yourself, there is still a price to be paid by someone, or a whole bunch of people, somewhere behind the scenes. Out of sight, out of mind.

What’s this to do with bicycles?

Well, there was a diagram that turned up on a website or two, here and there, a few years ago that plotted various creatures such as bees and crickets and horses and stuff, including the bicycle, on a scattergram. Might have been some other machinery thrown in there as well, hence the “stuff”.

Can’t for the life of me find it now, otherwise I’d post it here. Anyway, it was put forward as proof that the bicycle was indisputably the bee’s knees, better in fact, if that’s possible. Or, you can get pretty darn close to a free lunch.

According to the chart, the bicycle is legions ahead of anything else including the super-efficient bumble bee.

animals and bicycles relationship

Your green credentials wouldn’t be in doubt, then, if you were dedicated to the bicycle, a device more energy efficient than one of nature’s most  ruthlessly efficient creations. Free lunch, free lunch.

Come to think of it, I’ve a feeling that diagram was originally included with some commentary by Mikael on Copenhagenize. He videoed a lecture by the Historian Iain Boal a few years ago about the professor’s work-in-progress book The Green Machine. It is rather awkwardly archived in five 10 minute parts that you’ll have to access one after the other. (Ahem…Yout-u-b-e…).

So on May 1 (no better date than that for Left-leaning historians 🙂 ) 2013, provided the Mayan calendar has been misinterpreted, you’ll be settling back in your reading chair slowly savoring the page turning ecstasy generated by your newly arrived The Green Machine, having  relegated your well-thumbed copy of It’s Not About the Bike in disgust to the recycling bin.

You’ll be expecting to delight in that deep sense of satisfaction that only comes when cherished political beliefs are confirmed by word or text or deed; in this case it’s probably something along the lines that the bicycle is the answer to global warming (if only we could get good folk out of their equally beloved automobiles) and a civilization hooked on fossil fuels.

You will find to your horror, however–be warned now–that there’s more than a bit of irony (my favorite subject) in that title. Professor Boal recalls (he’s not quite sure about this) reading an article in the Scientific American or some such publication in 1973. Note well the context, the early 1970s, hippies, roots of the Green Movement . . .

Quote: “…the person on a bicycle is the most efficient thing in the universe” was the upshot of the article. He relates preaching this gospel himself until one overcast Belfast day years later he stopped in mid sentence. “I realized that this is complete nonsense”. This gospel of the bicycle as a “redemptive machine” is completely silent on one thing. It presupposes the surface, the road, the tarmac on which it performs its magic:

…not only was it the cyclists who demanded the paving of the planet, but they still depend on it, and the planet is being paved, certainly, of course for the purposes of automobilism, but we are, as it were, complicit in that on the paving question…what price meeting the albatross [reference to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner] … if you are on that road …

There you go, literally. The great passes in Le Tour are no longer goat tracks, are they, and if you are riding in the Hell of the North, if you had a choice, you’d avoid those damned cobblestones.

The Bicycle is not the most efficient thing in the universe even next to a car. No free lunch to be had here — either when you’re out on the road or when we consider the energy hungry component factories creating the bits that make up your steed. (And pedelecs…don’t get me started on that subject!).

But we’d hardly be without our bikes. We love ’em, they’re here to stay and that’s bloody well that.

The Green Machine, forthcoming, Notting Hill Editions. It’s not what you think. If I did see that diagram on Copenhagenize, then I am not surprised that it is now no longer there :-P.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

George September 5, 2012 at 8:37 PM

The, at first sight, balanced paper about cycle vs car efficiency has some major holes in it. They manage to whittle the 25:1 bicycle to car efficiency down to 2:1 mostly by accounting for the energy needed to produce food, yet no such similar calculation is included for the energy needed to drill, pump, refine and distribute car fuel. This factor is briefly mentioned as needing to be done but is entirely left out of the calculation as it stands.
There is also no mention (I can find) made of the calories that the driver of a car (and his quarter of a passenger) would burn anyway. Given that drivers are more likely to be obese than cyclists they may well consume as many calories as a cyclist anyway without getting any useful product from them.
Realistically I think it is hard to get the 25:1 ratio down much below 10:1 and the bicycle wins out spectacularly still..

Glenn September 5, 2012 at 8:48 PM

Thanks for the insight George. The assumptions on which these types of analyses, or probably any analysis of anything for that matter, are based makes all the difference.

Jimmy Dee August 30, 2013 at 1:07 PM

That ‘scientific’ article referenced by the link ‘even next to a car’ is ripe with the scent of bollocks.

He compares the efficiency of a person to a car at 25:1. Then starts dropping that for factors like ‘it took 15 calories of energy to get the 25 calories of food to where it could be consumed’. Suddenly that number goes from 25:1 to 2:1 because of a 40% drop in efficiency over a very questionable statistic in the first place. Roughly 50% of the food I eat originates from more than 1000km from where I live. Not 100%.

OK, fair enough, but then he *FAILS* to apply the same to the gasoline that fuels the car!

And gasoline ALWAYS originates from much farther away than much of the food people eat. Particularly in the US, much of their food originates from North America somewhere. Most gasoline originates from overseas.

And that whole nonsense about bicycles being the primary reason that road paving occurs?

Sorry, what?

I’m pretty sure that the history of transportation didn’t go Horses-Trains-Bicycles+Paving, then the automotive world saying “well, as long as the bicycles made all these roads, we might as well build an automotive industry to put cars on them.”

Glenn Reeves August 30, 2013 at 9:25 PM

Well, you’ve got examine the subtleties of the argument and acquire a greater appreciation of the parallel evolution of social, political, and technological processes in the 19th century.

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