Can Bicycling Really Damage the Environment?

Contrary to popular opinion, bicycling can potentially damage the environment due to the increased longevity of people engaged in physical activity, says Karl Ulrich, a Wharton Business School professor. 

Ulrich argues that the greatest environmental peril society may face is the looming prospect of slowing the aging process, and bicycling potentially contributes to slowing aging.


Put simply, Ulrich says there is an underlying conflict between human-powered transportation, longevity, and environmental impact, which needs to be highlighted as the world seeks to find green solutions.


“The bicycle is a remarkable machine, allowing humans to transport themselves much more efficiently than by most other means. At the same time, physical activity, fitness, and health are almost axiomatically worthy objectives,” says Ulrich.


“And yet, the steady improvements in human health and longevity have a tremendous impact on the energy use and environmental impact of the human population.”


In a paper titled, “The Environment Paradox of Bicycling,” Ulrich argues that energy savings due to the use of human powered transportation may be offset by the increased energy used by living longer due to better health.

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In Chiang Mai, Social Attitudes Crush Bicycling Prospects

In Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city, you bicycle at your risk in spite of the clear advantages to the environment and physical health.


Crushed Bike


Next to the pedestrian, the bicycle is regarded as the lowest in the mode of transportation chain.


Chiang Mai’s roads team with vehicles of all sorts and ubiquitous motorcycles that screech, hoot and zig-zag through the traffic.


If anything, the undefined movement of the motorcycles poses the biggest threat to bicyclists. They are forced to stay on the edge of the road where they can potentially ram into the curb. The absence of bicycle tracks on many roads further worsens the situation.

Apart from this practical life and death consideration about bicycling, this mode of transport in Chiang Mai, like in many developing country cities, is regarded with disdain because it supposedly reveals low economic status.Many people are reluctant to turn to bicycles because of the social attitudes that demean human powered modes of transportation, including walking.

But there is an additional problem that it is intolerable to bicycle under the hot and sometimes humid weather conditions that prevail in Chiang Mai city. A bicycle ride of anything more than two kilometers can leave the rider practically drenched in sweat.


That prospect is highly undesirable especially for professionals. A way to resolve this issue, at least, for professionals would be for workplaces to provide shower places for their workers who opt to cycle.


In addition, the overall design of the bicycle will have to be improved to make bicycling easier, less demanding on physical energy, and protected from the elements of the earth.


As it is, bicycling in Chiang Mai is largely a preserve for tourists, a hangout or weekend pastime.

Bicycling, compared to other forms of transportation can absolutely play a major role in cutting the emissions from vehicular traffic.


In order for cycling to become an everyday reality in this city, the society will have to undergo major paradigm shifts at the attitudinal, city planning and policy making levels.


To make bicycling safe and easy, city planners have a key role to play in designing bicycle tracks and parking spaces.


Educating the public about the benefits of bicycling, particularly the physical benefits, is also essential. But, as the old adage says, it is difficult to teach old dogs new tricks.


What that means is that efforts must be targeted at young people to ensure a greater return on investment in awareness raising of the advantages of bicycling.


At government level, policy makers must provide incentives for people that choose to bicycle. In the absence of perceived incentives, it will be difficult to get a critical mass of people taking up this form of human powered transportation.


Whatever the case, bicycling can certainly improve physical health, reduce energy consumption and the associated degradation of the environment, and has a part to play in resolving one of the major problems facing humanity today: climate change.


Image credit: bcballard at Flickr