Biking to work – a beginner’s guide

This year, June 15th was “Ride Your Bike to Work” day. When I saw other people riding to work, I decided to give it a try.

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Photo courtesy of sportpictures at Flickr.com

This is remarkable because my bike has been quietly stashed in my garage since last Christmas (when I received it as a gift). I took the bike out for a few spins, but the two of us had an understanding. If I kept it safely stored away, it wouldn’t try to buck and throw me over the handle bars.

Before June 16th, I had never ridden more than 5 miles in a day in my entire life. I’m not your typical bike rider – I’m 20 pounds overweight, I’ve never tried an “extreme” sport, and I live in one of the hottest cities of the Southwest. So, if I can commute to work on a bicycle, anyone can.

Have you considered riding a bike instead of taking your car? It’s a great way to save gas while burning calories and getting more time outdoors in the fresh air. Bicycling can help you be more productive by reducing blood pressure, stimulating serotonin, and helping you arrive at the office fully awake. Bike riders also stand out for promotion – if you’re having trouble catching the attention of management or just want to be known for your dedication, riding a bike is a great way to climb the corporate ladder.

There are some hurdles to commuting by bike. If you’re not a dedicated bike rider, these hurdles can seem impossible to overcome, but I’ve found out that there’s no reason to let fear or uncertainty keep you stuck in traffic.

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Photo courtesy of StewBl@ck at Flickr.com

Distance

For most people, distance is really a question about endurance. How far can you comfortably ride on a bicycle? It takes a lot more energy to pedal a bike than it does to press the gas pedal on a car. But it can be less draining that driving a car while giving other drivers the finger and shouting loudly (you know, the typical American commute).

Everyone has a different comfort level. For most people, a 1 mile commute is going to be a breeze, a 3 mile commute is going to be exercise, and a 5 mile commute is going to be painful (but doable). If you live further from work than 5 miles, you may want to consider multi-modal cycling. That means riding a bicycle part of the way, and using a bus or train to cover the rest of the distance. If you have a folding bike or large car, you can also take a multi modal route by using a parking garage along the way.

The best way to calculate distance is to use one of the free online mapping services. Mapquest, Google Maps, and Yahoo maps can all be used to find the shortest routes between two points, and it’s easy to avoid highways or other danger zones by altering the route. Online maps are easy to use, and in some areas they even offer real-time traffic reports along your route (that’s handy to check before you hit the road). Here are a few other things to consider when choosing a bike route.

These maps do have one weakness though – they’re primarily set up for roads. Bike trails, parks, and paths are invisible to the software, so the routes they recommend may be longer and more dangerous than they should be. That may change soon (for example, Google recently rolled out a “pedestrian” route option that can map pathways and sidewalks), but until it does, you may want to check out other routing tools such as Bikely.com.

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Photo courtesy of kansasliberal at Flickr.com

Safety

Safety is a major concern for urban cyclists. Not only are we at risk from vehicles that we share the road with, but bicyclists are also exposed to street crime and muggers. It’s important to exercise high situational awareness at all times – that is, pay attention to what’s going on around you. Keeping eyes open and looking out for trouble can prevent risks from turning into injuries.

First things first – bicycling is not as risky as you may think. Per mile, pedestrians are more than twice as likely to be injured than cyclists. Motorcyclists and drivers on the freeway also have higher rates of serious injury. Believe it or not, the more bicyclists there are, the safer bicycling becomes.

That doesn’t mean bicycling is a risk free mode of transportation. The first car accident in American history took place between a car and a bicycle – and it killed the biker. Every year, 600 to 800 cyclists are killed in America. Those death rates are among the highest in any developed country. To avoid becoming a statistic, it’s important to follow a few basic cycling safety guidelines:

1) Always wear a helmet. 75% of all deaths on bicycles occur from head trauma, and many injuries can be prevented or reduced in severity.

2) Ride with the flow of traffic
– it’s much safer to go the same direction as cars in your lane. A case study in Washington found that many fatal bike accidents involved cyclists riding in the wrong direction, where head-on collisions are much more likely to cause serious injury.

3) Yield when entering a road
. Bicycles have less visibility than cars – it’s important to follow the law and behave just like a car, but it’s safe to act under the assumption that other drivers don’t see you.

4) Check over your shoulder when merging lanes
. Even if you use hand signals, signaling does not give you the right of way. Cars behind you may not see a gesture, but it’s easy to spot an oncoming car.

5) Stay in the proper lane.
If you’re turning left at an intersection, don’t try to turn from the right lane. Yielding the high speed lanes to cars is a common mistake of beginners: instead, always go to the proper lane for your path of travel.

6) Stay visible at all times.
Wear bright clothing, use reflectors and headlights at night, and avoid riding in the blind spots of cars or other bikers.

7) Maintain your equipment.
Make sure your brakes are in working order, and that your tires are properly inflated.

It’s important to find a route where your nerves are steady. If you’re uncomfortable around traffic, that can cloud your reaction times and make you more accident prone. There’s no need to ride like an adrenaline junkie to make your way in to work.

In many cities, there are bike lanes and bike paths that insulate riders from the flow of motor vehicles. While some cyclists disagree about the wisdom of building these features (some cyclists feel that bike paths reduce attentiveness to the road and some riders consider bike paths a form of segregation) but the number of paths is steadily increasing. However you feel about the situation, it’s important to find a route that you’re comfortable with.

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Photo courtesy of jesse! at Flickr.com

Cost

Compared to a car, riding and operating a bike is cheap. You only need a bike and a safety helmet (both of which can be rented if you want to try before you buy). It can cost less than $250 to get all of the tools you need, although it’s also easy to spend more than $5,000 getting top of the line gear.

There are plenty of bicycles available at all price levels. For a commute to work, just about any bike will do. Whether you prefer a road bike, a racing bike, a mountain bike, a commuter bike, a recumbent bike, or any other style, there are many choices available in all price ranges.

Other supplies you might want to consider include biking gloves (to reduce pressure on your palms), sunscreen, exercise clothing, headlights, reflectors, blinking tail lights, a bell or horn, and a hydration backpack. In my opinion, biking gloves and comfortable clothes are one of the best investments you can make. I’ve also found that a chilled hydration pack really helps if you’re riding in triple digit weather. Oh, and good footwear also matters – you probably don’t want to bike around in sandals or high heels.

Riding a bicycle can save you money in the long term. Bike riders will generally enjoy reduced healthcare costs and fewer sick days. Contact your insurer or HR department, and ask if there’s a discount or incentive available. Healthy living programs sometimes offer reimbursement for equipment, promotional pricing on gear, and other perks. In 2009, there’s even a Federal Tax Benefit available for cyclists – you can get $20 of your monthly paycheck declared tax free:

Spearheading the campaign for a bike commuter bill was Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon. “We have legislation that is designed to promote cycling and to provide a little equity for the people who burn calories instead of fossil fuel,” he says.

PE - a beginners guide to biking to work - sportpictures FL
Photo courtesy of sportpictures at Flickr.com

Work appropriate clothing

The clothes we wear when cycling probably aren’t very well suited for work in a cubicle. Loose fitting shirts and shorts are ideal for biking, but even if your job has a casual dress code, it’s a good idea to change out of sweaty clothes. An easy way to have the best of both worlds is to bring a change of clothes with you.

If your job has a locker room, changing clothes is easy. If not, consider using the break room, gym, closet, or even the bathroom. Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box – Superman used a phone booth for crying out loud.

If changing isn’t an option, you can also bring clothes to put on over your workout clothes. Bike in an undershirt, and then put a dress shirt and jacket over the undershirt. Bring a hat to cover helmet hair, or dress pants to put on over biking shorts. Or, you could change your standard of “work appropriate” clothing.

PE - a beginners guide to biking to work -  5150fantast FL bike pimp
Photo courtesy of 5150fantast at Flickr.com

If you’re a manager and would like to encourage workers to start riding bikes, here’s a great bullet point list of ways to build a bike friendly workplace.

Greening the Military

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Photo courtesy of Army.mil at Flickr.com

When you think of environmentally friendly groups, Greenpeace, REI, the Sierra Club, New Belgium Brewery, and Seventh Generation are some of the green companies and organizations that are likely to come to mind. But what about the US military?

The armed forces are surprisingly green. For example, the Air Force is the third largest buyer of alternative energy in the US. The US Army is also rapidly seeking energy alternatives. Officers are trying to adopt solar, wind, and bio-diesel energy sources to reduce logistics problems and conserve resources:

The effort will have to be really serious, as their energy costs have increased a full 40% during the last seven years, even while they have cut consumption by almost 8%. According to their latest numbers released this week in Washington, D.C., right now they are spending $2 billion on fuel every year.

Reducing energy use in Iraq and Afghanistan is a top priority. By reducing the need for fuel convoys, energy efficiency reduces exposure to IEDs. It also protects soldiers from toxic emissions that come along with diesel generators. In recent years, the focus on energy conservation has really started to pay off.

That’s all well and good, but helping the environment is clearly a fringe benefit for most military planners. There are signs that a green culture is growing within the armed forces though. Several branches of the military are working to reduce the use of toxic chemicals in everything from paint and electronics to fuel and explosives. For example, the US Navy is testing lead-free bullets.

If these bismuth alloy bullets perform as expected, there’s a good chance that shooting ranges will soon be lead free. Cleaning up lead is a huge expense, and lead dust is a major health danger that affects cleaning crews at every gun range. Also, lead can leak into groundwater from outdoor berms and harm the environment.

In recent years, environmental activists have also been successful in forcing the military to adopt several earth friendly policies. Protesters are increasingly likely to raise environmental issues. While the supreme court rejected arguments against the use of high intensity sonar, other efforts have resulted in legislation prohibiting sewage release in the ocean and disposal of toxic paints in furnaces. Due to environmental concerns, the US Marines are currently looking for eco-friendly ways to dispose of toxic ordinance and recycling mothballed equipment.

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Photo courtesy of ScottPartee at Flickr.com

Activists are crucial to enacting change – just look at Vieques. Vieques is a small island in Puerto Rico and the area was used as a naval firing range for most of the 20th century. After decades of public outcry, the Navy was forced to stop using Vieques as an ordinance testing ground.

There is a surprising twist to the story. Due to the Navy’s use of the island, Vieques has higher biodiversity than many surrounding areas. The firing range prevented development while most of the Caribbean was covered in resorts and boardwalks. Believe it or not, firing high explosive at wildlife is less destructive than building permanent structures. As a result, Vieques is currently booming as an eco-tourist destination.

The military still has quite a ways to go, but there are encouraging signs that the armed forces are becoming much better stewards of the planet.

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Photo courtesy of Brent and MariLynn at Flickr.com

How to use solar power without installing a solar panel

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Photo courtesy of London Permaculture

Under new Federal laws, you can get tax credits for 30% of most solar panel installations. Some states have additional incentives, and many utilities are also encouraging customers to install solar panels so that they don’t have to build new coal power plants.

Even with these incentives, photovoltaic panels are pricey. In these tough economic times, it’s important to remember that there are many other ways to take advantage of energy from the sun. Here are a few low-cost options:

Install a solar water heater – Passive solar systems cost a fraction of what solar panels cost and they are much more efficient at heating water (because they generate heat directly, without the need for inverters or battery storage of energy). Solar water heaters are also eligible for a 30% tax credit, the same amount that photovoltaic panels can earn. There are many different designs for solar water heaters, and some are more suitable for different parts of the country.

Use a clothesline – For the cost of a sturdy rope and some clothespins, you can unplug your electric clothes dryer. Even on a cool day, a gentle breeze will suck the moisture out of clothes. Clothes that are dried on a clothesline last longer (there’s less wear and tear from tumbling in the dryer), they smell better, and they’re naturally sterilized by UV light from the sun. Switching to a clothesline can cut your electric bill by 10-15%.

Turn out the lights – When the sun is shining, there’s no reason to keep the curtains closed. Instead of using a couple of hundred watts of electricity to power lightbulbs, turn off those lights and let the sunlight in! If Peeping Toms are a worry in your neighborhood, install slats or polarized window coverings for privacy. These window treatments will also filter out UV light and reduce carpet fading. Or, you can plant a window box full of kitchen herbs and obscure the view with tall plants while still letting in natural light.

Build to take advantage of the sun – When drawing blueprints or choosing a place to live, remember that a building’s layout can make a major difference in the amount of air conditioning and heating that’s needed. One thing to consider is orientation – building short walls on the east and west sides reduces the surface area that’s exposed to early morning and late evening sunlight. Another thing to consider is solar massing – using thick, heat absorbent materials like adobe can insulate a building against hot weather during the day and cold weather during the night, cutting heating costs by up to 65%.

Use trees – Trees provide wonderful natural shade, and they also capture solar energy the old fashioned way, by converting sunshine into firewood. Tree choices can also complement the way that buildings capture sunlight in the winter and block sunlight in the summer. One popular landscaping choice is to plant deciduous trees on the east and west sides of a building. That way, the leafy trees block sunlight in the summer (when leaves are full) and let sunlight through in the winter (after the leaves fall off).

Try a solar cooker – Sunlight is a great way to boil water and cook food. It’s easy to focus sunshine with collectors, and simple solar cookers can be made for less than $15 using just about anything and aluminum foil. Here are instructions for making a solar cooker out of a used pizza box. There are compact solar cookers tailor made for camping and larger models suitable for crock pot cooking.

In many developing countries and off-grid locations, solar cookers are reducing indoor air pollution by replacing firewood, charcoal, propane, and other fuel sources. These solar cookers can save thousands of lives each year, while also reducing deforestation and reducing conflict over limited resources. Since sunlight is free, solar cookers drastically cut the cost of boiling water for sanitation purposes. If you want to take advantage of sunlight without buying a solar panel, here’s a great recipe for Solar Baked Brownies!

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Photo courtesy of AIDG

In the news: Environmentally friendly legislation and programs

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Photo courtesy of WallyG at Flickr.com

Here at the Practical Environmentalist, we’re green news junkies. We keep an eagle eye out for the latest science, social, and environmental developments and try to sum up the big picture. A lot of exciting things are going on right now, with recent legislation leading the way.

Many gardeners, ranchers, and farmers are concerned about a Food Safety Bill that’s pending in the House. There have been rumors that this legislation would redefine the word “organic”, or outlaw small scale farms, or make it impossible to grow heirloom seeds, or drive up the price of locally grown food. HR 875 has been the subject of message board arguments, blog punditry, and even chain mail. Before you call your Congressman and voice concerns, it’s important to do some fact checking about HR 875.

There’s also some interesting news about ethanol and biofuels production. The percentage of ethanol in gasoline is currently capped at 10% (E10), but Ag Secretary Vilsak is urging lawmakers to raise the amount of ethanol that’s allowed in transportation fuel. He’s calling for E12 gasoline, and we may see 15-20% ratios if the Environmental Protection Agency approves E15 or E20 gasoline. This move face opposition from equipment manufacturers who are worried that high ethanol blends may harm engines. Lawnmower and boat engines are particularly at risk.

Several states are making green news too. Michigan is offering scholarships to train unemployed and underemployed workers for green collar jobs – these Michigan Promise scholarships may help the state survive waves of layoffs in the automotive sector. The funds come from Tobacco settlements and are not at risk from the declining tax base in the state.

Illinois, California, Texas and other states are rushing to build transmission lines that will carry wind generated electricity from the countryside into the big city. A recently proposed line called the Green Power Express would run from the Dakotas into Chicago. This is one of many infrastructure projects that could pay dividends in reducing pollution and reducing dependence on foreign energy sources at the same time.

Private enterprise is also partnering with city and state governments to encourage energy saving projects. “Green Mortgage” programs allow homeowners to take advantage of the tax break on mortgage interest to finance energy saving additions and renovations to their homes. These programs will funnel money towards installing insulation and energy efficient windows, or replacing light bulbs with skylights and upgrading Energy Star appliances. In the process, they will generate manufacturing and construction jobs now while boosting energy efficiency of homes for decades to come.

Do you know of any other big green news? Feel free to share in the comments section below!

Green ways to travel

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Photo courtesy of Saw You On The Flipside

For some people, travel is an unpleasant necessity. They travel to meet clients or commute. For other people, travel is a joy and the reason that they work. They save up money for vacations and sight seeing. Whether you’re in a hurry to get home or if you’re taking the chance to satisfy your wanderlust, there are plenty of opportunities to add some green to your itinerary.

From hiking boots to luxury jets, we have more transportation options today than ever before. Most travelers weigh these options based on comfort, price, and time. Yet an increasing number of adventurers and businesswomen are factoring in the environmental impact before they buy tickets.

When choosing transportation with a small carbon footprint, it’s important to compare apples to apples. One way to compare the environmental impact is using passenger miles. Passenger miles are calculated by taking the total fuel consumed and dividing by the number of passengers. For example, consider a car that gets 40 miles per gallon. If the driver is the only person in the car, then the driver is responsible for 19.4 pounds of CO2 for every 40 miles driven or 0.485 pounds per mile (19.4 / 40).

If we add a passenger with heavy bags, the car’s MPG will decrease slightly to about 39 MPG, but the amount of carbon dioxide generated will stay roughly the same. That footprint is spread out over 2 people instead of one. (19.4 / 2) / 39 = 0.249 pounds per mile. This is because so much of the energy used in moving a car is used to move the car itself.

In short, vehicles that travel full are more fuel efficient than empty vehicles, and passenger load can greatly affect the pollution produced per person. While trains are often more carbon efficient than buses, a fully loaded passenger bus may even be more efficient than a train. Then again, rail systems in some countries have the edge.

The most common way to compare different fuel sources is to use Miles Per Gallon equivalence (MPGe), but some fuel sources are dirtier than others. For example, generating 100,000 British Thermal Units (BTU) from coal will produce about 42 lbs of CO2, while natural gas will produce the same amount of energy while emitting about 14 lbs of CO2. So, a coal powered train may be more energy efficient than a natural gas powered bus, but it would produce more pollution to travel the same distance. Hard numbers for this “pollution efficiency” are difficult to pin down.

And that’s not all… some situations can magnify the effect of emissions. For example, pollution from airplanes is released in the upper atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, water vapor and other byproducts behave differently in the upper atmosphere than they do at ground level, multiplying their effects. For more information on this subject, look at how various scientists calculate the radiative forcing factor. As a rule of thumb, each pound of airplane emissions is about 2.8 times worse than emissions from other forms of transportation.

From lowest impact to highest impact, here is a rough guide to transportation options (including some data from the US Department of Energy Transportation Energy Data Book and manufacturer’s sites):

On foot / Walking
Bicycle
Horseback Riding
Rickshaw
Electric Motorcycle / Scooter
Vanpool or Shuttle (1,322 BTU per passenger mile)
Motorcycle (1,855 BTU per passenger mile)
Train (2,816 BTU per passenger mile)
Ultra Efficient Passenger Car (ie; a Prius)
Average Passenger Car (3,512 BTU per passenger mile)
Passenger Trucks/SUVs (3,944 BTU per passenger mile)
Bus (4,235 BTU per passenger mile)
Turboprop Passenger Plane (for short distances)
Fuel Efficient Passenger Jet (for long distances)
Piston Engine Passenger Plane
Older Passenger Jets
Small Prop Plane (ie; Van’s Aircraft’s RV-7: ~36 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
Ferryboat
Helicopter (~20 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
Cruise Ship (~17 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
Motorboat (~15 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
Jet Ski (~10 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
Executive Jet (~0.8-5 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)

Are there any transportation methods that I’m missing? It’s hard to quantify the MPGe for a hang glider, sailboat, submarine, electric pogo stick, or jet pack, but if you have the scoop on how to rank an unusual form of locomotion, please drop a note in the comments at the bottom of this page.

So, how can you use this list? Before you book a trip or reserve a hotel room, make sure to check out all of the options that are available. Instead of flying cross country, do you have time to take the train? Instead of staying at a hotel across town from a conference, can you find a hotel within walking distance and skip the rental car?

A few more tips for carbon efficient travel…

  • Maximize the capacity of your vehicle: carpool, combine taxis, choose a party boat instead of a dozen jetskis
  • Travel light: ditch 2 suitcases and you may be able to fit another passenger in your car or cut your weight in half on an airplane
  • Choose direct flights: up to 80% of a plane’s fuel consumption happens during take-off and landing, flying direct also cuts out unnecessary miles in the air and, as a bonus, can reduce the amount of tax and airport fees charged
  • Pick fuel efficient cars, planes, and motorcycles: newer vehicles are often much more fuel efficient (ie: the 737-800 airplane gets about 35 percent better mileage per seat than the MD-80 it is replacing).
  • Make the captain a passenger: get certified to operate your own riverboat, learn to fly your own plane, or (if you have one) ditch the chauffeur back at the mansion
  • Often, the green choice will yield a more pleasant trip and save money at the same time!

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    Photo courtesy of svanes