What is required to move a human from point A to point B on foot, bike, car, train? Bike Engineer Zach Krapfl looks at the environmental footprint of many methods of modern transportation and finds some surprising answers to this question, along with big opportunities for change. A most promising one: People who have changed their main mode of transportation to electric bikes are living healthier, happier, more eco-friendly lives.
How many people have moved homes or even cities because of bad traffic? I know I have. Well, that number is increasing every year as our roads and highways become more and more congested. In this TedxPaonia Talk by Zach Krapfl, we start to see how a change in your transportation future is inevitable.
Right now more than 80% of us get stuck in traffic on nearly a daily basis. We drive 3 trillion miles in the US every year; there are more than 253 million cars on the road; and yet, 55% of all car trips are under 10 miles in distance. The first two of these statistics should be viewed as catalysts for change, and the third, an enabler for change.
People hate traffic in general, and gridlock in particular. Of course, there are alternatives out there that currently exist. If you go to places like Copenhagen or Amsterdam, you find an unbelievable cycling infrastructure, where lanes are protected from cars, they have the priority, where 35-40% of all commuters ride bicycles instead of driving cars. People ride everywhere in all kinds of weather. Of course we have similar cities in US, but without the same level of ridership. In Washington DC, Madison WI, and Indianapolis IN, Portland OR, but then we have this sprawl. And we have these cities that are way more spread out than they are in Europe.
And if you ask people who commute on a daily basis if it’s possible for them to commute by bicycle, they will so “no way.” It’s way too far. If you live in Seattle or San Francisco, they will say the hills are too prohibitive. I’ll show up to work complete sweaty. There’s no shower there, or place to change. There are these excuses.
So Zach Krapfl started working on electric bikes about 10 years ago, to try an enable people to get out of their cars; to make them feel comfortable traveling long distances, or to flatten out those hills. And that’s what we have today. We have a system that’s able to assist the rider, and his or her cargo, including kids, who get exposed to bicycles as a mode of transportation, not only as a mode of recreation.
And that’s an amazing thing, that in our culture, bicycles have been used mostly as a mode of recreation, but if we could foster a generation that sees the bicycle as a mode of transportation, they are going to demand that we have better infrastructure, and demand that we continue this, just like we see today in Copenhagen.
Now the project Zach started was born out of an addiction he had to try to use the least amount of energy to go from point A to point B. And that has been a problem for people. In college, his roommates would not be pleased with him when they would go on road trips, because he did not want to stop at a gas station or rest area for a bathroom break, because it would ruin his car’s gas mileage. This same obsession can be found in his home life, where he uses solar panels to power his home brewing system, and wonders why his wife would turn on the electric tea kettle before the sun (our ultimate source of energy) had risen.
In the graphic he presents the energy demand of various modes of transportation. Some of these you will be quite familiar with, like an early 1990s Honda Civic which got 40 miles per gallon (mph). Pick-up truck, 20 mph. Brand new Prius C, 50 mph. An old vintage motorcycle, 65 mph. And if an airplane is full, 90 mph. Zach’s personal favorite is a train. If they are full, a train gets somewhere between 800 and 1,000 mph. And for him, that’s his target as an engineer, to try and create something that gets that kind of efficiency, but as a personal vehicle.
Then you have pedestrians and bicyclists. The pedestrian gets 55 mph, and a cyclist gets 270 mph. Now these numbers are a little bit low because the food that you eat all requires energy to be produced and delivered to you. So if you got an orange from Florida or an apple from Washington or a kiwi from New Zealand, there is energy required to produce that and deliver it to you. So your efficiency can rise or fall based upon the foods that you eat.
Now we all have metabolism, and we all require food or fuel to stay alive. And your metabolism is actually 25% efficient, just about the same as the Honda Civic.
According to Zach, food is a big thing in Paonia Colorado, and many people have a relationship with their local farmers. And they all create art, that we eat. In the next graphic we meet Scott from a small Paonia farm, and not only does he create food that people enjoy, that is fresh and nutritious, but he also delivers his produce by electric bike. And if you look at the photo, you can see nothing negative about it. He is no sweaty or in pain. He is in love with is mode of transportation, and the people he delivers it to love it as well. And Zach things we should copy this image and put it on the shade visor of everyone who is stuck in gridlock.
So what happens when you eat Scott’s food? Well, your efficiency rises. The pedestrian goes up to 70 mph, and the bicyclist goes up to 340 mph. So what happens if you add an electric motor to the bicycle? So you are creating a hybrid. You are 25% efficient. And the ebike motor, if done correctly, is 80% efficient. You merge those two together, and if your energy output is 50% and the motor output is 50%, then you get another uptick in efficiency. So in this example, a cargo bike will get up to 480 mph with two kids in the back, and a commuter bike will get up to 570 mph. And if you add Scott’s food back into the mix, you get another uptick, and the cargo ebike and commuter ebike go up to 600 mph and 710 mph, respectively.
Now, what would happen if you were to “feed” your ebike motor local “fuel” too? Instead of taking a unit of fuel from Craig Colorado, some 200 miles away, putting it into an oven and making some steam, turning a turbine, generating electricity, and sending all the way back to Paonia, with a 65% loss in that round trip, what if you were to charge that motor with a single, 250W solar panel? Well then, from 270 mph on a regular bicycle, eating that local food, feeding your ebike motor local food, you would all of a sudden get 1,340 mph.
Who knew, that just by adding these little things like local food and and fuel for your motor, you could have a personal transportation vehicle which could get well over 1,000 miles per gallon. Now compare this to an electric car. It doesn’t really matter which one; a Leaf, a Tesla, whichever. What do they get? 114 mph. That’s no good. Why is that acceptable? You are going to be miserable in this car. You’re just going to be stuck in traffic, even if you get the benefit of riding in an HOV lane (like everyone else who thought buying an electric car would save them lots of money).
So instead, consider an electric bike. There are all sorts of reasons people are making the decision to get out of their cars and onto ebikes. For Zach, of course it’s all about reduced energy consumption. Also, the happiness factor, ensuring that you are a lot happier with your means of transportation. Then of course there’s money. In San Francisco, for example, there is a 7-9 month payback on a $5,000 electric bicycle, when you eliminate the costs of parking, and bridge tolls, the operation and maintenance expenses, registration, insurance, etc. That’s a very fast payback.
And now we have advancements in technology. A lot of people like to have new gadgets. They like to foster the development and evolution of new products, and that’s good enough reason for them to do this.
And then there is time. If you can get from point A to point B in a third to an eighth of the time it would take to get there by car, that’s also a no-brainer. And you should not forget the mental health aspects of switching to an ebike. Stress relief. If you drive to work in the morning and it stresses you out; and you drive home again in the evening and it stresses you out; how is that at all good? Or your co-workers. Or your friends and family?
And finally, the health benefits of riding an electric bike versus commuting in a car everyday. We could discuss this for hours. According to Zach, if you go back to his third statistic, that 55% of our trips are less than 10 miles; if you took just 1% of those in 2016 we would avoid 17 billions miles driven in the US alone, and 2.2 million Americans would lose between 25 and 50 pounds. So if you talk to health care professionals today, what are they going to advise you? Get more exercise and lose some weight. And our system is already bursting at the seams.
And then there’s breaking your dependence on the car. Some the anxiety people have is that they feel like they are tied to their car. Whether they have to take their kids a few blocks away, to a 30-mile drive.
Now if you’re not analytical and you look at all these reasons and you don’t think in these terms, maybe there’s just a pull in the back of your brain, and you are trying to emulate what you felt when you were 5 years old on a bicycle. And he will take that any day (and so will we). Or maybe you’re just looking to be a good Samaritan. So let’s hope that you all have some more joy in your transportation future.
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