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How Family Cycling Can Save the World

I just watched Chasing Ice last night and it terrified me. If you haven’t seen it yet, go watch this documentary ASAP. The film documents the rapid melting of glaciers around the world as visible proof of climate change and environmental destruction. If it wasn’t obvious to me before, it’s clear to me now that RADICAL societal change needs to be happening NOW.

The good news is that we know what’s causing this destruction–which means that it is possible to address it. Without a doubt, one of the biggest contributors of air pollution is motor vehicles. In the U.S., motor vehicles produce more than 30 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, more than 80 percent of carbon monoxide, and about half of the nitrogen oxide emissions each year. NASA has called motor vehicles the “greatest contributor to atmospheric warming[i].”

So what’s the solution? Should we all be converting to hybrid and electric cars? I don’t believe so, and I’ll share more about why that is here in a minute. The most effective way to reduce our reliance on motor vehicles is to get FAMILIES on bicycles.

Why my emphasis on the word FAMILIES? Why not entitle this article “How cycling can save the world”? It’s one thing for a single 22 year-old college-educated professional to start biking to work; it’s an entirely different thing for a 35 year old mom with 3 kids to start biking to run her errands. It’s not until there is infrastructure to make it safe and convenient for EVERYBODY—mom, dad, kids, grandma, grandpa—to bike that major change will happen.

Family cycling also teaches the next generation that biking as a means of daily transport is both doable and enjoyable. It is much easier to teach a 3 year old that bike commuting is a routine part of life, than it is a 43 year old. To make bike commuting part of our social fabric, it has to start with young people.

How Family Cycling can Save the World

Family Cycling
Photo by Alyssa Bird / CCBY2.0

Less manufacturing impact

Of course the manufacture of a brand new bicycle is not without environmental impact. The frame of the bike is steel or aluminum or titanium; the tires are rubber. There is a clear cost for its manufacture: mining of non-renewable resources and clearing of forests for rubber. When compared to a car, however (even a hybrid or electric car), that cost is far, FAR less.

Visualize the amount of metal required for a car body compared to a bicycle frame. Or the amount of rubber that goes into a car tire versus a bicycle tire. This reduced level of manufacturing consumption is one of the biggest advantages of bicycle transport, and is why cycling is preferable to say an electric car. An electric car also requires a toxic battery; a bicycle requires only human power.

In addition to the resources consumed in manufacturing, there is also a bunch of waste. In fact, motor vehicle manufacturing is responsible for several tons of waste and 1.2 billion cubic yards of polluted air every year. That’s not insignificant.

Reduced fossil fuel burn and emissions

The average family car emits 12,000 pounds of pollutants per year, and that is if your family drives a small passenger car. If you drive a SUV or small truck, it is more like 17,000 pounds of pollutants per year. And chances are, you have more than one car.

Now, I’m not suggesting you sell your cars. (Although there are many families who manage just fine doing that). Many of us live in areas without adequate public transportation, or in rural areas where we have to travel long distances to go to work or even to the grocery store. Fortunately, even small changes to our driving habits can have big impacts.

For example, during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the city instituted temporary car travel restrictions. Morning traffic was reduced by 23%, but ozone concentrations decreased 28% and acute care visits for asthma decreased 41%[iii]. This suggests that even modest reductions in vehicle traffic can have large and immediate improvements to environmental and human health.

The worst pollution actually occurs when you warm up your engine, meaning short trips are the most wasteful. Luckily, short trips are also the easiest to do by bicycle. Half of all Americans live within 5 miles of their workplace—a commute that is totally doable by bike!

For families with kids, another easy trip to do on bike is the daily roundtrip commute to school. According to the Safe Routes Partnership: “Half of U.S. schoolchildren are dropped off at school in the family car. If 20% of those living within two miles of school were to bike or walk instead, it would save 4.3 million miles of driving per day. Over a year, that saved driving would prevent 356,000 tons of CO2 and 21,500 tons of other pollutants from being emitted.”[iv]

Reduced noise pollution

As someone who lives near a major urban thoroughfare, I can attest that traffic noise is obnoxious. But it’s more than that—traffic noise is actually damaging to wildlife.

In animals, noise pollution is a major cause of death due to its interference with predator or prey detection and avoidance. It can also cause reproduction issues, interfere with navigation, and contribute to hearing loss.

Have you ever heard a family on bikes? There’s a lot of laughter, but they’re a heck of a lot quieter than a freeway.

Mom and Child Biking
Photo by Christian / CCBY2.0

Reduced land requirements

Cars take up a lot of space compared to a bicycle. When we move away from a car culture and toward a bike culture, we reduce the land required for roads and parking lots.

According to an article in Environmental Research Letters, “There are 800 million car parking spaces in the U.S., totaling 160 billion square feet of concrete and asphalt.” All this parking has an environmental impact. There’s the emissions created in the construction of the parking areas, mining of asphalt, the “urban island effect” (all that dark pavement creates heat), and impediment of natural water flows.[v]

Of course bicycles require parking as well, but the space can be cut by 80% or more.

Healthier Families

A natural side effect of family cycling is healthier families. Biking is extraordinarily good for the body—it improves cardiovascular fitness, increases muscle strength, reduces stress, decreases body fat, prevents disease, etc, etc, etc. In a society riddled with obesity and chronic illness (even amongst the young!), cycling should be a common prescription.

But what does this have to do with the environment? Actually a lot. It’s estimated that the overweight and obese population in the U.S. is responsible for the release of 20 billion extra pounds of CO2 annually[vi].

And then you have to consider the impact of the health industry in general. Hospital infrastructure, drug manufacture and disposal, medical waste—these are just a few of the ways the health industry has a negative environmental impact.

Everybody wants to feel good. Everybody wants their children to be healthy. Family cycling is a great first step not only toward achieving that, but also toward reducing your reliance on the healthcare industry and lessening your impact on the earth.

Increased connection with nature

This is the least tangible benefit of family cycling, but perhaps the most important. When you are riding your bike, you have the opportunity to reconnect with nature. You notice all sorts of things you don’t pay attention to in the car—the sound of birds chirping, the wind, the sun on your face. This is especially important for children, who in our modern society, spend almost no time outside each day.

The more people recognize themselves as interconnected with nature, the more likely they are to act to protect it. And that’s how family cycling can really save the world.

Much of the research and statistics in this article came from the PeopleforBikes Statistics Library.

[i] NASA, 2010Road Transportation Emerges as Key Driver of Warming

[iii] Friedman, M., et al., 2001Impact of Changes in Transportation and Commuting Behaviors During the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta on Air Quality and Childhood Asthma, Journal of the American Medical Association, 285(7):897

[iv] Pedroso, M., 2008Safe Routes to School: Steps to a Greener Future

[v] Chester, M., et al., 2010Parking infrastructure: energy, emissions, and automobile life-cycle environmental accounting, Environmental Research Letters, 5

[vi] Jacobson, S., and D. King, 2009Measuring the potential for automobile fuel savings in the US: The impact of obesity, Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, 14, 6-13

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