The Carbon Footprint of Bike Commuting

The following article is getting a lot of coverage on various news sources, and we thought you may be interested in reading about it. What, exactly, IS the carbon footprint of choosing a bicycle over a car for transportation purposes?

Slate’s Brian Palmer wrote in an article this week that he’s thinking of switching his commute “from four wheels to two” but he’s concerned about the environmental impact of bicycling: specifically, “about all the energy it takes to manufacture and ship a new bicycle.” He wants to know how many miles he would “bike the drive” before he’s gone “carbon neutral.”

The article, from Slate via Streetsblog Capitol Hill, links to an interesting research paper published by MIT last year comparing greenhouse gas emissions from the production of bicycles and a variety of motor vehicles. Here’s a chart from that research paper:

MIT chart

While many of us choose a bike over a car because it just makes sense, or it is more fun, or we’re trying to get some exercise, it is often fascinating to learn some of the other benefits/perils of our choice. This article (and research paper) helps illuminate something a lot of us probably never even thought about. Take a look and see what you think.

Also, I should point out that one of the commenters on the Streetsblog post suggested that for people concerned about the greenhouse gas emissions from new bicycle production, there are plenty of used bikes out there just waiting for a good home. A choice like that is just about “footprint free”!


  1. Justin August 15, 2011 6:00 am 

    It’d be interesting to see bike mpac broken down by country of origin and material type. I imagine tha a Made in the USA frame would have a much smaller impact.

  2. harry krishna August 15, 2011 7:05 am 

    while i can all smug and cozy about the report, all i have to do is think about the local tue and thur evening bike rides. the turnout is excellent, but i know the fossil fuel expended on getting to and from just one of those rides far exceeds what i have “saved” by bicycle commuting.

  3. Iron_Man August 15, 2011 11:01 am 

    Sigh…I don’t know what’s sadder; worrying about your personal contribution (out of 6.9 billion people) to 0.0012% of earth’s atmosphere or worrying that riding your bicycle isn’t green enough?

  4. Ghost Rider August 15, 2011 11:55 am 

    Iron Man, I am right there with you. Still, you have to remember that everyone makes the bike choice for different reasons: environmental, money-saving, health, etc. And, one person’s dinky contributions, multiplied by others’ similar choices, DO make a difference.

    For me, although I try to live low-environmental-impact where I can, my ONLY real reason for riding a bike is because it’s a hell of a lot more fun than sitting in a car. The (tiny) environmental benefits and the fact that it makes my butt all sexy for my wife are icing on the cake 😉

  5. The non stop biker in portland August 15, 2011 12:56 pm 

    If you are worried about increasing your carbon footprint by buying a bike to ride to work, the best strategy is to buy a used bike that is just sitting in someone’s garage.

    Then once you get addicted to riding to work, do something about your car like recycle it. If it isn’t too much of a polluter, sell it and someone doesn’t have to buy a new car.

  6. Mir.I.Am August 15, 2011 3:11 pm 

    Right on Non-stop Biker! My thoughts EXACTLY. This is like some silly argument I had with co-workers one day about what is worse for the enviro: sitting in traffic in my hypothetical car commuting for 40 minutes or bike commuting for one hour and then having to take a shower when I get to the office. Out of the question bike commuting wins when I decided NOT TO SHOWER! HAHAHAHAAA! Witch Hazel.

  7. BluesCat August 17, 2011 2:24 pm 

    This is a silly, non-argument.

    Anybody who contends that buying and riding FIFTY new bicycles makes for a bigger carbon footprint than buying and driving ONE new car either works for Big Oil, or works for Big Auto, or is one more example of an air-headed Tea Partying Republican!

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