Energy efficiency

Did you know that your bicycle gets anywhere from 290-700/mpg, or more? How do they even figure that out? Using equivalent food kcal — no, we do not drink petrol and live to walk about — and physics, of course (the husband would be so proud). Our bodies, our energy efficiency! We humans have been transporting ourselves so efficiently for so long, we ought to take a lesson.

One of the main reasons I got into transportation as a career was because of its contribution to environmental degradation. In many other parts of the country and world, coal or nuclear is the primary energy source, and  short- and long-term health and environmental effects are pretty obvious to the common citizen — if not, please see teacher after class.

In the Pacific Northwest, on the other hand, most of our energy needs are met through hydro power — yes, there is an upside to all that rain! Apart from the salmon’s complaints about getting past dams, hydro is a relatively “clean” energy, and so long as climate change doesn’t dry us out, it’s abundantly cheap.


(c) Northwest Power and Conservation Council

What does this have to do with transportation? Well, turns out that when you take those other energy sources out of the picture, transportation becomes the next biggest emitter of bad things from an environmental point of view. Greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, and so on — it’s rather a big deal, and it happens every day, everywhere; most importantly, it’s controllable. Needless to say, in the Northwest at least, when you tackle transportation, you’re tackling the environment. Just the kind of “catch two flies with one chopstick” approach that I like to take.

My initial work on passing legislation to improve car emission standards in Washington state became reducing SOV (single occupant vehicle) use became TDM (transportation demand management) became active transportation (AT, aka walking/cycling) became health benefits… It goes on and on, and whenever I have the time to sit back and think about it, I am amazed at the many ways transportation intersects (sts!) our lives. The thing is, everyone has to get somewhere, right?


(c) lanky_mike
Sculpture by Steven Gregory

Bicycles will save the world! But I digress.

Lately I have been enthralled by a local-gone-international movement called EcoDistricts. As I and many others have come to know, transportation is just a part of a bigger better movement. Energy, water, building design, and yes, transportation, can and should be done locally and collectively in order to be more efficient and effective. Making our world a better place from the neighborhood up? One of my favorite activities in the universe!

Apart from that obsession, I have been thinking a lot about transportation and its intersections recently, when two articles posted on BikePortland on the same day caught my eye a few weeks back. The first had to do mostly with the economy, and how investing in active transportation was a boon for the economy — for so many reasons (as previously mentioned here). Again, transportation intersects so many facets of our lives, and active transportation makes them so much better: AT allows the rest of the system to be more efficient (read: freight is able to move because the streets aren’t clogged with SOVs); improves the citizenry’s health by getting them moving, thus reducing cost on healthcare needs; improves livability, which in some ways is simply to say people are happy because they’re not stuck in traffic, or feel good because they’re moving their bodies and interacting with the people around them. And, quite simply (though the BP article didn’t explicitly mention this), bicycling and walking for transportation is more efficient, from a fuel-and-money-burning point of view, especially for those short trips that we so often take. Go, economy, go.

Second thing I saw on BP that day was a report on the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, which, for the first time ever, ranked America’s 34 largest cities on what they are doing to save energy and costs in five key areas. Portland came in #2 (woot!), and that, it turns out, is primarily because of our transportation choices (and, I must always say, our ability to make active transportation choices because of Portland’s infrastructure). We are extremely energy efficient when we are walking and cycling for more of our trips, compared with other forms of transportation. So much so, in fact, that the transportation category put us at almost to the top of the entire list, even though the other four areas, for Portland, were rather far from the top. Another win for active transportation’s all-inclusive game-changing power.

I ride my bike and walk for transportation, fun, shopping, not drink-driving, so I don’t have to go to the gym, because it makes me happy, connects me to my neighborhood, I fell in love with my husband on a bicycle, because I love the quality of life that active transportation brings to a city that nothing else can do, and because it makes me feel energy efficient. No, really. I’ve learned so much along the way, greatly enhanced my transportation wonkiness, and multiplied my desire to bring the joy and benefits of active transportation to others in my community through education, advocacy, policy changes, and, when necessary, brute force. Kidding.

There are so many ways to be more efficient, especially we in the United States with our infamous enormous houses, inefficient cars, energy-leaking buildings, and ever-longer commutes… But that situation also gives way to excessive innovation, and that is the beauty of what we see in the neighborhood-scale projects changing our communities for the good.



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