• Photo for The Conscious Commuter: How Your Trip to Work Can Build  Your Muscles and Save The Planet
    Photo Credit: iStockPhoto

The Conscious Commuter: How Your Trip to Work Can Build Your Muscles and Save The Planet

By Russ Klettke

The first time I commuted by bicycle from home in downtown Chicago to my workplace in Deerfield, Ill., a 27-mile ride, a coworker gave me a puzzled look and asked, “did you do that on the Edens?”—referring to the section of Interstate 94 that one typically drives between these two points. Her question was absurd (bicycles are illegal and dangerous on interstates), but it illustrates a point: most people are locked in a car culture mentality. My co-worker didn’t grasp that by bicycle I could enjoy a scenic cruise through leafy North Shore suburbs on roads less traveled, all while getting in about an hour and twenty minutes of exercise.

That was a number of years ago, before the gas price spikes of 2008 and a heightened awareness of climate change. The bicycle alternative to commuting is more common and accommodated, as Chicago and dozens of other major cities have invested in designated bicycle lanes and public education programs. The New York City Department of Transportation reported in October that commuter bicycling increased 35 percent in 2008 and doubled since 2004.

Bicycle commuting trends are a matter of both personal fitness and environmental sustainability. It’s happening in greater numbers everywhere, as illustrated by this map of bicycle friendly communities in the U.S. compiled by the League of American Bicyclists. Portland, Oregon is considered one of the top cities in the world for biking, followed by Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco and Boulder, Colorado, according to rankings by Bicycling magazine. Some of the best examples for how to do it are in cities such as Amsterdam (where bicycles account for 40 percent of all traffic), Copenhagen, Sandnes and Trondheim, Norway, Berlin, Barcelona, Paris and Basel, Switzerland.

Fewer pounds on you—and in the air
What are the benefits of biking to work in place of driving? In terms of pure calories, the prototypical 185-pound male, biking at 16 to 19 miles per hour, would burn 522 calories in a 30-minute ride, according to a terrific online calculator. All other dietary and exercise factors remaining equal, if you bike just a little further (to achieve a 600 calorie expenditure) each day you would drop ten pounds in three months.

That same calculator tells us that rollerblading for 30 minutes burns 305 calories, running is 435 calories, and walking at a 15 minutes-per-mile pace requires 196 calories—all reasonable modes of transportation. In some locales, you might be able to canoe or kayak to work, both of which would consume 386 calories in a half-hour. Each of these leaves virtually no carbon footprint.

Not represented in the bike calculation is the additional benefit of muscle development from bicycling, primarily in the hips, hamstrings, quads, calves and gluteus maximus. Any new muscle mass raises the metabolism for an overall increased caloric expenditure. The incremental effects of these and all other exercises diminish when no new muscle is built—unless the individual increases intensity (with speed, opting for hillier routes, etc.).

Fewer pounds in the air
All well and good for personal health. But the benefits to the earth could be considered weightier. The climate crisis is by definition hard to wrap our minds around; it is all-encompassing. So here are a few statistics to, so to speak, bring it down to earth:

  1. Most ozone pollution is caused by motor vehicles—that's 72 percent of nitrogen oxides and 52 percent of reactive hydrocarbons measured at ground level.
  2. Every gallon of gas consumed spews 20.4 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
  3. Every mile of car travel puts 3.75 pounds of pollutants into the air.
  4. Traffic congestion wastes 3 billion gallons of gas each year in the U.S.
  5. Substituting a bike for a car to travel just 16 miles a week saves 54 gallons of gas per year (that's over 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide).
  6. Motorcycles and scooters (the other mode of “biking”) are more fuel efficient than cars, but with higher concentrations of oxides of nitrogen, they are actually ten times more polluting per mile traveled than cars.
  7. Global carbon dioxide levels are now the highest in 160,000 years.
From motivation to action
To some, it may not seem realistic to substitute a bike for a car because of the nature of one’s work and workplace, the distance from home to work, or a lack of routing options. However, more people than ever used public transportation last year. The American Public Transportation Association reported that Americans rode buses, subways and commuter trains 10.7 billion times in 2008, a four percent increase over 2007 and the largest number since the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956—which created the Interstate highway system and bolstered development of our car culture.

Can you commute even if the train stations are distant from your home or office? Just like everyone born before Henry Ford, you could consider walking. Which brings up the category known as “hybrid transportation,” the use of multiple modes of transport, some of which qualify you as “green.” For example, drive with your bike on or in your car to a location where you can park and bike the remainder of the trip. Many public transportation systems (Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Detroit, St. Louis, et al.) allow bikers to carry their two wheeled-vehicles onboard trains or on bus racks. This allows the bicyclist to plan around inclement weather, or avoid a morning schvitz and instead save it for the end of day.

Of course, buses, trains and subways still use fossil fuels to power their vehicles. This online calculator helps you identify the carbon footprint reduction that you can still achieve by leaving your car at home.

And if that little problem related to perspiration from biking, rollerblading or walking is a barrier, there is good news on that front. The Bike Commuter Act of 2008—passed as part of the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Package) bill—provides incentives for employers to accommodate employees who commute by bike. This can include covering costs associated with lights, bike maintenance, raingear, panniers, parking/locker rental and changing facilities—which would include showers.

There is another option as well: the electric bike or trike. If your commute is 10 miles or more, or if you just really don't like to work that hard at, well, getting to work, you can get a little electrical assistance. An electric bicycle is not a motorcycle—it's a motor that assists in powering the bike. So, you will still pedal, but can use a throttle on the bike to get additional power. In most cases, you can retrofit your existing bike to be electric by attaching a rechargeable battery pack. You can also invest in one of the new models, which include a convenient folding version, ideal for carrying on the train or subway. And if two-wheeled transport seems scary, you can try out a trike—an increasingly popular three-wheeled cycle that runs on a battery. Trikes are very stable going straight, but they don't corner as well as bicycles, so they are not able to go as fast. On the other hand, they are very stable going straight ahead, and provide a feeling of security to anyone not ready to hit the roads on a two-wheeler.

Slowly but surely, we are shaking off the shackles of car-centrism. You can’t say there aren’t options.

About Russ Klettke: Russ Klettke is a Chicago-based business writer, ACE-certified fitness trainer, and author of “A Guy’s Gotta Eat, the regular guy’s guide to eating smart” with Deanna Conte, MS RD LD (Marlowe/Da Capo Press, 2004). His blog explores the connections between exercise and energy conservation.