Holy cow: Walking consumes more gasoline than driving!
Note to new readers: This article explores the consequences of using so much fuel to produce our food. If you come out of it thinking it's telling you to drive rather than get some exercise, you didn't read it! But if you like surprising numbers like this, check out the rest of my Going Green section and other sections.
In my growing research on transportation energy economics, I've come upon some rather astonishing research. I always enjoy debates on total cost analysis -- trying to figure out the true energy cost of things, by adding in the energy spent elsewhere to make things happen. (For example, the energy to smelt the metals in your car adds quite a bit to its energy cost.)
Humans are modestly efficient. Walking, an average person burns about 100 Calories per mile at 3mph, or 300 per hour, while sitting for the same hour burns around 80 Calories just keeping you warm. In other words, the walking 3 miles uses about 220 extra Calories. Calories are kilocalories, and one Calorie/kcal is about 4 BTUs, 4200 joules or 1.63 watt-hours.
While walking 1 mile burns an extra 74 Calories, on a bicycle we're much better. Biking one mile at 10mph takes about 38 extra calories over sitting. Again, this is the extra calories.
A gallon of gas has about 31,500 Calories in it, so you might imagine that you get 815 "mpg" biking and 400 "mpg" walking. Pretty good. (Unless you compare it to an electric scooter, which turns out to get the equivalent of 1200 mpg from pure electricity if you allow the same perfect conversion.)
But there's a problem. We eat, on average about 2700 Calories/day in the USA, almost all of it produced by agribusiness. Which runs on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels provide the fertilizer. They run the machines. The process and transport and refrigerate the food. In many cases our food -- cows -- eats even more food produced with very high energy costs.
I've been digging around estimates, and have found that U.S. agriculture uses about 400 gasoline-gallon equivalents per American. Or 1.1 gallons per day, or about 10 Calories (40 BTU) from oil/gas for every Calorie of food. For beef, it's far worse, as close to 40 Calories of oil/gas (160 BTU) are used to produce one Calorie of beefy goodness.
You can see where this is going. I'm not the first to figure it out, but it's worth repeating. Your 3 mile walk burned 220 extra Calories over sitting, but drove the use of 2,200 Calories of fossil fuel. That's 1/14th of a gallon of gasoline (9oz.) So you're getting about 42 miles per gas-gallon of fossil fuel.
If you eat a lot of beef or other livestock, and want to consider your incremental food as having come from beef, it's around 10 miles per gallon. A Hummer does better!
So yes, if you drive your Prius instead of walking it's going to burn less fossil fuel. If 2 people drive in a more ordinary car it's going to burn less fossil fuel than both of them walking.
Biking's better. The average-diet cyclist is getting 85 miles per gallon of fossil fuel. Still better for 2 to share a Prius. The beefeater is, as before only 1/4 as good. At 21mpg he's better than a Hummer, but not that much better.
This is a fuel to fuel comparison. The fuel burned in the cars is the same sort of fuel burned in the tractors. It has extra energy costs in its extraction and transport, but this applies equally to both cases. And yes, of course, the exercise has other benefits than getting from A to B. And we have not considered a number of the other external costs of the vehicle travel -- but they still don't make this revelation less remarkable. (And neither does this result suggest one should not still walk or bike, rather it suggests we should make our food more efficiently.)
And no, picking transit isn't going to help. Transit systems, on average, are only mildly greener than cars. City buses, in fact, use the same energy per passenger mile as typical cars. Light rail is sometimes 2 and rarely even 3 times better than cars, but in some cities like San Jose, it uses almost twice as much energy per actual passenger than passenger cars do. Taking existing transit vehicles that are already running is green, of course, but building inefficient lines isn't.
Many people take this idea as a condemnation of cycling or exercise. It isn't. Cycling is my favourite exercise. It is a condemnation of how much fossil fuel is used in agriculture. And, to a much lesser extent, a wakeup call to people who eat the average diet that they can't claim their human-powered travel as good for the planet -- just good for them. What would be good for the planet would be to eat a non-agribusiness diet and also walk or bike. How your food is farmed is more important though, than where it comes from. It's the farming, not the shipping, that's the big energy eater.
Obviously if you were going to need the exercise anyway, doing it while getting from A to B is not going to burn extra oil. Human powered travel well above the need to exercise is the only thing that would hurt, if fueled by U.S. agriculture. And eating a high calorie diet and not exercising would be just as bad.
What's not wrong with these numbers
As I note, since most of us need to exercise anyway, this is not at all a condemnation of walking and cycling, but rather of the amount of fossil fuel that agriculture uses. However, a lot of people still find faults with this analysis that I don't think are there.
- No, it doesn't matter that making the fuel costs energy. It's (roughly) the same fuel going into the tractors as going into the gas tanks. We're comparing fuel in tank to fuel in tank. But if you really want to factor that in, about 82% of well energy makes it to the gas tank of the car or tractor.
- Yes, I do account for the fact that just eating or sitting consumes calories. This calculation is based on the extra calories that biking or walking take, compared to sitting in a car. The base "keep you alive" calories are not counted, but they do require more fossil fuel to create.
- I don't include the energy required to make a car, which ranges from 25% (Prius) to 7% (Hummer) of its lifetime energy usage. However, most cyclists and pedestrians still own cars, so this is still spent if it sits in the garage while you walk. And while a 2000lb car may take 60-100 times as much energy to make as a 30lb bike, this is not so large a difference if expressed per lifetime vehicle-mile.
- This is based on the USA averages. Of course different food means different results, but doesn't change this story, which is about the average eater.
- I don't include the energy needed to build roads for bikes, cars and food delivery trucks. The reality is, we're not going to build fewer roads because people take some trips walking for exercise. Nor are people going to not buy a car because they do that.