Work and pleasure

Today I got to combine work and pleasure: I rode 38 miles round trip on my electrified Big Dummy (the Firefly) to Duke University. I gave a seminar on Bioinformatics, and then rode home. It was a cold day out (at least for these parts), with my ride home dipping well below freezing. I brought along a thermos with hot tea, and stopped several times to top off my tea cup (mounted in my handlebar beverage holder). On the way home, I even stopped at my favorite place to waste spend money, A Southern Season, to buy some more tea and sundries.

Why is such a trip even of note? For a couple reasons. First, today we spoke to one of our bicycle suppliers on the phone. He was asking us about electric assist, and saying that he didn’t really “grok” (understand) the whole electric bike thing.

Today’s trip is a perfect example of why an e-bike works. I have ridden many miles on road bikes; I could have ridden the ~40 miles on my (non-electric) road bike on a recreational ride in better weather – easily. HOWEVER, I wouldn’t have done that in a down coat, with insulated boots, with a thermos of tea, with a handlebar stereo, with a large U-lock, with a full change of dress clothes (to give the talk), with my computer, with a full array of bike lights for after dark, and other miscellany. If I had ridden my road bike with that assortment of gear, I would have arrived very tired out (and also about 1 hour later).

With the e-bike, I got two hours of exercise (I was pedaling moderately the whole time), but I did the trip in luxury (especially since the Big Dummy allows me to carry so much stuff). I never got cold, since I had plenty of spare warm gear, and big heavy duty boots, down parka, etc. I was drinking hot tea for the whole ride there and back. I had good tunes. In the narrow, fast moving parts of the road, I used the electric assist to keep my speed faster to not impede traffic. I hauled my load of stuff up some steep hills without problem. I arrived for the seminar feeling good from the ride, but not worn out. I left after the talk with plenty of energy, and had a (mostly) pleasant ride home, through some back neighborhoods up some very steep hills (to avoid the more traffic filled routes).

Simply put, I wouldn’t have done this trip without the electrified longtail bike. I would have ended up driving a car. Comparing the energy usage of that:

Car: 25 miles per gallon. That’s about 1,320 watt-hours (KwH) per mile. If I still had a Prius, that might have been as good as 45 mpg (doesn’t do as well in cold weather), or 733 watt hours per mile. In other words, each mile traveled in a Prius would have consumed the equivalent of 7-hours running a 100 watt lightbulb. For the whole trip, that would would amount to 27 kWh – the equivalent of leaving a 100 watt lightbulb on in my house for 278 hours or 11 days straight (that’s with the more efficient Prius!)

Bike: 18 watt hours per mile (about 1,833 miles per gallon). The whole ride consumed 684 watt hours of electricity. That’s equal to less than one mile in the Prius, and about 1/2 mile in the big car! I could charge my battery with the equivalent of 7 hours of 100-watt lightbulb usage, easily doable with the solar panel on my roof.

Why highlight the stark difference? Simple: I never used to think about how much energy I was using when I got into the car to drive. And I suspect most people don’t. Gas has been so cheap for so long, there is no motivation to think about it. But, when put in the above context, it is all the more clear how much energy it takes to move that hulk of steel around. It doesn’t matter whether the car is electric or hybrid or whatever. It is heavy, and it travels fast. Both of those factors mean that it is intrinsically inefficient, and consumes a lot of energy. For those folks concerned about CO2 emissions, the above numbers say a lot.

But here’s the sad part. I studied the maps carefully before going, to find a route where I wasn’t going to be fighting traffic. And the best route I could find was far less than ideal. There was a 5-mile stretch of former country road, that is now used by commuter traffic. It was busy. It was narrow. It had no shoulder. And it was the least of all evils connecting the towns of Chapel Hill and Durham. Sure, I know about things like “ride big” and “take the lane”. I did those things. But as I watched in my rearview mirror for approaching traffic, it was a constant concern; would the car slow for me? Would I have to get out of the way? Statistics show that for slower-paced roads, concerns about being hit from the rear are overblown. That doesn’t change the basic human instinct to want to know what is going on behind, and not liking having a zillion cars whiz by. It is the number one reason more people don’t bike.

It just seems absolutely crazy that two neighboring college towns, Chapel Hill and Durham, don’t have a reasonable bike route connecting them. I blame this firmly on the old boy network in North Carolina’s DOT. Maybe I shouldn’t say this on a public blog, but those guys need to get their heads out of their rear ends and realize that we are in the 21st century, not the 1950’s. Maybe in the 1950’s we needed more roads to be built; now we don’t. Now, we need more bike paths, sidewalks, railways, and other means for people to get around without burning ridiculous amounts of energy. And doing this would benefit the drivers too – it is never fun for a cyclist to be passed by a bunch of cars on a narrow busy road. But it is no fun for the drivers, either. Building out infrastructure to appropriately accommodate both would make everyone’s lives better.

Would I do the trip to Durham/Duke again? Yes. It was great. Much better than sitting in a car or bus. I got exercise, and an adventure, all wrapped within some important work-related business. I would probably plan my ride for a bit less busy time, if possible. But, regardless of whether I would do it, most people just won’t face such a ride, without the kind of experience I have commuting by bike. And some people think I’m crazy, anyway. To get more people on their bikes, and less people using up tremendous amounts of energy to move metal boxes around, we need to invest in bike facilities, now.

Why isn’t that part of the economic stimulus?
(note: there are token amounts in the stimulus for bike paths, but they pale in comparison to road funds).

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