Monday, March 4, 2013

Bikes & Pollution

This weekend I have been enjoying this story about Ed Orcutt, a local Washington state lawmaker, who angered much of the nation's cyclists with his comments about how much carbon dioxide they add to the atmosphere. At some point he stated that they pollute more than cars. This was all in relation to the bike tax idea from a week ago.

Today he apologized and retracted some of the statements. I am still not sure he understands how the carbon cycle works. When I read about this though I went and did some basic calculations for my carbon footprint. If I bicycle 18 miles round trip to work each day and use 50 calories a mile the I use 900 "extra" calories. If a more sedentary person makes 2.3 pounds of CO2 with a 2000 calorie diet, then my commute puts an extra pound of CO2 in the air each day. Compare that to 19 pounds created by a gallon of gas, which I would otherwise be adding to the atmosphere in my car. Stating that cyclists pollute more than cars is grossly inaccurate.

There is also a big difference in the how I produce carbon dioxide by breathing and how cars do it. Most of the food that you eat is made up of carbon molecules, just like cars run on hydrocarbon molecules. The difference is the carbon I eat is pulled from the atmosphere by plants. The net carbon in the atmosphere is zero. Cars, factories, and power plants run mostly on fossil fuels. Carbon that was trapped underground is now released into the atmosphere. The net carbon in the atmosphere is increased.

Now, I will say the idea that commuting by bicycle is not "net zero" is absolutely true. The food I eat is trucked to the store. That releases carbon. Often chemical fertilizers are used to grow the food. More carbon. Even my bike took energy to make. Most of that energy comes from fossil fuels. It then had to be shipped to me on trucks, trains, or aircraft, releasing more carbon into the air.

That more than anything proves the point that cyclists do help pay for the roads, even if they don't drive cars on them. Cyclists not paying their fair share is still a claim made by Rep. Orcutt in his apology. Yet, when I buy and apple at the store the truck that brought that apple had to pay gas taxes. That means the very thing that makes me not carbon neutral when I ride also means that I do, in an indirect way, pay for the roads.

That is just the gas tax, too. I also pay Federal, state, and local taxes that go to roads. I also pay excise taxes on my car, no matter how many miles I drive it.

While I am happy for the apology, I still wonder how much Rep. Orcutt actually understands what he is talking about. He is making several very basic mistakes in science, economics and tax policy. Hopefully he will use this as an opportunity to understand things before speaking about them publicly.


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