When Every Day is Bike to Work Day
Bike to Work Day is an annual event, held on various days in the spring across the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia and other places, that promotes commuting to work by bicycle. But for me, every day is Bike to Work Day, so I thought I would share my experiences.
When I was in college, I didn’t care much about material things. Yet over the years, I allowed consumer culture to creep in. My values slowly changed such that only a few years ago I thought owning a high-end SUV built by one of the German auto manufacturers was a goal worth striving for, a kind of status symbol of achievement.
When I started working for thinkstep, what I came to value shifted dramatically again.
As I learned more about how commuting in a car contributes to global warming through emissions, driving 15.1 km (9.4 miles) to and from work every day started to weigh heavily on my conscience. Working for an environmental sustainability company made me acutely aware of the impacts of my actions. Plus, beyond repairs, insurance and other car-related expenses, fuel in Germany is expensive, a lot more expensive than what I was used to in the United States.
Unlike other countries, the United States has kept domestic oil prices artificially low since 1993 by not taxing fuel to pay for the real costs directly associated with driving, costs to infrastructure, human health and the environment. As of the date of this blog post, one liter of unleaded gasoline costs only $0.84 in the US. In Germany it costs double, at $1.68 per liter. But even if the cost savings of not driving a car are negligible for you personally, there are other strong advantages in transitioning to commuting by bike.
First of all, driving a car is more stressful than you think, but you only really notice how stressful it is once you start using other types of transportation to commute. By the time last summer rolled around, I had had enough stress from driving in the greater Stuttgart area, a densely populated and intensely congested region of southwest Germany. I found out about a program my company offered called JobRad (JobBike). Companies that participate in JobRad can lease high-end bicycles for three years and either provide them to their employees for free or offer their employees to pay for a bike in monthly instalments withdrawn from the employee’s gross income. thinkstep offers the latter, which ends up costing me about €91 a month, thereby reducing the income tax I pay. After the 3-year lease period is up, you have the option to purchase the bike for its remaining cost, in my case roughly €280.
I decided to get an e-bike, because at the time I wasn’t in very good shape for cardio, and the way to work is rather hilly. Plus, I didn’t want to spend an hour and a half riding to work. With the e-bike, it takes me only 40 minutes. And because you always have to pedal with an e-bike (it’s not like a motorcycle), it is a real workout for me. The e-bike also has different settings, so I’ve been able to slowly increase the difficulty, decreasing my reliance on the motor as I get in better shape physically… and mentally. According to a cross-sectional study, published last year in The Lancet Psychiatry, that researched 1.2 million Americans, people who exercise regularly (1-1.5 hours, 3-5 times a week) experience a greater sense of wellbeing and mental health.
For me, the change has been dramatic. I no longer had to navigate winding roads and endure traffic jams. I felt more awake at work, clear-headed, somehow sharper. I slept better, too. It has drastically reduced expenses and my stress level, and I feel stronger and healthier. And commuting by e-bike only adds 15 minutes to my commute each way. Plus, I ride mostly through the countryside, through aesthetically beautiful farmland and forest paths—I spend more time in nature. Since I started riding my bike to work about a year ago, an owl, a fox, a deer and a wild boar have crossed my path. So, in general, my experience has improved a lot as a result of making the transition.
Of course, commuting to work every day, regardless of the weather and all year round, is not without its disadvantages.
On my second day biking to work, I got a flat tire on the way home, and an e-bike’s tires are not as easily changed as those of regular bikes. When I first started biking to work, I crashed twice (luckily resulting in only minor scrapes and bruises) when I took curves too quickly while it was raining. And sometimes, I just don’t feel like doing anything physical, especially when it’s snowing, raining or icy and in the dark of winter. But pushing through those challenges and biking to work anyway has been rewarding. In fact, at this point in my routine, if I don’t bike to work and take the bus or borrow my mother-in-law’s car, I actually miss the euphoric feeling of having exercised when I arrive at work in the mornings and at home in the evenings.
Although biking to work has drastically reduced my stress, expenses and emissions, from an ecological perspective, let’s not forget that some impacts have shifted. I did, after all, purchase a new bike with all the impacts associated with the materials and the construction of the various parts, including an electric motor and battery. I plug the bike in to charge the battery every evening. And although I switched to a green-energy electricity provider at home, I am still using energy. By the time I arrive to work and home, I am drenched in sweat, so I also shower more frequently, use more soap and more water and the electricity and gas required to heat that water. Lastly, I use clean clothing more often and wash it more frequently, including all the impacts associated with the construction, use and end-of-life of the washing machine and the detergent.
At thinkstep, we calculated the impact of each of these different activities, and were not surprised that purchasing and using an e-bike, with all its additional negative effects mentioned above, still has drastically lower emissions than using a car. In fact, we learned that I have reduced my annual greenhouse gas emissions by more than 90% (see graph below).
In the construction of the e-bike, the aluminum frame has the highest impact, not the battery, as I had assumed. Surprising to me is also that the highest impact of riding my bike to work is actually taking showers! So to minimize my impact even further, I need to reduce from 5-minute showers to 3-minute showers and learn to endure cold showers, which is apparently good for your immune system anyway.
To put it into a perspective we can all understand, I would need to ride my e-bike for more than 10 years to and from work—including all the additional related activities—before it would catch up with commuting with my car for 1 year. That’s an enormous difference.
Some mornings I only see one or two cyclists on my way to work, a sad state of affairs. And in the evenings when I return home, I am equally alone with nature if the weather is bad. As I travel along the often-barren bike path every day, I sometimes think if only 20% of those car-going commuters would start riding their bikes to work, what a difference it would make for them personally, for their places of employment, for this region and ultimately for the planet.
According to thinkstep’s expert on batteries, Dr. Benjamin Reuter, “If you normally drive your car about 10,000 km (6,200 miles) a year, by switching to an e-bike for just 10% of your annual mileage, you will offset the emissions released in the construction of the e-bike battery after less than one year. That would mean commuting by bike just one day every two weeks.”
Of course, not everyone who transitions to riding a bike to work every day would reduce their stress. Sometimes the commute is just too far, even for an e-bike. Sometimes there are no direct bike paths. And you would put yourself and motorists in harm’s way, potentially increasing your negative environmental impact by slowing traffic on the roadway, if you started commuting by bicycle. In such cases, it becomes important for communities to band together to pressure public representatives to improve biking infrastructure.
We also have to see the bigger picture and look at how the market is actually responding. If consumers are purchasing e-bikes, not because they are replacing their cars and commuting to work on them, but because they are replacing their regular bicycles, then it will increase rather than decrease overall greenhouse gas emissions.
In any case, for me, the transition has just reinforced what I’ve learned at thinkstep. We can live much differently than we have been. Each of us can make a positive impact on the environment if we examine what we do and how we consume. We can change the way we think and what we value. And we can, hopefully, lead others toward social and environmental change through personal example.