What Do You Run On?

I want to have a conversation about transportation and why bicycles are so important.  I realize I’m preaching to the choir,  but I hope you can help me.  I know you can.  You know lots of people who don’t understand this.  It’s not their fault.  They’ve been misled.  Please share this with them.  My intent is not to shame anyone or pass judgement.  My intent is to be a catalyst for meaningful change.  Thank you.

Automobiles and Trucks

Most cars and trucks run on gasoline, which is refined from crude oil.   The refining process extracts approximately 24 gallons of gasoline from each 42 gallon barrel of crude.  Most of that gasoline is mixed with anywhere from 5-8% ethanol to create a gallon of motor vehicle fuel.

The United States uses approximately 19.4 million barrels of oil each day.  Contrary to what you may have heard, we are not energy independent.  According to the US Department of Energy’s EIA, we produce a little less than 50% of the oil we use.  The number is declining  precipitously from 9.4 million barrels per day in 2015 to 8.6 million barrels per day in 2016 and 8 million barrels per day in 2017.  That means that if current consumption levels just stay flat, an admittedly optimistic scenario,  we’ll be importing over 11 million barrels per day by 2017.

Producing and burning liquid petroleum products like gasoline creates all sorts of unintended consequences.  Most are easy for us to ignore because they happen far from home.  Here are a few:

Birds killed in the Exxon Valdez disaster.

Birds killed in the Exxon Valdez disaster.

Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon blowout and spill. Ugly.

Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon blowout and spill.

Athabasca tar sands, Alberta Canada 2008 - photo (cc) Dru Oja Jay, Dominion.

Athabasca tar sands, Alberta Canada 2008 – photo (cc) Dru Oja Jay, Dominion.

The costs of running on liquid petroleum run deeper than just environmental damage.  Our automobile culture extracts a tremendous human cost as well.  In fact, about the same number of people die in motor vehicle crashes in the United States each year as die from gun violence (including suicide by gun).  Car culture also rips the fabric of neighborhoods apart.  In many cases, it has isolated our urban cores from the surrounding neighborhoods and created de facto segregation.

These are some of what I refer to as some of  the hidden costs of driving a car.  There are others, but these are sufficient for now.  When we drive a car, this is what we run on.  If this bothers you, the obvious solution is to figure out how to drive less.  By reducing our driving a mere 5%, we can use 365,000,000 less barrels of oil next year than we did this year.


Transit in the US, especially rail transit,  runs mostly on electricity.  Electricity is far from clean, but it is cleaner than liquid hydrocarbons. This is especially true if it is generated from clean sources.

According to the US Department of Energy’s EIA, one-third of our electricity is still generated from coal but other sources are gaining.  An additional third is now generated from natural gas, 20% from nuclear and 13% from renewables like hydro, biomass, wind and solar.  Natural gas is mostly a domestic product.  Unlike oil, it flows naturally to the surface and burns with very little emissions.  It is easier and cleaner than oil to produce and to consume.  That’s good.


This CTA train on Chicago’s Red Line is powered by electricity, some of which comes from renewable sources.

Electricity generated from renewable sources is even better.  I’ve heard all the arguments about what happens when the wind doesn’t blow but these are red herrings.  Iowa now generates over 10% of all the electricity it uses from the wind, and the wind is going to be around long after the last coal deposit is exploited.

If transit is available, it is almost always better for the environment than an automobile or light duty truck. According to a study in Santa Barbara California, a city bus traveling at 70% of capacity averages approximately 231 passenger miles/gallon.  Many rail numbers are even higher.

Transit is much safer, too.  While the automobile fatality rate in the United States is coming down, over 30,000 people die every year in automobile accidents.  Transit deaths have held steady for decades at around 250 per year.  Of those 250, only 50-75 are passenger deaths.  Your chances of being killed or even injured in a transit incident are virtually nil.

When we use transit, we run mostly on home-grown electricity.  We have the opportunity to substitute cleaner fuels and recognize much greater fuel efficiency numbers than when we drive motor vehicles.   We are generally safer.  We also might get some exercise by walking to and from the transit vehicle.   Transit isn’t always available, but when it is, we should consider using it.


But there’s an even better choice, especially when the trip is short…around five miles or so.  That choice is the bicycle.


Bike fuel.

When we choose to bicycle, we run on food. If we want, we can grow much of our own fuel  food.  This is true when we walk, too, but bicycles are more efficient…50% more efficient, in fact. You can go twice as far per food unit on a bicycle as you can on foot.  That makes the bicycle the most efficient transportation vehicle ever created.

The real ultimate driving machine.

The real ultimate driving machine.

So you have a choice.  You get to decide what you run on.  You can choose a non-renewable fuel like gasoline.  You can choose a renewable fuel like sustainable electricity.  You can also choose yourself.

Here’s the thing.  When you choose yourself, you heal yourself.  You get better.  When you get better, your community gets better.  When enough communities get better, everything gets better…all because you chose yourself and you chose wisely.

Please share.  We can fix things.  Thank you.


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