The boss is riding a bike. Editor Bidrawn, in his July column, told the world of his plans to ride a bike to work at least twice a week to conserve fuel that the rest of us could use in our motoring exploits. As much as I admire the editor's selfless efforts, I can do him one better: I work at home. Most mornings, my commute means walking down the stairs-it's a traffic jam if my dog blocks my way. Mind you, working at home isn't for everyone, but if you could work from home just one day a week, you would save 20 percent of the fuel you use to commute every week.
One problem with working out of a home office is that you hardly ever see anyone. That's fine if you're an anti-social anarchist working on a manifesto for the revolution, but once in a while you should see somebody other than bank tellers and cashiers in the checkout line at the grocery store. This means that you need to occasionally go to business meetings.
I try to arrange my meetings at a local diner for lunch. The Square Peg in Minneapolis has good food, is run by car-guy Phil Vanner, is affordable on a writer's salary, and is frequent host to car clubs and informal Saturday morning breakfasts. The Peg is almost exactly 15 miles from my house. I have a variety of different vehicle choices, and lately, with gas around $4 a gallon, I've been making that choice carefully.
I have a V8-powered Dodge Durango, and I know that if I drive it to the Square Peg, it will take me about 20 minutes and return 15 miles per gallon. That means my round trip will consume two gallons of gasoline. I also know that my Durango produces about 1.29 pounds of carbon dioxide per mile, or about 39 pounds of CO2 for my lunchtime trip. Bidrawn and I differ on whether manmade greenhouse gases like CO2 are the cause of global warming, but we both like efficiency, and the less CO2 you spew, the more efficiently you travel. Two gallons is about $8.00 worth of gasoline, and my usual tab at the Peg is about $10-an $18 lunch.
On days when my wife isn't driving her Saab 900 convertible, I can take it to lunch. I'll also make the trip in about 20 minutes each way, but it gets a consistent 30 mpg, even when driven in an urban setting. Just by ditching my SUV for the day, my gas costs and CO2 outputs are cut in half. Total cost for lunch and fuel is $14.
I also have a Citron 2cv. This 602cc wonder is so slow that you have no illusion of keeping up with traffic, so it takes a bit longer (25 minutes) to get to lunch. The Citron returns a steady 45 mpg when being driven on busy highways (nearly flat-out all the time). That means my 30-mile round trip is only using 2/3 of a gallon of gasoline and releasing a mere 12.9 pounds of CO2. The 2cv is all about minimalist driving, with no radio, air conditioning, cruise control or anti-lock brakes. Once you learn to relax, it's also about as much fun as you can have commuting. Even at $4.00 a gallon, I only use $2.64 worth of gas and my lunch is now a reasonable $12.64. The downside is the 2cv has no pollution controls, so although it's CO2 levels are commendably low, it's contribution of other harmful exhaust pollutants are adding to the smog and hurting local air quality. Maybe not such a problem as long as we don't have legions of old French Citrons inching their way around the city.
I could take my motorcycle. I have an F-series BMW that can eke out 60 mpg if I'm really gentle with the throttle. The bike will get there easily in 20 minutes, and at 60 mpg I'm only using a half a gallon of gas for the round trip. Twelve bucks for lunch and a ton of fun riding my motorcycle. The downside is that as the weather gets colder, the exposed position on the motorcycle makes even 20 minutes of riding a chore. Once the snows come, forget it.
I have a bicycle, and I ride it regularly for recreation. I could probably work out a path that would safely get me to lunch. It would take over an hour to ride the bike each way and I'd arrive for my hour-long lunch sweaty but healthy. There would be no gasoline costs associated with the ride and, as a vegetarian, my total CO2 output would be nicely matched by the CO2 intake by the plants I consume for lunch. Unfortunately, if the majority of my energy came from meat and dairy products my greenhouse gas picture doesn't look so rosy. A person riding a bicycle at 10 mph who eats an average American diet is responsible for about 0.14 pounds of CO2 per mile traveled. This is largely due to the amounts of diesel fuel and natural gas used to fertilize and grow feed and to raise cows, pigs and chickens using industrial food processes. Still, that's only about 4.2 pounds of excess CO2 produced. To me, it's the extra time spent riding that limits my bicycle commuting.
Scooters are everywhere. I like scooters, particularly old Vespas when ridden by scantily-clad supermodels as they negotiate Rome streets. In the U.S. they've caught on because they're cheap. I decided to find a used 50cc scooter and see what it was like to commute on such a machine. I could have chosen any one of a number of inexpensive Chinese scooters, but they have a reputation for poor quality and almost no service. Besides, I wanted something European. I finally settled on a used Italian Aprilia SR50, a bit of a hot rod in the 50cc class. Top speed, after some enhancement, is a giddy 45 mph.
Riding my Aprilia to the Square Peg takes some logistical planning. It isn't fast enough to ride on the highway, so I need to take surface streets working out to the same 15 miles. Instead of 20 minutes, it takes 30 minutes each way. The Aprilia returns 90 mpg. So for my 30-mile round trip I'm using just a third of a gallon of gasoline, costing $1.33. See why so many people are riding scooters? My Aprilia has a two-stroke engine and spews high amounts of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere, but at least its CO2 levels are low at 0.19 pounds per mile, releasing just 5.7 pounds of carbon dioxide. That's close to what I'd be producing if I were riding a bicycle while eating a standard U.S. diet, but it takes me half the time to do so. In its own geeky way, the scooter is fun to ride too.
The amazing thing is how quickly you reach a point of diminishing returns. Going from my 15mpg SUV to a 30mpg automobile is no hardship, yet shows the biggest improvement in costs and CO2 emissions. The Citron's rudimentary nature shows you just how far you have to go to get to 45 mpg or better, unless you're using expensive hybrid technology, you're on a motorcycle or scooter, or like our esteemed editor, you are the 40-year-old guy huffing along on a Schwinn.