Monday, March 2, 2009

Solving The Wrong Problem

The latest jolt from Fat Lad’s cattle prod:

For you is cycling a lifestyle thing or is it a utilitarian tool for getting from A to B?

Thoughts on the back of a £20 pound note to my home address please ;)

I’m not really sure which camp I fall into. Some days I think I’m clearly on the lifestyle of the equation since I commute full time, mountain bike most weekends that I’m not out on a road ride with my pals. I do many utility runs on the bike, groceries, post office etc. as well so I can’t argue with the utilitarian camp either. I can’t decide if I’m being indecisive or if perhaps I fall into a third camp.

Perhaps we are just due for some new thinking about transportation. We’re currently on an unsustainable energy track and seem to think if we aren’t seated on our butts at all times that something’s wrong with us. Our preference to emulate our living rooms for our transportation environment results in excess energy consumption and unnecessary emission loads into the environment.

If the energy consumption and it’s resulting pollution fatal embrace weren’t enough reason to reevaluate our transportation strategy perhaps a quick peak at our declining health could get us to the tipping point. We are an increasingly obese society and more than just a few folks (Fat Lad, Fat Cyclist, fatboybiking, Large Fella On A Bike, etc.) are looking at the bicycle to address our collective girth. Even if your focus isn’t losing weight, increasing exercise improves health. Unlike other machines, using our bodies improves them.

I think about how this triple threat could be so effectively reduced with the lowly bicycle and wonder why there has been so little focus on integrating cycling into our culture. So when my Popular Science magazine arrives the other day, a side bar headline jumps out at me:

It’s a very interesting story that makes the argument that we are trying to solve the wrong problem. Like so many times a fresh insight shows up, it’s a real ‘Duh’ moment for me. The problem isn’t how to get better mileage from our vehicles. It’s how can we transport ourselves from A to B.

At the beginning of the article they highlight a couple interesting facts in a sidebar:

1.    “If every adult in the world rode a stationary bike for eight hours a day to generate electricity, they would crank out 80 gigawatts – still only half of 1 percent of our energy needs.”

2.    “If each American driver cycled to work just one day a week, we could cut our Persian Gulf oil imports in half.

The first one is the kind of statistic naysayers like but when juxtaposed with the second, it underscores how little energy is actually needed to move us from A to B. The whole better gas mileage mantra is focused on what it takes to power our rolling living rooms but the living room is the wrong tool for the job.

People find it easy to focus on the symptom and forget to ask themselves “Just what was the problem this now broken solution was intended to resolve?” The original problem was “How can we get around more quickly and easily than walking? We need to get back to this original question!

I still use my car for longer trips and larger loads and don’t feel even a twinge of guilt. Sometimes it’s the right tool for the job and yes, better mileage would be great. If you only have a hammer, all your problems tend to look like nails. It follows then, that if you only have a car for getting from A to B, you are not likely to consider a bicycle to be the proper tool for the job.

I am encouraged that the mainstream press like the Wall Street Journal is starting to spread some ink on bicycle commuting and thrilled with the presentation in Popular Science this month that gives very deep coverage and presents an entirely new angle.” Good Magazine has an interesting article about transportation efficiency that I found over at Why Howard Laughed.

I still don’t know if I’m a lifestyle or utilitarian cyclist but then once I leave the grocery store, I don’t really care that much about labels.

PS – I’m a bit confused about Fat Lad’s request for a copy of this post being sent to him by post on 20 pound note stock but I will put it in the mail and hope that it’s not a case of mis-communication across the pond... J


  1. Good post, made me think a little about how/when/where/why I use my car. I really felt that the high gas prices last summer gave me and my friends a good kick in the ass. Made us think about whether and how we drove our cars to trailheads, motivated us to get smarter about carpooling when we did so, etc. Sometimes people need a little pain/inconvenience to make changes...

  2. Hey Watcher, thanks for stopping by! It's a good thing to get some motivation to rethink our actions.