Reading Bike Girl's blog, I stumbled upon a calculator that does some magical mathematics. It spits out an approximate estimate of a cyclists miles per gallon equivalent from calories burned based on weight and average speed. Although cyclists are often fond of saying we get infinite MPG, that neglects the extra calories we consume for energy. The calculator over simplifies things a bit, but coming up with something exact would require so many variable as to become rather convoluted. So based on my weight and a average cruising speed of 16 mph when I'm not racing about, I get approximately 696 MPG. Pretty sweet.
I think it's useful to look at these sorts of comparisons in transportation to emphasize the advantages to converting trips to alternative means, especially shorter ones to being made by cycling and walking. Vehicles like the Toyota Prius are baby step in terms of efficiency, but marketing has many believing it's the de facto symbol of living green. It's not. The person commuting by bus every day may not even be thinking of it as an eco thing to do, but they are getting more MPG per passenger mile than a Prius driver will ever get in even the most ideal of conditions. As hybrid technology makes it's way into more and more bus fleets, that gap will only widen in favor of transit. If two commuters car pool in a car getting only 28 MPG, they are already beating a single occupant Prius driver in efficiency. Make it a party of 3 and the lone green driver is not looking so green anymore. In consumer research it was revealed 57% of Prius owners cited "Makes a statement about me", as their top reason for buying the car. Fuel Economy ranked 36% for comparison. It's not about being green, it's about looking green. We cannot let automobile companies get away with repainting them selves stewards of the planet while walking, cycling, and transit struggle for mind share and funding. The abysmal participation of car pooling today should not be considered acceptable.
And don't even get me started about the land use efficiency differences between cycling, transit and driving, which has nothing to do with fuel source. If today we magically converted all cars to full electric, and magically expanded our energy grid with all renewable power to handle the capacity (an unlikely scenario any time remotely soon), we would still be left with a laundry list of problems. The freeways and boulevards jammed with all electric cars, are still traffic jams. Much of the valuable land in our cities would still be parking lots. Tens of thousands of Americans would still die in automobile crashes every year. We cannot save the planet and improve quality of life in our cities with new engines alone. Sometimes it's the low tech solutions that make the biggest difference. If every able bodied American converted all trips 2 miles or less to cycling and walking, the impact would be many times more profound than the latest hybrid inching up a few MPG.