Tom Murphy of Do the Math walks us through a topic that’s as crucial to the future of progressive, science-and-communications aided, modern society as anything could be: the comparative energy efficiency of human muscled-powered locomotion.
Corporate capitalism presumes the continuation — and, hence, the sustainability — of present mobility arrangements in at least its core areas. Under that arrangement, a large percentage of everyday, local-area travel is accomplished via automobile. This is due to the unique demand- and profit-stimulating effects (read: wastefulness) of cars-first transportation orders.
From an energy point of view, cars-first transportation means that fueling automotive engines is a major bottleneck for normal social existence. As such, the obvious question is how well does and could the cars-first arrangement compare to its major alternative, the reconstruction of towns and cities to encourage bicycling and walking?
Tom Murphy’s conclusion: On a diet of normal, mixed foodstuffs (rather than pure lard or some other means of maximizing the energy density of the comestible), short-distance bicycling yields an MPG equivalent of 290, or about 6 times the energy efficiency of a Toyota Prius. Walking, meanwhile, delivers about 160 MPG.
There is, Murphy says, one fly in the ointment here: the energy intensity of current agricultural and food delivery arrangements. Factoring that in, Murphy figures that the MPG of cycling drops to 130 and that of walking to 34.
So, even without altering the food system (via increased organic farming, localization of supply chains, moves away from food processing/packaging, improvement of the veggie/meat intake ratio, etc.), bicycles are almost four times more energy efficient than Priuses, and walking is right in the same ballpark. A blend of the two — surely a main feature of any genuinely sustainable, modern human future — would be far more energy efficient than any conceivable cars-first arrangement.
(All this, of course, leaves aside the question of the energy required to build and maintain the infrastructures involved. Cars-first requires huge streets, large parking areas, scattered building patterns, and gigantic, ornate fuel-delivery processes. Muscles-first living would imply much smaller streets, less need for parking, dense building patterns, and comparatively simple fuel-delivery processes.)
Muscles-first would, of course, also be a far healthier arrangement: Using one’s own body, rather than 3,000-pound electrical or fossil-fuel combusting machines, to achieve the desired movements, would have radically positive impacts on public health, as would the accompanying reduction in exposure to the chemicals and large collisions involved in cars-first living and breathing.
Need we mention which society would be more fun and sociable and sane?