Cyclists around the country bared their bottoms to protest Big Oil last Saturday. Bikers from New York to Seattle to Miami trolled around their cities — sans vetements — as part of the World Naked Bike Ride, an organization whose mission might as well read: strip ‘n ride for human rights.
I usually listen to bike enthusiasts with the same level of attention I give to people who tell me to install an alarm system for my apartment. It’s a good idea, but it’s just not part of my lifestyle.
But this year, I’m hearing the tooting horns of these spokespeople for the bicycling life, and I’m thinking about climbing aboard that outrageously uncomfortable bike seat. (But I plan to do it fully clothed.)
Because here’s the thing: Not only were those bare-naked bikers reducing fossil fuel emissions, they were looking great doing it. They combined two endeavors that interest me — working on my ecological footprint, and working on my glutes.
In the wake of the BP oil disaster, the blogosphere has been abuzz with people telling one another to start riding bicycles. (And these are not just folks who are willing to get naked for the cause). New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote admiringly about his writer friend who called for each of us to make personal, sustainable life choices, like committing to riding a bike to work or planting a garden to contribute to a global effort to reduce oil dependence.
On the other hand, it can be hard to make the political personal. Ann Friedman recently asked in The American Prospect, “Do most Americans — who don’t live on the Gulf Coast and are watching the oil spill from afar — really connect this environmental disaster to their own energy use? When they turn on the air conditioning this summer, will they picture crude gushing into the gulf and birds slick with oil?”
Many Americans might not be able to relate to oil-soaked birds as they flip on their ACs or hop into their SUVs. But most of us can relate to the desire to lose weight. A 2009 Gallup poll found that more than half of all Americans (55 percent) want to lose weight, while only half that number (27 percent) were seriously trying to do so.
We’ve all heard the environmental arguments plenty of times before. The United States produces more carbon emissions than any country other than China, yet we make up less than 5 percent of the world’s population. Studies have shown that “few methods of reducing carbon emissions are as effective as substituting a bicycle for a car on short trips,” Lester Brown writes in “Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.” Biking reduces pollution, congestion, traffic, and noise — all while contributing to bodily health.
But efforts to mobilize Americans to use bikes as transport have been stagnating since the very first Bike-to-Work Day in 1952, when the League of American Bicyclists came up with a publicity stunt to encourage workers to wheel themselves to the office. National environmental organizations and lobbying groups like Transportation Alternatives have been explaining messages of sustainable transport to the country for decades. Every year, naked bikers take to the streets with body paint reading “Less Gas, More Ass,” and “Natural Gas Only.”
Unfortunately, America hasn’t listened. We use bikes for only 1 percent of all trips, compared to the Netherlands — a leader in bike-friendly urban planning — where 27 percent of trips are cycled (check out this video of rush hour in Utrect).
Maybe it’s time to change gears.
New disasters require new strategies. I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t care about the damage being done to the environment. On the contrary: we should care deeply, and we must, if we have any chance of surviving on a ravaged planet. But people are more likely to participate in a social cause when they are personally motivated to do so. It shouldn’t matter whether that motivation comes from biking to work to lose weight, or planting a community garden because you have a crush on the lady at the seed nursery, as long as you do it.
So I am pledging to replace at least seven short trips each week that I would ordinarily take via car, with a bicycle, and I’m planning to lose weight while I’m at it. I will bike two miles to the train station in the morning to catch my commuter rail to the office. I will bike to meet friends in the park on weekends. I will bike to my local coffee shop. I will equip my bicycle with a basket, so that I can bike to the deli for my gallon of milk and loaf of bread. Seven is a small number, but I have to start somewhere — no one can go from bench-pressing 45 pounds to 245 overnight.
By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, if everyone in the United States (aged 19-64, or 61percent of the population) similarly replaced 21 miles of car travel each week with bicycling, we would bike a collective 4 billion miles. We would each save nearly one gallon of gas per week, for a collective total of 188 million gallons, or 9.4 billion gallons annually. The 188 gallons of gas we would save in a week through bicycling is equivalent to two times the amount of gas that could have been refined from the crude that has gushed into the gulf in past 59 days.
Let me put it another way. It we replace 21 miles of car travel with bicycle travel, we could each lose approximately a quarter of a pound per week. If we kept up the pace, we could hypothetically lose 13 pounds in a year, collectively shedding nearly 4 billion pounds.
At the end of the day, this is a personal choice, and there is only one question behind it: Will we summon the motivation to replace our sunny-day leisure bikes and our cobwebbed garage bikes with a serious commitment to an alternative lifestyle? Whether that motivation springs from a love of the earth’s natural resources or a personal goal is insignificant.
My commitment starts with seven trips. And less-than-killer glutes that I have high hopes for.