Bikes from off the boat

Bicycling as a means of transportation is seen as a viable strategy to combat global warming. Replacing bicycles with cars in America will reduce our carbon footprint and clean our air. A report by the California Air Resources Board projects that for each 1% of light-duty vehicle trips replaced with bicycle trips, California will see a daily reduction of 2,656,035 miles of vehicle travel, 3.58 tons of smog-forming gases, and 20.11 tons of carbon monoxide emissions.

Yet, increasing American demand for bicycles creates its own kind of environmental challenge. Barely any of these bicycles are made in the U.S; instead they are shipped here from China and Taiwan. In fact, the United States leads the world in buying bicycles from outside its borders: in 2007, 99% of all bicycles (roughly 18.3 million bikes) bought in here were imports from other countries.

Why is this a global warming concern? Because the only means of transporting bikes from China to the U.S. is by way of monstrous, carbon-dioxide-belching container ships which are only recently being scrutinized for having a yearly carbon footprint roughly double that of the aviation industry, emitting over 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases each year.

This staggering statistic can only be explained by the enormity of the shipping industry, which serves at least 90% of all global trade, carrying 6 billion tons of freight (as opposed to aviation’s 40 million) and traveling 3.7 million miles yearly. In the process, it consumes 2 billion barrels of oil, and is responsible for at least 60,000 deaths per year from pollution-related illnesses. For more on shipping, see Mark Vallianatos’ post, Containerized.  Also see the CNN article, Shipping’s Impact on Air.

The unique nature of the shipping industry makes it extremely hard to regulate in any way. Ocean waters are largely lawless and borderless, and countries find it difficult to impose laws upon another country’s freighters. This means that the shipping industry will not get greener anytime soon. When demand for global trade increases, the environmental damages only get worse.

I am thinking about buying a good bike this year, to cut down on the time I spend in my car, and I am positive that many other Americans are thinking the same thing. My question is: how long will it take me to bike off the greenhouse gases that will be emitted when my bike is shipped here all the way from China?

Serendipitously, an escalating demand for bikes comes at a time when the U.S. has an increasing need for jobs. A national bicycle industry, including manufacturing, distribution, retail, rental, and repair, would create thousands of much-needed jobs while simultaneously reducing our demand for goods coming on ships from across the ocean (see Bob Gottlieb’s previous blog, Cars and Bikes-Searching for a Green Economy). With an American-made bike, I could ride more carefree.

-Wynne McAuley, UEP Major

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Posted in Environment, Global Trade and Freight Transport, Transportation
4 comments on “Bikes from off the boat
  1. Joe Linton says:

    From one bicyclist who’s already made up his mind: A domestic bike industry and greener shipping are definitely needed. I suspect that bikes, even imported ones, probably don’t represent that much in the way of greenhouse gases – especially compared to cars. The energy embedded in production and transport is roughly proportional to weight… so a bike that weighs roughly 30 pounds versus an car weighing roughly 3000 pounds (per ) means that the amount of energy that it takes to ship bikes around the world would be 1/100th of that for cars.

    A broader analysis could also factor in all the other bike benefits, such as public health, air and water pollution, infrastructure costs (don’t forget parking), etc.

  2. Daniel says:

    It seems pretty clear to me that in order to truly usher in an “Era of Responsibility” we as a nation need to buy fewer things in order to be able to afford to spend more on eco-friendly and labor-friendly merchandise.

    This is a cultural shift that needs to happen. Having just elected a president who knows how to use the bully pulpit is a great start.

  3. Bill Burton says:

    Getting bikes from overseas that come in containers is not weight related as much as space related, as only about 200 bikes fit in a container, the weight is just over 3 to 4 tons. So the container stacks high on the ship and creates wind drag mostly. Luck is the rest of the ship is heavy and plowing through the water, the tonnage of the other items are the biggest contributor to the footprint. I imported 200 bikes from France, and a I got a amortized fuel bill in addition to the shipping charge. Basically it was $2200 of $2/gallon bunker C fuel, about the same as 1100 gallons of diesel. Divided by 200 bikes, each bike required 55 gallons of diesel, Paris to Oakland!

    So if your car gets 30 miles per gallon it will take 1650 miles (55×30) of bike riding to offset the total transport of a bike from Europe. China shipping is closer.

    The point is most bikes last over 5000 miles, some go 50,000 miles. So it is worth getting bikes from most anywhere, just ride them!

  4. Seth says:

    Hey Wynne, buy used! CraigsList or will get you a good local bike. eBay will get you something specific with a little bit of shipping.

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