Science has proven that biking has significant health benefits: it’s an energy booster and, like any exercise, is very likely to increase your life expectancy. Additionally, it gives you a feeling of freedom and empowerment and helps you relate more closely to both nature and your community.
Of course, the greatest benefit of bicycling may be that it enables us to break our dependency on fossil fuel. To honor Bike to Work Day, let’s look behind the trend and probe a little deeper. Does car-free commuting really reduce carbon emissions, in a measurable way?
Let’s Do the Math
According to the EPA, in 2015, 60% of all transportation emissions were generated by light-duty vehicles – such as those most of us drive to work. An article from AAA said that on the average, Americans spend 17,600 minutes driving every year. A great percentage of that time is spent for the daily commute.
The average travel time to work in the United States is 25.4 minutes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and it’s getting longer each year. That means that today the average American spends approximately 260 minutes commuting each week, and 13,000 minutes commuting in a year, if they work 50 weeks each year. Almost 143 million Americans are making this commute every day.
Now let’s talk about miles. The average commute in the U.S. is 15-16 miles, one way. According to the EPA, the average passenger vehicle emits about 404 grams of CO2 per mile or about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Of course, the emissions from your own car will depend on how fuel-efficient it is, and how many miles you normally drive per year.
More math: If 143 million people drive 30 miles to work and back each day, that’s 1,910,481 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. In one day. If EVERYONE biked to work on Friday, May 18, emissions for that ONE DAY would be reduced by almost 2 million tons!
Your City, Your Footprint
Numbers on a national scale are a little big to grasp. So let’s bring it down to our own hometown level. This interactive map lets you enter your town or zip code to find average commute times for your area.
Here are the results for a handful of cities around the country:
- Average commute in Washington, DC is approximately 40 minutes
- Average commute in Pittsburgh, PA is approximately 26 minutes
- Average commute in Rochester, NY is approximately 20 minutes
- Average commute in Las Vegas, NV is approximately 28 minutes
- Average commute in Los Angeles, CA is 30-60 minutes
This other handy chart shows average commute times for each state, via both private car and public transportation. It also lists cities with the longest and shortest commutes in the country.
Let’s look at city commutes in terms of mileage. Based on a 2015 article in MarketWatch, here are a few stats on commute distance for metro areas:
- Average commute in Washington, DC is approximately 9 miles
- Average commute in Houston, TX is approximately 12 miles
- Average commute in Atlanta, GA is approximately 13 miles
- Average commute in Las Vegas, NV is approximately 7 miles
- Average commute in Los Angeles, CA is approximately 9 miles
If we tackle the math again, here’s how much carbon emissions could be reduced if everyone biked to work for one day only (based on estimated 2018 population figures):
- Reduced emissions in Washington, DC = approximately 5,633 tons of CO2
- Reduced emissions in Houston, TX = approximately 25,019 tons of CO2
- Reduced emissions in Atlanta, GA = approximately 5,692 tons of CO2
- Reduced emissions in Las Vegas, NV = approximately 4,076 tons of CO2
- Reduced emissions in Los Angeles, CA = approximately 32,310 tons of CO2
Those are significant numbers. But if only one person bikes to work – you, for example – you could reduce carbon emissions by 4,040 grams in one day, even if your own commute is only 5 miles each way!
If you know how many MPG your car gets, you can calculate your exact commute carbon footprint using this formula from the EPA:
CO2 emissions from 1 gallon of gasoline = 8,887 grams CO2
Just Do It!
If you biked to work today – or, better yet, every day – you aren’t alone. The Department of Transportation reports that in 2014 about 4.8 million walked or biked to work, and the number was on the rise, even though on the average, workers now live farther from their workplace than in earlier decades.
Here are a few additional tools that will help you understand the facts and figures of reducing your carbon footprint:
- The EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, which provides concrete measurements, such as the annual emissions from cars, households, or power plants. This calculator can help you determine your greenhouse gas reduction strategy.
- The US Department of Energy’s 2017 Fuel Economy Guide
- The EPA’s Fast Facts on Transportation Greenhouse Gas Emissions
- The EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide
- Calculate how much your commute by car is costing you, with the Commuter Solution’s cost calculator