Getting Person Out of a Car and Onto a Bike Saves More Energy & Carbon Than Going Net Zero

That's not a bike rack, it's a serious investment in infrastructure at the Bullitt Center.

Lloyd Alter / CC BY 2.0

Five years ago I wrote In Defence of LEED: Stop Bashing the Bike Racks! and got attacked for everything from SPELLING FAIL! because people who are not American spell defence with a C instead of an S, to a straightforward "Are you nuts? Bike Parking is NOT a part (and certainly not a necessary part) of a green building." Or my favourite: "Bike rack schmike rack. whatta bunch of baloney. Give me a trombe wall and some kind of sustainable design idea or stfu."

I pointed out that LEED does NOT give a point for putting in a bike rack, but in fact for a major investment in bike infrastructure. You only get the credit for:

  • Providing bike storage for a percentage of occupants
  • AND providing shower and changing facilities
  • AND locating the facility within walking or biking distance of a bicycle network. The network must connect to the kind of services you would find in a downtown, or a school, or a mass-transit facility.

Yet surprisingly, this canard of the bike rack still is being used to bash LEED. Here is one recent post from a guy on the Woodworking network:

As I was riding my bike to work this morning in 82 degree temperatures, I thought about how silly it was that you could get an extra point towards a LEED certification for having a bike rack. I didn’t need a bike rack when I arrived at my plant, I needed a shower.

OK, the guy makes windows, he is not an architect or a LEED specialist. But he is not alone. Shortly after I read that I saw Tristan Roberts, Publisher and executive editor of BuildingGreen, having to address the problem in an article in Linkedin. He wonders why everyone is still preoccupied with the bike racks.

I guess the criticism is that LEED, a rating system for green buildings, should be about energy performance.
Bike rack = ugly metal thing outside the building for Lycra-wearing tree huggers.
Energy = real stuff that serious people are saving by changing out light bulbs inside the building.

Tristan links back to my post and to Alex Wilson's original writing about the transportation energy intensity of buildings, but brings a new voice into the discussion, New Orleans based architect Z Smith, who does the math and finds that the numbers are even more extreme than we thought.

Do the math: Bike racks before net-zero

The energy content of the gasoline used by the typical office commuter each year is comparable to the energy used by his or her share of the building where he or she works. Buildings have to be pretty close to net-zero energy before they’d save more energy through the building than by getting the employees to bike instead of drive.

Using data on the mean commute distance for Americans and the average fuel economy, he determines that the average commuter uses 340 gallons of gas, working out to 42,500 kBTU/yr of energy. Guess what the annual average energy use per employee is across the USA: 40,300 kBtu/yr per employee. So in fact, getting someone out of a car and onto a bike is equivalent to going net-zero, which costs a hell of a lot more money than a bike rack and a shower. In fact it appears to be the single most important energy and fossil fuel saving measure that we can do.

Tristan concludes:

There are legitimate issues with LEED, but bike racks aren’t one of them.
For anyone who insists they are, here’s a challenge: find another place where you can save as much energy and impart as many other benefits at such little cost. And then let’s talk.

Of course I could also make the case that getting people out of cars or even out of transit and onto bikes also saves energy required for building those roads and highways, is healthier for the people riding the bikes, reduces congestion for everyone, and has many other benefits. But just the energy argument alone is enough to justify LEED's position on bikes. And ours at TreeHugger.