Midnight Pub

Biking and Idling


Today B was sick and stayed home from school. Meg had some calls, so I worked from home. It was a fun morning- I printed out fantasy RPG map tiles and taped them to the table so he could color in a world- but it’s difficult to actually focus working with a small child. Meg came home around 1, and I biked to a coffee shop to work for the back half of the day.

The coffee shop is only 1km away, but on the other side of a divided highway. I rolled up to the light, hit the button, after a few minutes the lights changed. I got the walk sign, and the highway paused in both directions… for 35 seconds. During this time, at least 40 cars piled up at the stoplight while I crossed, each idling for half a minute. 40 cars stopping, idling, and accelerating back to 60mph.

So my decision to “bike to a coffee shop” resulted in a net half hour total engine idling time, ~1/4 gallon gas burned, so somewhere around 5-10lbs CO2 in *idle time alone*. Then accelerating again- idk, another gallon?

“Biking 1km” is just about the least environmentally-impactful choice I could possibly make, yet it resulted in the worst outcome. Overall, the externalities of this trip are a fluke- biking in aggregate is clearly a net positive choice for environment, community, and health. More biking yields more bike infrastructure. But this individual event feels frustrating and hopeless. Environmentalism is weird.


What options do you have? If you drive your car to the coffee shop you still need to cross the highway, so you have the emissions of the idling cars plus your own's. One can always *not* go to the coffee shop, but where does that end? Maybe the problem is designing a city with a super highway going through it, but what can one do when it's already built?

I do see the point though, sometimes the best option is only the best with a critical mass, otherwise it ends up making things worse. I agree that it feels hopeless.