What can scientific models tell us about the world?

What is the mpg of a bicycle?

Posted in Transportation by Alexander Lobkovsky Meitiv on November 10, 2010

The next green thing?

It seems a silly question at first. Digging a little deeper, it is easy to convince yourself that when you travel somewhere by bike, your body burns more calories than if you sat in your office chair. The extra calories came from the extra food you had to eat. The land that was used to produce the food you had to eat could have been used to grow corn and make ethanol. The amount of ethanol produced from the corn required to travel a mile by bike is undoubtedly small, but how small?

To compute my bike mpg we will need three numbers:

  1. Extra calories burned per mile of bike travel at roughly 13 miles per hour (my average commuting speed). For relatively flat terrain and my weight this number is roughly 42 food calories per mile (obtained from about.com).
  2. We need a food equivalent for the ethanol production. Let’s say I go my extra calories from eating sweet corn. According to the same source, sweet corn has 857 food calories per kilogram. So I will need to eat 49 grams of sweet corn per mile traveled at 13 miles per hour on my bike.
  3. Now we need to know how much ethanol can be made from 49 grams of sweet corn. The Department of Energy’s Biomass Program to the rescue. According to their website, a metric ton of dry corn can theoretically yield 124.4 gallons of ethanol. Since sweet corn is 77% water, this means that up to 0.0014 gallons of ethanol can be made from 49 grams of sweet corn.

Putting these numbers together we arrive at 0.0014 gallons of ethanol per mile or…drumbeat please:

701 mpg

This number is not small, but neither is it very large! There exist experimental vehicles that seat four and achieve over 100 mpg. When fully loaded, the effective, per passenger mpg is 400. If my calculations are correct, Technology is about to bring motorized transport close to the efficiency of a person on a bike!

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2 Responses

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  1. Erica said, on October 26, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    I’ve found those sites tend to overestimate calorie burn, especially for experienced cyclists. When I wore a bodybugg, I only burned an extra 17 cals/mile. So a somewhat better number there.

    • Alexander Lobkovsky Meitiv said, on October 26, 2011 at 8:27 pm

      How does a bodybugg estimate that? From your biometric measurements and heart rate?
      Yes there are many issues with the estimate of the bicycle mpg equivalent. The most serious in my opinion is the estimate of the amount of energy our body extracts from food. They way it is computed now is by burning the stuff. Wood burns, but our body can’t get any energy from it if we ate it…


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