A new spin on an old standby

By RICHARD STOWE, a REP member in Connecticut

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: published in the Hartford Courant on August 19, 2007. Also appeared for 90 days on Government Innovations Network, a web site of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government


We now know that our seemingly insatiable appetite for petroleum is taking us down a dangerous road, one that leads to biodiversity collapse, climate change and geopolitical instability.

The solution often put forward to reduce petroleum use — increase the use of biofuels — comes with its own set of problems. A doubling of corn prices in the past year probably is related to an increasingly larger share of corn production diverted to making ethanol. Indonesia’s push to use palm oil for biofuel could decimate habitat critical to Sumatran tigers, Asian elephants and other important species.

Here is the quintessential opportunity to think globally and act locally. We can lessen the threat to our food supply and animal habitats if we will just use our own bodies a little more. We should follow Shawn Liprie’s example.

I bumped into Shawn recently at the Westport Farmers Market. A Westport resident and single mom with three children, she rolled up with a BOB trailer — which carries up to 50 pounds — attached to her bicycle.

Shawn is fit — she plays quarterback in a women’s football league, plays golf and tennis and kayaks. She even cuts her lawn with a manual push mower. A proud mother, she let me know that a Staples High School graduation ceremony photo of her daughter, Amber Coutermash, had just appeared on the front page of a Westport newspaper.

The trailer, she explained, enables her to shop at grocery stores or carry out many other errands by bicycle. That day, aside from going to the farmers market, she would bike to Fed Ex, the bank, a golf course to sign up for tee times, and to a football game. Shawn even hopes to find or design a trailer to carry her kayak down to Long Island Sound by bicycle.

She said she started using the bike trailer for environmental reasons as well as fun and exercise. “I wish more people would try it and see how easy it is. Even my push mower for my lawn is fun and I don’t have the hassles of oil, gas and mechanical breakdowns,” she reports.

Shawn’s car mostly sits in her driveway. That’s quite a feat in Westport, the heart of the Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk-Danbury sprawlopolis, which ranked No.7 out of the 10 worst cases of urban sprawl in a 2002 report released by Smart Growth America, Rutgers University, and Cornell University.

Another option for hauling goods by bicycle are the gonzo California-designed, Taiwan-built Xtracycle Sport Utility Bicycle, which extends your conventional bicycle by 15 inches (frame extender, rack and panniers add only nine pounds to an existing bicycle, but enables cyclists to carry up to an extra 150 pounds and that may include a passenger). Another still is the made-in-Iowa Bikes at Work trailer available in three lengths, weighing between 27 and 43 pounds, which can carry bulky items, even refrigerators, up to 300 pounds.

Fifty-four percent of Americans live less than five miles from work. Many errands and activities are within that distance, too. At five miles or less, car engines are cold. Cold engines are fuel-thirsty and release considerably more pollutants on a per-mile basis than warm engines.

In terms of energy efficiency, bicycling is the clear winner over competing modes. The calories required for a 10-mile roundtrip by car is 18,600 (a half-gallon of gasoline); bus 9,200; train 8,850 and walking 1,000. By bicycle, it is 350 calories.

In terms of space requirements, or water consumption, bicycling is even more efficient: 12 bicycles fit in the space required by one car in a parking lot; 40 gallons of water are used to refine each gallon of gasoline a car burns.

So if more of us did what Shawn does, we’d save the earth from global warming and burn off some extra calories in the process.