Archive for the ‘Efficiency’ Category

Pedal Power

Pedal-powered electrical generator. Illustration from The Human-Powered Home.

Pedal-powered electrical generator. Illustration from The Human-Powered Home.

Many people who have ever spent much time on a bike have considered the idea that the same system could be used to generate electricity. As far back as 1914, Popular Mechanics was writing articles about bikes adapted to generate power. Today, several companies offer kits that adapt or just connect to a bicycle that allow it to be used as a small scale generator. It would seem like the perfect convergence of efficiency, self-reliance, and simple solutions. Unfortunately, not so fast…Generating power by bike may not be such a great idea after all. The first issue is that humans really aren’t terribly strong. A healthy adult can put out about 100 watts of energy for a reasonable amount of time. That might drive a few light bulbs, but you’re not going to run an air conditioner or charge your new Nission Leaf with that. But if you’re going to ride to exercise anyway, why not capture that energy even if it’s just a small part of your daily usage? Well, because you may not be generating what you think you are.

As we’ve looked at before, one of the real bugbears of generating any type of energy or work is loss in conversion. Every step you take to transform or convert energy from one type to another typically has a pretty big loss. Bike powered generators are no different. First of all, the human body is not a terribly efficient converter itself. We use food to power movement. Transforming the stored chemical energy in our diet to power movement already has huge losses. Once we do start pumping our legs though, we still have to power the bike, converting muscle based movement to mechanical rotation, that rotation then has drive a generator, and then finally, we typically have to store the electricity somehow to allow for future use.

A recent article in Low Tech Magazine does some back of the envelope calculations and arrives at the conclusion that just looking at the losses that occur in the bike itself and the generator, roughly 2/3 of the energy you produce by pedalling is wasted. In looking at the energy and materials needed just to build the kit that converts your bike into a home generating station, the authors finds that you would be unlikely to ever even generate enough power to replace what was used to build the kit in the first place. Not so good. But this is not to say that there is no place for human powered work and specifically pedal power.

The article’s author goes on to explore ways to solve the massive loss built into a bike converted to generation. His first point is that your typical bike is well designed to drive you around, not to spin a generator. Custom built pedal machines designed specifically to drive a generator can remove most of the major mechanical inefficiencies in a standard bicycle. But as we’ve seen, anytime you convert energy, you have losses, so he points to one of the best improvements, take the electricity completely out of the equation.

Pedal Powered Machines work by using the pedalling force to directly drive work instead of generating electricity that is then used to perform work. Think of the foot powered sewing machine or potter’s wheel as two of the few versions of this technique that really survive today. Human powered machines go as far back as anitquity. But pedal powered machines really didn’t come into being until the 1870’s when the invention of the bicycle spurred other uses for the highly efficient foot powered design. (Ironically, it was only the arrival of the fossil fuel powered industrial age that allowed for more advanced steel manufacturing that made pedal powered machines possible.) The combination of using the most powerful muscles in the legs, with a compact design, with the ability to properly gear the movement made pedal power vastly superior to other human powered devices for most applications. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw an explosion in pedal powered devices for home and industrial use that only died out as fossil fuels and electricity slowly became cheap and ubiquitous.

Other than a few niche and novelty attempts to bring back pedal powered machines like the Fender Blender, not much has been made of the advantages of pedal powered machines in the industrialized world in recent times. But there are those for whom the unique combination of efficiency, low-cost/simple design, and freedom from industrial energy has real advantages. Groups like Maya Pedal and others have developed pedal powered machines that are cheap, effective, and perform critical work in a developing world environment. Most of these machines are designed for basic farming tasks, water pumping, light weight industrial or manufacturing work and the like. The combination of greatly amplifying the body’s strength without being dependent on unavailable, unreliable, or unsustainable power sources make these machines ideal solutions for the tasks at hand.

So while mini devices to charge your iPod while you ride may be handy ways to harness your legs, think before you build that home generator system and instead look at making a pedal powered washing machine instead.


Where’s all that “green” energy going to come from?

Via Grist, here is what I consider an astounding chart from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. (click to expand)

On the left is a breakdown of how energy is produced. On the right (pink boxes) is a breakdown of how energy is used.

On the far right, in grey, is a summary of the final outcome of the process. This is the first, and most, shocking aspect of this chart. “Energy Services” is basically energy that was used for some actual purpose like lighting your home, driving your car, building your widgets. “Rejected Energy” is waste. Energy that was not put to any productive end. More than half of all energy produced is wasted.

Now, there is “waste” and there is “waste”. A lot of this is due to the nature of the way that energy is produced, distributed, and used. When electricity is transported by wires from the power plant to your house, some is lost (roughly 7%), and there isn’t a simple way to change that under our current electrical system. Back at the power plant, only about 1/3 of the energy in fossil fuels is captured as electricity, a figure that hasn’t really changed since the 50’s. Some of this is due to thermodynamics that make it difficult to transform and transport electricity and some is due to old, inefficient technology, sloppy design, and outright waste. But the end result is that only about 30% of energy used to produce electricity is used for any purpose.

Even worse is petroleum used in transportation where less than 25% of inputs end up doing any actual work. Note that in this case, the figure actually hides a huge amount of waste depending on how you define “actual work”. If the purpose of burning gas in a car is to move around 1-2 tons of steel plus you and your stuff, this is your figure. If the purpose is to move you (provide mobility) the loss here is substantially higher.

Many see great promise in the switch to electric cars. The Nissan Leaf is rated to get a gasoline equivalent of 99 mpg, roughly a 300% improvement over an equivalent gas powered vehicle. But consider that even at that level of efficiency, more than 2/3 of the electricity has already been wasted by the time it gets to your car’s battery (and before you account for moving around 3,500 lbs. of steel, glass, etc.) While an impressive improvement compared to currently technology, I think this best serves to illustrate just how inefficient current technology is.

Another big picture question is about the relative efficiency of end use types. Residential, commercial, and industrial users all waste around 20% of their energy inputs. Transportation by contrast wastes about 75%. I suspect there are numerous reasons for this difference. One is that energy transformation by burning tends to be wasteful. With electricity, that transformational loss has already happened upstream. With gasoline, it is typically happening in your car’s engine, which is not well equipped to transform energy efficiently.

In overview, there’s two pretty obvious areas where it might make sense to focus our efforts. The two main areas of loss are at the generation of electricity and at the generation of movement with gasoline. These two areas have a feature in common, there are actually multiple transformations going on; fuel is burned to create heat, heat is used to create movement (kinetic energy), and for electricity the kinetic energy is used to generate watts. Each step loses a large portion of the input’s energy, typically as heat.

A big factor in most power plant designs (of all types) is water supply for cooling. These are factories designed specifically to generate heat, and yet they go to great pains to have a system to cool themselves down. Cogeneration plants are a more advanced design to directly address this waste. Instead of excess heat being a waste product, it is distributed to be used directly as heat in homes and/or businesses. This saves this lost energy and avoids yet another transformation where some fuel would be turned into heat at the final location.  But the limitation is distance. It is hard to move heat over any significant distance and so this only works where power plants can be located in the vicinity of home and businesses.

Now one way to avoid heat based loss completely is to generate electricity in a way that has none, solar and wind. Follow the little yellow line from “Solar” on the left and notice how it goes directly to the end user, skipping the entire Electricity Generation step that loses so much energy. Of course, it’s a bit hard to follow that line because it is so little. For how much you hear about it, it is somewhat shocking to see how little energy Solar and other renewables currently supply. But its important to remember two things. First is that solar is really in its infancy and it is growing fast. The fact that it’s a negligible part of current production doesn’t mean that that can’t change quickly. Second, remember that a kilowatt of solar is not the same as a kilowatt of coal generated electricity. Bypassing the wasteful multistep conversion process means that every unit of electricity generated from the sun replaces roughly three times that much of equivalent energy in inputs. A little bit goes a long way.

Next, the chart reveals why a general movement away from centrally produced energy to distributed production may make sense. As efficient as solar is, it still loses that 7% transmission cost when it has to go over long distances. If that solar cell sits on your roof, you’re instantly 7% more efficient that a centralized power plant using the same solar cell technology. Similarly with cogeneration plants, it may make sense to start putting energy production closer to its end user. In the past, the efficiency of scale of producing power in a central location outweighed this factor. In the future, perhaps the efficiencies of scale will shift to producing small but advanced power generation systems so every home can have the latest technology in solar, fuel cell, or other power generation systems.

A final point that comes up for me from this chart is just how well it illustrates why reducing energy consumption is so important, and perhaps more important than using it more efficiently or generating it more sustainably. In terms of bang for your buck, it makes more sense to insulate your home, change your lightbulbs, and drive your car less than it does to buy a more efficient furnace, put a solar panel on your roof, or buy an electric car. This chart illustrates perfectly why. End use efficiency matters, but you’re still fighting all the loss that’s happened before that energy even gets to you. Every watt or gallon you don’t burn never has to make that journey at all.

Transforming our energy infrastructure to one that is moderately sustainable is a massive undertaking and we don’t have a lot of time. For now, the fastest and most cost effective way to reduce emissions is simply to use less energy. This not only buys us more time to switch over our generation to better forms, but also frees up funds to be invested in more productive uses than sending them them up a smokestack.

Update: Via Grist again, I’ve come across an article about waste heat recovery in Orion Magazine. It explores the slowly growing market for systems that use waste heat from power plants, manufacturing, and other larger scale operations to generate electricity. One manufacturer of this kind of equipment claims that a single installation at a US steel plant in 2004 “generated roughly the same amount of clean energy as was produced by all of the grid-connected solar collectors throughout the world.”

Since waste heat is typically the single biggest energy waster in fuel burning processes, it somewhat begs the question of why more isn’t already being done to tap this. The article blames regulatory issues surrounding electricity generation and general ignorance/inattention to the potential by industry. The government does not currently recognize waste heat recovery as “renewable” energy which would open up the industry to a number of incentives and advantages that could help it grow. The biggest technical hurdle seems to be that most of these heat sources run cooler than is needed for traditional electricity producing turbines. But it appears that progress is being made using lower boiling point materials than water for the turbines and in scaling down the units to suit medium scale operations.

Defining this process as “renewable” energy seems a bit of a logical stretch. On a engineering level, this is about improving the energy transformation efficiency of an industrial process. If I get an extra 10% of energy from burning coal, how is that 10% renewable? It may be that providing some incentives to spur development and growth in this industry is a good idea. But I think the fact that those would be needed simply points again to the fact that energy is in general, under priced. Fully rational pricing of energy that includes internalities and externalities would make this waste heat valuable enough that companies would be lining up to use it without prodding. Regardless, it does help to clarify the point that making fairly simple improvements to our current energy system may be the quickest and most cost effective way to bring down our usage and emissions in the short term.

Labor versus Capital

Over at the TreePeople blog, founder Andy Lipkis takes exception to water agencies’ typical reliance on technological/industrial approaches to providing safe, reliable water supplies. He compares two possible approaches for increasing the local supply of water for Los Angeles, rain water capture and ocean water desalination plants. Beyond the obvious question of why you would allow rain water to run into the ocean, becoming salt water, so you can then pump it back out and try to take the salt out of it, he sees another lost opportunity with this approach, jobs.

Lipkis compares these two charts:

Source: Pacific Institute, “Desalination, With a Grain of Salt”

Source: Political Economy Research Institute

He notes that a typical desalination plant has only 4% of its costs come from labor indicating few long term jobs due to a focus on investing in a capital and energy intensive approach. By contrast, investment in “Water Systems” like rain water catchment has been shown to produce more jobs per dollar invested than other major infrastructure projects and common tax cuts. Water catchment and recycling requires capital investments, but it also requires more long term labor to build, maintain, and operate. Lipkis spots a key fallout from this approach:

The investment decision towards massive grey technology and away from people drains cash and resources, jobs and vital energy from communities and city. The result is a very powerful contributor to chronic unemployment of urban dwellers. Lack of legitimate, useful work perpetuates poverty, hopelessness, crime, and leads to youth violence.

A general shift away from labor intensive and toward capital intensive approaches is considered normal for an advanced economy with high living standards. Labor tends to be expensive and it is more “efficient” to invest in larger, more automated systems. Lipkis has identified one undesirable consequence of this tendency. But he doesn’t go beyond that into one of the key reasons that this is typical…cheap energy. Seawater desalination is hugely energy intensive. That this is now being considered as a viable solution to dwindling fresh water supplies points to our desperate need for more water, but also that manufactured energy is still vastly cheaper than human energy (labor). Even a modest increase in the costs of energy will begin to shift this equation, making energy intensive approaches more costly while making labor intensive approaches more competitive.

Whether it is through cap and trade, industry specific emissions targets, or other techniques, all recent proposals to change our energy policies have been widely attacked as “job killers”. While anything that increases costs does tend to suppress economic activity and jobs in the short term, most critics fail to see the long term implications of raising energy prices. For many industries, long term expensive energy may actually tend to increase employment as labor becomes more competitive cost wise compared to capital intensive techniques. By keeping labor relatively expensive, we’ve driven our economy toward cheaper, energy intensive systems. While this may have lowered the cost of many goods and services, it has also contributed to job insecurity, higher unemployment, and rising outsourcing. Corporate america might not like expensive energy, but if you actually “work for a living”, it might be the best thing coming.

Market Forces versus Regulation

Reuters reports on growing information showing that while the use of oil will continue to grow for some time, the world’s “oil intensity” (oil demand growth divided by economic growth) is decreasing and decreasing more rapidly. The point of the statistic is that for each incremental increase in global economic activity, the amount of oil used to achieve that growth is decreasing.

“Globally speaking, oil intensity has been declining by around 2 percent annually over the past decade…Our working assumption is that with fuel economy standards, fuel diversification and substitution … oil intensity lessens by just under 2.5 percent over the next five or six years.” – David Fyfe, head of the International Energy Agency’s oil industry and markets division

A key debate for anyone who thinks continuing or accelerating this trend is a good idea is the question of why this is happening. The report states that the declines are “spurred by high oil prices, moves to alternative fuels and measures to curb global warming.” But the article’s author notes that oil prices are “probably” a factor considering that “crude oil hit a record high of almost $150 per barrel in 2008 and are now fairly high historically at around $80.” I’d say that’s a pretty strong “probably”. Other than some fairly minor increases in fuel economy standards, nothing in the article points to any major cause for the decline other than the cost issue.

The experts cited generally predict that global oil usage will peak sometime in the next 10-20 years. But while this is generally good news, it’s a bit of “too little, too late” from my perspective. Stabilizing fossil fuel usage, GHG emissions, etc. is a start. But we’re going to have to actually reduce usage in the very near future. That means either massive, strict regulation of some kind or big price increases to bring market forces to bear on the problem. Given the minimal success we’ve had in the last generation with bringing much in the way of energy regulation to the table, I think we’re looking at pricing power as the one tool that might be able to have any meaningful impact on fossil fuel use. Carbon tax anyone?

Tipping Points

I want to follow up on a tangent from my last point…tipping points in complex systems. This brief discussion is prompted by the following statistic:

In 2008 versus 2007, average vehicle miles travelled on urban highways in the US decreased by about 3%. During the same time period, congestion decreased by an average of 30%. See here and here. How did such a small change in the number of cars cause such a large decrease in congestion?

The answer lies in the way that complex systems handle operating at, near, or beyond their “capacity”. When a road is half empty, adding another car does little to nothing to affect other vehicles’ speed and travel time. But at rush hour, in stop and go traffic, even a single car entering your lane can disrupt or even halt movement for a large number of cars for a significant time. Congestion, speeds, and travel times are subject to a tipping point or “non-linearities” in response to increasing demand. Great. So why is this important?

It is well known that traffic congestion has numerous ill effects. The time wasted has a high economic cost, cars in congestion pollute more and suffer more wear and tear, the added stress and exposure have been shown to have measurable health affects for both the driver and surrounding community, and time spent commuting continuously shows up as a major factor in people’s self reported happiness and life satisfaction. So we know congestion is bad. Isn’t that why we’re doing all these road projects? To reduce congestion?

Where poor road design has resulted in a true bottleneck, it makes sense to invest in improvements to fix the problem. But when the entire system is overwhelmed, does it make sense to expand the complete road system? Even ignoring the other arguments for shifting auto traffic to alternative forms of transport, a simple cost/benefit calculation questions the sense of investing in much of the road “improvements” that occur. Criticisms of most mass transit, bike, and pedestrian projects often center around the idea that money is being spent to serve a ‘tiny minority’ of people who use them. It is true, at least for bicycle projects, that a small percentage of trips occur by bike in even the most bicycling friendly cities in the US. What is ignored, even often by bicycle advocates, is the huge benefit to drivers that even a tiny percentage shift of transport mode can have.

With limited resources, it makes sense to spend your infrastructure dollars where they’ll have the biggest impact. Portland is looking at spending $100 million to build 123 miles of bike lanes. Los Angeles just began a project to spend $1 billion to build 10 miles of car lane. Direct comparisons may not be completely fair. But for the price of 1 mile of freeway construction, Portland will get 123 miles of bike lane. And if those 123 miles shift only 1% of road traffic to bikes (Portland currently has about 7% of commutes going by bike), the entire road system could see a reduction in congestion by a full order of magnitude better.


What are externalities?

In economic theory, an externality is an impact from a transaction that affects a party outside of that transaction. In a simple economic transaction the seller sets a price that reflects their costs, time, and other investment. The buyer decides if that price is at or below the perceived benefit (utility) they will get from the purchase. Standard free market forces will drive the price to an “efficient equilibrium” that will maximize utility for all parties. Simple, neat, efficient. Of course, real world transactions are rarely so simple. Nearly all purchases affect someone outside of the buyer and seller, some to a large degree.

Pollution is common example of a “negative externality”. When I buy a gallon of gas, I pay for the extraction, refining, transport, and other costs associated with making that item available to me. But when I burn it, I release a small amount of toxic chemicals into the air that have health and other impacts on those around me. The costs associated with that pollution is borne by a large number of people who had no say in the transaction. The seller and I have externalized those costs because they did not show up in the cost of the gas itself. If one could calculate the full impact of that purchase, in simple economic theory, in should be brought back into the cost of the product itself.

This was the general thinking behind many of the taxes and court judgments brought against tobacco producers in recent years. The argument is that they externalized the health costs associated with their product and profited unfairly because many costs were paid by people who did not choose to buy the product.

Of course, externalities can be positive as well. A store owner who launches an advertising campaign may benefit neighboring businesses by drawing more traffic to their shared location. Some positive externalities are not so simple or financial. A common example is in building a network. If I am the only person with a phone, it is useless. But when a second person buys one, it begins to have a potential benefit, so I have profited from their purchase. Of course, two phones in the world are still fairly useless. The network needs to grow to the point that there is a good likelihood that a person I want to call will also have a phone. As more people buy their way into the network, the value of the network to every other person increases as does the utility of their original purchase. Network externalities often have a tipping point  where they go from limited usefulness to good utility rapidly as the network achieves a critical mass of users.

Externalities can distort prices because all costs do not show up in the purchase. They also tend to cause an unfair distribution of profits (utility) to the parties that engage in the transaction. On a larger scale, they can also distort markets, development patterns, urban planning, even foreign policy. In the US, we subsidize home ownership through tax breaks. While the justification is based on the perceived positive externalities of more people owning homes, it does distort the relative prices of renting versus buying. Buying is encouraged, which increases demand for homes, spurring developments, spurring more lenders to compete for home buyers, spurring them to lower lending standards,…you see where I’m going.

Of course, part of the problem is that it’s often hard to calculate or fairly distribute the external costs. What are the externalities of a street light? Only a few people get the direct benefit of any particular light. But we all pay for the electricity, pollution, maintenance, etc. But how do you charge for a street light?

One big issue with externalities is that they tend to distort investment by forcing spending on issues that people may never have chosen to invest in. This distorts markets, leaving them in inefficient equilibriums, which in turn means that we are not maximizing utility across all parties.

I’ll be applying this concept to a lot of different issues in the future. But for now, let’s list a few possible situations and some of their unaccounted for negative (and positive) externalities.

  • Coal derived electricity – air pollution, GHG emissions, mountain top removal, jobs, cheap electricity that spurs economic growth
  • Car centric transport system – pollution, land use issues, health impacts/injuries, isolating development patterns, large financial investments that could be more efficiently invested elsewhere, personal freedom
  • Public transit & bike lanes – large financial investment by non-users, decrease in traffic congestion and pollution, better mobility for all economic levels (Note: a classic example of network issues. Large upfront investment that only begins to pay off once a critical mass is reached in usage)
  • Subsidized water – cheaper food, promotes excessive use driving up waste treatment costs, promotes planting and development planning that increase fire risk

Max Utility

efficiency1Probably about time to explain what the title of this blog means. Max utility is short for “maximum utility”, a fundamental principle in both economic theory and certain philosophical schools. I’m neither an economist nor a philosopher. But in this principle lies an interesting intersection between these two seemingly very different modes of thought as well as with a third key concept (and perhaps the secret subject of this blog), efficiency.

First to explain a few terms. In economic theory, utility “is a measure of the relative satisfaction from, or desirability of, consumption of various goods and services.”1 In short, a measurement of the benefit, happiness, satisfaction, etc. that someone gets from objects or activities. It’s commonly assumed that people will seek to maximize their own utility, meaning they try to make their life as pleasurable as possible, at least by their own definition of pleasure. Much of economic thinking is built on the idea that the purpose of commerce (economic activity) is to increase the utility of the people who engage in it. Ideally, our system is designed to “maximize” utility meaning that all people are getting as much satisfaction as is possible. This state can be described as “Pareto efficient”. A situation is said to be Pareto efficient if there is no way to rearrange things to make at least one person better off without making anyone worse off.2 While not everyone would agree that this is the best goal to pursue, almost all would agree that it is best to avoid situations that are not Pareto efficient. If you can increase someone’s satisfaction without decreasing anyone else’s, it’s hard to argue against making the change.

Of course, a key weakness of much of economic theory is that it attempts to define everything in economic terms; reducing notions of happiness or satisfaction to dollars and products. While I wouldn’t look to economics to guide us necessarily to a better world (I doubt many would argue they’ve been doing a good job of that lately), it does have tools and concepts that can aid in that pursuit. Economics does not do a great job of explaining what our goals should be. However, it can do an excellent job of figuring out how to prioritize issues, allocate resources, and build systems that will effectively and efficiently achieve our goals.

On the subject of goals, utility is most often associated with the philosophical school of thought known as utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is based on the idea that the “moral worth of an action is determined solely by its contribution to overall utility: that is, its contribution to happiness or pleasure as summed among all people.”3 So not only is the most economically efficient course the one that maximizes satisfaction, it is also the most moral course of action. While mostly referenced to the work of John Stuart Mill, this concept may be most widely known as expressed by Spock in his declaration that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”4 While logic would seem to demand this course of action, in its simple form, utilitarianism does lead to some counter intuitive moral demands. If two people are dying of kidney failure, am I morally required to sacrifice my life and donate both kidneys based on the idea that two lives are worth more (and create more utility) than one? There are attempts, such as rule utilitarianism, to modify simple utilitarianism to account for these logical extremes.5 I’m no expert or visionary. I don’t think simple utility maximization can always tell us the most efficient or moral course of action. Arguments on morality have, and likely will continue on indefinitely. So I’m content to say that all other things being equal, pursuing the course that maximizes the happiness and satisfaction of all people seems like a good place to start.

So where do these concepts get us? They both build a worldview on the notion of efficiency. A system (moral or economic) that has inherent waste cannot fully maximize the satisfaction of its members. And this may be the most important lesson for us in the near future. The 20th century will be remembered for many things, but one feature that underlies many of them is the massive abundance of resources. Industrialization built a world unlike any seen before, and truly did pull vast numbers of people out of difficult, dangerous, low-utility lives. But many of these advances were built on the assumption of inexhaustible resources. When you assume that supplies of oil or water are infinite, the commodity is priced solely at the cost of extraction, not its “true” value, and you encourage a system that wastes more than it uses. When you assume that pollution has zero cost, the economic system will ignore it when trying to maximize utility and we’re beginning to see how far off we may have gone with that single miscalculation. Some blame capitalism itself for the problems we are now waking up to. It’s not difficult to see their point, though they often fail to show evidence of a better system. But like all logic based systems, it will only give you a valid answer if you set up valid assumptions. Otherwise, it’s ‘garbage in – garbage out’.

I believe we can use the power of capitalism, the free market, and notions of utility to pursue a better way. Input the true costs, limits, needs, and benefits into your calculations and I think we do have a chance to construct a system that actually does increase the average happiness of ALL people and not just those who have gamed or learned to manipulate the system to their benefit.

In the future I hope to explore ways that I think we can do that. Hopefully I’ll inspire some ideas or generate discussion that will lead to other good directions.


4) (paraphrased)

Efficient Flow

TrafficThe main justification of the drop bar riding position is that it is “faster”. This of course is correct in terms of aerodynamics, power output, and the like. What it doesn’t take in to account is the environment you are riding in. For urban riding, what is the fastest? When you’re the lone biker on a busy street full of cars, speed is usually your friend. I believe it is safer to have less of a difference between your speed and that of the cars around you. Since lights are timed for fast moving cars, you are also more likely to move through intersections if you are closer to automotive speeds. The flip side of riding hard though is time spent before and after the ride. Special shoes, secure your pants leg, maybe even a full outfit change? After the ride comes the cool down period before you’re ready to reenter polite society. Like many a car I’ve seen gunning the gas, just to hit that red light, I wonder if we sometimes mistake max velocity for speed. Door to door, what really gets us there faster?

In Berlin, I’ve seen this affect amplified. Nearly everyone seems to trudge along at an easy 8-10 mph pace. Pleasant enough, but it feels painfully slow for someone used to revving up the heart rate on every ride. But I quickly notice the housewife I passed in a flurry 2 blocks back catching up to me at the next light…and then again after my normal cruising pace sends me past her once we start moving again. Why am I breathing harder than she is when we’re covering the same distance in the same time?

In this town, what seems leisurely, is actually efficient. With most people riding the same style bike, a dominant speed takes over, and trying to exceed it means you are constantly trying to find a place on the bike path to pass, zipping away only to run up to the next group cruising along. When there are enough bikes about to actually constitute “traffic”, suddenly, other factors apply. Like the impatient commuter making 20 lane changes in stop and go traffic only to find himself back behind that same truck, sometimes the fastest speed is the one that moves you smoothly and evenly with those around you.

In Los Angeles, you become so accustomed to viewing the riding environment as a threatening wilderness, full of threats to be avoided…challenges to conquer. Beyond the efficiency of moving through space as part of a steady, non-turbulent flow, what does it mean to the other parts of our routine to move in concert with those around us rather than trying to grab the most (speed or whatever else) the situation seems to allow?