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If every American living within five miles of work commuted by bike just one day a week, it would be like taking a million cars off the road entirely.

Photograph by Empipe/Shutterstock

By Brian Handwerk

for National Geographic

Shopping Tips

Bicycles are green machines: They don’t consume fossil fuels or produce air pollution. Find one you like, and you'll be able to use it for years to come.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) estimates that if Americans living within five miles of their workplace (about half the population, according to the U.S. Census) rode a bike to work just one day a week, it would save almost five million tons of global-warming pollution every year. That’s like taking a million cars off the road entirely.

But some bikes are more green than others. When shopping for one, consider the following:

  • Materials: Bike frames come in more varieties than many people realize. The size of your bike's environmental footprint can vary even before it hits the road.

    Think twice before buying a bike with a carbon fiber frame. The energy-intensive process of creating and molding these materials produces toxic wastes. These frames are less durable than others and can be difficult to repair—a combination that often lands the non-recyclable materials on the garbage heap.

    Making frames of metals like steel, aluminum, and titanium is also energy intensive, but these metals tend to be more durable and thus last far longer than titanium. Most metal frames are also recyclable.

    In recent years, some eco-conscious bikemakers have embraced hardwood and even bamboo. These materials are generally renewable and biodegradable if they are not treated too heavily with chemicals.

    Aficionados say frames can do more than make a green statement—performance reviews for energy-saving frames are often excellent.

  • Form and Function: A wide variety of folding bikes are easy to bundle up when not in use and carried like a piece of luggage. What makes these models more green? You just might use them more often.

    Daily commutes or other trips too long for bikes alone, for example, can be easily handled by riding part of the way and simply carrying your compact bike onto a train or bus. Public transport commuters dealing with rush-hour “bike bans” enjoy the same advantage . City-dwellers can simply fold their rides for storage.

    These factors of ease and convenience mean that many folding bikes are ridden, to the environment’s benefit, while their rigid counterparts are left in the garage in favor of motorized transportation.

  • Buy local: The green mantra heard for so many products packs a double-edged benefit when it comes to bicycles. When you purchase your bike from local builders or suppliers you cut down on energy costs involved with shipping it halfway around the world.

    Bike production involves some processes, such as heating and molding frames, that not only consume energy but potentially release toxins into air and water. Choosing components from local producers can mean your bike is made where environmental regulations “green” this process significantly, instead of giving your business to communities where such environmental concerns may not be considered.

  • Eco-Accessories: Cyclists tend to accumulate a lot of accessories for their bikes. Chances are very good that whatever you need can be found in an environmentally friendly version.

    The same pedal-pushing that gets you around can also generate power for everything from headlights to iPods. Hub dynamos are tiny electric generators, hidden in the wheel’s hub, that produce a steady current while you ride. Originally designed for headlights, these have been adapted in recent years to power bike-mounted charges that use dynamo energy to power everything from phones to GPS units to onboard stereo systems.

    If you are without a hub generator, you can still light up the night in environmentally friendly fashion. Some models feature built-in solar panels, which recharge an onboard battery, saving some of the endless succession of battery production and landfilling.

    Plastic handlebar tape is petroleum-based, but there is an environmentally friendly option. Fans of organic cotton bartape claim it allows their hands to “breathe” better on the bars.

    Stay hydrated without investing in a bottle likely to be around 1,000 years from now. Polyethylene water bottles are made of biodegradable plastic that, if thrown in a landfill, attracts microbes to break down a bottle within 18 months. These bottles are also recyclable.

    You have to lubricate your chain, but you don’t have to smother it with non-renewable petroleum products. Try using oil from sustainable sources such as veggies. Chain lube products based on canola or other biodegradable oils can keep your bike spinning smoothly.

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