Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Garbage Bikes

I like bicycles; our family of four owns eight (and a half, if you count my unicycle). My New Year's resolution for the last 8 or so years has been to ride my bike more (and like all good New Year's resolutions, I've failed miserably).

So I feel as if I should love the "Pedal People" who haul trash around Northampton.

What's not to like? They're working hard, getting exercise, keeping a dirty, polluting garbage truck off the road. And as our local newspaper said in a recent article, it takes 5 Pedal People to do the work of 1 person and a garbage truck, so they're great for the economy.

... except they're actually not so great for the economy. True, it takes 5 people to do the work of 1 person plus a truck. But by that logic, it would be better for the economy to hire 50 people to walk garbage to the dump. It isn't, because hiring 50 people is more expensive, and the extra 49 people could spend their time doing something more productive than hauling trash.

Is hauling trash by bike better for the environment? Well, it is a little more expensive, which means the people hiring the pedal people have less money in their pockets at the end of the month (comparing prices, looks likes about $1,000 $50 per year). If they were going to spend that money on a vacation in Tahiti gasoline for a trip to a Tea Party rally in Boston then the bikes are definitely a win for the environment. But if they were going to donate it to a charity dedicated to preserving the environment or lobbying for a carbon tax... then it isn't so clear-cut.

My practical, skeptical side thinks hauling trash by bike is probably a bad idea; I'd love to hear from some Pedal People 10 or 20 years from now to see if most of them are still riding strong or if they're recovering from knee replacement operations. But I do like bicycles, and if the people riding the bikes are happy and the people paying them to ride their bikes are happy maybe I should stop being such a curmudgeon. God knows I spend a fair bit of my money and time doing things that make me feel good for irrational reasons. (Go Patriots! 4 and 1!)

Edited: I confused the Weekly Pedal People pickup schedule with Monthly prices. Sorry!


Alex Jarrett said...

Hi Gavin,

Your post raises some interesting questions, especially about the long-term effect on our bodies.

I think you've misunderstood our prices though - they are about the same as a trucking company ($30/mo for trucking company, $22-40/mo for us, depending on quantity). And the 5 people for 1 truck quote was a complete guess and probably not accurate.

Looking forward to discussing this more with you. Let us know if you'd like to ride around with us sometime!

Alex Jarrett
Pedal People

Gavin Andresen said...

I'm very good at getting details like that wrong! Thanks for catching it.

Alex Jarrett said...

I'm glad for your post, as it gives me the opportunity to work out the thoughts I think every day while riding around hauling trash and
delivering veggies. I don't think there's a clear cut answer here as to whether human or machine power should be used in every situation. The bigger question is what kind of a society do we want to create.

Let's start with the question of pricing. If a customer is someone who produces a lot of trash, then it will cost them more to use Pedal People. We try to structure our pricing to incentivize recycling, including providing free compost service (source separated organics). It's quite amazing how much one can reduce the amount of trash produced if you are willing to take the time to separate out recycling and organics, and change habits around buying heavily packaged products.

What are people getting for the price that they are paying? Quieter pickups, more flexible pickup locations, less damage to the roads (trucks damage roads disproportionately to lighter vehicles), no diesel exhaust directly in the neighborhood. Every time a truck does a pickup (and they often send two trucks, one for trash and one for recycling), it emits a plume of visible black diesel exhaust at every stop.

What if we do employ 5 people for every 1 person employed by a trucking company? Since prices are similar, we should assume that either the truck driver is getting paid a lot more, or there is profit going to the owners of the business (Pedal People is a worker's cooperative so we all own the business together), or they have larger equipment expenses than us and most of that money goes to pay for the truck. Building, maintaining and repairing trucks takes plenty of labor, eventually going back to the mining and drilling of oil. Do we want that labor here or somewhere else?
Do we want to support mining and oil drilling? The production of bikes
and trailers requires mining and oil. Five bikes and trailers is a lot less metal than 1 garbage truck.

One of our jobs is a contract with the City of Northampton to empty the public downtown trash and recycling barrels (about 80 of them) on a daily basis, which we've done since 2007. In a competitive bidding process, we put in a lower bid against a trucking company. The work involves emptying the barrels into a large bike trailer and transporting it a few blocks away to a compacter where it is consolidated and moved by truck all at once to a landfill or recycling center. Prior to us doing this the same consolidation job was done using a truck and people to empty the barrels. It was more difficult for the truck to get into the tight spaces downtown.
It's clear in this situation that we have an economic advantage as our
equipment overhead is much lower and our flexibility is greater.

There's the question of fuel for us, which is the extra food it takes to power our bodies. Depending on where that food comes from, it could take far more energy to produce the food calories than it would to power a motor vehicle to do the equivalent amount of work. I have heard that eating conventionally farmed beef and riding a bicycle uses more energy than driving a motor vehicle.

Some of us might just go to the gym otherwise, which means supporting the infrastructure of the gym and using up just as much food. None of us work full-time at Pedal People, so my opinion is that it provides us a healthy amount of exercise that we might otherwise have to work out in some other way to get.

There's also the question of traffic calming by having these large slow moving bike trailers on the road. One could argue that traffic having to go slowly causes more pollution. This may be true in the short term, but I take the longer view that we are trying to promote a different
transportation infrastructure where less polluting modes of travel are more accessible. In order to get there, we have to be there on the road now.

What are your thoughts?


Gavin Andresen said...


Excellent comments! Your question about what kind of society do "we" want to create is a great one, although I always squirm at that "we" word-- different people want different things.

The skeptic in me knows that we tend to cherry-pick facts that reinforce our existing beliefs. I believe that bicycles are better for the environment than trucks... but it wouldn't surprise me if that turned out not to be true if... something... (if the cyclists eat a lot of steak instead of tofu maybe).

That's why I usually come back to Big Picture Economics. The price system is pretty darn good at cutting through all the complexity and telling us both what is efficient and what "we" want.

It does fail sometimes when it comes to environmental concerns where the costs are not included in the price, and I've said before that I think something like a carbon tax to capture those hidden costs is a good idea (as long as the tax money doesn't go towards something even worse, like fighting pointless wars or bailing out rich bankers).

Anonymous said...

> The price system is pretty darn
> good at cutting through all the
> complexity and telling us both
> what is efficient and what
> "we" want.

So, the Pedal People have won a competitive bid against the trucking companies to pick up trash in NoHo, and have been doing so for over four years. Isn't that the market at work?

Gavin Andresen said...

RE: winning the bid:

Yes! That IS the market at work; if bikes are cheaper at hauling trash in tight quarters then I'm all for it!

I suppose my meta-point is just that it is very easy to get into a "bikes good, trucks bad" or "people-powered good, machines bad" mentality. I'm really impressed that Alex does NOT think along those lines.

Anonymous said...

Out here in the Netherlands our government manages waste disposal and pickup. No choice for us! We just get a truck going by. We do pay taxes for it, naturally. Less than you guys apperently do but here everything is closer together.