Chart of the Day: Travel Efficiency (Calories per Gram per Kilometer)

scientific american amazing bike efficiency chart

This chart from Scientific American magazine should blow your socks off. A friend of mine sent it to me a while ago. It charts a whole bunch of different “traveling animals and machines” and examines various efficiencies of movement.

Say what you will about bicyclists, at least we’re not lemmings. These different data points seem delightfully random. I’m sure you could find a host of insects that would blow the “man on bicycle” away in terms of efficiency. But if a fruit fly doesn’t do it, maybe not!

15 thoughts on “Chart of the Day: Travel Efficiency (Calories per Gram per Kilometer)

        1. Tim Santiago

          As a Wisconsinite, I would love to see cheese-powered jets in the not-to-distant future.

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I’ve heard this before, and have always been curious what the total energy cost is of the food needed to power the cyclist versus the gas to power the car. That is, I might need 500 calories more per day for my 10-mile commute. But to generate that 500 edible calories, 5000? 10,000? 100,0000? calories of other energy have to be expended to grow the food, process, package, and get it to me.

    This is perhaps a nonissue in a country and age where most folks are consuming more calories than they generally need, anyway. But I wonder how this would work out. I would generally assume that the calories are much more costly compared to gasoline, but a bike remains much more efficient to do its much smaller size.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      How much energy goes in to the manufacturing, maintenance, and disposal of a car vs that for a bicycle?

      Growing food and driving a car both consume some bit of fuel (at least with contemporary mass farming). I’d guess that the fuel consumption for a car is much greater than that to produce 500 calories of food.

      And it can get much much gnarlier.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

        yeah, anytime you do one of these comparisons you have to make all kinds of decisions (incisions) about what to include and exclude. Jet figher pilots have to eat too, of course. Also, what about energy inputs for producing different technologies? What about the economic resource chain that links to the production of the science that goes into the military-industrial complex? Freeway construction?

        My point is only that delimiting the “cost” of a technology is rarely simple or elegant.


    Steve Jobs once cited a study similar to this one (or this very study, I’m not sure) in an interview way back in the 80s. He used the bicycle in a wonderful analogy to explain personal computers: “computers are like bicycles for the mind.” Splendid.

  3. Daniel

    I should probably point out that this is talking about calories, not Calories.

    One Calorie is 1000 calories.

    I figured this out when I did the math and it said it would take 9000 Calories to go one kilometer for my skinny 132 pound self.

    1. Daniel

      I should also point out that the chart says 1.5 calories/gram/km but the caption says .15

      I used the caption number in my calculation but the none of the numbers in this article really line up either way.

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      I don’t actually have the article that this was attached to, only this one lone chart.

  4. Ron

    How about when it’s 20 below and you have to take the kids to daycare before work and it’s snowing like a bastard?

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