NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Is Walking to Work Worse for the Environment than Driving?

November 18, 2013

Which is more polluting -- driving a mile to work or walking that mile? The easy answer is, of course, driving. But appearances can be deceiving, making easy answers dead wrong. That's the case here when the calories expended in walking are replaced, says Richard McKenzie, Walter B. Gerken Professor Emeritus in Economics and Management in the Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine.

The primary reason that walking to work can be more polluting than driving is that growing crops and raising animals so that they can be consumed and digested by humans involves a food-supply chain that now extends to all corners of the earth and uses a lot of energy.

How can this be?

  • Many categories of farm equipment can be as gas-guzzling and polluting as the 18-wheelers on the nation's highways.
  • Farms use a lot of electricity to run irrigation equipment and heating/cooling systems for cattle barns, pig or poultry pens, and animal waste disposal plants.
  • The nation's entire food industry uses nearly a fifth of the fossil energy burned annually in the United States.
  • Carbon-based energy goes into the production of food regardless of whether it is harvested, transported, shelved, consumed -- or thrown away, with half to two-thirds of the food produced on the farm making it to people's stomachs.
  • Food that is thrown away in consumers' trash bins represents the single largest form of waste that goes into landfills.

Derek Dunn-Rankin, a professor of engineering at the University of California, Irvine, and an avid environmentalist, states, "My bottom line would be that walking can be 1.5 to 2 times more polluting than driving (if you use a high mileage car). If you use a monster car, you are better off walking always."

Source: Richard B. McKenzie, "Why Walking to Work Can Be More Polluting Than Driving to Work," Library of Economics and Liberty, November 4, 2013.


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