MAR 14

50 Miles Per Burrito: Is the Body the Most Efficient Vehicle?

Written by on March 14, 2008

I just noticed this post about some rather clever bike-advocacy shirts at Carectomy and thought to myself "53 Miles per Burrito is a really excellent slogan…but it’s also a really excellent point." The question becomes…is the human body actually more efficient than an automobile and, if so…why?

A little bit of research tells us that riding a light-weight bicycle consumes about 35 calories per mile. Walking consumes about 100 calories per mile and is, of course, considerably slower.

Driving a car ends up consuming 1,800 calories per mile. This sure makes one think twice about biofuel, doesn’t it?

I try to eat about 2,000 calories per day. If that food was converted to biofuel (as most of it could, since most of it is carbohydrates) it would drive a car less than a mile. But if I use it to bike, I could go 57 miles!

So the question remains, how many miles can I extract from a burrito. Well? You may be surprised to discover this, but a Chipotle burrito with beef, beans, cheese, sour cream and guacamole, comes in at an astounding 1,300 calories. Bust a gut with one of those and you’ll find enough energy to travel 37 miles. If it were gasoline instead of a burrito, those same calories wouldn’t even get you a full mile.

So why is the human body so much more efficient than automobiles?

It turns out that they aren’t that much more efficient. Car engines aren’t superbly efficient, that’s for sure. But what’s much more inefficient is the fact that 95% of the net weight of a car is car…only 5% is the driver. With a bike, the equation is shifted significantly toward the weight of the driver, not the vehicle. Only 65 of the 1800 calories used to move the car are used to move the driver. The rest is used to move the doors and the roof and the airbags and the cup holders around with you.

But still, bicycling comes out on top. Our bodies turn out to be almost two times better at converting calories to motion than cars.

Sometimes, if you want to see some powerful environmental technology, you don’t have to look any further than your big beefy quadriceps.


33 Responses to “50 Miles Per Burrito: Is the Body the Most Efficient Vehicle?”

  1. dfresh says:

    another item to consider is that you need a specific amount of food energy just to get by, (did we say 2000 cals), but when you ride a bike in an efficient manner (not too hard) then you don’t really need a ton of extra cals to go 57 miles, or whatever.

    for example, i am an avid cyclist and i don’t necessarily eat any more calories on days when i ride 30+ miles to work and back.

    yeah, great slogan!

  2. beyaz says:

    Jay, Your all-electric car my be a great start, but the electricity for that car was probably “made” by burning coal or oil. Only a small portion is from hydro electric or wind sources. So, your “carbon footprint” is still just as big as anyone elses.

    Besides that, the manufacturing process on that electric car wasted much more energy than the bike did.

  3. jac says:

    great article!
    Love it!

    Bring more!

    Yet, us cyclists (commuters, not going to say racers nor triatheletes cause they all drive to events)
    get crapped on by those in vehicles.
    When we should be thanked!
    Thanked for not:
    polluting their air
    stealing oil from thier children
    using up taxes all that much (roads and infrastructure, policing etc…)

    1000000 reasons why to bike
    1000000000000 reasons why we should not drive.

    yet we get crapped on.
    Must be justification for the masses to drive…
    cause we are easy prey.

  4. Cyprus says:

    hi guys
    I like very much the writings and pictures and explanations in your adress so I look forward to see your next writings. I congratulate you.

  5. frisbee says:

    Don’t forget to compare weight of vehicl
    The efficiency of a car engine can be very well compared to our body ‘engine’. Efficiency percentages between 20 and 40 % are what these ‘machines’ manage. (On human powered vehicles (like bikes) these efficiencies can be doubled to even quadruppeled, differences mainly depending on their aerodynamics and road resistance.)

    One of the most important efficiency differences between car transport and transport by means of walking or cycling, is the amount of weight being transported. Common cars outweigh a normal person by about twenty fold!

    This weight to efficiency comparison doesn’t hold completely if one is to bring in the air resistance, which is very much higher in a car driving at 60 miles an hour compared to a person walking at 4 miles an hour. The car also uses much more energy there.

    Lowering the weight of the car will of course not increase the efficiency of its engine, but most definitely will increase the efficiency per mile.

  6. josh says:

    Give it A Rest; It’s a funny shirt
    It’s a funny shirt, but think about what a car, etc. can do. A bike can take you and a little cargo. Cars can take you, passengers, hundreds of pounds of cargo and much safer in bad weather than a bicycle. A bike can be good, but it can’t totally replace our cars. Plus when you know even a small ship burns tens of thousands of gallons of diesel per week, you kind of care less about your car’s gas mileage.

  7. chris says:

    fuel standards
    To me this slogan brings up a couple thoughts. The first is obviously that we can use less fuel by using our bodies rather than cars.

    The second is that I have been reading so much about the different types of fuels we are putting in our cars, and which ones are good or not, yet we don’t care what we put in our bodies. And as this slogan suggests, it is very important. Imagine if our whole country not only relied on our body more, but tried to make it as optimal as possible by eating organically and healthily.

    Just like greenhouse gases are polluting our atmosphere, we are polluting our bodies with 97% of our food supply.

  8. Tim says:

    c.e.o. of diminishing assets
    Can any of u ecogeeks explain to me why methane is not more widely discussed as an alternative feul? It is dissipated from most decomposition, goes into our atmosphere as a greenhouse gas, redily burns. Why not contain and use?

  9. AndyM says:

    other savings with a bike
    Please understand that I am not practicing what I preach here, as I could stand to lose about eighty pounds, and my Prius isn’t helping me do that. However, one question I have is how many people drive to a gym only to climb onto the Stairmaster? As most of us no longer need to expend calories working on a farm or chasing some beast with a spear, we wind up inventing ways to try to stay in shape. Most of them accomplish nothing else, waste time that could be spent doing other things, and are boring beyond belief. Getting around on a bike, particularly one of the hybrid varieties with its electric boost for hill climbing, would burn calories and eliminate the need for otherwise-unproductive cardio workouts.

  10. we todd did says:

    Your electric car
    Jay, Your all-electric car my be a great start, but the electricity for that car was probably “made” by burning coal or oil. Only a small portion is from hydro electric or wind sources. So, your “carbon footprint” is still just as big as anyone elses.

    Besides that, the manufacturing process on that electric car wasted much more energy than the bike did.

  11. Kevin Hosea and Steven Garfinkel says:

    flaws in the calculations
    its very generalized for them to say 57 miles for biking
    what kinda terrain are they on? is there a wind? how heavy is the person on the bike? what kind of physical shape are they in

  12. jay in baltimore city says:

    my kurrent all-electric car
    I have it all beat. i love driving my all-electric car (no gas. no oil. no transmission fluid. no antifreeze fluid.)

    My car is street-legal (in 35 states) and I drive it every workday to work, to the grocery store, and home.

    I have made a change. I embrace my all-electric car.

    my best, Jay

  13. Willo says:

    I’m proud of you all and many thanks for
    I feel that what you all are doing is the best for our children and our grandchildren’s future (coo dos to you all),May you always excel over those who don’t understand what it is like to go hungry or with nothing but your mind. ;)

  14. rd says:

    ;D :P 8) :o :) ;) :'( :'( :'( :'( :'(
    all good make a car that runs off of fat and sell and ill buy

  15. Travis Bartoshek says:

    Screw driver is more efficient
    A screwdriver is 300x more efficient than a hammer at screwing in screws. its a stronger bond with the wood and per foot of area it takes fewer screws than nails to hold two things together. However, I would like to see it used efficiently as a hammer.

    The same is true of this story, the right tool for the right job. Bikes are great on level flat short distant trips, but who would want to travel across the country on a bike, or cross town in a big city, how about in the snow, in your best suit as your important project is strapped for dear life across your back in the middle of a big downpour. Burrito may be great for the weekend but give me petrol during the week.

  16. Jimmy says:

    I watched something on discovery Channel about how inefficient cars are, but in my high school biology class, we learned that aerobic (normal) energy conversion is only about 37% efficient. If you get 53 times as far on a bike than in a car with the same energy, cars must be really really inefficient.

  17. Manoel Guimaraes says:

    Car is better
    Car has air conditioner, power steering, automatic shifting, etc. You can seat and commute confortably. If there´s a crash, the airbags can save your life. Bike, instead, makes you sweat; dust sets in your clothes and skin; if there´s an accident, your body is the weakest part. Bicycles wins, but I choose to loose!

  18. Roy says:

    Carbon footprints?
    I’ve read somewhere recently that the carbon footprint of a human powered by milk or beef was similar to a small car, and the car wins if you have more than one person in it.

    Not to say cars are efficient, or all humans are fueled by such high-order foods, but sheer distance/calorie isn’t all that should be considered.

    Oh, and in that comparison, bicycles win again.

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  20. Citizen_Tom says:

    Thanks a lot!
    I love the shirts you mentioned! Almost bought all of them :D

  21. Josh says:

    Food Source Makes a Difference…
    The source of the calories has a lot to do with how efficient your “human engine” is. For example, if you only ate meat, you’d be wasting a TON of energy (the further up the food chain you eat, you lose a dramatic amount of energy.) PETA had a great campaign calling out Al Gore about being “too chicken to go vegetarian” and not going far enough as an environmentalist, and Micheal Bluejay’s book “Bicycling Wastes Gas” looks more thoroughly at the efficiency of different food fuels vs. cars, etc.

    Links to both [url][/url]

    Even a poor, inefficient diet is better than the gas-based status quo. Plus there’s dramatically less pollution, necessary infrastructure, and fat people.

  22. BBM says:

    [i]You would eat the burrito independent of driving or cycling. The formation of the burrito is irrelevant.[/i]

    It is relevant if you’re going to try to figure out how many miles/burrito you can go on a bicycle.

    It is not relevant to the question if it is better to drive or bike.

  23. Adam says:

    You would eat the burrito independent of driving or cycling. The formation of the burrito is irrelevant.

  24. BBM says:

    To be completely precise and consistent, you also have to count the energy that goes into the formation of the burito… the cooking, the fertilizers, the harvesting, the processing and transportation (done with fossil fuels) of the ingredients, the distribution of the product to stores etc.

    Burritos don’t spring fully formed from the ground into our hands (unfortunately… that would be quite handy on some rushed days).

    Naturally, the energy of extraction, transportation and processing of petroleum has to be taken into account in this comparison. However this is a pretty small proportion of the overall energy in the original crude (one of the reasons oil has… in the past… been such an attractive and cheap way to provide power). Maybe 20% or less of the original energy in the crude.

  25. Ian George says:

    While I agree with the article that the majority of most vehicle energy for cars is wasted on moving the car itself…

    Which is why I am a fan of vehicles like the Aerorider.

    Regular Gasoline has 34,800,000 J per L

    1 Calorie = 4.184 J
    1,000 calories = 1 Kilo-Calorie or food calorie.

    1 L of Gas has ~8,317.4 food calories

    For Gasoline:
    1,800 food calories per mile is ~4.62 miles per L
    1 L = 0.26417 Gallons ( US )
    1,800 food calories per mile ~17.5 Miles per Gallon
    so while true for some vehicles… many other will use less.

    Also ~9 food calories per gram of human fat.
    1 Pound of Fat has ~4,090 food calories.

  26. 57 miles for 2,000 calories? Man, Heinz’s advertising department could do some crazy ads with those numbers…

  27. ljd says:

    Well evolution didn’t build us to be inefficient…

  28. Hank says:

    Maybe not as efficient
    It’s always hard to tell what happens when you start taking external costs into account. But it’s important to note that gasoline has to be extracted, shipped over oceans, refined, shipped to your local station and THEN you have to go to the gas station (in your car) to pick it up. Food you can acquire while on foot (or bike) :-)

  29. Ken says:

    Maybe not as effecient?
    What about the amount of gas it takes to bring your food to your grocery store? What about the pesticides/fertilizer/harvesting/etc… I think it would be great to know which is more efficient, I think that the added benefits of biking and the requirements for us as humans to eat *anyway* it probably comes out on top. :)

  30. sarah says:

    so how many calories does it take for a wheelchair to go a mile?

  31. nicster says:

    Pizza Powered Vehicles
    in my days as a serious bicycle commuter i always considered myself as driving a pizza powered vehicle. someone came up with the idea before me but i immediately adopted it as my own.

    there was a lot of satisfaction involved in knowing that pizza was much more renewable than the alternative. tastier, too.

  32. Hank says:

    The units are all technically kilocalories.

  33. ljd says:

    Aren’t the calories in food really kilocalories? What about the cars?