Athens Community Strives to Find Sustainable, Equitable Transportation Alternatives

Scott Long, the executive director of BikeAthens, poses for a portrait in the nonprofit’s newly-opened location on Prince Street on Wednesday, February 21, 2024. Long started the Fix-Your-Bike program, a free community event that’s held every Thursday, in 2016. (Photo/Nava Rawls)

On Feb. 1, 2024, BikeAthens, a local nonprofit organization that values affordable and accessible transportation, reopened its doors at a new location on Prince Street. After being forced to close in August 2023 due to circumstances out of their control, the nonprofit organization has returned with several sustainability and equity-related initiatives — community-building programs that do much more than your average bike shop.

According to research conducted in 2021 by Data USA, one-third of Athens residents live in poverty. As the national price of gas continues to rise across the nation, increasing as much as 11 cents the week of Feb. 16, 2024, it’s becoming harder and harder for Athens’ most vulnerable populations to afford owning and traveling with gas-powered vehicles.

In addition to the negative financial impact, gas-powered transportation has an environmental cost. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, in Georgia, gasoline-powered vehicles emit 12,594 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere annually. According to NASA,  this carbon dioxide warms the planet and is a major contribution to worldwide climate change and its effects.

 Why it’s Newsworthy: BikeAthens reopened its doors earlier this year and the Athens community can once again take advantage of the resources the nonprofit organization provides. 

BikeAthens Initiatives

Bicycles do not pollute the environment to this same extent because they are powered by human strength and activity. Not only are bike riders making an environmentally sustainable choice, but they are also taking action to sustain the physical health of their body.

A patron of BikeAthens fixes their bike during the store’s weekly “Fix-Your-Bike” sessions on Feb. 15, 2024. (Photo/Nava Rawls)

In 2016, Scott Long, the executive director of BikeAthens, started the Fix-Your-Bike sessions every Thursday night at the storefront. The event invites Athens bike owners to repair their bikes with tools from the shop. The event is technically free, but has a donation suggestion of $10.

They also have a bike recycling program, which partners with local organizations to donate refurbished bikes to people in need. Annually, they donate around 120-150 bikes per year, Long said. In 2020, Athens-Clarke County was selected as a Bicycle Friendly Community, according to the ACC government website.  The county is home to six miles of multi-use paths, 19.6 miles of bike lanes and nearly 60 miles of marked shared roads.

Outside of bike-related issues, BikeAthens also considers transportation accessibility as a whole and encourages other alternatives to cars that are both sustainable and economically efficient.

“We used to teach a class downtown at the court with ACC transit,” Long said. “Basically, they would tell people how to use the bus service, how to use the app to find the routes and all that other stuff. But we’re always promoting people not using their cars to get around, better infrastructure — if we had [a] better connected sidewalk network. That’s something we’re in favor of.”

Zero Emissions?

However, despite the fact that bicycles and other forms of transportation do not emit fossil fuels in the same way that gas-powered cars do, that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t harming the environment.

“There are no forms of zero emissions transportation, with the exception of perhaps walking, but even then as human beings we produce CO2, which you can argue as an emission,” said Brandon Rotavera, an associate professor at the University of Georgia who researches combustions and biofuels for sustainable energy. 

Rotavera considers emissions as “unwanted byproducts of a process.” In the case of cycling, the rubber and other parts used to make a bike may not be ethically sourced, and while cycling, the rubber on the tires heats up the ground and releases particles into the air that can be bad for the environment. Even though emissions from biking might not be as visible as smoke from a car, they still exist, Rotavera said.

Despite this technicality, he maintains that biking is the best form of transportation  for  minimizing public health impacts, as it helps with physical activity and has less air pollution. But, from an equity standpoint, he also mentions that biking isn’t a practical choice for everyone.

“Certainly, if you’ve got kids … you’re not going to bike your kids and all your work stuff on a bicycle,” Rotavera said. “That’s just impractical, I think. So for many, people are going to drive a car.” 

Rotavera also argues that from a certain standpoint, due to the unjust health effects of building electric batteries  in places like the Congo, electric cars can even produce more emissions than gas-powered vehicles. This is a major distinction from what is typically argued of electric vehicles as being the best sustainable alternative to gas cars.

Other Alternatives

But, through his work at UGA with the Rotavera Group, he provides another alternative: biofuels.

According to the Rotavera Group website, over 70% of annual petroleum consumption goes towards transportation. With a combined approach of advanced biofuels and combustion systems, Rotavera’s research team is developing new sources of fuel that can replace petroleum and be cleaner for the environment.

Biofuels can even be made through the decomposition of waste material, Rotavera said. Something that would once be thrown out can now be reused to power vehicles.

Although they take different approaches, organizations  like BikeAthens and the Rotavera Group recognize that finding transportation options in Athens that are sustainable for the environment, human health and accessibility is a major issue. Whether through scientific research or community outreach, they’re doing what they can to make a positive change.

Nava Rawls is a senior journalism major with minors in French, communications studies and philosophy.

 

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  • Show Comments (1)

  • Lila Ralston

    “Prince Street”?

    The attempt to both-sides the environmental impact of bicycles vs. internal combustion vehicles vs. electric vehicles is meaningless without measures. HOW MUCH carbon dioxide? HOW MUCH emission of rubber particles from bicycle tires (as if cars didn’t have tires)? Biofuels must also be produced somewhere, from something, by someone, and produce both waste and combustion products. How do these factors compare to fossil fuels, electricity, or human power? Who knows?

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