Sunday, April 11, 2010

Will the post-oil future be bicycle-free?

U. S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood may soon be nominated for heresy-of-the-year award for an impromptu speech at the 2010 National Bike Summit last month. In that speech he said federal transportation policy will no longer favor automobiles over bicyclists and walkers.

As anyone who regularly rides a bicycle knows, this change is big precisely because automobiles and bicycles share much of the same infrastructure. But this very fact may bode ill for the bicycle in a post-oil future.

This distressing line of thought occurred to me recently as I was finishing James Howard Kunstler's beautifully written post-oil novel, A World Made by Hand. I spotted not a single bicycle in its 317 pages. Why? Because in the novel the roads upon which one might ride are crumbling beyond passable. These roads are navigable on foot or by horse, but not particularly by anything on wheels.

But, wait, you may say, bicycles don't need good roads! We'll use trail bikes instead. All well and good. Still, where will the rubber for the tires come from? What we use now is synthetic rubber made from oil. Perhaps we'll get latex from such places as Brazil and Malaysia, that is, unless world trade has broken down. And, the way in which bicycles are made today, we'll need aluminum smelting operations for all the aluminum parts, even if only for repairs.

As simple as a bicycle is compared to a car, there is much that ties it to the energy-intensive, global logistics chain. No doubt we could make bicycle frames out of something other than aluminum. But again, we must ultimately come back to the question of right-of-way. If we assume that there will not be sufficient resources to run a nationwide fleet of private automobiles and therefore neither the political will nor the financial capability to pay for the upkeep of our road system, then we must also assume that the bicycle as a widespread form of transportation will not be practical. Some locales may maintain a few bike trails. But it is hard to see highways being maintained just so bicycles can ride on them.

Let's go back a bit in history to understand why. Bicycles came of age in the latter half of the 19th century. As such they were manufactured on the industrial model. Bicycle owners became a potent force for the paving of roads upon which they could then ride. Ironically, the industrial methods for the manufacture of bicycles and the paved roads which bicycle owners championed became the basis for mass-produced automobiles--automobiles which ultimately usurped the roads from bicycles.

Now, my apprehension about the future of the bicycle posits that industrial society has sunk into a pretty sorry state and that no forms of motorized land transport for which it is worth maintaining roads survive . But even if we maintain main roads for, say, intercity buses, that would still leave all the side roads--roads ideal for bicycle riding--without maintenance.

I'm ashamed to say that until reading Kunstler's novel it had never occurred to me just how dependent my bicycle is on the automotive infrastructure. Could it be true that the bicycle's viability is linked to that of the automobile? Having said all this, I'm hoping someone will talk me down and explain how we might be able to have a future filled with bicycling no matter what the fate of the automobile.

24 comments:

mattbg said...

Kurt,

I think the issues around bicycle supplies are important. But, we had roads long before we had paved roads, and presumably trail bikes would be feasible on such roads.

I think there is a future for the bike. In between the winding down of automobile-like personal transportation (which I imagine will be the first to go -- it is such an resource-intensive endeavor) and the horse, there is a gap where a lot of resources will be freed up for other purposes if they're not being used for personal cars.

While we may not be able to outfit everyone on the planet with a car and its supplies, we may be able to provide everyone on the planet with a bike and its supplies (in lieu of a car).

Cycling In Hollywood said...

i dont know Kurt...you're right that bicycles require some industrial parts, but to a FAR smaller extent that cars

frames could be made of bamboo and tires last a long time, i dont think the amount of rubber needed is going to be the limiting factor

it should be possible for society to maintain a network of bike trails at a tiny fraction of the cost of maintaining roads

even dirt paths are workable if often used and maintained

so all in all, we should be able to continue riding bikes for many years to come even while driving cars becomes impractical

Anonymous said...

Kurt, a good pavement could last almost indefinitely once freed of constant 6000 lb vehicles in favor of 25 lb two-wheelers.

Anonymous said...

Some valid points, some not.
New bike production could be supplanted somewhat by bike remanufacturing--lots of functional bikes are junked every day. I know because I collect them off the curb and donate them to charities.
I think as long as we have a power grid we'll be ok- able to match up parts from one junk bike to another to keep it running. And yes many will have fat tires. I have a custombuilt, blow out the wallet titanium road racing bike- I chose it over others because I could run fat tires( unusual for a road bike) JUST IN CASE.
Chromium steel tubing is pretty low tech and can be easily worked by semi skilled folks( soldered not tig welded etc.
So the bikes will get heavier and we'll all get lighter.
Rail trails will turn into rails with trails running alongside( which are necessary roads for right of way maintenance. If we lose the power grid, then we are in Kunstler land and I'm glad I'm 50 and childless.

Prof pi (Jeff Thompson) said...

A typical car tire weighs about 20 lbs, compared to a bicycle tire at about 0.7 lbs; moreover, bicycle tires could be make with something that looks like the Michelin Tweel design, with a urethane tread that would last for thousands of miles of riding. Most importantly getting wheel loads down from the 4000 lbs per wheel of trucks and 1000 lbs per wheel of cars to 150 lbs per wheel of a bicycle, and speeds down from 60 mph for cars and trucks to 25 mph for bicycles would reduce the structural requirements for roads by nearly a factor of 100.

Anonymous said...

Like everything else, it will depend on location and people. Here in hilly rural Maine, the infrastructure will probably go to horses and donkeys. In a flatter, warmer, more populated area, bicycles may be perfect. In terms of people, we're not total nincompoops, you know. Engineers, businesspeople, technicians, politicians, educators, health professionals, etc, etc, love real problems to solve. As we get shoved out of offices, factories, and institutions we're going to have lots of time and interest in our real world.

Mr. Moai said...

Iron and brass will replace aluminum for the most part but I don't think we will be unable to make things from metal. There were blacksmiths, goldsmiths, silversmiths, bell and cannon makers long before oil came on the scene. If nothing else we will be able to have things made, although very expensively and by hand. Parts can be hand-fitted with blacksmith-made files like back in the old days, not impossible at all. I see a rather hand-cobbled steampunky future.

Guayule is a plant in the southwest that can be used for natural rubber as can dandelion so I do not think it would be impossible to have rubber. Perhaps synthetic tires will start to be recycled and remolded. I bet pitch-sealed leather tires could even work if that was all people had to work with. Bicycles are such a simple, low-resource technology I have trouble seeing them die out.

Anonymous said...

Bicycles will be around LONG LONG after cars are gone.

They can be made from wood too.

The BICYCLE is the most valuable invention ever created by mankind, and will continue to function long after hundreds of other products and their associated technologies have passed into the realm of history.

Anonymous said...

Metal mining may cease one day. However, that does not mean that metals will disappear suddenly. Metals disappear due to corrosion and friction. It will take a very looong time for these forces to disintegrate the existing pool of metals above ground. So bicycles will be around for a very long time. One should also not underestimate future progress in material sciences. Better materials may show up which are stronger and lighter than aluminum.

Bicycles can be used on unpaved roads. That requires thicker and heavier tires and a stronger frame. Mountain bikes are used regularly in the mountains where the terrain is very rough and nothing is paved.

One final remark: The bicycle is indeed one of the greatest inventions of all times. It allows us to move our body with a greater energy efficiency than any other living organism. Indeed, looking at the ratio energy level expended divided by body mass, a bicycle rider easily beats the most fuel efficient birds in the task of moving the body a fairly long distance.

I think contrary to Kurt's pessimistic judgement, bicycles have a brilliant future.

Robert Happek

Anonymous said...

Metal mining may cease one day. However, that does not mean that metals will disappear suddenly. Metals disappear due to corrosion and friction. It will take a very looong time for these forces to disintegrate the existing pool of metals above ground. So bicycles will be around for a very long time. One should also not underestimate future progress in material sciences. Better materials may show up which are stronger and lighter than aluminum.

Bicycles can be used on unpaved roads. That requires thicker and heavier tires and a stronger frame. Mountain bikes are used regularly in the mountains where the terrain is very rough and nothing is paved.

One final remark: The bicycle is indeed one of the greatest inventions of all times. It allows us to move our body with a greater energy efficiency than any other living organism. Indeed, looking at the ratio energy level expended divided by body mass, a bicycle rider easily beats the most fuel efficient birds in the task of moving the body a fairly long distance.

I think contrary to Kurt's pessimistic judgement, bicycles have a brilliant future.

Robert Happek

Andy said...

I too was surprised reading Kunstlers book on the lack of bikes, but I think it was an oversight. Also, it would have made the book far less romantic if his hero's had made their big journey on bicycles rather than horses!

Bikes are incredibly simple, therefore very easy to fix.

There are huge resources for bike parts that will be around for decades; more bikes are sold than cars in many western countries today, most of which end up dusty in a garage or landfill. Even if every bike factory closed today, these sources alone would last for years dusty off old bikes and raiding landfill sites like they do in Kunstler's book for other needs. When all the bike parts are gone, there will be 500m old cars to raid for tyre rubber, nuts and bolts etc. Frames can be made from wood. There are more tricky components like chains and spokes, but people will innovate, eg chains could be replaced by the fan belts from all those old cars.

A great example of the future of bikes in the west is to look to any developing country today. Get out of more developed cities in a country like India and you will see that bikes are at the heart of community transportation. 2 wheelers, 3 wheelers, cycle rickshaws, delivery vehicles, street vendors use trolleys using bike wheels. Most of the bikes used are ancient - up to 50 years old, but still being serviced, patched together, basic repair stalls and smiths keep the bikes going on very few resources and ridden on unsealed roads.

I personally ride a bike 80km a week in Sydney, Aus. It was an rusty 15 year old steel bike, total wreck and I fixed it up from other old bikes I found, I've vowed never to use a new component on it. Its been going strong for 2 years now. The tires last ages, I've used tires that are 20 years old and still going strong. Inner tubes you can fix with old inner tubes. It has no suspension/ disc brakes/ other fancy bits and on my daily commute I ride through fields, off road, down tracks that even horses would find hard and yet have no problems.

What is the alternative? Horses? As Kunstler suggests, these will be owned only by the wealthy and for industry. They require huge cost inputs from medical care, food, cleaning etc. And there are very few around today as a % of population so breeding would take years to get quantities up. They would be used for ploughs, moving big quantities of goods and as transport for the wealthy only. Again, look at developing nations; far more bikes than horses.

Is the future bike free? No - this is the start of the golden age for bikes!

Pops said...

In a world lacking cars or roads, subdivisions and commutes, where is there to go so far and fast it would much matter?

Edde said...

Certainly consumable bike parts like brake pads, tires & chains will be weak links. That said, internal hubs, chain cases and hand made tires are all possible responses. I have a cool video of women hand crafting tires. Steel bikes designed for all 'round travel can last several lifetimes, maybe more. Bikes' BIG advantage is they increase load carrying capacity and multiply walking distances by a factor of 2-3 or more.

whblondeau said...

OK Kurt, a quick remark about something that is considered in neither your original post nor in any of the comments:

Bicycles are at their best in urban areas (and post peak oil, I'm calling anything over 5000 people "urban" for transportation purposes.) Short trips by people in reasonable physical shape, often with a load of groceries or dry goods or whatnot. Human power is very economically efficient for short hauls on the flat, which raises the odd notion that hilly towns and cities might fare less well as we deindustrialize.

Similarly, maintenance of bikeable roads/paths/trails is enormously easier within a very limited geography with some kind of reasonably well-funded authority: again, urban.

Long-haul roads will probably dwindle quickly with Peak Asphalt; but only serious athletes are going to use a bike for intercity travel. Railroads make more sense than either bikes or trucks for most of that.

The resource requirements of a network of bike paths in a densely populated city area would be far smaller, and the payoff of maintaining that network far greater, than (for example) trying to keep all of the city streets in good order for automobiles. Cities will have a lot of biking. Especially cities without a lot of hills.

World Made By Hand is a novel of downshifted rural life. I suspect if Kunstler wrote a novel about downshifted urban life, it would include a satisfactory complement of bikes, rickshas, and the like.

matchstickwarrior said...

On a trip to Kenya, I was surprised to see so many bike, used for everything from haulage to taxis, dispite the obvious lack of well maintained roads.
In many countries in the developed world we have extremely solid roads, which are likely to need less and less maintenance as current heavy motorised transport becomes less and less viable.

Yokota Fritz said...

Perhaps a lesson can be learned from Cuba, where bike use exploded for a short period after Soviet oil subsidies ended. Of course, this was only for a short time so maybe not a great example.

I'd look at some of the initial assumptions -- aluminum framed bikes, for example. Local workshops creating custom made bikes out of steel tubing are popping up all over the place in the United States, and many people interested in sustainability understand that steel is much more repairable than alloy bikes. (Alloy bikes are, in fact, not repairable -- you can't just weld the pieces back together, where you can do that with a steel frame).

Kurt Cobb said...

I'm posting with permission emails sent to me by Jan Lundberg that I think are useful to the discussion:

Dear Kurt,

I've given thought to the question of bicycles for the long haul (pardon the double meaning) for a couple of decades as a non-driver who's a bicyclist. This began right after starting Culture Change, which dating from its days as Fossil Fuels Policy Action (founded 1988) is probably the oldest continuing peak oil organization. So when I sold my last car in 1989, my Buick Behemoth, I started to think of non-car, non-oil transportation every day.

I pedaled my medium-thin-tires folding bike through a wilderness area recently on poor trails to collect nettles. I happened to have the bike because getting to the park on the roads from my home was convenient and quicker by bike than walking.

I've ridden a road bike (i.e., skinny smooth tires) on gravel roads over Humboldt's cliffs over the sea as of 2008, without a problem. I had to go slow where the pavement gave out and the road was closed. After petrocollapse bikes will be around to salvage and refit and reuse for decades. Think of the Cuba car fleet dating from the 1950s, reconstructed and patched up for decades. One thing in favor of there being plenty of bikes to use (and materials for bike carts), whether or not the roads are smooth and convenient for bike wheels, is that with possible significant die-off there may not be as many people wanting to use and remake bikes out of the available two-wheeled fleet after collapse.

I'm not attached to my bike: I prefer walking.

I don't think this idea holds up:

If we assume that there will not be sufficient resources to run a nationwide fleet of private automobiles and therefore neither the political will nor the financial capability to pay for the upkeep of our road system, then we must also assume that the bicycle as a widespread form of transportation will not be practical. Some locales may maintain a few bike trails. But it is hard to see highways being maintained just so bicycles can ride on them.

Have a nice spring out there on your bike or your two feet,

Jan
p.s. - here's a new article about "an extension of bike culture to sail transport": http://culturechange.org/go.html?639

And, Jan sent this along as well in reply to my reply:

Hi Kurt,

Thanks for writing back.

The key issue is that we're talking mainly about the transformation or transition to the sustainable culture of the future (should human society survive today's worsening crisis). So when it comes to bikes, yes they will be around long enough for that interim phase. My opinion is that it will be quick, because we will have to abandon industrialism and concentrate on surviving in our bioregions. The oil industry isn't going to be with us operating on some reduced scale with its whole vertically integrated systems for a smaller and smaller subset of affluent humans.

The northern California and Pacific Northwest Indians had the following system for communication and transportation: Running (and walking) and canoes, nothing more. It worked for thousands of years.

Jan

Weaseldog said...

I think that bicycles will be here to stay.

I don't though, that in a the immediate post peak world that the populace will have a lot of use for them. Their daily struggles to stay alive, won't leave much time for traveling about. This isn't to say that no one will be riding bicycles. Just that this will likely be limited to people that can make a living riding one.

Carl Etnier said...

The Romans constructed good roads all over Europe, without a drop of oil. I bet the chariot roads would have been lovely for riding bicycles on.

Weaseldog said...

Carl, the Romans did go through a lot of charcoal. They made cement by burning up old growth forests, then using that charcoal to cook limestone into lime.

As the forests receded, the cost and effort of bringing charcoal into Rome, must have increased in price.

venturajohn said...

Kurt,
Thanks for the article. Many points well taken in the comments, and I’ll add my own.

I think the bicycle will survive the end of oil, for several reasons. First, the bicycle uses the same fuel as we humans do—food. Secondly, it uses this fuel with extraordinary efficiency—about three times that of walking, based on metabolic demand. Professor S.S. Wilson wrote in the March 1973 issue of Scientific American that the bicycle is the most efficient form of transportation ever devised by man or nature.

Mountain bikes can navigate a lot of terrain, including the most rudimentary trails. Prof Pi and others correctly note that bikes are much easier on roads than motor vehicles.

I see little problem manufacturing bikes post-oil. Before the advent of oil in the mid-19th century, we could make exquisite mechanisms and structures in steel and wrought iron. Aluminum certainly isn’t needed—it didn’t appear in bike frames until the 1980s. One can build 100 to 200 bicycles with the materials in one car or light truck.

If metal does become scarce, bike frames can be built of bamboo with metal fittings. In fact, one can buy these today, as well as beechwood rims. I think tires will be more challenging. It’s unusual for bike tires to last 15,000 km, compared to 50,000 km or so for car tires. I would like to see a manufacturer make tires from native sources of latex, as Mr. Moai suggests.

I recall seeing a television special about convoys of bicycles forming a vital lifeline that carried huge sacks of lentils to isolated families in Africa. Trucks could not navigate the route due to many river crossings, and air transport was too expensive. When it came down to survival, the bicycle was crucial.

Just as automobiles overtook bicycles in the early 20th century due to abundant, cheap oil—cheaper than it ever should have been, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Bicycles, with their inherent efficiencies in materials and energy, are eminently suited to recapture the lead as the age of scarcity looms.

shadowfoot said...

Lots of good thoughts posted here! I'd just like to add that, although I don't see _all_ roads being maintained, if any kind of trade is to continue between at least neighboring towns, there will likely be some type of road maintenance ongoing. Horses, mules or oxen pulling wagons need roads, after all!

This article has reminded me to make my bike parts list though, and go and get some more spare inner tubes and repair materials :D

Heather G

Tracy Lane said...

I ride my bicycle almost everyday, sharing the road for cars with much disdain. This article does make one think upon the relationship of automobiles and bicycles. I wonder though if the author has seen any of the bicycle programs aimed towards aiding Africa, such as re-cycle.org or worldbike.org. Where bikes are being used in shanty towns to provide services where automobiles can't due to lack of adequate roads.

Anonymous said...

people will not even give up cars. they will simply be electric. the roads will always be there. even in roman times the importance of long lasting roads was recognized.

Its easy to write a novel about everything not working, but this is unlikely. people find a way, even with limited resources. The Windup Girl, is a good post oil book, btw.