What kind of bikes can change the world?

Uncategorized 11 10

I was going to post something else today, but an anonymous comment left in response to my last post got my attention:

“The Bicycles that can change the world are not made of carbon, do not have aero spokes, do not have 10 speed drivetrains. More likely, they are closer to the Atlas bike I road recently in India: Heavy, slow, indestructable. To a racer, might seem like a toy. To someone who cares about basic transportation, might seem more like the answer.”

This commenter makes a good point, but I want to play devil’s advocate a bit. First though, let me say that my intention was not to single out racers with that last post. I used to race both road and mountain bikes and anyone who has been reading this blog for a while knows that I absolutely love the sport of cycling. Yes, my last post was based on an email message from someone with an interest in road racing, but I can just as easily cite a similar message from the opposite camp. I received an email last fall from a reader who didn’t like my coverage of the US Pro race. He tried to convince me that bicycle racing is bad for the environment because of the many team cars and buses used, the waste generated, the spectators traveling to remote locations, etc. I don’t want to get into a discussion about the environmental impact of bicycle racing right now. My point is just that you can’t please everyone all the time. Like I said before, I love all forms of cycling and my posts will continue to reflect that.

OK, now back to the discussion about bikes that can change the world. I think that most cyclists, racers included, realize that bikes outnumber cars by a very large margin worldwide. There is no doubt that sturdy functional bikes like the one that the commenter mentioned are still the primary mode of transportation for a vast majority of the world’s population. That may be true, but also by a wide margin, cars are the first choice for personal transportation in the U.S. as well as in many other developed nations. Automobile use is also gaining ground in other parts of the world at an extremely rapid pace. In China, bikes still outnumber cars by a heavy margin, but the balance is changing and stories like this one are frightening. Unfortunately, the bicycle seems to increasingly be viewed a symbol of poverty as the rate of car ownership in that country increases exponentially. India was mentioned in the comment, so I will use that country as another example. India has only 25 cars per 1000 people while, in the U.S., that number is closer to 800 (based on this chart from the International Networks Archive at Princeton). So what kind of bikes are going to be the ones that reverse the global trend away from bicycle transportation? Sturdy, heavy utilitarian bikes are great, but are they really “cool” enough to get affluent people out of their cars every so often for a trip to the corner store, or better yet to work? Maybe the type of bicycle with the most potential to change the world falls somewhere between the solid workhorse bikes of Asia and Africa and the slick and sexy recreational bikes commonly found in North America, Australia, and Europe (Yeah, I know that a number of stylish utilitarian bikes are already available, especially in the European market. Forgive me for generalizing; I am just trying to make a point). As fuel prices continue to climb, I think we will see many more attractive new bike designs that are both functional and aesthetically appealing. I have no problem with heavy slow utilitarian clunkers, but lets face it, people all over the world are abandoning those bikes as soon as they have the means to do so. The bikes that have the most potential for change are the ones that people really WANT to ride, not the ones that people HAVE to ride for lack of a better option. Any thoughts?

Photo: This is a shot that I took last year of a couple cargo trikes in Lijiang, China.

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11 Comments

  1. michael March 29, 2007 at 10:06 pm -  Reply

    James,

    I am of the opinion that high end road & mountain bikes while being fun to design and beautiful to look at are nonetheless just toys when all is said and done. Professional bicycle racing is a multi million dollar enterprise but if it disappeared tomorrow the world would go right on turning. There are many people on this planet to whom the loss of a bicycle truly would be the end of the world. These are the ‘real’ cyclists using the best technology available to enhance their economic prosperity, bringing goods to markets and people to work & school. Without this simple & elegant tool many folks would starve and our world would be poorer for it.

  2. Anonymous March 29, 2007 at 10:46 pm -  Reply

    Well, if not commenting exactly what kind of bike would make the change happen, here are my two cents on why people are shopping for cars instead of bikes:

    Automobile is the symbol of dynamic movement, a passage to future providing us with highly emotional experiences. It is this sensitive landscape which automotive designers skillfully manipulate by sculpting often irrational vehicles to provide us with tangible dreams and satisfy our visual bulimia. In order for bicycles to compete against this dominance, a new kind of aesthetic approach is needed.

    When talking about the passion and feelings related to bicycles among general public, I feel those emotions are all too often characterized with terms such as: practical, ecologically conscious, robust, simple, trustworthy and reliable. Instead, bicycle design should find ways to trigger the irrational in us, make us lust for them. A more thematic visual language needs to be created, one that makes us feel those less rational emotions we all want to experience, be it romance, power, excitement, suspense or any other emotion that elevates us from the mundane.

    As bikes are currently so explicitly tied into their structural requirements, designers need – instead of just adding cream to the cake – be among those who develop new manufacturing methods and material technologies to break free from the restricting technological constraints of today. When bicycle design can achieve similar freedom of visual manipulation as automobiles do, we have a chance to have a fair fight of people´ emotions.

  3. James March 30, 2007 at 8:00 am -  Reply

    Michael, I completely agree with you. That is why I stressed out the importance of the bicycle on a worldwide level. I am concerned though that, though bikes are still the world’s primary choice for transport, the percentage of bikes used for basic transportation is in decline on a global scale. That is why I posed the question; what type of bike will make those relatively few people who have a choice really want to ride a bike instead of drive a car? For a majority of the worlds population, a bike is a family’s most valued possession and, as you point out, the key to their livelihood. I was not at all trying to discount the importance of the bicycle to the majority of people in the world who really need them. I simply wanted to point out that those basic utilitarian bikes are not the same ones that will get an increasingly affluent population on two wheels.

    Anon, Great comment. I think you touched on some of what I was trying to get at. In developed nations it will take bicycles that really elicit an emotional response to get people to want to ride for transportation. Like it or not, people usually choose to buy a product based on “perceived image” over basic facts. The comparison to the auto industry is a good one, because those products are sold almost entirely on image and lifestyle. Most people choose a car that they think says something about them even if they tell people they chose it for more rational reasons. I have used the comparison between a Vespa scooter and a standard Japanese moped before on this blog. One is considered hip and one is not even though they are basically functionally equivalent. Styling may seem trivial to some, but if a consumer lusts for a bike that he or she will ride in place of driving, I would consider the design to be a great success.

  4. Anonymous March 30, 2007 at 9:01 pm -  Reply

    As the original poster of the comment, first of all, thanks for noticing the post. Secondly, thanks for the kindly edit (my spelling of “aero” was pathetic).

    I want to make a couple of points from my perspective.

    Instead of saying “The bikes that CAN change the world” I should have said “The bikes that HAVE changed the world.” Visit India, and see the number of very poor people who are riding Atlas bikes to generate income or have much longer transportation range, and you will see what I mean. There are 1.2 Billion people in that country, their bikes are not toys, they are tools. I have heard that the Chinese “Flying Pigeon” has much the same impact.

    Also, for those who read “Bicycling” magazine, consider the Biketown Africa article, and the amazing power of a bicycle to improve the lives of real people. Most people in the world, after all, will never even hear of a carbon fiber racing bike, but many know that a utility bike creates a vast improvement in lifestyle.

    The point I was trying to make is that a Trek Lime, or similar (including Coasting group) bikes is much close to the sprit of an Indian Atlas bike, or a Chinese “Flying Pigeon” than my beloved Project One Trek 5200 or my new Bike Friday New World Tourist. I love them all, but my high end bikes are toys, the old Schwinn World Tourist I bought for less than 5% of what my other bikes cost to use for shopping in theft-prone areas is a tool.

    Thanks for taking my post seriously. I am traveling with my Bike Friday this week, but if anyone wants to send me an email (I will happily send a picture of some Indian Atlas bikes), it is mrogerc@yahoo.com.

    Thanks again!!

  5. Da’ Square Wheelman, April 2, 2007 at 8:58 am -  Reply

    I’ve been having a very similar discussion about beaterbikes versus the more high-end, high-tech variety. You can see it here.

  6. James April 2, 2007 at 11:45 am -  Reply

    Thanks for checking back in and for the additional comments. I, for one, would like to see some of those Atlas pictures that you took in India. Have fun this week on that Friday.

    dsw, interesting post. Thanks for the link.

  7. Anonymous April 3, 2007 at 9:19 am -  Reply

    These people are changing the world with bikes.

    http://www.worldbicyclerelief.org/

    James it would be great for you to put a Banner link on your blog.

  8. dolan April 3, 2007 at 12:15 pm -  Reply

    It’s my belief that electric bicycles will really make the biggest difference. The term “electric bicycles” is misleading — I think electric scooters might be closer to what I’m thinking.

    Products like the Stokemonkey are a start. We need something to bridge the gap between the efficiency, ease, and joy of riding a bicycle for short distances, and the sheer utilitairan-ness of a car (as well as the laziness factor). Something that is affordable, reasonably fast, can carry a lot, and has the flexibility to be pedalled or powered.

    Hopefully the increased focus on electric power and battery technology coming from the consumer electronics and hybrid/electric automotive sector developments is enough to help propel this area forward. Also, tech like teh NuVinci drive (simplifying the drivetrain greatly) will contribute as well.

    The fact is, we in the US have unfortunately designed most of our cities around cars, so the bicycles that will compete with them have to compete on the cars’ playing field, which means fast, powerful, and versatile. For better or worse, I don’t see any other way than to add a bit of clean, non-human generated power to the mix.

  9. James April 4, 2007 at 11:56 am -  Reply

    Anon, I like the idea of adding a link to World Bicycle Relief. I saw the short banners on their webpage that would fit nicely in my sidebar. I tried to add one, but I am not very HTML savvy, so I couldn’t get the code to work. Does any body know how to generate the code based on those banners to work in blogger? If so, email me and I will show you what I tried.

    Dolan, Good points. I would like to see electric scooters replace some of the cars on the road as well. In the US, fuel prices will have to keep rising quite a bit for that to happen, but for many people they are more practical than bikes for distances that are traveled in suburban environments.

    By the way, Michael’s recent post about electric bikes is part of what led to the question posed in this post.

  10. dolan April 9, 2007 at 4:38 pm -  Reply

    James,

    Part of the impetus (I hope) towards electric scooter-like cycles will be lack of parking. I live in San Francisco, and this is often a prime consideration when I decide how to go somewhere. (I’d ride everywhere personally but I have a 9 month old son).

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