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.