Peak cycling? Bikes are oil hungry beasts

bicycle built for two 1886

Bicycles came to us with the Age of Oil. Can we keep them once the oil is gone?

I am a keen cyclist. When I lived in Vancouver last year I would cycle the four miles to and from work six days a week during the warmer months. Unfortunately my job here back in New Zealand doesn’t allow for cycling (I spend weeks out at sea on fishing boats) but I still try to get out on my bike as much as possible. Cycling has many advantages over other forms of transport: it’s free exercise, it’s fun, in many cases it’s faster (I could easily beat the bus over my bike commute) and it’s environmentally friendly.

But hang on. Just how environmentally friendly is cycling and just how feasible is it in a post-peak world?

It is true that once you buy a bicycle, the day-to-day maintenance is negligible aside from a few subtle tweaks here and there. Fuel costs depend on how and what you decide to eat. But in terms of construction bicycles aren’t quite as green as they first look and it’s certain that at some point in the future modern bicycle production will cease to exist. Steel-alloy frames and rims, rubber tires and tubes, steel wires for brake and gear cables and all the other components are mass produced in factories that consume a huge amount of energy.

Another environmental concern is, where do good bikes go to die?

Rubber tires eventually wear out and are impossible to recycle without huge energy inputs. More than likely they end up in landfills where there is risk of slowly leaching heavy metals and other pollutants into the groundwater. There are no natural organisms that can decompose vulcanized rubber and so it takes centuries for tires to break down due to physical processes. Steel components break down much faster with oxidation but can also leach toxins into the environment.

Environmental concerns aside, where did the modern bicycle come from and where is it heading?

The so-called “safety bicycle” was invented in the late 1880s and led to the first of many popular booms in cycling. It was the first bicycle that resembled the modern day bicycle, employing rubber tires, a chain connecting the back wheel to a crank shaft and equal sized wheels combined with a lower frame that made it easy for people to learn how to ride. By the 1890s domestically produced bicycles had overtaken imports and by 1900 New Zealand alone had 71 bicycle factories.

By the late 1930s New Zealand had one bicycle for every six people with more thabn 800,000 bicycles imported and many more made locally between 1900 and the 1950s. Then, as car ownership increased in the 1950s the popularity of cycling declined.

Another important step in bicycle evolution came in the 1970s when the ten speed was introduced. As oil prices crept up around the world cycling again became an attractive alternative with ten gears making it much easier to climb hills and cycle into the wind. During this period 90% of all bikes sold in New Zealand were domestically made but after the lifting of import restrictions in the late 1980s cheap Asian imports priced local manufacturers out of the market.

Today almost all of our bicycles are imported from overseas. They are made in highly automated factories that consume huge amounts of energy such as this Cannondale factory in the United States. It is obvious that in the coming years as high fuel prices begin to bite more and more people will turn again to bicycles as their main form of transport much like the days before individual car use became affordable in the 1950s. In fact we are already seeing that as cities put in place cycling infrastructure such as a 70 percent increase in cycling in London in 2010.

But what is also obvious as high oil prices push up the price of other commodities is that modern mass-produced bicycle manufacturing can’t and won’t exist in the future. It is likely we see a resurgence in local bicycle manufacturing, the same as what will happen in many other sectors.

The bamboo streamer

There will also be an increasing need for second-hand bicycle shops and collectives such as The Hub Community Bike Shop that I visited in Bellingham, United States last year.

From a long term sustainability viewpoint an area of interest is the development of wooden and especially bamboo-framed bicycles. The great thing about bamboo is that it grows well almost anywhere with no required inputs and it grows quickly. Professionally manufactured bicycles can set you back thousands of dollars but there is also real potential to build one yourself at a relatively low monetary and energy cost. Initiatives such as the Bamboo Bike Project already exist in bringing low cost bamboo bicycles to the masses in Africa.

So we may be able to build bicycles for a long time yet but where will we ride them? Not many people stop to think how reliant modern cyclists are on automobile infrastructure. Richard Heinberg writes in The End of Growth that where he lives in Sonoma County, California, 90 percent of roads are being left to deteriorate and gradually return to gravel as there is no money for continuing upkeep. It is likely that this will also be a trend elsewhere as the ‘business as usual’ approach comes up against hard resource limits.

All in all cycling is a long way from peaking. The massive resurgence in the popularity of cycling has a long way to go yet. There is however no doubt that in the future our bicycles will more likely be a mixture of bits and pieces that we scrape together from the local bike co-op rather than a shiny new Cannondale. And while that might not be so good for Cannondale it will do both our health and the planet a lot of good.

This post was inspired by Chris @pavementsedge and his blog post Peak Bicycling.

— Andrew McKay, Transition Voice

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  1. says

    Byclycle popularity preceeded automobile popularity by a few years. It was the public arguing for better roads for their bycycles, that created the better roads needed for automobiles to succeed.

    The biggest ongoing cost for bycycles is likely road maintanance.

  2. says

    I had a think about that the other day, imagining busy Via Laietana in the centre of Barcelona, how it will be in the future. And I was reminded by the city’s Roman past, that those horrible bouncy cobbled roads are actually very long lasting, and will probably take over as we build longer lasting roads or patch up the ones we have using simpler local materials(maybe we can find ways to make them less bumpy though). Add to that improvements in bicycle design and you might be able to settle for simpler roads too. We have a lot of local river cane, and a bike cooperative still manufacturing in the basque country( showing that cooperatively manufacturing them is still viable, and bamboo bikes(or at least bike parts) might be worth a go in Spain too.

    • says

      Thanks for the input. You raise a valuable point on the long term viability of Roman roads. It is something we need to learn from in all areas in terms of building infrastructure that lasts for a long time, rather building infrastructure that requires expensive annual repairs.

  3. John Andersen says

    Bicycles will be in reach of many in the years to come, but the wisest route of all on many levels is to localize ourselves to the point where walking becomes our main mode of transportation. With the decline of manufacturing on a large scale, local shoemakers may once again find a new niche.

    It turns out that walking will solve a lot of problems including obesity.

  4. says

    Bikes, in the same numbers as motor vehicles, have a much less significant impact on infrastructure. This is just common sense: less weight, slower speeds, smaller footprint on the travel surface, etc, etc. We could save a gazillion dollars a year (globally, at least in the developed world) if more people were to drive bikes as opposed to ride in cars.

  5. says

    Typical “can’t be done” nonsense article from a guy who thinks bicycles have to be made using modern hi-tech components and have to run on modern roads. I guess he was too busy reading about Lance to read read any books about the early days of the bicycle, when people happily rode cast iron bikes with wooden wheels on dirt tracks.

    Well, I’ll be happy to buy his bike from him when the time comes. He can wander around at 4mph as long as he likes. meanwhile, the rest of us will be getting things done faster and more efficiently on bikes.

  6. Auntiegrav says

    A good article. Thanks.
    I was in a “mood” during the last bicycle article.
    I got better.

    The only think I would like to add is that when you really apply cooperative ingenuity, almost everything (that counts) can be made simpler and less demanding on energy and plastic. See
    Marcin has a great idea, but even the OSE project tends to overcomplicate things. Their goal is to establish the basic features of modern civilization and build them locally. I don’t put so much value on ‘modern’ civilization in the first place. Much of what we consider important to civilization is really just convenience that dumbs us down and disconnects us from why we need civilization in the first place. Less is more human in many ways, and the highest technology should be the rarest and used only when it’s necessary (diverting asteroids, for example). Most of the very high tech (including bikes) is used to distract people from other people, and to isolate them as barbarians rather than social animals, even as they Twit and Tweet constantly.
    The bicycle can be a useful vehicle, or it can be an expensive addiction; like most technology.

  7. Rhisiart Gwilym says

    Karl Drais and Kirkpatrick MacMillan weren’t using much in the way of energy or hitech materials. And the roads were rough. But they got about faster than walking.

    A smithy and a carpenter’s workshop are sufficient to make basic bikes. And rubber can be made from dandelion sap.

    I have a home-built velocipede, and it goes surprisingly well, for long distances, off-road as well as on; carries good freight loads too. Not as fast as my home-built Python trike or my off-the-peg ATB, though.

  8. Gidon Gerber says

    Facts, please! How many kWh to manufacture a bicycle and a pair of tyres? No chance to get the reqirued energy from coal and renewable in a post-oil world?

  9. James R. Martin says

    “Steel-alloy frames and rims, rubber tires and tubes, steel wires for brake and gear cables and all the other components are mass produced in factories that consume a huge amount of energy.”


    Sure, but that “huge amount of energy” is VASTLY (!) less than the amount used in manufacturing cars. Replacing the car-based intra-urban transportation system with a bicycle-based system could go a VERY (!) long way toward addressing both the climate and the economic crises of our day.

  10. says

    Bicycles came to us before the age of oil. The Draisienne was invented in 1820, while the velocipede was invented in the 1860s. The modern oil age began in 1859, but oil was not used on any scale for anything but lighting until the 20th Century. If the bicycle is tied to fossil fuels in any way, it’s tied to coal, not oil. Even so, it is possible to build a bicycle using charcoal or other sustainable fuels.

    Bicycle frames and rims do not have to be made from steel alloy. They can be made from good old fashioned iron or any material that has a certain strength. I’ve seen them made of wood. Modern tires are not made of rubber, but they can be, and rubber is sustainable – contrary to your assertions it can be ground down and reused as filler or de-vulcanized using chemical or sonic methods and reused. Early rims had no tires, which is why early bicycles were called ‘boneshakers’. Tubes are unnecessary if you have a solid or semi-solid tire. Gears are also unnecessary. Neither brakes nor gears have to be cable-driven, but even if they are, these things can be made sustainably using scrap and in factories that do not consume a lot of energy.

    So the bicycle is a lot more sustainable than you suggest.

    Where do good bikes go to die? Well, currently they go to the scrap heap, but that’s only because of our throw away culture. Bike frames last decades, centuries even, if cared for properly. I currently own a 40 year-old bike and it’s in perfect condition. There are currently enough bicycles in the world to put the world’s entire population on bikes and keep them there for at least another century without manufacturing a single bike frame.

    Bikes reliant on automobile infrastructure? Nonsense! The first bicycle craze happened before asphalt roads even existed on anything but a micro scale. In 1895, the US military sent a squad of cyclists 444 miles between two military posts over ground which had no roads or trails whatsoever: they reached their goal in 7 days. Anyone who thinks bikes need good roads has never ridden a mountain bike off-road.

    I think perhaps you need to consider that the myths you’re putting forward are based in auto-centric short-sightedness and prejudice.

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