Thursday, 29 March 2012
Is There a Place for Bicycles After the Age of Fossil Fuels?
As we move beyond the first decade of the 21st Century, the specter of Peak Oil is getting more and more air time and being viewed as a real threat by many people. Now I'm not going to get into a debate about "Is it real or isn't it?" I'm more concerned about what i see as a more interesting question: If we assume, just for the sake of discussion, that Peak Oil were real, what place would bicycles have in a post-peak world?
I've had this discussion in a couple of Peak Oil forums, and the general opinion seems to be that they have little or no place. Even among scientists and writers who write on the subject, the bicycle gets very little mention. Generally, among the proponents of peak oil (most of whom have not cycled since they were kids), bicycles are regarded as toys, and are seen as having all the drawbacks of toys: i.e. they don't work without good roads, they break easily, you can't get replacement parts - and even if bikes did work, they cannot be used to help do the kinds of work that will need to be done in a post-carbon world. Even those who see bicycles as vehicles tend to downplay their usefulness in a post-peak world: people argue that they need delicate machinery, specialized polymers, high-end steel tubing and ball bearings, tires made from petro-chemicals, etc., etc.
I don't buy these arguments. Anyone who knows the history of the bicycle knows that the first bikes were made in the 1800s, out of low-end steel (or even iron) and sported tires made from good old fashioned renewable tree rubber. Also, the fact that a number of people have made working bicycles from wood, bamboo, etc. seems to call into question the notion that bikes need fossil fuels in order to exist.
Personally, I think the bicycle will be with us as long as we have a reason to travel over 4mph; I think bikes can work fine on dirt tracks; I think their use as heavy-load-carrying vehicles during the Vietnam War shows that, if anything, the bicycle is over-engineered, strong, rugged and will work in difficult conditions. I think history has shown that those who underestimate the bicycle often do so at their peril - the British did it at Singapore in 1942, when the Japanese soldiers, on bicycles, overran Malaya and surrounded the British garrison, resulting in the largest British surrender in history and the fall of Britain's 'Gibraltar of the East'.
But what do others think? Must the age of the bicycle end with the end of fossil fuels, or will that be only the beginning for the humble and disregarded bike?