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?


  1. The assumption I hear, implicitly, seems to be that we will continue our current lifestyle but just find a different mix of energy sources. That may be true if enough ingenious people find major breakthroughs in solar conversion, chemical storage (batteries), etc. I'm not so convinced that paradigm is a good idea but my crystal ball has been notorious for being in the shop for repairs.

    Fossil fuels like petroleum are incredibly energy dense. A battery powered car with a huge battery might go 50-100 miles. A Golf Diesel with a ten gallon tank can go 500. So I think some combination of replacement energy sources will have to be augmented by human power where possible, simply because we forget how dependent we are on our current stock of high energy density fuels.

    Peak oil, by the way, doesn't mean the tap will dramatically shut off in ten or twenty years. A slow decline is likely, with prices and instability rising and with higher costs making synfuels (e.g., as used by Nazi Germany and other hydrocarbon fuels and extraction techniques profitable. I have a hypothetical Peak Oil graph here:

    As far as technology pulling other rabbits out of hats? I have to admit to being a bit surprised, for example, by the sudden drop in natural gas prices resulting from hydrofracking. NG powered cars are possible.

    I think the vast majority of people will always want the convenience of transportation using some sort of non-human power. The question is, will there be enough energy sources to do that at a price the common people can afford, and will we be able to rebuild our civilizations in a more energy-efficient, compact way as high density energy sources like gasoline become extinct.

    I have not discussed high energy lifestyles vs. climate change here. That is worthy of a long essay in itself. But in the long term, the continued burning of fossil fuels is a risky and potentially dangerous proposition. We have to get off the dinosaur teat.

    1. Oh, and to make a long story short, I think the bicycle will be a part of that mix. Maybe it will be dragged into common use with the public kicking and screaming in places like the USA, though.

    2. I completely agree with you, Khal. I think people vastly overestimate the ability of renewable energies to fill in the huge void left by abundant oil. I also agree with you that what we'll see will be a slow decline, not a sudden stop. I guess my post was more focused on the end point of that decline, when, for whatever reason, all the oil worth burning is gone. That time may not be for a long while, but it will come. Many people seem to think our enormous talent for innovation will solve the problem, but they seem to forget that a lot of that innovation was fueled by cheap oil. Until the late 18th Century, our talent for innovation proceeded at a snail's pace.

  2. If we don't burn oil but use it for lubricant, we might be able to stay in business for a long time. Especially since we can more easily chemically synthesize lubricants, since you don't need much. People forget all the other things that require petrochemicals.

    If we, i.e., the world, uses nuclear power, we can build a hydrogen economy and use more electric power as well (my pipe dream is inductive power built into the roads driving electric vehicles that are governed for speed and safety by the grid) but that requires taking additional risks in terms of nuclear proliferation as well as risking spectacular, if rare, accidents. I'm actually one of those evil pro-nuclear power folks, but I honestly don't think we can afford a nuclear catastrophe every quarter century. Fukushima's extent of disaster surprised me, but I guess The Big One you didn't adequately plan for always surprises you. If we can't use nuclear power safely using more modern, fail-safe techniques, that really puts us in a box.

    A world that did not require a high energy density for everyday life would be more sustainable. How do we get there from here? Barring a population collapse, possibly due to points discussed above, I am not sure.

  3. I hope there's a place for bicycles after fossil fuels. I don't see how I'd get around otherwise. Right now, I've got a folding bike, and I drive about halfway to work, and ride the rest. If we get past fossil fuels, I'd be able to ride the whole way - even the first part of my commute which I now drive. With no fossil fuels, I'd be able to ride on the freeway!

  4. I think we're going to see more and more bicycles on the roads. Car ownership and use peaked a few years ago and there's a demand for housing is in more dense, walkable, communities. Bikes will be more popular in places where the trip distances tend to be short and car parking is difficult. Cars will be for weekend getaways and for the folks that are over 50 and out in the ex-urbs.

    1. Perhaps the people most threatened by peak oil are motorists? Naturally they don't see bikes as having a place post-peak. As energy prices rise, people will (reluctantly) realise that dragging around a tonne of metal is an expensive luxury.

  5. I couldn't see a way to email you, so I'm putting a comment in this post about peak oil.

    I've seen a lot of your comments on peak oil sites, and thought you might be interested in a couple of projects of mine. I'm finishing writing the first biography of M. King Hubbert, focusing on his efforts to forecast the future of oil and his broader ideas on sustainability. It's being published by W.W. Norton, and should be out next year.

    If you'd like to sign up for a notice when it's published, go to:

    Also, I'm launching a new project, The Frack Lab, to do in-depth, data-driven reporting on shale gas and oil. For more information, or to sign up for a subscription: