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Page added on June 21, 2010

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Will the post-oil future be bicycle-free?


This distressing line of thought occurred to me recently as I was finishing James Howard Kunstler’s beautifully written post-oil novel, A World Made by Hand. I spotted not a single bicycle in its 317 pages. Why? Because in the novel the roads upon which one might ride are crumbling beyond passable. These roads are navigable on foot or by horse, but not particularly by anything on wheels.

But, wait, you may say, bicycles don’t need good roads! We’ll use trail bikes instead. All well and good. Still, where will the rubber for the tires come from? What we use now is synthetic rubber made from oil. Perhaps we’ll get latex from such places as Brazil and Malaysia, that is, unless world trade has broken down. And, the way in which bicycles are made today, we’ll need aluminum smelting operations for all the aluminum parts, even if only for repairs.

As simple as a bicycle is compared to a car, there is much that ties it to the energy-intensive, global logistics chain. No doubt we could make bicycle frames out of something other than aluminum. But again, we must ultimately come back to the question of right-of-way. If we assume that there will not be sufficient resources to run a nationwide fleet of private automobiles and therefore neither the political will nor the financial capability to pay for the upkeep of our road system, then we must also assume that the bicycle as a widespread form of transportation will not be practical. Some locales may maintain a few bike trails. But it is hard to see highways being maintained just so bicycles can ride on them.

Let’s go back a bit in history to understand why. Bicycles came of age in the latter half of the 19th century. As such they were manufactured on the industrial model. Bicycle owners became a potent force for the paving of roads upon which they could then ride. Ironically, the industrial methods for the manufacture of bicycles and the paved roads which bicycle owners championed became the basis for mass-produced automobiles–automobiles which ultimately usurped the roads from bicycles.

Now, my apprehension about the future of the bicycle posits that industrial society has sunk into a pretty sorry state and that no forms of motorized land transport for which it is worth maintaining roads survive. But even if we maintain main roads for, say, intercity buses, that would still leave all the side roads–roads ideal for bicycle riding–without maintenance.

I’m ashamed to say that until reading Kunstler’s novel it had never occurred to me just how dependent my bicycle is on the automotive infrastructure. Could it be true that the bicycle’s viability is linked to that of the automobile? Having said all this, I’m hoping someone will talk me down and explain how we might be able to have a future filled with bicycling no matter what the fate of the automobile.

The Oil Drum

2 Comments on "Will the post-oil future be bicycle-free?"

  1. DC on Mon, 21st Jun 2010 12:02 pm 

    I have heard this argument made before, and no one seems to question that roads have to be constructed from ashpalt(another oil product.) The roman empire had thousands of miles of paved roads linking an empire over 1/2 the size of the U.S., and not one barrel of oil was required for its construction or maintenence. Perfectly passable bike trails can be constructed and maintained w/o oil, or with suitable replacment material. Many perfectly good public trails where I live are well used and are in many places it is simply complacted earth. I will freely admit I prefer paved, but I am quite sure we are clever and skilled enough to build and maintain an oil-free bike network if we had to. Not only that a well-maintained bike can last for decades and with minimal investment in spares. My own mountain bike is almost 20 years old and looks and runs as good as they day I bought it. I think we can get around this problem, like anything, it just requires we stop asserting everything we do is impossible w/o oil…

  2. Jym Dyer on Mon, 21st Jun 2010 11:16 pm 

    =v= Read Victor Papanek’s _Design_for_the_Real_World_ (it is regretfully out of print, but a used copy is definitely worth tracking down). Papanek and his students did a lot of work in developing nations, where they found that bicycles had crucial roles and were kept in use for many decades. This despite the poor quality of roads, trouble getting spare parts, and the access to cheap oil that industrialized nations have.

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