Columbus, OH USA

Pedal Pusher
August 2010
by Greg Knepp

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The Future of Cycling
Bone Shakers and High Wheelers

Throughout the northern climes of our world, an odd triage is underway, not planned, at least in any overall sense, and certainly not publicized, but underway nonetheless. Paved roads are being abandoned or destroyed. No major thoroughfares are involved, at least not yet; rather, smaller tertiary roads – little rural routes in Scandinavia and Russia, county byways in Michigan, private drives, and even small bridges – are either being allowed to go to seed or are being torn out entirely. Some have been resurfaced with easy-to-maintain gravel and thus will remain in service, but travel on these roads will need to be conducted at a more leisurely pace than motorists are used to.

In addition, plans for what would have been considered routine highway construction projects only a few years ago have been quietly shelved. For instance, here in central Ohio the rather grandiose expansion project of Route 23 just north of Worthington was called off. Legal snafus were cited in the media – something about problems with utility rights of way or the like. But a contact of mine in the Ohio Department of Transportation (who will remain unnamed) privately fessed up. “The money was allocated, but by the time we were ready to break ground, the price of asphalt had gone up 67 percent – couldn‘t handle it.”

Asphalt paving, of course, is held together by petroleum, and is also the material of which most modern roads, driveways and parking lots are made. Asphalt is thermo-sensitive and loses its elasticity in cold weather, so while a small number of seemingly insignificant back roads are being abandoned little-by-little worldwide, roadways in the colder regions are being more dramatically affected. For in the north country, frigid conditions accelerate road deterioration. In these areas, local governments, strapped by declining revenues in a contracting economy, are simply unable to keep up with needed road repairs.

The fact is, asphalt and everything else associated with petroleum (and that covers just about everything industrial society uses) will become dearer as time goes on. Demand destruction caused by soaring oil prices in 2008 has temporarily damped down oil prices, but, as demand destruction itself is a result of diminishing oil reserves, this brief financial respite should be of small long-term comfort in a petrol- addicted society.

How will oil depletion affect transportation in general and cycling in particular? Most experts in the Peak Oil community agree that the automobile and the culture it has engendered are doomed. It may take decades, and we may go through a period similar to the Cuban experience, in which that nation’s 1950s vintage cars were held together with spit and spare parts ad-infinitum to maintain some semblance of an automobile culture. Or it may crash all at once as resentful commoners, deprived of cars by a collapsing economy, make war on those privileged few still able to drive about on what’s left of a deteriorating road network. In any event, the unwinding of the complex, hugely scaled systems of resource procurement, manufacturing, labor, distribution and marketing that are necessary to the continued production and maintenance of even the most basic line of automobiles is happening now, and will surely kill the car in the simpler, more localized economies of the future.

Will the bicycle meet the same dismal fate as the automobile? A look back in history will shed some light on this question. The safety bicycle emerged in the 1880s. It was modern by design and quite efficient, despite the fact that most of the technologies used in its construction had been around for decades. Back then, many bicycles were made and maintained by metal smiths – the same stout fellows who kept carriages on the road, and fabricated all manner of odd metal parts to keep farm implements and industrial tools in working order. There were factories aplenty, but bicycles, popular as they were, were typically products of small-scale production houses. Petroleum was used for lighting and lubrication, electricity was merely a toy, there were precious few paved roads, practically no telephones, and certainly no cars. Yet there were bikes aplenty. Indeed, long before the safety bicycle’s debut, more primitive mounts, such as high-wheelers and bone-shakers (both types aptly named) had been carrying blissful wheelers along city streets and country roads for years.

My point is this: while automobiles, computers, televisions and other complex apparatus will simply exit the scene as the elaborate systems that support their production fray and finally evaporate, there is no reason to believe that bicycles should necessarily follow suit. True, the large corporations that make the gleaming swift miracle bikes of today will first merge (in desperation) then choke out of existence. But unlike cars, bicycles can be made locally in small shops – think Wright brothers. Modern technology will devolve but not disappear, and many of the basic 19th-century crafts used to make perfectly serviceable bikes in days of yore will, in all likelyhood, re-emerge.

Of course, the bicycles of the future will be somewhat heavier than today’s. Chrome-moly, aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber will not be readily available, so bike frames will be constructed of rolled sheet steel tubing and even lathed wood dowels held fast by brazed metal lugs. Cables will give way to rods as break controls. Chains will be replaced by drive shafts, pneumatic tires by solid rubber (as in today’s kid’s trykes) and ball bearings will most likely give way to roller bearings or simple sleeve bearings. Spoke, wheel and frame dimensions and configurations should not change much, but a greater emphasis will be placed on suspension systems (from a technical standpoint, a simpler matter than one might suspect) as solid tires and rougher roads make ride cushioning more important. Multi-rider machines will emerge – four wheel pedal cars for example – and adult tricycles for utility and light cargo will also abound. Multi-gearing will largely disappear except on the most exclusive chain-driven models. Bicycle chains will present extraordinary and perhaps intractable manufacturing problems, as will pneumatic tires, so don’t expect your great-great-grandchildren to have access to these luxuries. One gear will be the rule.

In fact, it’s interesting to note that today, when bicycle gearing has reached a point of near perfection, young riders are gravitating toward single-speed bikes. Bicycle maven that I am, it’s a trend that has taken me completely by surprise. Alas, just as the youth of the sixties somehow sensed dark clouds on the horizon of America’s most affluent era, so the young of today may intuitively perceive that simplification is the wave of the future.

Of course, one can’t pedal a bicycle over rocks, dirt clods, jagged debris or even the ruined remains of old highways. Some ad-hoc networks of town streets and trans-community roads will have to be maintained. This will be needed for animal powered transport and efficient foot travel as well as for cycling. Some level of trade will carry on just as it did after the fall of the Roman Empire. Communities that survive to pass along their cultural and technological heritage will be those that engage in commerce and diplomacy with other like communities both near and far. Communities that attempt to remain entirely self-sufficient will be more likely to fall behind and perish, as they will have no access to resources, either material or intellectual, beyond their limited borders.

A century from now there will be no cars or trucks at all, and the population of what had been the continental United States will probably be half of what it is today. Local farming and small craft-industries will have been established, but shortages will be common. One thing not in short supply, however, will be asphalt. Clumps of old asphalt will be salvaged from ten thousand abandond shopping mall parking lots and a hundred thousand miles of useless highway. It will be melted down to be used in rebuilding a serviceable road network. The labor will be hard, but the technology modest. Inter-community roads will need to be constructed and maintained by mutual effort. The same effort will be used to facilitate trade and establish defense pacts. Again, those communities able to engage in coordinated, mutually beneficial projects with their neighbors will be the ones that survive. Without efficient transportation, any progress at all will be difficult. Animals, particularly draught horses, will be a part of the picture; but animals are high maintenance and calorie- intensive. Pedal power will most certainly emerge as a primary component of transportation in the post-industrial world.

By the time these changes are taking hold, your great-great-grandchildren will have reached old age. Noon may find one of them sunning in the community square, telling stories to a gathering of youngsters exhausted by playing in the heat of the day. He’ll tell them of the Old Ones – the Men of Renown – who traveled through the air on silver wings and amused themselves by watching plays on magic picture boxes, and talked to small hand-held gizmos, and the gizmos talked back, and he’ll babble on about all sorts of wonders of the olden times. The kids will giggle, squirm, ooh and aah. Only the very young and gullible will fully believe the tales. The old man’s grandson will be watching from the edge of the gathering. He won’t be as skeptical. He’s 17 and has been to the salvage sites in the controlled zones; seen the ancient monuments – enormous and all aligned; and he has worked in the mines called ‘land fills’. He hates that work. He now has different duties… and duty calls. He nods goodbye to his elder over the heads of the wiggling, giggling mob. He straps his crossbow to his back, checks his pannier for food and water, and feels his jacket to see that his single-shot pistol is securely holstered. He then hops on his bicycle and heads to his assigned guard post on the perimeter some two miles north where sporadic incursions by nomads have been reported.

Greg Knepp is a Short North cyclist

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