Columbus, OH USA

Pedal Pusher
June 2010
by Greg Knepp

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The Future of Cycling
Bad haircuts and the autobahn

Much has been written in this column about the history of bicycles and bicycling, particularly concerning the period from the second world war to the present. But before delving into the oft-opaque waters of the future of cycling, an ever-so-brief recap of the past is in order: When the Greatest Generation returned from WW2 they brought back two rather dubious Nazi contrivances – bad haircuts and the autobahn. With its massive domestic production capacity newly freed to turn aside from wartime concerns, U.S. industry quickly took up the manufacture of new homes, glitzy appliances, automobiles for all, and an autobahn-style highway network to service what eventually became an entirely new way of life, nay a new religion – Suburbanism. In the process, the beautiful American countryside was systematically plowed under, inner cities abandoned to decay, passenger rail service left to rust, and transportational bicycling – already diminished by the automobile – virtually obliterated from the American scene. Conspicuous consumption was the order of the era and the mighty automobile became the crown jewel of that new order. Then came the Not-So-Great Generation.

We (for I am of the boomer generation) began to question some of the prevailing assumptions of a culture so obviously shot through with tasteless excess, material waste and political hubris. It was the sixties; we grew our hair, smoked our herb, made love-not-war, and protested the more obvious governmental and systemic screw-ups of the time: racism, environmental degradation, imperialism, the Vietnam debacle, nukes, etc. We also rediscovered the humble bicycle. A few companies, Schwinn and Sears primarily, had never fully abandoned adult bicycle production, so we bought those brands to the bare walls, along with European imports such as Raleighs and Gitanes. Bicycling was viewed by the very hip as a necessary departure from the dominant car culture. The fitness craze hit at about the same time, and the bicycle industry boomed. Imports from Taiwan and Japan poured in – mostly junk, but some nice brands as well – and in short order new U.S. manufacturers were birthed: Trek, Cannondale, Burley, and Santana to name a few.

With a larger market, came more investment and greater technical innovation. Ten speeds became twelve, then eighteen, then 21 – all indexed and operationally smooth. New varieties of bicycle frame configuration and materials sprang up. Tires got tougher, wheel rims truer. Cycling went off-road with the introduction of the mountain bike in the early eighties. The hybrid bike of the late eighties begot true commuter machines of the present day. Tandems enjoyed a resurgence, and oddball types such as recumbents, electric cycles and BMX machines, made the scene. Improvements in performance, durability and the addition of a plethora of new and more efficient accessories marked a new golden age of cycling technology. In short, today’s bicycles are better by half than the machines of only a few decades ago – and more economical to buy and maintain as well. Unable to sell unmitigated junk to a more knowledgeable buying public (at least where bikes are concerned) even department store chains began selling serviceable steeds.

Along with more cyclists and better bikes, came sophisticated organizational approaches to a variety of legal and infrastructural problems facing cyclists in an automobile-centered environment. Old groups such as the American Youth Hostels and the League of American Wheelmen were reanimated, and new organizations like Adventure Cycling and The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy were established. Local clubs sprang up – some for recreation, others for advocacy. Slick magazines, then Web sites appeared, and eventually lobbyists for an expanded and rather well-educated cycling public began approaching local and state governments as well as the federal government in often successful efforts to bend the larger culture to the needs of a new emerging population – American bicyclists. And all of this took place in the absence of anything resembling an organized opposition. After all, even oil and auto industry fat cats have fond memories of childhood adventures on their trusty bikes.

Quite a story really: a few young hipsters and health geeks (now in their dotage at best) pedaling their way into an army of millions of dedicated, buff cyclists from sea to shining sea – quite an accomplishment! We may not have replaced the car but we’ve got our act together; cycling is an integral part of the American recreational and transportational scene and is here to stay…or is it?

The future and the past typically form a continuum which renders events, at least in their overall nature, more or less predictable. Plans are made, budgets proposed, meetings scheduled weeks, often months and sometimes even years in advance, because folks can usually rely on things moving along as usual. But this normal linear relationship can be (and occasionally has been) disrupted when macro conditions change, however subtly, thereby skewing the prevailing paradigm on which continuity and predictability rely. In our private lives we can see how an illness, accident or like catastrophe can easily hurl the thousand-and-one details of our harried lives into chaos. The same is true for nations and civilizations. But where civilizations are concerned, the root causes of pivotal change are often obscured by the very complexity characterizing those causes. For example, history demonstrates that, at the time, precious few suspected that the Roman Empire was collapsing until decades after the fact. The same is true today; most people attribute the world’s current economic problems to bad banking, overvalued real estate, poor regulation, greedy executives, or the cyclical ebb and flow of the normal business cycle.

I can assure you that these difficult economic circumstances, while real enough, are merely symptoms of (or attendants to) the larger predicament, and would, in and of themselves, have little lasting adverse affect on the standard Western industrial apparatus. But that apparatus is obsolete. The basic problem affecting our economy is that the growth model we’ve persued for centiuries relies specifically on ever-increasing quantities of cheap fossil fuel and other natural resources, as well as a constantly expanding population of laborers and consumers. But the era of natural resource abundance is at an end, and the Great Contraction well under way. Diminishing supplies of petroleum present the most immediate crisis, but shortages of everything from uranium to lithium, from soil to water, from grain to fish are all threatening us like the proverbial pack of ravenous wolves – all snapping and lunging at our heels. The problem has more to do with geology than economics; Mother Earth pays no heed to quaint theories of supply and demand. And there’s not a thing to be done – no magic bullet, no miracle technology, no plan B. – just growing resource shortages in the face of an expanding (and demanding) world population. The descent may be abrupt, characterized by violence and social disruption on an unprecedented scale, or it may be gradual, even broken with brief periods of relative stability. But there will be no permanent return to the old ways. Talk of green shoots, an ever-elusive nascent recovery, stimulus packages, bailouts, renewable energy technologies, green jobs, globalization, new housing starts, ad nauseam – all this is nonsense. Like cargo cult shamans of the post-war pacific islands, our political, business and cultural leaders believe that, by mimicking the words and ways of our hyper-productive past, they might somehow reawaken the gods of industry and commerce, and so return us to the Eden of gluttony that had been our home for generations. But nothing like this will happen. The Malthusian formula, as it turns out, is real, the Club of Rome right on the money, and two plus two won’t equal five…not this time. James Howard Kunstler calls the era we have entered “The Long Emergency”; John Michael Greer prefers “The Long Descent,” while Michael Ruppert simply calls it “Collapse.” And there are no cogent arguments to counter the dismal scenario laid out by these fellows and countless others – none.

Call it what you like, it’s going to have an increasingly dramatic effect on all of us and all that we have heretofore taken for granted. Initially one might suspect that the shortages herein described, particularly of petroleum, might benefit cycling, might propel human powered transportation to the forefront. In the short run this has certainly been the case. But in order to see how the Great Contraction may affect the bicycle’s long-term future, let’s first turn our attention to the chilly north, where telling retrenchments in transportation infrastructure are already well under way.

Continued in the next issue

Greg Knepp is a Short North cyclist

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