Thursday, September 6, 2012

Bicycles for beggars, or the white picket fence of the the fantasy green village of tomorrow?

In this post I thought I would divert briefly from the practical aspects of deindustrial cycling, and examine attitudes towards cycling in the modern world. Specifically, I want to meditate on a comment made by Bill Pulliam on the Archdruid Report post which gave birth to this blog:

"There is a bit of imprinting of an image of happy people pedaling their way into a green future; it shows up in pop culture fairly often. It's kind of the white picket fence of the the fantasy green village of tomorrow. If wishes were bicycles then beggars would ride..."

Unfortunately I did not get to reply at the time, but the first thought that crossed my mind was of an experience I had some months ago.

A beggar and his bicycle

I was outside the local Whole Foods. Yes, that's probably one of the stronger representatives of the "fantasy green village of tomorrow", as swallowed up and regurgitated by consumer culture. In my defence I was trying to buy ethically sourced essentials, and to avoid the insidious marketing of unnecessary and overpriced luxuries. Anyway, as I was loading my shopping into the fold-out baskets on my bicycle, the beggar sitting nearby complimented me on the baskets, noting how useful they were. This began a long chat about his bicycle, and ways to carry cargo on it. I suggested he try strapping a milk crate to his rack, as they are readily (if not strictly legally) available for free, and well suited to the purpose. I also directed him to a local community bike shop who I know try to be accommodating of people of low means. I figured that the advice was probably worth more to him than a dollar coin would have been.

The point of this story is that, at least in Vancouver, beggars do indeed ride. In fact, among "binners" (people who collect bottles and cans for the deposit), bicycles are a fairly common means of transporting their haul around. In fact, for a time, there was a community bike shop set up on East Hastings Street (the poorest part of town) with the explicit mandate of helping binners to repair their bikes. This was set up by United We Can, a charity aimed at uplifting and empowering the poor through their participation in recycling and other environmental projects (like growing local food). Pedal, another local charity, dedicated specifically to cycling, also has an earn-a-bike program. Through the program, the poor can exchange volunteer time for a bicycle, while learning how to repair and maintain the bicycle through the volunteering. Perhaps this is an exception in the overdeveloped world, but Vancouver certainly has ways of enabling cycling among the poor.

But what of the statistics?

In discussing social dynamics, it is also important to examine statistics, which can be viewed, for example, in this regional cycling strategy document from Translink, the local transportation authority. On page 18, figure 10 shows the breakdown of cyclists by income bracket. There is a very strong correlation with income, and around 34% of all commuter cyclists earn over $100K/year, while the truly poor account for around 2.5%. In Vancouver, the rich seem to bike a lot, and the poor bike the least.

The per-suburb mapped data on page 19 of that report tells more of the story. The biggest hotspots (~10% mode share) are neighbourhoods inhabited by "bourgeois bohemians" (rich, left-wing, probably ex-hippie types): Point Grey,  Dunbar, Kitsilano. These are neighbourhoods where the imaginings of a happy, white-picket fenced green future are probably alive and well. Curiously, the truly richest neighbourhood in Vancouver, Shaughnessy, has an extremely low cycling rate. The 1% are split into more and less green groups, who do not generally choose to live together.

There is another trend in the map data. Around Mount Pleasant and Commercial Drive, somewhat poorer areas with many younger, less bourgeois bohemians, the cycling rate is also moderately high (~5%). Among a certain group of young people, cyling has become "hip", as well as a practical and cost-effective means of getting around.

The last trend in the map data is the extremely low rate of cycling (1-2%)  in the Southern neighbourhoods. These are areas with high numbers of relatively recent (past few decades) immigrants. Unfortunately, for many people, part of the dream of coming to an overdeveloped country (the American dream?) is to own a car. A car is a symbol of status and wealth, and the ways things were done in the old country are to be left behind.

My experience

As part of our outreach work, the bike co-op I work with run regular Cycling Resource Centres at local farmers markets, where we answer questions, hand out information, and tune up bicycles for free. In the process, I get to see and chat with a wide cross-section of local cyclists. There are definitely a disproportionate number of BoBos and fantasy green village of tomorrow types (indeed, the farmers markets themselves walk a fine line between encouraging true sustainability and the luxury green market). I also see a fair share of young, fired-up, slightly bohemian types. But, I also see many regular folk who just happen to be cyclists, as well as a few truly poor people. While the trends tend towards the cycling rich, I do not believe there is a segment of society in which cycling is nonexistent, or inaccessible.

The future

This blog is, of course, looking to the deindustrial future, and so far I have just talked about the present in a city in the overdeveloped world. The picture here is not pretty: cycling seems to often be a token gesture by which the rich can absolve themselves of guilt over their deeply unsustainable lifestyles, rather than an enabling and empowering mode of transportation for the poor. But yet, in the less-developed world, the opposite is largely true. I suspect that as the overdeveloped world deindustrialises, a second peak of cycling mode share will begin to grow again at the low end of the income spectrum.

Furthermore, oil shocks have had a historical tendency to increase cycling (see, for instance, the 70s). This is already happening now; oil prices are high, and creeping upwards, and bicycle mode share in the overdeveloped world is slowly rising. At least through the scarcity industrialism phase of the decline, it is likely that cycling will make a strong comeback. Further ahead, I suspect that regional differences will play an even bigger role than they do now, particularly as production begins to localise. For now, the task of cycling advocates will be to continue to support the poor among their local communities, and to be prepared for an upswing in the number turning to cycling.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Framing the Problem

(of building a bicycle in a deindustrial world)

The day after writing the opening post on this blog, I was volunteering at my bike co-op's tuneup and information stand at the local farmers market, with Marv, another regular volunteer. Marv used to work in a machine shop building and repairing heavy duty forestry equipment, but recently retired, and spends a good fraction of his time helping out in the bike shop. His knowledge of the practical end of making and adapting mechanical devices is vast and deep.

I posed the problem to him of actually building a prototype post-peak oil bicycle today, and although the day was pretty busy and we didn't get much time to talk it over in depth, he got pretty interested. Of course, one of the first things he said was, "well, to begin with, you have to frame the problem". I'm very much inclined to agree -- indeed, before even attempting to solve a problem, the problem has to be unambiguously formulated. So, although I'm still not sure whether I want to have a go at the actual physical project, here goes my attempt at problem formulation.

To begin with, I would use the model proposed by John Michael Greer over at the Archdruid Report, which he has elaborated in a series of posts and his book, The Ecotechnic Future. Briefly, the model is that the deindustrial future will travel through a succession of ecological seres of society. The first sere is the modern world -- the age of abundance industrialism, where vast energy supplies make previously unimaginable feats like crossing a continent in a day commonplace. As the energy runs out, the age of scarcity industrialism will dawn, characterised by the end of economic growth and a significant contraction in available non-renewable resources and energy. As the the non-renewables gradually become economically infeasible to continue exploiting, we (or our ancestors) will end up in the age of salvage societies, running on the remnant technologies and products of the industrial past. Finally, after many more centuries, the products of the industrial past will be exhausted, and society will stabilise in a state capable of running on renewable resources only -- an ecotechnic society.

Now of course these seres are unlikely to happen evenly, and several can be argued to already be in place in parts of the world, but they do make a good framework for framing the problem of bicycle building in the deindustrial future. What I would propose is imagining that there was a design competition, with the goal being to design and build a bicycle under conditions emulating the deindustrialising seres. Note that I currently have no plans to actually run such a competition, but if it came together, I would be very pleasantly surprised. The rules for such a contest might look something like this:

Baseline: Abundance Industrialism
Build a bicycle using all of the tools, energy and resources available today. This problem is, of course, largely solved.

Challenge 1: Scarcity Industrialism

Build a bicycle using no non-renewable energy in the primary construction. Materials and tools may be produced using non-renewable energy, but must run strictly on renewable energy sources. For example, welders would be allowed, but must run on renewable electricity or non-fossil-sourced fuel.

Challenge 2: Salvage Society

Produce a bicycle using no non-renewable inputs at all, but the materials for the tools and the bicycle itself may derive from industrial production. However, the tools and materials should not be in a bicycle-ready form. For example, salvaged steel may be reforged into tubing, saws and wrenches, but a salvaged piece of tubing or saw blade may not be used in its original form.

Challenge 3: Ecotech

Produce a bicycle using no fossil fuel inputs at all, including the production of the raw materials and tools. Salvage is explicitly prohibited. Want steel tubing? Smelt some bog-iron or iron oxide yourself, and forge the tubing using charcoal or biogas. The same goes for tools. This would, of course, be fairly difficult.

These are just a first attempt, and likely leave at least a few questions unanswered. For example, how far back would you go with challenges 2 and 3? Could the tools used to forge the tools to build the bicycle be products of modern industrialism, or should you have to bootstrap a forge up from scratch? Nevertheless, I think  they provide a good starting point.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Statement of Purpose

This blog exists to discuss bicycles as a mode of transporting people and goods within the context of a post-peak resource world. It originally spun off a conversation thread in the comments section of the Archdruid Report post titled "The Upside of Default". There, a great many issues were raised, which will, gods willing, themselves form seeds for complete and well-researched posts.

Most discussion should be centred around the costs and benefits of cycling under different levels of deindustrialisation. JMG's seres of scarcity industrialism, scavenger society, and ecotechnic society make for good reference points. This is likely to determine how bicycles could, and whether they even should persist under those conditions. As it is the age in which we live low, the transition period from abundance to scarcity is likely to be the context for a great many posts. But moving forward, we may even begin to answer whether bicycles could be included in the suite of technologies embraced by an ecotechnic society.

Here are some more specific topics raised in the original discussion:

  • Bicycles in the current transition period from abundance to scarcity
  • Plans for building bicycles using likely future deindustrial technology suites. These could spin off into actual attempts to do so.
  • Bicycles for freight vs bicycles for transportation (also vs other technologies for freight)
  • Bicycles in war (since militaries are likely to hold on to higher tech and fossil fuel availability longer than civilian society)
  • Modern and future bicycle cooperatives (and community resilience)
  • Bicycles from biological materials (wooden wheels, bamboo frames, etc)
  • "the white picket fence of the the fantasy green village of tomorrow" vs bicycles for beggars 
  • Bicycles and roads -- wide vs narrow roads in an age of decline (see here)
  • Bicycles used in past low-energy contexts (estuary bargers on the Cornish Coast, the Viet Cong on the Ho Chi Min Trail)
More ideas for exploration in future blog posts can be posted in the comments below. Anyone willing to join in on the blog as a poster is also welcome to email oneillkza [rollmop] gmail [period] com.

... and some ideas for discussion from the comments:

  • Bicycle security (how tempting a target for thieves they are likely to be, anti-theft strategies)
  • Availability of raw materials (rubber, steel, iron, aluminium)
  • Availability of tools/technology to turn raw materials into working bike parts (forging, stamping, cable weaving, producing ball bearings, etc)
  • Bicycles vs horses (similar though not identical applications, different costs and requirements)