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)


Mean Mr Mustard said...

Well done Keiran on setting this up!

In my younger days I used to cycle about my home town getting around faster than my friends in cars. Affordability and the lack of a driving licence had much to do with that. As I think it will for future generations.

I hadn't been to a bike shop in years, having only occasionally used my road racer. But my, how things have changed. Fabulous machines for a few hundred, compare that to motoring costs... You'll need damn good padlocks as things decline...

Jon from Virginia said...

How about starting with Wooden Bikes.

Kieran O'Neill said...

Right, after two attempts and swallowed comments, I've managed to switch to the old Blogger interface, and from there switch to using "full page comments", which apparently are less likely to send people's thoughts in to oblivion.

Kieran O'Neill said...

Mustard, I think you might be pleasantly surprised at how many young people are in a similar situation to the one you found yourself in. Especially at how organised we can sometimes be.

As for the cost of bicycles, I think they have been as much a victim of stealth inflation as anything else. Most (all?) of the few hundred dollar bicycles are made with astoundingly cheap components, almost guaranteed to fail after six months to a year. To get anything which you would expect to last more than a year or two generally takes about $500 or more (new, anyway).

But yes, there've made some significant advances in bike tech over the past few decades.

Jon, that's a fascinating website, not least of all because he's put his money where his mouth is and built working prototypes. However, he continues to rely on industrially produced components (headsets, bottom brackets, cranks, chains, forks, etc), so fails to conclusively answer the question of the suitability of bicycles for a scavenger or ecotechnic society.

Still, he does manage to eliminate about 50% of the industrial material inputs by switching to a wooden frame. At least in scarcity industrialism, and likely in scavenger society, that will be important.

Glenn said...

In light of sustainability, there are different phases (assuming the good Mr. Greer's pattern) to address. I think the industrial scarcity phase, as cars and fuel get very expensive in the industrial world will see the highest use, with a gradually diminishing use through the salvage stage as materials get progressively more expensive due to scarcity and increased man-hours required to extract and or process them.

The nature of your subsistence economy and affordability are critical. If you have to spend all your time growing, gathering and processing food, you don't have time to smelt, forge, machine and assemble bicycle parts. A decent late mediaeval or renaissance armourer had the skills and tools required to build a bicycle, except the rubber parts. And in their economy, could have provided them to the richest 1% of the population, just like the armour...

It was a combination of the generational improvements of machine tools (each lathe and drill press can be used to make a slightly more precise lathe and drill press; there are economic reasons why most of the time you don't do this until the old ones are almost worn out). Combined with the availability of large amounts of iron and steel, also undergoing continuous improvements in purity and quality and the availability of road that were finally as good as the Roman's again, that brought the bicycle into being.

On the decline side though, we have the advantage of knowing what it is already, and what designs using cruder technology work well. An important thing to address here, as noted in the pre-amble, is at which stages bicycles are appropriate and useful. That is, to examine the assumption (mine, at any rate) that bicycles are a desirable and useful artifact to have and use. They will certainly convey an advantage to their owners (while perhaps making them a target for thieves and brigands) during the stage of industrial scarcity. But, in an idealized, or likely, Ecotopic future, will they be needed? And at what point in Salvage will they become impractical, if at all?

I think some, fairly automated, source of tubing for metal frames (if that's the way to go) and the same for inner tubes and tires would be needed to keep bikes available to most families or individuals.

In another post, I want to talk about some of the variables affecting the availability of iron and steel.

Marrowstone Island

Kieran O'Neill said...

Glenn, those are some great ideas. I think it's also worth winding back through history to see how early bicycles were used in practice. I get the impression that while they weren't widely available to much more than the middle class around the turn of the 20th century, they were certainly bike courier businesses employing working class riders and hiring their services out to the wealthy.

PS: Some good inspiration for thinking about what goes into bicycle manufacture is this 1945 documentary by Raleigh, giving a glimpse inside their bicycle factory. It's remarkable how much of the energy (apart from furnace heating) was provided by human muscles, even then.

Sean McPhail said...

Hi all, I'm a long time JMG reader and bike-commuter in the UK. Good work on setting this up.

A few unconnected thoughts...

One application for bikes in a neo-feudal or eco-technic world would be a kind of inverted pony express. The bike moves the message, swapping riders on and off as it goes. This may or may not be economic compared to traditional horse-based messaging depending on local circumstances.

Secondly, regarding the availability of iron/steel... everything will already have been mined and be sitting on the surface for salvage. In the medium term (i.e., until all the abandoned cars totally rust and blow away) there will never be a shortage of iron for salvage. Given the complexity that will be shed from society this won't be a problem (or: how many bikes can the steel from one skyscraper be reforged into?)

More wood bike links:

100% wood bike (but no brakes!)

Bamboo frames:

(or just google image search on "bamboo bikes"!)

Kieran O'Neill said...

Sean, the reverse bicycle pony express is a fascinating image. However, I suspect that Morse code telegraphy, either wireless or wired, would prove to be a more effective way of transmitting messages.

For small packages, however, it could indeed be competitive with horses, especially in flat country.

As for iron and steel, I completely agree that there will be no shortage of "deposits" in the form of rusting industrial creations lying around. The trick will be getting the energy together to be able to forge it without using coal. Charcoal can certainly be used, but there will be competition from cooking and heating. There will also be budget considerations for the energy diverted into forging iron and steel -- the question is how much will a society be willing to allocate for making bicycles (versus, say, ploughs or muskets).

Joshua (by email), yes Goodyear making tyres using soybean oil in place of crude is interesting, and probably a small step in the right direction. But it remains a complex industrial process, far more energy and infrastructure intensive than producing latex rubber. Furthermore, like corn ethanol, it uses human food as an input, which doesn't give me much hope of its success in the coming years of growing population and shrinking food production.

Edde said...

Good evening cyclists,

I prefer to start where we are now, bikes are all around us. We'll have a supply of bikes for years, decades, centuries(?) to come.

As someone mentioned, minimal maintenance can provide perhaps centuries of life for adequate bike designs. The museum where my wife works, has in its collection a 1940s commuter bike with rod brakes and 3 speed hub gears, that still is fully functional. It was in service at the turn of the century as a daily commuter.

So there is time to work out replacement manufacture technology.

I suggest it might be worthwhile to discuss which designs are most functional for transportation & load carrying.

Also might be worthwhile discussing how to get more people onto bikes and how to make current roads more bike friendly and the kinds of facilities required for transpo bikes into the future.

Best regards!

edde (slower than most)

pentronicus said...

As a home-machinist type I can tell you that there is nothing about building a bicycle from scratch or making replacement parts that seems extremely difficult. Time consuming, yes, but it isn’t rocket science. Chains, ball bearings, and tires all could be made in a small shop, though they would take some specially built tooling. In an energy-constrained world, the required power could come from animal or alternative energy sources. Kids in a treadmill would work. Welding is problematic, and would probably be limited to forge welding and low-temperature gas welding without the availability of compressed gasses and good welding rods.

To me the biggest obstacle would be finding reliable sources of supply. Many of the commentators on ADR seem to believe that all commerce and industry is going to stop and we will all become organic farmers or die. It could happen this way, but if you buy into the idea of a long stair step decline punctuated by periods of relative normalcy though, this view does not seem correct. I think that credit, commerce, industry and transport will go on until the end, though not in the forms we now have and not continuously in all places. I’m thinking it will be a world of scrap dealers, flee markets, itinerant peddlers, and home based sweatshops making things like nuts and bolts. Credit will happen when a stall vendor says you can pay him next week.

In that kind of world will it be possible to build bikes? Though I think that someone, somewhere will be making steel tubes, will a bike maker be able to get some? In the near absence of advertising, search engines and a trade press, would he know the tube maker exists? How would a potential customer find the bike maker? It will be a slow, expensive, and challenging process with lots of scrounging and improvisation.

So, given that bicycles will be expensive, will they price themselves out of existence? It seems clear that bicycles will no longer exist as playthings for the idle hour. There won’t be any idle hours. As far as being effective transportation tools, they have proven themselves time and time again over some extremely rough terrain. In some situations they are the only reasonable choice.

If your personal situation requires walking four hours a day to get to your rented farm space, a tool that cuts the commute down to an hour might be worth a couple ounces of gold or a ton of beans. There will be a lot of people in situations like this and for them it may be worth the tradeoff if they have the beans.

Kieran O'Neill said...

Edde, I'm wholeheartedly in support of making roads more friendly and modern bikes more durable and functional, but I think there are many other organisations looking into that, and the goal of this blog is mainly to look to the future.

As for bikes lasting, this is certainly true -- in fact Sheldon Brown even had a bike built around 1916 which he rode on a regular basis. However, I have also noticed, in the process of fixing up a lot of older and newer used bikes, that while the technology going into "entry level" bicycles has been improving, the quality has been sharply declining. Today you can still see quite a few people riding on 1970s Raleighs and Schwinns, but I seriously doubt that in 40 years from now you will see anybody riding on a $150 bike from Walmart.

Pentronicus, I don't know about quite "all becoming organic farmers or d[ying]", but certainly the likely endpoint is a situation in which 70 to 90% of the population is involved in agriculture. Take a look at the CIA World Factbook stats for the modern world. Most of Sub-Saharan Africa is in the 80% to 90% range, while highly developed countries tend to be in the 1-2% range (with the lowest being the United States at 0.7% of the population involved in primary food production). What seems likely is a gradual shift through the spectrum. BY the end, there will likely still be some kind of economy left, but a great many people may seldom deal with money at all.

I suspect there will still be industry -- farmers and labourers will still make a weekly or monthly trip to town to pick up dry goods, which will come from somewhere. It just won't be on the same scale. But I do also think that a bike maker would likely need to be working mainly with parts and materials produced fairly locally, for transportation reasons if nothing else.

As for welding, one possible alternative is lugging combined with crucible brazing using brass (heated in a charcoal furnace). All of this is actually pretty low tech, and has been proven in building bike frames in the past.

pentronicus said...

Here is a link to a story about a $9 cardboard bike.

There must be about twenty centuries worth of scrap cardboard in US landfills alone.

Gary said...

I'm glad to see more people thinking about this stuff, I'll add this to my blog roll.

I've been a local bike advocate and involved in transportation politics in my municipality for a few years (and sold my car in 08). From that perspective I came to the peak oil subject more recently, and have been giving a lot of thought to the role bikes may play, and already are playing in responding to peak oil.

I currently write a weekly column for LA Streetsblog, an alternative transportation blog covering the Los Angeles region, which for the moment is a paid position for me and occupies most of my mental energy outside of my day job.

On the side I am currently working on what will be a small print publication connecting bikes and peak oil to be sold and promoting in the US bicycling community of co-op shops and advocate groups. If you want to get in touch, my e-mail is garyridesbikes @ g m a i l . c o m

-Gary Kavanagh

Kieran O'Neill said...

Hi Gary! Since you're the other one who got this started, it's great to see you here.

Even though I know you're pressed for time, I'm going to add you as an author anyway. That way you can contribute as and when you find the time. (I'm also not entirely sure of my post schedule as yet). Either way your comments and linkage are welcome.

That book sounds like a great idea. I would think this blog may provide some inspiration. In fact, it may also prove to be a good outlet for draft material. I don't know if you've noticed, but JMG basically turns about 90% of his blog posts into sections of his published books (with some rewriting and editing, of course). It seems to be a good model.

I was actually going to write a post about models for bike co-ops (particularly the social enterprise models popular up here in BC vs the strictly volunteer-driven ones elsewhere), which may end up on this blog in the next few weeks.

Edde said...

Greetings Kieran,

I'd be fascinated to see a list of online resources dedicated to transportation bikes, bike design, opposing planned obsolescence, hub gearing, chain chases, etc, etc. And transitioning to bikes as transportation.

If you or anyone has that list, please post.

The future starts right now and there are far too few discussions about getting from now to a future worth its name...

BTW, I'm a long time bike advocate, spent over 10 years on bike/ped advisory committee, currently work with local bike advocates, have operated a bike shop for 17 years, etc, etc.

Best regards,


Kieran O'Neill said...

Hi Edde

I'm not personally aware of such a list (or lists -- sounds like several), but it could definitely be a worthwhile project.

I think the discussions are growing, but could definitely use some help.

Would you be interested in researching and compiling such a list?

Here are some blogs I can think of:

Sheldon Brown also talked a fair bit about this on his website.