In praise of the bicycle

Do you remember riding your bike as a youngster? The exhilaration, freedom and sheer joy of propelling yourself wherever you wanted go? Your bike was literally your ticket to ride!

In a sense cycling has always been a freeing, sometimes even rebellious activity and it led H.G. Wells to say “When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.”

In New Zealand in the sixties, seventies and eighties bike-riding was largely a kids-only mode of transport. As soon as you were old enough (15 years old) you would get a drivers license and your bike would be handed down or just left to rust in the garage. In the early 1980s I cycled around the South Island with two university friends. On the whole trip which was over 3000km and took about two months we only saw one other touring cyclist. However, things have changed considerably since then, there are many, many more adult cyclists. If we did the same tour now we would see hundreds of cyclists.

Cycling is a sensational way to tour. You travel at a moderate pace – not too slow and not too fast – so you have more time to see everything and you can enjoy an uninterrupted view. You feel more a part of the surroundings and of course there is the simple satisfaction of propelling yourself quietly and lightly along.

The bicycle has been described as a near perfect machine meaning that its ratio of useful work (forward momentum) to energy input (leg power) is very high. In comparison to the elegant simplicity of the bicycle the car is a gas guzzling monstrosity. It’s complexity makes the car very expensive to buy and to run.

Cars are also extremely inefficient. In an average car less than 1% of the energy used actually propels the driver. Most of the energy (80-90%) is lost through heat. Most of the rest of the energy is used to move the dead-weight of the heavy car. The WorldWatch Institute compared energy used per passenger-mile (measured in calories), they found that a bicycle needed only 35 calories, whereas a car expended a whopping 1,860. Bus and trains fell about midway between, and walking still took 3 times as many calories as riding a bike the same distance.

Compared to cars bicycles are cheap to buy and cheap to run which makes them egalitarian. The last bike I bought a couple of years ago was a second-hand road bike for $250, and it works very well. Bikes are also very durable if they are looked after. My previous bike lasted me 20 years, and was still going strong when i gave it away (it was mountain bike and I wanted a road bike).

Cars are admired for their speed, comfort and convenience. They are very convenient if you need to get somewhere in a storm or in an emergency or if you are disabled. However, the social commentator Ivan Illich argued that the car is actually counterproductive when you consider its speed. Add up all the hours you spend to make the money to buy the car, pay for fuel, oil, tyres, maintenance/repairs, insurance, registration, car parks and, if you are unlucky, accidents. Then add this to the time you actually spend in the car including traffic jams and driving in circles looking for car parks. Take this total and divide it by the number of kilometres you travel it is likely to be slower than biking and even walking in some cases. A study done by Canterbury university students showed that on four out of five routes to the university a bike got them there quicker than a car that left at the same time as them.

As a design the bicycle is a perfect expression of the machine aesthetic and perhaps the best proof of the form-follows-function argument. In 1910, the designer Joseph August Lux declared that a bicycle is beautiful because it was an explicit diagram of forces. The whole mechanism provides a powerful dynamic advantage for the human leg — rotary motion is efficiently translated into smooth, horizontal travel. The bicycle has a number of technologies that make it such a marvel:

  • a lightweight but very strong frame
  • spoke-tensioned wheels
  • ball bearings
  • chain-driven sprockets
  • pneumatic tires

As a design for sustainability and well-being, the bicycle remains fascinating and desirable. In summary, I praise the bicycle for being:

Durable – tyres apart, a well-maintained bicycle will last indefinitely
Emission-free – bicycles don’t burn fossil fuels to run and are therefore emission-free once they have been made
Low in material intensity – bicycles are designed to be light but strong
Super-efficient – less energy input than any other form of transport
Egalitarian – they are relatively cheap to buy and incredibly cheap to run
Healthy – they provide exercise and don’t create harmful fumes
Fun – from satisfying to exhilarating!