“Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometer of flat road at an expense of
only 0.15 calories. The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man’s metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion. Equipped with this tool, man outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines but
all other animals as well.”
– Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity
So why don’t more people ride bikes? Almost no one in the States uses a bicycle as his or her primary means of locomotion. When I was a youngster, I rode my bike everywhere, and still did by the time I reached college, even though I was an oddball for doing so. In America back then, bikes were strictly for kids. One summer day in my sixteenth year, with nothing better to do I rode my balloon-tired Schwinn from St. Louis to Eureka, Missouri and back again; one hundred and twenty miles in one day.
I never had a helmet, nor a light. It never occurred to me to buy them. Today, young people still ride bicycles, but only under strict adult supervision. In our more enlightened cities you can see frightened families slowly biking single file, Papa in front, followed by Mama and a few timid children. They’re all wearing helmets, and no one is smiling. The parents are mentally preparing to file lawsuits and the children are terrified of doing something wrong.
In the third world, where people have much less money than we do, you’d think bicycles would be everywhere, but they’re not. They’re vastly outnumbered by motor scooters, and tiny 125CC motorcycles. In Asia and Latin America, motorbikes outnumber cars.
In the States, chances are an adult professional on a bike is riding something that bought new cost as much as a used car. In Asia and Latin America, all the bicycles are imported from China, and too small for me to ride. I’m six foot two and have long legs. No matter how high I extend the seat, the bike under me is just too small. I have the same problem at Wal-Mart (where all the bikes are made in China.)
There was a time when Asia was rife with bicycles, but then the average person got too rich to be caught huffing and puffing up a hill, and instead bought a motorbike. In Viet Nam, the streets are rivers of motorbikes, most holding more than two riders. Someday they’ll get rich enough to all buy cars, and then they’ll know what it’s like to live in America!
Average time spent paying for transportation, and actually driving has skyrocketed over the last century. In big cities, it’s not uncommon for cars to move more slowly than pedestrians, but at much greater cost.
Bicycles are fun, and even sort of romantic, but if they’re consigned to a “special” category and not used regularly, they just take up space. Go to your neighborhood garage sale and look at the family bicycles all covered with dust, hanging from hooks on the wall. Maybe this summer they’ll take them down and ride to the mall, or on that new bike path that goes nowhere. Take some pictures, post them on the Internet, and then hang those bikes back up there until next year.
In Thailand, there is no difference between men’s and women’s bikes. They’re all women’s bikes. The last bike I bought was in Thailand, and I began to appreciate not having to swing my leg up and over the top bar when mounting it.
I did, however, buy a bike helmet, because in Thailand no one knows or cares to learn how to drive. There are no traffic laws, only mild suggestions, and as anyone who has experienced a bike accident with a car knows, the bicyclist is usually the big loser.
Now I’m in Paraguay, and it’s pretty much like Viet Nam and Thailand when it comes to bikes and motorbikes. Maybe if gas gets expensive enough here, there will be a resurgence of interest in bicycles, but only the tiny heavy cheap ones from China.