Towards Utopia
by Patrick Field

Most of the bikes in practical use in the UK are dirty and neglected. Nothing wrong with that. Part of the bicycle's appeal is its simplicity: no fuel, paperwork or timetable -- just uncomplicated travel. Most people want bikes they can ride and forget but their unloved machines are equipped with sophisticated derailleur systems that need to be regularly cleaned and adjusted to work well, and which, in bicycle terms, wear out quickly. The first years of the new millennium will see utility riders shifting toward technology that suits their needs better.

In the years immediately before the arrival of the mtb the assumption that utility bikes were for people who couldn't afford anything else, drove their price - and quality - down. If you wanted something easy to ride, off-the-peg, in Britain it was nearly impossible to find anything but the most basic, utility bike.

Mtbs weren't designed to meet a demand for lightweight, multi-speed performance in a user-friendly format that could be comfortably ridden by a novice in jeans and espadrilles. Nobody suspected this latent demand existed until the mtb stimulated it. Today few people in the UK are asking for low maintenance bikes, that doesn't mean that they won't be popular.

As the global utility market matures we can expect reliable, minimum-maintenance brakes and lighting systems to follow. The mtb boom is again instructive; it wasn't based on major innovations but on a reconfiguration of already proven technology. The Twentieth Century saw the first heavier than air flights, travel to the poles and the highest mountains, the atom bomb, journeys into outer space; unsurprisingly in all this excitement the efficiency -- the power -- of the bicycle was easily overlooked. Exile from the cultural mainstream meant it developed different significance and associations in different territories.

It is notoriously hard to make money selling pedal-cycles, they're inexpensive and last forever. In the industrial age the spread of hardware and information that can't be traded profitably has been limited. The internet changes this. Small scale traders can display their products cheaply to the whole World. Isolated customers can be aggregated into sustainable markets for niche products. Enthusiasts can share information on equipment, techniques and solutions quickly and cheaply. In the information age cycle-technology's comparative disadvantage to more wasteful machines is reduced.

This ground-up globalisation gives us access to a wider range of pedal-pushing role-models. Scandinavians can ride their bikes in the Italian style, anyone can use their bike like a German or a Dane. Globalisation speeds progress in areas of universal experience; parenthood for example. In North America, where cycling is considered an upmarket leisure activity, it's understood that you can produce elegant child-trailers from available technology, the Northern European tradition is that the bicycle is an unremarkable element of daily life. As these positions interact a wide range of luxury equipment for carrying children becomes available world-wide. In the UK sales of child-trailers are growing fast, from a tiny base.

The most important limits on the popularity of cycle-technology remain the conditions in which it can be used. The World is fluid and reflexive. Our living conditions restrict our choices, our living conditions are also - to some extent - influenced by our choices. Motorisation has been self-reinforcing. Car parks, wide roads and space-hungry road junctions enable and accommodate people dependent on cars, they also increase the distance between amenities making walking and cycling less rewarding. Low-density development generates travel patterns that public-transport cannot service. In a future of motor-friendly, suburbs no amount of exhortations to individuals to walk or cycle will reverse the trend to motor-dependence. This suburbia destroys town and country leaving only anonymous sprawl. More movement but nowhere to travel, as everywhere becomes the same.

Apologists for motor-dependence are fond of stating that "people choose to own and use cars". A counter observation is that areas where the alienating influence of motor-traffic is restricted -- from Centre Parcs to historic cities -- are popular places to spend 'free' time. "I'll consider giving up my car when public-transport can fulfil my current needs" is an alibi not a statement of intent. No public-transport system can replace the hyper-mobility of motor-dependence. We need living systems that reduce the demand for involuntary movement so walking and cycling can meet more peoples' daily needs, saving further travel for special occasions and pleasure. Motor-dependence promotes a yawning, unsustainable gap between the private and public good. Our choice is planned reduction of dependence on private motor-cars, or slow constriction by the creeping frustration of motor-traffic congestion.

Some optimists anticipate this congestion will get so bad that gridlock victims will turn to the bicycle as an alternative. The mega-jams of Asian cities show people can adapt to the most awful conditions. If modern traffic problems had been presented twenty years ago they would have been rejected as unacceptable. Introduced very gradually the torture is tolerated as inevitable. The motorist's problem is not traffic wardens, cyclists or kill-joy politicians it is other motorists. This isolating and self-limiting character makes it difficult to mould motorists into a coherent or sustained political force. The 'motorists backlash' is a paper tiger. Change always causes problems, it always brings opportunity. Restrictions on car use reinforce a 'naughty but nice' image of motor-dependence.

People change their behaviour when offered a better alternative, positive rewards for motor-free living are more likely to succeed than punishment. Offering cycle-travel as an 'alternative' misses the point that, when the conditions are right, cycling is a pleasure in itself, not an alternative to anything. Crucially, unlike the unrealisable fantasy of universal mobility via the private car, it is possible to create conditions where this pleasure is available to everyone.

The people who already travel by bike understand that it has personal benefits. We need to develop mechanisms to reinforce these rewards because the whole of society benefits from the individual's choice to cycle. New-build housing estates where residents pledge not to own a car, use land efficiently. Homes in these developments can be more spacious or cheaper. Residents know that local amenities will be well supported, that they are likely to meet their neighbours in nearby shops, that crime will be reduced, that their children will be able to play-out.

Car-free housing estates are already planned for British cities. Existing European examples are popular. They under-cut the lazy assumption that everybody either is, or aspires to be, motor-dependent. Car-free housing combines well with car sharing schemes that give members the opportunity to use cars without having to own one each. Early German examples of these operations have cut the cost of motoring for subscribers dramatically, allowing them to choose the most appropriate mode for each journey. A major problem with our current transport economy is that, for many people, the struggle to afford a car leaves nothing left to invest in cycling equipment or for taking the bus, the train or a taxi, even when they are the most desirable option. Many motor-dependent people can't contemplate life without a car, these 'Stadt-Auto' schemes allow them to make the break gently.

The spread of motor-free space in residential areas and town centres will increases the viability of human-powered freight. This has the potential to replace some of the light commercial traffic which makes up an increasing proportion of urban motor-traffic. The low capital and revenue costs of freight cycles are already making a direct 'bottom-line' appeal to courier companies. Freight-cycle technology was unaltered for seventy years but a new generation of tricycles and quadricycles are beginning to appear on the city streets; another reconfiguration of existing technology. They make excellent people carriers and can be used to move wobbly pedestrians around motor-free zones. Supermarkets have reduced grocery shopping to an unsociable chore, this can be eliminated by home delivery, using motors in suburban areas and freight-cycles where addresses are more tightly packed.

Out-of-town stores can be converted to despatch depots. Changing patterns of work are making full-time, lifelong employment the exception rather than the rule. The bicycle which blurs the distinction between work and recreation fits neatly into this new, flexible reality. Folding bikes will boom in the short term but as cycling becomes unexceptional for local travel people will be more likely to pick up courtesy bikes from automated racks than lug a folder around. Ultimately ingenious folding technology may develop into cycles that can be used as safe and comfortable recumbents for inter-urban journeys then converted to more manoeuvrable uprights for riding in busy towns.

It's understandable that 100 years ago Wilbur and Orville Wright thought that aeroplanes and the "infinite highway of the air" would offer humanity a faster route to paradise than the bicycle business that financed their aviation experiments. If they were still around at the end of our century-long experiment into the limits of the cheap-energy economy would they be reassessing their position?

It is possible to move more people or cargo further and faster using jet-planes, motor-trucks or automobiles than it is by pedal-cycles. Output is not, however, the absolute measure of a machine's value. Real value is output minus input. If you have, time, amenity and education to read this magazine, in global terms you are rich. Gentle physical effort is something rich people like us are supposed to seek out and make time for, something that will keep us alive.

For people with comfortable lives, who win food, clothing and shelter without hard labour the bicycle does not have an input and an output. It has two outputs. In the words of Mayer Hillman "it's not a free lunch. It's a lunch you get paid to eat."

It's inconceivable that the rest of the World can motorise to the level of the over-developed fraction in which we live, and create even bigger versions of the problems we have now to solve. The pedal-cycle will become a mainstay of our future, or we don't have a future worth considering.


© Patrick Field
Cycling Plus, January 2000

other stories by P. Field