Image: Yes, I want to cycle on the motorway. Credit: michael ely (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Some readers have observed that we haven’t paid any attention to one of the most low-tech innovations ever - the humble bicycle. We noted the sex-appeal of pedal power (and this concerns both men and women), but that’s about it. So, since you asked for it, here is our concise but clear point of view on these human powered contraptions.
- don’t require an introduction. But, to be sure, for those of you who have been moving exclusively from office garage to home garage via automobile and nothing else for most of their lifes: a bicycle is a two-wheeled, pedal-powered vehicle that was invented almost 150 years ago and can still be seen on the streets today. If you slow down a bit in that car, you will be sure to spot one.
Initially, the bicycle was quite a dangerous contraption. But, by the end of the 19th century, after the invention of the pneumatic tyre and the chain drive (so that the velocity of the vehicle was no longer determined by the diametre of the front wheel) it became a very popular means of transportation - a period that historians now label the “bicycle craze”. Bikes were definitely the “it thing” back in the day, as these paragraphs from a 1896 New York Times article illustrate:
“Young men used to save up their money to buy a horse or a watch. Now, they save to buy a bicycle, and there are thousands who are cutting off unnecessary expenses in the way of clothing, cigars, and amusements and luxuries, so as to possess a wheel…”
“So great was the crowd assembled in Madison Avenue at 7:30 last evening that the doors of the Madison Square Garden had to be thrown open in order to clear the street, and so the third annual bicycle show was opened a half hour before the hour originally decided upon.”
What bikes can do
One more thing that beginners should know is this: bicycles are not only suited to transport people, but also to carry goods.There are many sturdy cargo bikes around these days, some of which are inspired by traditional models, and others not.
The amount of stuff you can move around by mere pedal power is surprising. In short, with the modest bicycle it is possible to transport anything usually transported by cars or vans (your suitcase, design furniture, a lover - sorry to focus on the sex appeal again but I am trying to catch your attention here).
What bikes need
Bicycles themselves are a mature technology with not that much to improve upon. They don’t need rails, overhead lines, traffic management systems, smart grids, gas stations, batteries or superconductors - but they do need roads. This is where the trouble begins. It is interesting to note that the first smooth roads were built for bikes, and not for cars. Alas, that was a time before the arrival of the automobile made an end to the bicycle craze.
Today, bicycle roads are inadequate or non-existent in most parts of the world. As a result, riding a bike is dangerous at the very least and plain suicide at worst, in spite of the pneumatic tyres and chain drive. The reason for this is simple: cars rule the roads. It does not matter whether cars drive on gasoline, diesel, batteries, biofuels, hydrogen, hot air, dead rabbits or coffee husk: their sheer existence and number makes another bicycle craze almost impossible.
The good intentions
In order to solve this, there is more and more talk surrounding the implementation of bicycle highways. The idea itself is not a new one: the comfortable ride offered by the elevated CycleWay in California more than 100 years ago is still unrivalled anywhere in the world today. Some countries, most notably the Netherlands and Denmark, are making progress with fast, safe and separate roads for bikes, tagging them as “bicycle highways”.
Creative minds have designed elevated bicycle roads inspired by the long gone CycleWay (but not nearly as sturdy if you ask me). Even more creative minds have designed elevated bicycle highways that protect bikers from rain, wind and pigeon poop. Some of these tunnels even have the potential to generate artificial tailwinds that would make you go twice as fast. They would be heated in winter and cooled in summer.
While all these ideas are substantially better than many other inventions that are being designed these days (carbon capture technology, algal fuel and nanotech batteries spring to mind) this is not the way to go.
The problem is not that there is a lack of good roads - enough of these exist to bike from here to Mars and beyond. The main problem is that these are occupied by automobiles that are not only dangerous but also very inefficient both in terms of energy use and floor space.
We don’t need any new infrastructure, what we need is to clear the existing infrastructure of inefficient vehicles and replace them with efficient ones. In other words: give all streets, highways, cloverleaves and motorways exclusively to bicycles and all other human powered wheeled vehicles. Get rid of cars. Why make things so complicated if the solution is so simple?
Yes, I do want to cycle on the motorway. It takes me more than an hour to pedal from my town to the city, because half of the time I am waiting in front of a traffic light watching cars passing me by.
If I could ride up one of the many large highways or motorways that lead almost straight into the city, I would be there in less than 20 minutes. If driving from A to B at a stretch was an exclusive privilege for cars for so long, then why can it not be an exclusive right for a much more efficient mode of transport? The views aren’t bad either.
The transportation problem will never be solved unless we eradicate cars completely. As we don’t have the courage to do that, all else we try will be in vain. Streets have a limited capacity and there are few places where you can give all transport modes - pedestrians, bikers, cars, public transport - all that they need.
In order to find a solution, we need to eliminate the most inefficient vehicle type. This is definitely the automobile - its hunger for space ends up being an even larger (but underestimated) problem than its hunger for fuel.
The new roads
Picture this for a second. If cars are gone, we are left with pedestrians (on the sidewalk), pedal powered vehicles (one part of the streets and the highways) and public transportation (another part of the streets and the highways, separated from pedal powered traffic, or underground). Taxis are allowed to stay, as long as they are equipped with pedals and chain drives.
We can maintain all possibilities that we have today: bikes for people who prefer their personal means of transportation (freedom!). Public transportation for those who prefer not to pedal. It should be noted that installing thousands and thousands of showers is definitely a more cost-effective option than unfolding a charging infrastructure for electric cars. Maybe it is time for a revival of public baths?
For long distance passenger transport, we have trains. For long distance cargo transport, trains again. Short distance cargo transport could see the revival of cargo trams (streetcars). Electric vehicles could be a part of the solution, too, both for cargo transport and for the disabled, provided they keep the same speed as bicycle traffic. Roads would still be available for motorised ambulances, firetrucks and - some - police cars, they have sirens for that.
The result? A healthy population, smooth traffic, clean air, silent and safe roads, and oil independence. The beauty? No money or new technology required.