Louisville Bicycle Club
March-April 2008 Newsletter

PaCkMaN's Corner
The Bicycling Century

by , LBC VP Communications


(The views expressed in this article are my own and not endorsed by the LBC.)

By 1908, it would not have been difficult to see that the automobile was becoming more than a fad. The handwriting of technology was on the wall and the slow and messy horsedrawn wagon had been found wanting. Several thousand cars were on the road and horsepower was driving the horse off the road.

If centuries in the United States are characterized by their dominant mode of personal transportation, the 1800's and 1900's conveniently encompass the horse-and-buggy and automobile eras. While it may be premature to declare an end to the automobile age, barring great technical advance in energy production and management, it is hard to see it continuing in anything like its present form through the 21st Century.

These transportation eras have not changed or been brought about in a fortnight. At the beginning of the 19th Century, the horse-drawn carriage was a luxury item. Simple carts for carrying goods were more common. For strictly personal transportation, horseback riding was more common but the vast majority of errands and trips were made on foot. During the first half of the 19th Century, carriage suspension systems were made more elaborate and effective. After the Civil War, carriages became common in styles such as the Phaeton and Coupe, names which carried forward as automobile styles. The distilation of high power fuel, gasoline, and invention of the efficient internal combustion engine made possible self-propelled vehicles that did not require steel rails to support their weight as did most steam engines powered by burning wood or coal. But the transition from buggies to cars for most was some decades from the first automobile built by the Karl Benz in 1885 to assembly line Model T production in 1914. And in Europe, the automobile did not achieve dominance until after World War II.

The bicycle was also a 19th Century development but did not gain wide popularity until the invention of the "safety bicycle", the modern bike with the diamond frame, by John Kemp Starley, coincidentally in the same year as the automobile, 1885. In America particularly, this coincidence of the development of cars and bicycles was unfortunate for the bicycle. While the bicycle had a head start in wide usage, it was short-lived, ending in the bicycle being relegated to the status of a toy by 1920. The autmobile being less available in Europe, the bicycle had a longer time to become a part of the culture and continue to be regarded as a transportation alternative, particularly in rural areas and during wars and economic hard times. And the bicycle remains the most common vehicle in the developing world.

I go over these historical facts and trends in order to draw analogies with what might happen in a world progressively short on energy that might result in the 21st Century becoming the "Cycling Century".

First, looking at the energy situation, the dominant view in geology is that there is a finite amount of oil available in the ground. The existing oil came from plant matter (not dinosaurs) deposited at the bottom of shallow seas, later covered by sediment and percolated under heat and pressure for millions of years. It is estimated that humanity has used half of it up in little more than a century and the remainder will be much more expensive and inefficient to collect. In any event, it is far too short a time for nature to replace. (There is a fringe view that hydrocarbons rise from the earth's interior and is essentially inexhaustible if one drills deep enough. But the evidence for this view is scanty to non-existent.)

Alternative means of obtaining energy in quantities heretofore available in oil are not promising. Nuclear has the same limitation in the finite availability of uranium, whose price is also soaring today like oil. Terrestrial hydrogen, primarily bound in sea water, is not an energy source. First, you need energy to "unburn" the hydrogen so you can burn it again in your engine, producing water. Obviously, getting and using hydrogen this way cancel each other out. Fusion energy, like that generated in the core of the sun, would be almost ideal. But there is as yet no guarantee that fusion, used to extract hydrogen or some other power medium for cars, will be technically feasible before the lack of oil reaches crisis. Fusion may be the fuel of the 22nd Century.

And then there are environmental concerns. Global warming may or may not be happening and may or may not be a bad thing. But you can't put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere indefinitely or in unlimited amounts. There are enough hydrocarbons on other planets to consume all the oxygen in our atmosphere. But getting it and using it are not practical. The same thing would happen to the air if oil were unlimited.

So the handwriting is again on the wall, this time for polluting, inefficient transport. The hard reality is that the days of automobile dominance are numbered and people will have to transition to another, more efficient, form of transportation. There are too many of us now to transition back to the horse and buggy. The pasture is not available to support raising horses for today's largely urban populations. It is too late for mass transit, for the funds to build it or the energy to run it. The transit planners will have to face the fact that automobiles will be used to the last drop of oil and the last infrastructure dollar. And it will not just be the parabolic rise in fuel prices, but also the falling fuel-generated dollars to pay for it.

So the obvious alternative for personal transportation is the bicycle. They exist in large numbers, largely in garages where they have been since their owners turned 16 or found they just didn't have the time or breath to exercise as they'd intended. But a time is coming when people will turn to them en masse from necessity.

In some ways, those of us who already blissfully ride thousands of miles per year might find the need to be forced onto a bike to be incomprehensible. But on the other hand, most of us succomb to the need for or convenience of a car. Some of that need and relative convenience will evaporate with the end of the car. People will move closer together. You will not be expected to get across town in less than an hour. (Some of us will be able to do so by bicycle anyway.) Automobiles will not be the danger or hindrance to cycling that they are now.

Americans will however not have to be second to anyone. We will have the best bicycles and the best cycling infrastructure in the world. While the Chinese, who come late to the automobile society and are hastening the end of it, will have to return to rusted beaters on dirt roads, we will be riding quality steel, aluminum, carbon and titanium on highways inherited from the late, not so great, automobile. Like horses at the turn of the last century however, it will not be pleasant for automobile drivers who will be forced to travel at a crawl amid swarms of cyclists and paying confiscatory gas prices for the prvilege.

I hope this ramble doesn't sound like the Unabomber's manifesto. Market forces and practical necessity will bring about changes as they always have. It does not require anyone to do anything to bring it about except to keep on driving. (The size of the vehicles will have only a small effect on the date of the change.) It's exhortation, if there is one, is to have a good attitude about the change. Get your friends on bicycles today, not to save the planet or a few drops of gasoline, but for the fun of it. And if not the fun, then the exercise they once might have intended. Like those who were able to get horseless carriages in 1908, it will be better to be ready and ahead of the curve in 2008.


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