Monday, April 20, 2009

The Extinction of the Cyclist

Humans are the only organism that tries to argue with evolution. We don't prevent it, but we delay and modify it through philosophy and technology.

Bicycles evolved during the first phase of development of metal transportation devices. There had been iron ships and locomotives for decades, but the idea of mass-produced transportation devices made of metal was still new. The first two wheelers, the fast-walkers, were made of wood. But the modern bicycle came in on a wave of advancing metallurgy.

The same advancing metal technology that made relatively light bicycle frames and parts possible also facilitated the development of efficient motor vehicles. The bike radically increased the cruising range of the muscle-powered human. The motor vehicle literally blew all that into the weeds. By the laws of evolution, the bicycle should have died out.

To survive, an organism needs habitat. Often --perhaps always -- it needs supporting species in its ecosystem. The bicycle survived in the industrialized world as transportation for those who could not jump on the motorized band wagon and as a tool for sport. It had been a tool for sport from the beginning. Bike race betting was a solid industry. In less developed countries the bike still provided the transportation advantages to muscle-powered humans as it had in early industrial nations.

As cheap bikes became more available, toy bikes became a child's first transportation tool in some industrialized nations. We were meant to love it at first for the freedom it represented, then discard it for the more advanced automobile as soon as we were old enough.

During the late 1960s the habitat for transportation cycling children began to shrink rapidly. Baby Boomers toyed with bike touring in the 1970s, obscuring the loss as we played in big-boy traffic. By the 1980s, though, the tide had turned against both child cyclists and adult road riders.

Because humans argue with evolution, bicyclists continue to ride. We demand accommodation. We acclaim each mile of rail trail, each city block of bike lane a victory for our cause. We put up Share the Road signs and call all that a plateau from which to build higher.

Evolution is about survival. Perhaps total cyclist fatalities are lower than motorist fatalities. Perhaps they are a smaller percentage of bicyclist population than the death toll of motorists is to their entire pool. But combine death toll, habitat loss and the natural trend of humans to exert less and less, and the outlook is poor.

The general public likes wild animals when they live far away or in zoos. They like cyclists, or tolerate them, on segregated paths, velodromes, suburban residential lanes and European television. Only cyclists care if they have a place to ride. Only a small percentage of cyclists care if they have a right to use the road. On the spur of the moment, a cyclist who previously did not care might begin to care if the next trip happens to use the road. Or the dedicated off-road rider might never question the notion of putting the bike on the car and driving to a riding venue. This could be a sedate path or a gnarly desert ridge. The general concept is the same: consuming fossil fuel and polluting the air to pursue generally green recreation. It's better than towing a trailer full of ATVs. It's generally analogous to cross-country skiing in the USA. Not many people could use that as reliable transportation.

The human story is about faster and faster transportation. The original marathon run was a necessary journey. The prototype for the Iditarod dog sled race was also undertaken to solve a real-world problem. In cross-country skiing the Birkebeiner race in Norway was based on an epic mountain journey and the Vasaloppet in Sweden claims to descend similarly from a crisis adventure.

No event in the sport of cycling celebrates an epic practical journey by a real-world hero. Even before motor vehicles, someone in a hurry would make better time on a horse or a relay of horses, or by rail or ship if available. A bicyclist can do some amazing things. Saving the day is not usually one of them.

Saving the environment might be another matter. If technology produced the perfect green SUV monster truck, that would become the vehicle of choice. People would happily pilot the Queen Mary, crushing all life in their path, if the fuel cost next to nothing and it farted only benefits out the tail pipe. The full extent of those benefits has yet to be determined. If it was at least carbon neutral it would be hailed as the new messiah. Any fitness freak Luddite on a bike who got crushed would just be an unbeliever anyway. But such a magical land yacht has yet to appear.

Green vehicles are coming. Of course any vehicle propelled by an outside energy source could put the Earth's energy equation out of balance. The electricity for plug-in electric vehicles comes from power plants. The electricity for a hybrid comes from its internal combustion engine. Hydrogen has to be refined. LP or natural gas are fossil fuels.

Could the combined total of every capable creature's collected farts power much of our energy needs? That's as close as you'll get to a renewable combustible gas with low acquisition costs. But every animal and person will have to wear a collection tube. Every compost and sewage treatment system will have to be set up to harvest methane. Beano will become illegal. Smoke all the pot you want, but suppress your farts and you're going to jail.

That would give green vehicles a distinctly brownish tinge.

Would the human population rather have a methane collection tube up it instead of a bike seat under it? It’s a small price to pay to avoid having to wobble around on a shaky two-wheeler, gasping and sweating. Get the auto engineers to come up with a brutally fast, sleekly-styled Tootmobile. Get NASCAR into it. Bye bye, bicyclists. They’ll blow us away.

“The 2017 Blue Dart! Thirty-six miles to the colon! Zero to 60 in 4.7 stinkin’ seconds!”

Wind energy takes on a whole new meaning.

While we’re waxing Utopian, how about using dried dung as fuel? Everybody poops. Torch the dried residue in high-temperature furnaces to generate heat for steam turbines. No doubt I am not the first to pursue this line of thought. But since mountains of poop are an undeniable byproduct of a huge population, we need to turn this liability into an asset. The more people making a stink about it the better.

Many transportation cyclists use a bike because they can’t afford a car. Unless the green vehicle revolution magically elevated all these people to be able to afford a car, they will still be stuck out there in traffic, pushing away at the pedals of cheap bikes, wishing and working for a better life including motorized transportation.

From an evolutionary standpoint, a species survives because its birth and survival rate stays ahead of its mortality rate. If the privileged classes do all their cyclist-crushing from environmentally sustainable vehicles and the cyclist population renews itself from the ranks of the poor and the few soft-headed lunatics who bike voluntarily, fuel cost and environmental impact no longer compel anyone to look to the bike for any more practical purpose than exercise. As good a reason as that seems to some of us, it is hardly enough to create a new wave of converts. People will have fewer and fewer reasons to believe bicycling offers multiple advantages.

Where’s the silver lining for cyclists? I’m not sure. Cycling is a thing of the spirit. It is a philosophy. The plethora of existing philosophies and religions demonstrates how willing we are to divide into small groups that turn insignificant differences into walls and moats. The question is how much we tolerate each other.


Anonymous said...

Good post. However, evolution is not goal driven. The bicycle was not a transitional species that led to the car. It is an equally viable limb on the tree of transportation and one that will probably outlast the internal combustion engine.

cafiend said...

I really hope so. But evolution doesn't care what your goals are, either. It just happens. It isn't a process so much as the description or summation of a process.

Many species on their own branches hit an end. I don't WANT the bicyclist to hit an end, I just see how we could. Due to a lack of interest we could be canceled.

RANTWICK said...

What a great, thoughtful post! I think your "evolutionary" observations in the context of better cars is a very interesting (and plausible) way to look at the possible future of road cycling.

I hope there will always be a some place on the road for "the few soft-headed lunatics who bike voluntarily" like us. I don't want to be canceled, or relegated to recreational areas only...


Ron George said...

I'm a cyclist who can't afford a car. Well I could, but I never bothered to buy one. I constantly get "harassed" in a way by colleagues at work who do drive. While they generally remain pessimistic about bicycling themselves, they are also bent on telling me softly that I'm doing something stupid. It was a problem before, but now I don't worry so much about it. I guess the status quo is so ingrained in people, its hard to offer a different opinion of transportation.

cafiend said...

Because we have let the environment for cycling become so harsh in so many places it has taken the character of a high-risk endeavor. Cyclists who pursue the real extremes on trick ramps or gnarly trails or other venues suited to that create a subconscious impression of the fearless lunatic cyclist that mixes strangely with the contempt motorists display for our slow, vulnerable progress along "their" roads, getting in their way.

A lot of well-meaning people have told me over the years that they considered my odds of survival to be poor. No doubt they are trying to validate their own choices in life as much as save me from mine.

Ham said...

Extinct? Nahh.... just too much fun.

Also it is not a niche activity: it is mainstream, just the majority of people haven't discovered it properly yet. In the same way as the consumer is seduced by white bread, bottled water, any number of inferior but marketable products, the motor car has been sold to masses. But it is not an answer, it is just another problem.

And no, we don't want faster and faster transportation, we just don't want to waste time - as we perceive it. Which is why Concorde has died a death.

Long term it is unlikely that it is sustainable for each individual to own and pilot 2 tonnes of machinery to get the weekly shop. The behemoth of the road are in their death throes, and cyclists will form the cort├Ęge.

Oh and just in case you haven't seen this, here it is

cafiend said...

In my dreams I might ride like that guy in the video. That's the fusion of cycling and parkour I surmised at least a year ago must exist. Beautiful stuff. Must have cost a lot of rear wheels and possibly skin, bone and teeth to learn. Fascinating.