10 February 2015

Rumors Of The Mechanical Bicycle's Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated For 120 Years

Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.

So said Cicero in 46 B.C.E.  Almost two millenia later, George Santayana wrote, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

You don't have to be a graduate student in history to understand how true both statements are.  Having spent a decade or two or three as a cyclist or in the bicycle business will teach you that.

I think of Cicero's and Santayana's pearls of wisdom whenever I hear or read about how electic bikes, or e-bikes, are going to turn pedal-powered bicycles into museum specimens.  

That notion wasn't propogated for the first time five, ten or even tweny years ago.  Such a prediction was made in 1970, when Sanyo demonstrated its first electric bike at that year's Expo (a.k.a. World's Fair) in Osaka.

Even that wasn't the first time someone predicted that two wheels powered by two pedals would not survive the shock of electric bikes bursting onto the scene.  The same prognostication was made a century ago, in 1911, when bicycles with electric motors first became commercially available seven years after Popular Mechanics reported that an electric motor could be fitted to a bike.

But predictions that attaching a motor to a bike would turn human-powered vehicles into roadkill go back even further.  Check out an excerpt from a December 1896 Cycling Life editorial:

“Have horseless carriages come to stay? They are still curiosities and only curiosities, although a few limited purposes they may soon be suffienctly practicable. Perhaps, it illustrates what may be expected that the bicycle was a languishing commodity of trade for many a year before it reached that degree of practicability at which wiseacres commence to ask the question “Has it come to stay?” A similar languishing business may be looked for in motor-cycles for all-around purposes…Dealers in bicycles who have the future in view might do worse than by employing their spare time and energy to familiarising themselves with motor construction. Any suitable widening of the scope of the bicycle business can only contribute to enhance its stability and reduce its risks, and there is little doubt that the motor-cycle business, when it comes, will fall into the hands of those who have trained themselves most specifically for the task of taking care of it.”

Compare that with this slide presented by Hannes Neupert--founder of ExtraEnergy, an electric vehicle lobbying organization based in Germany-- at a Light Electric Vehicle Conference in 2010:

How a man can claim to be a visionary while completely ignoring history is beyond me.  Yes, guy  who delivers your Chinese food may have ditched his old mountain bike for a new e-bike.  But he probably was not riding a bicycle when he wasn't working and if he ever gets a job in which he didn't have to make deliveries, he'll probably never ride anything with two wheels ever again.  

But when he traded pedals for a lithium-ion batteries, someone else started riding a human-powered bike to his or her job at a school, office, studio or store.  And others are signing up for Bike-A-Thons of one kind or another.  Moreover, the cities in which those delivery people and those new cyclists live and work may have started a bike share program.

Image result for deliveries on electric bikes

The reason is simple:  Aside from having two wheels and one rider, an electric bike really doesn't have much in common with a pedal-powered bicycles.  Their purposes and the ways in which they can be used are completely different for a number of reasons, not the least of which is how many miles per charge (or battery) the electric bike can yield.  For that matter, an e-bike has no more in common with a motorcycle than either has with a pedal-powered bicycle.  

But I'll concede that there is one difference between today's e-bike bandwagon and those of decades past:  Today, the e-bike is touted as a "green" form of transportation.  While it doesn't belch smoke or burn gasoline, it still has, potentially, as much of an environmental impact as a few cell phones or other electronic devices.  For one thing, the electricity used to charge e-bikes has to be generated from something.  Chances are, it's derived from fossil fuels, the very stuff from which, we are warned, we must wean ourselves.

Another reason why e-bikes aren't as green as they seem is that, like many other electronic devices, they use lithium batteries.  Lithium itself is highly flammable and reactive, but that's not the least of the batteries' impact on our planet. The US Environmental Protection Agency has linked the solvents used in the manufacture of lithium batteries to cancer and neurological damage.  Even worse is the cobalt used in manufacturing the batteries:  It's been linked to pulmonary, respiratory and neurological issues.  And, as you might expect, cobalt mining is an assault on the environment.  Like other kinds of mining, it results in soil erosion and silting of water. Perhaps even worse, the tailings that are often dumped into rivers and other bodies of water are often contaminated with mercury and cyanide, which are used in the extraction process.

Almost anything degrades the environment also enables the exploitation of undeveloped countries by developed ones, which in turn leads to a widening in the gap between the rich and the poor (and for those in the middle to be pushed into the latter).  Nearly all of the world's cobalt comes from Africa; most of that from the Democratic Republic of Congo.  While the Congo has laws to protect the environment and rights of workers, they are rarely enforced.  So mining companies based in the industrialized world routinely don't pay workers, who are often children or women captured in tribal conflicts. Miners end up in slavery because they can't pay the debts incurred from the exhorbitant costs their employers charge them for their equipment. And, not surprisigly, sexual violence and substance abuse flourish in such an environment and fuel the spread of HIV/AIDS.

In other words, the mining of cobalt used in the making of lithium batteries is one factor enabling a new kind of colonialism in Africa.

Now, I'm not saying that the manufacture or maintenance of mechanical bicycles is completely pollution- or corruption-free:  No industrial process is; some would argue that no industrial process can be.  But as long as the mechanical bicycle remains the only machine that amplifies human energy without any help from an outside energy source (e.g., electricity or gasoline), it will have its place for commuting and other kinds of utility riding.  And the exhiliaration you feel (along with the exhaustion) of pedaling kilometer after kilometer, up and down hills, with the wind your face or at your back, simply can't be replicated on anything powered by electricity or any other non-human energy source!


  1. While I can't imagine acquiring an e bike, they are far "greener" than other motorized forms of transport - including public transit.

  2. Steve--I don't think I'll ever acquire an e-bike, either. Your have a point about how "green" different forms of transportation are. While greener than other kinds of motorized transport, I still doubts about whether e-bikes are as "green" as they're touted to be.