10 December 2015

Cycling And Recycling

Whenever I can, I volunteer with, donate to and buy from Recycle-A-Bicycle.  They, like similar programs in other places, re-use old bikes and parts that might otherwise have ended up in landfills. 

In my mind, bicycles and recycling are always linked.  Perhaps that's because the time when I first became a dedicated cyclist--the 1970s Bike Boom--also witnessed the first attempts to make recycling a mainstream idea. The first Earth Day several years earlier got people (some, anyway) to thinking about the environment.   People started using words like "ecology" and "pollution" in everyday conversations and started to see the value of things like emissions standards.

The problem was that both cycling and recycling became popular mainly among the young, the highly-educated and the upper-middle-class (or what someone I used to know called "The Volvo Set").  Blue-collar families and communities almost never included cyclists who were old enough to have drivers' licenses.  Also, they, like many whose lives were day-to-day struggles to survive, saw recycling and environmentalism as trifles of the elite. So, when the oil-price shocks of the mid and late '70s sent gas prices to levels Americans had never before imagined, instead of cycling or walking to work or for errands, working-class people clung ever more tightly to their automobiles, and saw environmentalism and recycling as threats to their ever-more-precarious job security.

Ronald Reagan and his conservative allies played on those fears and overlaid them with the notion that conservation was inherently un-Christian. Also, during that time, the price of petroleum and other commodities dropped or remained the same (so that they essentially became less expensive to those whose incomes were rising).  That further eroded whatever incentive people might have had to conserve and re-use.  In fact, because the cost of finding new petroleum and other natural resources had declined, it was actually much cheaper to manufacture new plastic, glass and other materials than it was to recycle them.  

It was also during that time that the number of adult cyclists, and the bike market, stagnated or even declined.  Sure, some of us were still riding for fun and transportation.  But, for years, we rarely saw new faces among those who were pedaling to work or the park.

During the past decade or so, the number of people choosing bikes instead of cars or even mass transportation has increased, at least in large urban areas.  Paris and other cities began their bike share programs, and new bike shops opened with a (and some established bike shops shifted their) focus on "city" bikes and other utilitarian bicycles.  At the same time, people started to take environmental concerns seriously in the wake of unusual weather and natural (as well as manmade) disasters.  Cities and towns began mandatory recycling programs, and increasing numbers of people have begun to make (or try to make) more environmentally-conscious choices in the ways they live, work, shop and get around.

It will be interesting to see whether the current interest in cycling and recycling continues if prices of petrol or other commodities continue to fall, or if we manage to halt or reverse environmental degradation.


  1. I think it is a mistake to argue that gas prices drive cycling. Certainly the big bike boom got going before gas prices zoomed and the more recent increases took place during a period of gas price stability. It is driven more by societal mores, which are definitely changing. After all, even Newt Gingrich was a Sierra Club member in the 80's...

  2. Actually, talking about Society, it would be well if today's crop of clowns that want to be President studied Reagan more closely. HE said "Preservation of our environment is not a liberal or conservative challenge, it's common sense." Oddly, Hillary seems closest to that sentiment nowadays.

  3. Steve--I didn't know that Newt Gingrich was a Sierra Club member or that Reagan made that statement. Interesting. Did Reagan say it near the end of his term? As I recall, during most of his term, he was very hostile to the environment.

    As for gas prices: It's true that they don't generally drive cycling. We saw that when the Bike Boom collapsed after the oil price spikes that resulted from the Arab embargo. And, as I mentioned, the spikes in oil prices didn't spur blue-collar people to start riding instead of driving to work.

  4. Reagan made the quote in his January 1984 State of the Union address.

  5. Steve--Interesting. I wasn't doubting you. It just sounds so uncharacterisitic of him, at least what I recall of him.

  6. Reagan also said: "Trees cause more pollution than people do." And James Watt, his disgraced Secretary of the Interior, questioned the need for environmental regulation because he was convinced that the End Times were at hand. When gas prices climbed above $4 a gallon in 2008, there were people we had never seen on a bike pedaling to work, at least for a short time. Likewise, sales of SUVs and full-size pickups soar when gas prices tumble.

  7. MT--I remember the Reagan and Watt follies very well. One of Reagan's speechwriters realized that the original meaning of the word "pollution" was more like "alteration" than its current connotation and wrote that line for Reagan based on it. Of course, that's something most people wouldn't know.

    As for Watt: Putting him in charge of the Department of the Interior was like making a general the Secretary of State. Oh, riiight, Reagan did that, too!