Biking in the Time of Collapse
Back in 1979 or so, I was shopping for a road bike. I spent a lot of time making up my mind before settling on a Puch Brigadier, and the bike store owner was glad to see it. He said, “With these gas prices rising, I see a lot of guys rushing in here, and all they know is that they want a good bike.”
Over at The Archdruid Report, the catabolic collapse exponent John Michael Greer is serially writing and posting another didactic story to illustrate one possible future scenario for parts of North America. Greer already wrote one speculative view of the future online: Star’s Reach, a novel which I followed online, and which is now available in book form. He has also solicited and published speculative short stories by his readers, which are available in collections After Oil 1, 2 and 3. I read some of the stories submitted for After Oil, and am following Lifeline, another online story by one of the authors.
Two chapters into Retrotopia, as our main character, named Carr, rides a train through one of the regional nations that have replaced the US, he sees a few automobiles, but mostly people walking or taking public transit. Lifeline, on the other hand, features some surprisingly fast electric bikes that get the characters into and out of trouble. I hadn’t actually thought about the absence of bikes in Retrotopia, but several readers wondered in the comments why Mr Carr hadn’t seen anyone riding bicycles. Greer responded that bike advocates make him grumpy:
[[[… have you ever noticed that when I describe any kind of green future, nobody asks that about any other technology? It’s just the bicyclists who are guaranteed to post, asking, “Where are the bikes?” I sometimes wonder if bicyclists are insecure or something.]]]
Actually a lot of TADR commenters ask about maintaining various electrical appliances and the internet, too. Those comments also rankle Mr Greer.
[[[… in my experience bicycles appeal powerfully to a minority of adults and not so much to the rest of us. I don’t doubt there are bikes wheeling down the roads in at least some parts of the Lakeland Republic, but the incessant attempts by bikophile readers to insist that bicycles ought to be all over all my imagined futures have made me a bit grumpy on the subject. Do you recall the people who insisted that I absolutely, positively had to put bicycles into Star’s Reach?
… when we still lived in Seattle, my wife worked in a neighborhood through which a lot of bicyclists rode. She was constantly being harassed and, in no small number of cases, almost struck by bicyclists who were infuriated that she would cross at the crosswalk, with the light, when they wanted to blow on through. I had similar experiences, …]]]
So. Are post-collapse bicycles simply a convenient plot device like the transporters in Star Trek? Greer, of course, is entitled to arrange his future any way he wants, but there have been a lot of sweeping statements from both pro and anti-bike camps that bear examination.
Many in the collapse community seem to feel that the spandex-clad, recreational riders are arrogant today, and will be toast in the future, but I suspect it will be more complicated. It may happen that sports car and road bike enthusiasts will endure in wealthy enclaves, while in other areas it will be too dangerous to travel without an armed escort, whether by car, bike or foot. It is already risky to ride alone in some parts of Baltimore, and it may well occur that bikes fall out of favor during a period of insurrection. On the other hand, bikes are often tools of insurrection.
Some claim that bikes will disappear once roads are no longer maintained. I can see that rougher roads will be hard on narrow-tire road bikes, but before mountain bikes were that common, my brothers and I rode three-speed Raleighs and single-speed, banana-seat bikes on the dirt sidepaths of the C&O canal. There are fat-tire bikes that will handle very rough terrain, if you can keep them in replacement parts. Others feel that rubber or machined metal parts will no longer be available. That may be true, but in Retrotopia, there seem to be parts for diesel trains and some cars. Still others feel that wooden bikes could fill the void.
One reasonably-stated objection to future bikes is that people living in diminished situations will simply not have the time or inclination to travel very far. Maybe, but looking at third world countries, bikes are very much in evidence. It may be that people in reduced circumstance have to travel into and out of the enclaves of the wealthy. It may happen that climate changes make seasonal travel a necessity.
We won’t know for sure until we get there.