The future has always promised exciting new forms of transport for the bustling hither and thither of our undoubtedly jumpsuit-wearing, cyborg selves. From the outlandish (flying cars) to the decidedly practical (electric cars), a better way of getting about is always just around the corner. Workers in the United States spend about 26 minutes twice a day on their commutes, and for most people this means driving. What’s worse, the negative effect of a long commute on life satisfaction is consistently under-estimated. Premature deaths in the United States due to automobile accidents and air pollution from vehicles are about 33,000 and an estimated 58,000 yearly, respectively. Add in all the costs associated with car ownership and road maintenance (not to mention the incalculable cost of automobiles’ contribution to the potentially existential threat of climate change) and the picture becomes clear: cars aren’t so much a convenient means of conveyance serving the humans they carry, but rather a demanding taskmaster that may be the doom of us all. There must be something better awaiting us in the transportation wonders of tomorrow.
What if we came up with a transportation mode that is faster than taking the bus, costs less than driving, and improves lifespan? What if it also happened to be the most efficient means of transport known? Anything offering up that long list of pros should be a centerpiece of any transportation blend, what wonder of future technology could I possibly be talking about?
I’m writing, of course, about the humble bicycle.
Prioritizing exotic transportation projects like Elon Musk’s hyperloop is like inventing a new type of ladder to reach the highest branches, all the while surrounded on all sides by drooping boughs laden with low-hanging fruit. In a great example of working harder, not smarter, city planners in the U.S. strive tirelessly to please our automobile overlords. Everyone needs a car to get to work and the supermarket, because everything is far apart, and everything is so far apart because everyone drives everywhere anyway. All the parking spaces and wide lanes push everything even further apart in a commuting nightmare feedback loop.
It doesn’t have to be that way, and it’s not too late to change. Consider the famously bikeable infrastructure of the Netherlands, where the bicycle is king. Many people take the purpose-built bike lanes for granted and assume they’ve always been there, but in fact they are a result of deliberate activism leading to a broad change in transportation policy beginning in the seventies. Likewise, the servile relationship many U.S. cities maintain with cars is not set in stone, and, contrary to popular belief, fuel taxes and registration fees don’t cover the costs
Even if every conventional automobile was replaced tomorrow with a self-driving electric car, a bicycle would still be a more efficient choice. The reason comes down to simple physics: a typical bike’s ~10 kgs is a fraction of the mass of the average rider, so most of the energy delivered to the pedals goes toward moving the human cargo. A car (even a Tesla) has to waste most of its energy moving the car itself. The only vehicle that has a chance of besting the bicycle in terms of efficiency is an electric-assist bicycle, once you factor in the total energy costs of producing and shipping the human fuel (food), but even that depends on where you buy your groceries [pdf].
Bicycles have been around in more or less modern form for over a hundred years, but the right tool isn’t necessarily the newest. The law of parsimony posits that the simplest solution that suffices is generally the best, and for many of our basic transport needs that means a bicycle. It’s about time we started affording cycling the respect it deserves as a central piece of our future cities and towns. Your future transportation experience may mean you’ll go to the office in virtual reality, meet important clients by hybrid dirigible, and ship supplies to Mars by electric rocket, but you’ll pick up the groceries by bicycle on the way home from the station.
Image sources used for illustrations: