A Handful of Rust: Bicycles As Waste

One argument made in favour of the bicycle, is that it is a machine that is timeless. With proper maintenance and care, a bicycle can last for many generations. And those of us who own functional bicycles from as far back as the 1930s know that to be true - at least in theory. However, in practice garbage dumps throughout the country are full of discarded bikes. Countless abandoned bicycles rust away locked to urban fixtures until the city removes them. New bicycles are churned out by factories every day as old ones become junk. The bicycle's resistance to obsolescence is a heavily stressed selling point in today's green-hued marketing... and yet reality does not reflect that. When I am asked how I feel about that contradiction, it is not easy to respond without ruffling feathers.

Looking at bicycles that are rusting away abandoned, I notice a trend: It is not the oldest bicycles that are being treated as junk. In fact most of the bikes are relatively modern. The factors they have in common are awkward construction, crude workmanship, low-quality components, and a certain overall genericness that just seems to make them impersonal and unloveable. These are mostly bicycles from big box stores, or lower-end models from popular manufacturers sold at dedicated bike shops. The truth is that even when new these objects do not look "timeless" to me. They look cheap and destined for the dump within several years - seemingly by design. So when I am asked why I do not promote "more accessible" (mass-produced, lower-end, lower-priced) bicycles, that is why. I sincerely feel that the vast majority of those bikes are designed to be bought on a whim (why not? they are affordable!) and be discarded shortly thereafter.

Bicycles that are produced thoughtfully and with care cost more, because they are more costly to make, and there is just no way around this reality. But it is not such a bad thing if we perceive a bicycle as special and expensive. When an object is meaningful to us and takes time to save up for, we value it more. Even if the bicycle ultimately does not work out (or even if we lose interest in cycling altogether), we will be unlikely to discard or abandon it. Instead we will sell it or pass it on to somebody else - just as with any other valuable, well-made object that we no longer need or want. I think that I have a pretty good idea which of the bicycles marketed today will end up in the garbage dump 5 years from now, and which will be cherished and ridden, even if not by the original owner. The latter is the kind I want to promote and the former is the kind I do not.

For the same reason, I am conflicted about the bike share programs that have been popping up in major cities. My enthusiasm for the idea of bike sharing is dampened by firsthand knowledge of what happens to many of these bikes, and how quickly it happens. I have seen large municipal pickup trucks in Vienna come by the CityBike stations on a regular basis and cart away dozens of damaged bikes, replacing them with new ones. The wastefulness of the Parisian Velib system has been well documented as well. The sad truth is that people do not treat well objects that do not belong to them. And as much as I don't want to rain on the bike share parade, I find this problem difficult to side-step. There have been grassroots initiatives to use second-hand bicycles for bike share programs, but as far as I know they have been consistently rejected.

Do you feel that the current trend for all things bicycle will just generate more waste down the line, or is that a cynical view? How do you feel about bike share and the various methods of bicycle production in relation to this question?


  1. I think you have hit on a big problem of bike share. It is similar to renting a house when real estate prices are like they are in Detroit. I might rent such a bike when on a trip because I am unwilling to pay extortionate rates to transport my own bike, but that is not a sound long-term business model.

    BTW, we have two bikes in our family that we have owned for nearly 40 years since new. I rode one of them to work on Wednesday. I have to say, however, that my daily commuter is a quality modern bike and I shall probably keep it until they pry it from my cold, dead fingers. Hopefully the first responder will comment "I didn't know people that ancient could ride bikes!"

  2. For me this is a timely post. While stopping at our town recycling center today I noticed two Schwinn frames next to the metals dumpster.

    These weren't Chicago Schwinns or even the Taiwan approved Schwinns but rather the Chinese variety. I almost shuddered thinking about the decline in this country not just of bike manufacturing but of Americans making things for Americans.

  3. While I generally agree with your post, I think the choice of picture doesn't really match the post - while the Trek Antelope and chromed dropout frame in the picture are garishly painted, they both appear to be decent frames. I have seen several Trek Antelopes modified into utility commuters, while not lovely were certainly well used.
    Cycler's post a few weeks ago here: http://bikinginheels-cycler.blogspot.com/2011/06/minnie-pearl-is-that-your-bike.html shows better examples, albeit in pre-junckyard mode.
    Regarding Bikeshare - if it gets people on bikes I'm all for it. I started cycling again after 18 years after an afternoon ride on a crappy Marin rental in San Francisco. I didn't fall in love with the bike, but I did with riding.

  4. Mark - That's true about the picture; I just liked it and wanted to use it.

  5. I've rescued a number of older, neglected bikes and repaired, upgraded, and customized them to suit my own tastes. Mostly older 10 speeds from the 70's and 80's, they just seem too good to go for scrap metal. The collection includes a couple of Puch's, a KHS, and a very early Nashbar mountain bike. My "newest" bike is an 88 Fuji Tahoe, which has been made into a sort of Retrovelo-tribute.
    Old bikes usually don't have much value, so it isn't profitable to rebuild them, but I don't do it to resell them, I just keep them and ride them.

  6. My every day commuter bike is a 1963 frame that I rescued from a junk shop, repainted and added new componets. The bike turns heads wherever I take it and I LOVE that bike. My husband just fixed up a 1972 Raleigh Sport (that was never ridden) for his own transportation. We get a big kick out of taking something old and making it new-ish again.

    My next project bike is a 1940s frame and my husband is talking about buying a Walmart frame from one of the local thrift storea (It's only $6) and converting it to a "pub bike" - a trash-looking bike frame with newer better quality componets added.... just to see how it works out.

    This is just something we enjoy doing together and is mostly for our own amusement. After reading this post I am pretty proud that we've been able to save some frames from the landfill (I'd love to find a few frames in the dumpster). We may one day be proud owners of a Pashley or a Rivendell but right now we're just having fun playing with "I wonder what would happen if..."

    I hate waste and there's so much of it in US. Many Texas cities have been considering Bikeshare programs and you never hear about the life expectancy of bikes in this program or what happens to them when they've been damaged. I would be interested to see what other folks post about programs in their own cities.


  7. I had not thought about that aspect of bike share programs. I wonder what the offset might be, more people on bikes, less use of fuel, vs bikes treated poorly and thus disposed of quickly. Unlike bike rental businesses, ie BikeNRoll in the DC which can sell their used bikes, the distinctive, heavy bike share bikes are unlikely to be re-sellable once past their prime. I am surprised these companies would quickly dispose of these bikes, though rather than fix them and keep them running.

  8. When I read a well written post like yours today, I understand the point that some bikes are not built to last, but just to keep the cash flow going. It is also true that many people are in situations that don't allow them to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on bikes. I work in a low income neighborhood and during my daily commute(usually driving)I see quite a few people each day pedaling their way to work. I'm sure they feel blessed to have a bike. I find myself wishing that more of the rest of us would make the same kind of effort. Any bike is better than no bike.

  9. "I am surprised these companies would quickly dispose of these bikes, though rather than fix them and keep them running."

    In Vienna I spoke to a friend about this who is privy to how the program works. He said replacing the bikes is cheaper than repairing.

    I think the same can be said for big box store type bikes. As soon as something breaks (which it does fairly soon), the owner takes it to the LBS. The LBS either refuses to work on it outright, or quotes a price for the repair that's close to the original cost of the bike. The owner puts the bike out on the curb and buys another, instead of getting the old one fixed.

  10. I think whatever wastefulness occurs due to bicycles is a drop in the bucket compared to the complete devastation of the environment which the automobile has so completely achieved.

    I think one of the most striking modern ironies is that the hoards of Chinese who used to crowd Beijing with bicycles are now being replaced by hoards of Chinese driving automobiles.

    I guess it's a question of who could blame them though?

  11. Quality vintage can be had for very affordable prices, and defuses the arguments of your critics. I've been riding a beautiful 1969 Batavus 3 speed with rod brakes that I picked up for the price of the cheapest department store mtn bike.

  12. MelissatheRagamuffinJune 17, 2011 at 10:31 PM

    I think that if you buy a better bike that is an investment you're also more likely to invest a little more into it to make it uniquely your own which adds to the enjoyment of riding your bike. If you really enjoy riding your bike you will ride it more. I spent probably about $300 above and beyond the original cost of Miss Surly outfitting her with the mustache bars and a Brooks saddle.

    The only reason I was able to afford Miss Surly was because my dad passed away and I got a small amount of money from his estate. As I was walking out of the LBS the day I ordered her I was feeling a little dizzy thinking of how much I was preparing to spend on A BIKE! My mother's head would spin around and pop off if she knew! But, just then a college student came up along side of me on his bike and we started talking. During the conversation he mentioned that his bike was from the 1970's and had originally belonged to his father. I marvelled that the bike was so old, and he said, "It's a steel frame." Right then and there I knew the Surly would be worth every penny, and every time I go out on her I think of my dad.

    Now, having said all that there is an old men's Schwinn Suburban at a local junk shop that he wants like $90 for. There is something about this bike that calls out to me. Suburbans aren't collectables like LeTours are, but still.... It's a steel frame bike that is tall enough for me. There's also an old Raleigh mixte with a Brooks saddle on it there, but I'm way too tall for it, and he won't sell me just the saddle.

  13. How many abandoned Chinese bikes does it take (in both a scrap metal sense and a labor/transport cost sense) to equal one abandoned car? Not to mention the fuel that the car has used throughout its life. I bet the ratio is at least 25:1 or maybe even 50:1 and I bet a lot more people abandon cars every year than bikes, simply because more people drive.

    Plus, a well-crafted bike is a major investment if you don't know whether or not you plan to keep riding. I relearned how to ride on my BSO (did not ride at all from about age 10 to age 28), learned how to ride vehicularly, learned not to be afraid of cars. And yes, I did abandon it to get something better. (Well, it's not rusting away... I want to teach my husband to ride on it, before he gets a bike of his own. So that's another use! And then it's going to the Velocipede Project to hopefully go to someone who can't even afford a new Chinese bike.) But if I had to spend $500+ to discover the fact that I love cycling, well, maybe I wouldn't have done that. I don't know if I really believe that people keep replacing one Chinese bike with another for years; the people who buy them will either fall in love with cycling and get a better bike ("wasting" only one bike), or give it up and let it waste away in their garage, thereby also wasting only one bike. But maybe it does happen.

    It's like music: if you want to learn how to play piano, do you start with the baby grand or the cheap Casio keyboard? Yes, it is sad that we toss away things so easily, but bikes are certainly not the worst offenders and if a cheap BSO or a bikeshare can get someone into riding (because it certainly did for me), and get a car off the street, then I can't fault them too much, aside from the labor concerns of course. Although I do think a secondhand bikeshare program is a great idea and I don't understand why they're being rejected.

  14. The thing about vintage, and I adore my vintage bicycles is that some people have a really hard time getting their head around the idea of spending $500+ to fix up a vintage bike as suggested in V's rebuild page when a MegaMart bike is around $200.

    Even with my own girls, I'm working hard to teach them basic bicycle maintenance because for the kind of bikes they want I can't afford new. One rides a Raleigh Colt and the other lugged racing bike. I think they appreciate the quality used frames they have, but sometimes I wonder if their friends give them a hard time about always riding "old" bikes.

  15. I keep hearing about shops that "won't touch" department store bikes, or old ten-speeds or the like. In most of the shops I've worked in those were the bread and butter, and if you wanted to prove you were a real mechanic, the way to do it was to get a Huffy to actually shift and brake properly.
    But overall, those bikes are meant to be largely disposable, which is somewhat frustrating for me because with modern mass-production technology it's entirely possible to make a sturdy, reliable transportation bicycle for the same price as the faux-downhill monstrosities that are being pawned off as "mountain bikes" in big-box stores.
    I'll agree that the best (and greenest!) route to a cheap transpo bike is to refurbish something older. My personal favorite target for restoration and conversion has been the Schwinn Varsity. Those things are tanks, but if you swap out the drops for North Road bars and take off the outer chainring, you have a sturdy, dependable 5-speed city bike that actually rides quite nicely.

  16. Yes, the bike trend will create more waste down the line instead of less. As with all cool things, the trends will trickle down into the mainstream and end up in scary low end forms. Fixed gear bikes at walmart by the time bike geeks have moved back to geared bikes for example. While we want cycling to be mainstream, we don't want more junk being made. Copies of beautiful bikes will be made for cheap which of course will not work and end up in the dump. It is at least better for bikes to end up at the recycling depot than the dump.
    Walmart, canadian tire et al bikes are very poorly made and the parts/components are often odd sizes that are not compatible with standard bike parts. a bike mechanic told me he cannot even repair those bikes because of this. My husband used to work with bikes and gets very mad when he looks at new bikes. The stock components are often medium to low end rather then upper end! The lower end parts do not hold up as well do not work as well with use...so within a year you have to replace the derailleurs, cranks, chains, brakes etc.. He bought a second hand bike recently instead of new because he could not find anything new under a thousand of equal value.
    The massive bike companies keep churning out cheap bikes year after year regardless. The economic capitalist model is about profit profit profit and making more stuff year after year. Poor manufacturing and bad parts mean a bike is disgarded quickly, so another is purchased. There is no value in making something well made that will last. People do not think a bike should cost very much money so will buy the ultra cheap bikes and then wonder why they suck.
    I am all for older bikes being rescued, rebuilt and used. It's democratic transportation for all! My favourite bike is my mysteriously old raleigh sprite.
    Too bad about the bike share programs. Like we just saw in Vancouver, people will wreck anything for no reason. I would not necessarily want to ride a clunky aluminum bso through Paris either. If I were travelling that far, I'd bring a bike or buy one 2nd hand there.

  17. To be fair though, I do see the same attitude with vintage bikes, especially at some of those "chop shop" places that churn out poorly kept up Schwinn Varsities. I was in the bike shop the other day when a girl brought in a lovely, old Schwinn cruiser with a broken bottom bracket. The shop quoted her about $60 to replace it and she told them to just put the bike in the dump instead. On the other hand, I know people who own and ride the MegaMart bike for years and pass it down the family, so it's probably not entirely fair to say that all people who own vintage bikes have an understanding of wastefulness or that all people who own a cheap, store-bought bike are oblivious to it.

  18. Ok, I admit it- I enjoy dumpster diving for BSO's. They follow me home and get introduced to new notions such as grease, functional brakes, trued wheels, and some air in the tires.

    After getting a liberal application of this sort of turd polish, they get parked on my tree belt with a "free" sign on them, and they don't last long. It would seem that something ridable has value, while a maladjusted assembly of bike parts has none.

    The need for all things new is firmly entrenched in consumerist mentality. I actually had an altercation with my brother last week where I had to fight tooth and nail to convince him that a used Gary Fisher mountain bike with a "rusty chain" was a much better buy than a shiny new big box special. Had it not been for a drastic price differential, I fear he still would have been seduced by the pig wearing lipstick.

    As an aside, many BSO's are now being made of aluminum, which won't even decompose in the landfill like the steel ones of yore. Oxidized aluminum is actually stronger than the raw metal, and will form a strong barrier on the surface to keep the underlying metal from breaking down.

  19. "How many abandoned Chinese bikes does it take (in both a scrap metal sense and a labor/transport cost sense) to equal one abandoned car?"

    I doubt that even a small percentage of the bikes I am describing are bought to replace cars. So the number of junk cars remains the same, with all the junk bikes produced in addition and not instead.

  20. I was travelling in Cameroon recently and couldn't help but notice how many of the bikes that were being used for some very heavy duty transport work were very old French porteur bikes that, despite what was obviously many years of neglect,were still functioning - squeakily, perhaps, and groaning a bit under the burdens, but quite capable of getting the job done.

    My favourites were the sinewy guys who were carrying anything up to 100 litres of smuggled kerosene on board, in bright plastic jerry cans, having just brought them across the border with Nigeria - dodging soldiers and revenue men while riding these rocky mountain tracks. (This was up in the Mandara Mountains)

    It gave me a better appreciation of what a lot of those donate-old-bikes-to-Africa charities are doing, and accomplishing. So decent old bikes do not necessarily need to die - but truly, I doubt very much if any of the mass-market el-cheapo department store bikes you see going onto the tips would ever survive this kind of use. They do seem designed, and destined, for the tip.


  21. I purchased a Chinese made department store bike a year or so ago after a long time not cycling, as I wanted to find out if whether I was serious about reconnecting with bicycles again. Amusingly, upon opening the box I found it to be padded with Chinese newspapers full of new car adverts. The bike appealed to me as it was a very simple single speed with mudguards ( fenders ? ), and slightly nostalgic looking. I enjoyed getting out and about and put up with its squeaky bottom end, flexy alloy frame and spongy brakes for 6 months, then ordered a Gazelle at 10 times the price ( which I really like, and expect to keep forever ).

    On reflection the first purchase was a mistake but it did serve some purpose for me. I have since dismantled the bike and used the better parts for some other projects. Probably would have paid as much as the bike for those parts if I had purchased them individually ( well, that's what I tell myself ! ) Also I have learned a lot from disassembling and tinkering. We live and learn.

    The latest project is restoring my first bike, a by now derelict 1960s Speedwell 3-speed roadster that I had forgotten about for many years - even bought a Brooks saddle, cork grips & front rack for it and I'm fooling around with the shellac ... guess I have the bike bug again. I can't imagine putting that much time and effort into restoring a department store bike though....

  22. EcoVelo recently posted on J. Livingston repurposed bikes for "real people" – I just love what they're doing. True, they're starting with decent frames (old MTBs), not China-made BSOs... I can't find actual prices, but I get the impression that these are $4-500 bikes.


    video: http://bit.ly/kdS2uD

  23. I agree with most of the above. Lower end bicycles are like lower end musical instruments. One wonders why they were ever manufactured in the first place. They often end up discarded, hopefully for an upgrade. However, in urban areas (NYC resident here) it's important to be able to leave a bike outside all the time, and that means a cheap bike. If you live in a 5 floor walk-up you may not be willing to lug a bike up and down every day. I see hundreds of rusty abandoned bikes around town, mostly old 10 and 3 speeds, and I generally assume that these were bikes that provided a service for a while but grew too dilapidated for the owner to repair. My commuter bike is a rusty old Raleigh Sports which stays outside all the time. (It was rusty when I bought it so I don't feel too bad about it's deteriorating condition, and I keep it in good repair.)It would be nice if everyone maintained their cheap street bikes and didn't abandon them, but advocating "quality only" bicycles doesn't answer that issue. Urban dwellers need cheap (thrift store etc.) bikes that they can leave outside and not worry about. Unfortunately, a lot of those bikes get abandoned in time. They're more like shoes than jewelry, as they get worn out they get junked. But I agree, there is no need for brand-new crappy bikes, too many good old beaters out there.

    Joe NYC
    thanks for the great blog, I read it all the time.

  24. I think this probably isn't the audience you're writing for/about, but Bicycling magazine had an article about day laborers in L.A. and bicycling, and how/where/why they get the cheap bicycles they do. Electronic version here.

    It's a great read and gives a window into a completely different world of cycling, but for those who don't click through, this sums up the relevance:

    "Moreno's 9-mile commute is tough on gear. He's gone through two bikes a year, spending more than $500 on equipment since his arrival in the U.S. four years ago.

    The question I immediately asked -- and almost as immediately felt embarrassed for asking -- was why Moreno didn't simply buy a single $500 bike that would last and be easier to ride. Moreno stared across a world at me. "That much money?" he said. "I can't put that together at one time.""

  25. The overwhelming majority of waste occurs because people are discarding unused recreational or sport bikes. It is the same as any other unused piece of sports equipment. They spent a couple hundred bucks on that fancy graphite racquet, with the best of intentions, but just couldn't be bothered to play consistently. Remove the play portion of the equation, and turn the bikes into utilitarian modes of transportation, used every day as a necessity, and the general level of maintenance will improve, as will the problem of waste.

    Public bike shares are a new phenomenon. Hopefully we can keep developing them so that they use repairable bikes and avoid waste.

    Also, education about basic bike maintenance will go a long way. Most people are capable of fixing a lot more on a bike than they would be on a modern, highly computerized car, and for more complicated repairs, they do not mind setting aside an annual maintenance budget for a car used for daily transportation.

    Because the market is mostly recreational and sport, we end up with two problems in cheap department store bikes: 1) poor quality, in those parts that long term riding will wear out, since it only has to impress in the store, not last for the life of the bike, and 2) poor fit, either in terms of an appropriately sized frame, or of an appropriate bike for the intended use. If people actually used bikes long term, they would start buying for long term reliability. Maybe consumer reports would even start reviewing bikes. If the rider is uncomfortable riding the bike, or gets a bike ill suited for their purposes, if they even intend a specific purpose, the chances of that bike finding its way into a landfill is much higher.

    However, it is absolutely possible to make decent utilitarian transportation for department store prices. A lot of the $200 or $300 department store bikes are, or could be, perfectly serviceable. I have a 10 year old Schwinn mountain bike that still works perfectly (those original Shimano components have proven extremely durable), and I use for winter commuting and locking up outside grocery stores. Good bikes and decent components are pretty cheap these days. If we succeeded in encouraging the public to use bikes as basic transportation, not only would $200 department store bikes be appropriate, they would become necessary. I strongly object to V's statement about having to save up money to buy an expensive bike so that you will value it more.

  26. In fact, I think our end goal should be well cared for department store level bikes being used for daily transportation. Many countries have loads of these less expensive bikes on the roads, and part of the point of encouraging bicycling is to encourage inexpensive and efficient transportation. If the demand was there, we could totally produce inexpensive but entirely functional transpo bikes. If you can sell a mountain bike with suspension and 21 speeds and all the rest for $200, you can certainly sell a bike suited for basic transportation for that or less. Maintenance follows from necessity - look at all the crappy cars being kept on the road. And a well maintained, but cheap and ugly bike does not pollute like a car. Unlovely does not mean unloved.

    Certainly exponentially fewer resources are wasted on a bicycle than on a car. However, we should not encourage waste simply because it occurs on a smaller scale. Moreover, with the current market, you can find a lovely steel framed used bike for an incredibly inexpensive price. Especially if you are new to bike commuting, this is the best place to start, so if you end up deciding you need something different, you are not wasting resources, either your own or the public's. Given the quality used bikes on the market, any entry level $700 LBS bike, whether it be road, mountain, or hybrid, seems like an incredible waste to me, even though the quality is perfectly fine.

    Why do you need to spend all that money on a Surly, if you recognize the value in a cheap 1970s frame? Why not get a 1970s bike and not incur the resource cost of having a manufacturer build a new one? Why encourage drooling over a brand new titanium bike, or a boutique new steel bike by some custom frame builder, when a much cheaper option will get the average commuter from point A to point B just as well? A lot of this starts to smack of consumerism. The effect may be less wasteful than ticking the leather option, or even the now fashionable hybrid option, on your $20k to $50k or more new automobile, but the consumerist spirit that fuels American capitalism is the same. Perhaps if we reconsidered our priorities, even in this, we would take a small step closer to putting the general public on serviceable transportation bikes for some of their daily commuting.

    Buy a luxury bike if you want (and you are actually going to use it), but don't assume that you or others need a luxury bike, or because it is expensive and high quality, it will survive and be used. There are plenty of fancy, beautiful $2-5k bikes sitting around gathering dust too, and they still waste resources.


  27. I only know what I've read about the other bike share programs in European cities, but firsthand this month I saw Bicing, the bike share program in Barcelona to be wildly successful. I came home very encouraged that it is a great business model for other cities.

    I don't think everyone understands the targeted market of these bikes, it's not an alternative for tourists to ride all day. In fact in Barcelona, you must be a resident, they are meant for short trips, 30 mins or less.

    From best I can tell, the actual corralling and locking systems perform well. They have done their research and there are enough bikes and stations all over that tons of people use them, and there never seemed to be less than two bikes at a station that I saw. Also, to be noted is this particular program is funded by clear channel and ridership annually is 80,000.

    In my opinion, this works!

    Also, I'd like to note:
    The RHC lovely bicycle collaboration is looking really beautiful!

  28. I think this is a great post and one that should ruffle feathers. As a citizen of Denver, our bike share program is on it's second year and the bikes are fairly well maintained. They don't see much abuse tho, as many times they are ridden only a few blocks by downtown workers. They're also built like tanks.

    I also agree with supporting well made (expensive) bikes that can be cared for and passed on. About a year ago, my wife wanted to buy "her last bike". We got a Soma with the intention that a good steel bike could last generations. This is also a problem with all the broken carbon sitting in landfills, as of yet it is not really recyclable. At least cheap aluminum bikes can be scrapped!

  29. Roff, interesting on Cameroon, did you do any riding? I spend a lot of time in West Africa because of work and haven't seen any old porteur bikes there, but lots and lots of thoroughly used bikes of many types kept running with chewing gum and string, tape, and otherwise much ingenuity and sheer determination. What I see a lot of are old mixtes with obscure French brand names, and cheap chinese mountain bikes apparently brought in new or used from Spain and France, and possibly other places. It seems every bike part is thoroughly consumed, i.e. nothing that works is thrown away. But still, bikes are typically filthy and in need of basic TLC. Sometimes in the market I'm half tempted to go around putting lube on all the rusty chains when no one is looking. The midnight chain lube ninja.

    What people really want there is a scooter or moped and so a bike is what you ride until you can afford a motorbike. Motorbikes and scooters and parts are thoroughly and completely consumed in the same manner as bicycles.

  30. Hi Bif
    No I didn't get to do any riding in Cameroon; I was there for work - I'm a journalist. I must say I was really surprised at some of the (originally) quite nice old French bikes I saw there - not so much in Douala, but up-country. And yes, they certainly do consume them entirely; the American Indian's use of the buffalo springs to mind as an analogy. Nothing, but nothing, goes to waste - on bicycles, and, as you say, motorbikes and scooters as well.


  31. "I saw Bicing, the bike share program in Barcelona to be wildly successful."

    Almost all of the bikeshare programs I've seen in Europe are successful in terms of people using the bikes. The Paris Velib and the CityBike Vienna programs are very successful in that sense as well. But what you don't necessarily see, is that the bikes are constantly getting replaced behind the scenes. Constantly, like every week by the truckload.

  32. Sausend

    Moreno's comments speak volumes. Very often, better-situated people wonder, often aloud and sometimes loudly, why poor immigrants don't work and save--whether to buy a house instead of renting one, or to go to school or, for that matter, a better bike. When you're working and living day-to-day, there are a lot of options you simply don't have. And many of those laborers are--Goddess knows how--sending money back to Mexico or Guatemala or wherever.

    Yes, it is just about impossible for them to save that much money. More to the point, though, is that their need for transportation can't wait until they save money for better bikes. Most of them don't have cars and, as often as not, they're living and working in places where there's little or no mass transportation. And here in New York, a months' worth of subway or bus fares costs more than one of those department store bikes.

    Finally, I'm going to say something that I hope none of you read as bigotry. I am a granddaughter of immigrants who literally came here with nothing more than the clothing on their bodies. People who've grown up so poor have, most likely, never had anything new in their lives. So the prospect of getting something brand-new for the first time in their lives can be all but irresistible. Have you ever noticed that it's not the "new money" that buys antiques?

  33. Oy!

    I wrote a huge, rambling, ultimately po-faced and scolding tome, and decided that I'd leave that for someone else.

    What Velouria is touching on (and ANTBike Mike wrote about so eloquently in his blog two years ago) is a typical manifestation of "The tragedy of the commons."
    If you don't own something but have use of it, and are not held responsible for it's upkeep, you're more likely to likely to abuse that thing or service. It's universal human behavior.

    The propensity to discard older serviceable items or purchase poorly-made goods due to lower cost is also typical of wealthy mercantile societies, and has been documented throughout history; it is not an "American Capitalist" phenomenon, but a perennial human societal one.
    It's more about how a group of people see themselves and their prospects.

    Typical in public schemes (of which bike shares are a good example) are a few opportunities for legal "graft" through the sorts of contract conditions imposed. The people pushing the program
    typically have something to gain financially from the success of the project.
    And as Velouria noted, since employee overhead is typically the highest cost in any business, it is cheaper to junk and replace the bike than repair it.

    "What people really want there is a scooter or moped and so a bike is what you ride until you can afford a motorbike. Motorbikes and scooters and parts are thoroughly and completely consumed in the same manner as bicycles. "

    I noted the same phenomenon Bif wrote about while in Vietnam recently. It is apparently the case all over the developing parts of the globe.

    (drops back into lurker mode)

  34. "I doubt that even a small percentage of the bikes I am describing are bought to replace cars. So the number of junk cars remains the same, with all the junk bikes produced in addition and not instead."

    In the sense if you have a car already you probably aren't going to get rid of it for a bike, I agree.

    On the other hand many recent college grads are choosing to live in urban environments now and have chosen to go car-less.

    The marginally-employed have always walked a fine line between car ownership and bike riding for transport, so certainly those ranks have grown recently.

    Above a certain price/quality threshold the greenwashing of bikes is a valid argument, IMO.

    Bikes or cars, it all turns to dust eventually. Junk bikes do go to the land fill faster, tho. They both involved careful feeding of money over time, but the car vastly more sums.

    Re-purposing - a great idea, epitomized by things like the Bikes to Africa project. Domestically Xtracycle has taken the term to a new level, allowing for car-lite or car-replacement at nominal cost vs. a dedicated cargo bike. I frankly don't see their usefulness waning.

    "Although I do think a secondhand bikeshare program is a great idea and I don't understand why they're being rejected. "

    Non-standard parts make each one a special project to fix and require a lot of time and a huge variety of spare parts.

  35. Agree with Justine, a monthly unlimited transit card is over $100. And if you can't afford the monthly card in one shot you're going to spend a lot more than $100 if you use the subway/buses every day. Cheap bikes can make the city affordable for those who need them.
    One thing I always wonder about when I see abandoned bikes: often they're locked up with those big heavy chains and locks that cost $50 or more. Even if you're done with your trashed bike, why would you leave an expensive chain and lock behind? My other question is when is it ok to start stripping parts off obviously abandoned bikes. I'm always tempted but haven't gone there yet.
    cheers, Joe NYC

  36. Re impoverished immigrants who cannot afford cars or well-made bikes: I think bringing up this argument is an inversion of my point that does not really make sense when analysed.

    How many of the badly-made bikes that end up in the dumpster are purchased by this group of people? My guess is very few. I would be surprised if more than 10%. The rest are purchased by people who, if they considered it a worthwhile pursuit, could afford a better made bike.

    There will always be cheap bikes. There will also always be better made second-hand bikes via Craigslist and what not. Both of these can be purchased by those who are truly poor.

    My point, however, is that production of bicycles with obsolescence built into them should be discouraged rather than encouraged.

  37. I'll tell you what I've seen:

    I live in a very mixed neighborhood with an over 30% Latino population, who tend to be the primary users of Walmart bikes. For whatever reason the AA don't prefer these as much. The Latinos source theirs new or used.

    Over time a very large portion of them have returned to their native lands. Over the last 3 years I've seen a lot of Walmart junkers on the side of the road. Reason: no new market for them and cost-prohibitive to fix. So basically they all go to the junk pile relatively quickly.

    "There will always be cheap bikes. There will also always be better made second-hand bikes via Craigslist and what not. Both of these can be purchased by those who are truly poor.

    Not true. Much of the truly poor don't speak English, are uneducated, don't know how to use a computer, the internet, a phone and certainly not Clist. Well-made second hand bikes in running order go for multiple hundreds of dollars, whereas a new Walmart bike will undercut that, let alone a used one.

    "My point, however, is that production of bicycles with obsolescence built into them should be discouraged rather than encouraged."

    As various comments above have indicated, it depends on motivation for upkeep. I see old Serottas and Colnagos that aren't long for this world due to negligence.

    I see your point and it's true for a certain demographic, but not for another. I'm not sure you are grasping the subsistence level of the folks I'm talking about.

  38. Velouria, I agree that we should discourage the building of poor-quality bikes for environmental, economical or aesthetic, as well as other, reasons. However, given the realities of economics as well as the lives of people I've described, they will, as often as not, buy the cheapest and newest thing they can get their hands on.

    Most of the people I've described don't look at Craigslist because they don't have access to the Internet, for a variety of reasons. Back in the old days, supermarkets and many public meeting places had message boards where one could post an ad for a bike, or any number of other things. Since Craigslist and other online listings have come along, those old boards have largely disappeared.

  39. IMO the waste factor .for bicycles, is a glaring lack of consumer education.

    People don't even think about how much value ,or quality, can be bought for $79 "on sale" for a bicycle in a big box store. THIS is why the average consumer protest at the very idea of a $300 bike!

    It is only the hardy stubborn consumer that will work their way up from a $79 bike to a bike that they can ride without breaking. Then some consumers also make the mistake of throwing money at a bike thinking they really are buying the best.

    Education, education, education........

  40. GR Jim - Just because 90% of population X are using these bikes, it does not logically or statistically follow that 90% of these bikes are used by population X. That is what I was saying in my previous comment.

    Also, cheaply made bikes are not limited to the cheapest-costing bikes.

  41. Bikeshare programs rule.i live in Paris and I can say enough positive things about Velib'. It's not always easy to own a bike in a big city and Velib' offered many people the opportunity to ride a bike in the city and to realize it was a credible transportation option. Many of those people now own their own bike.
    That and the obvious strength of such a program : one way trip, multimodal trips, great option for non locals...
    Without Velib', I'm convincinced there wouldn't be such a bike boom in Paris.
    I don't care if the bikes are disposable. They're bikes, on the streets, thousands of them.
    Built in eastern europe, AFAIK, not in China.)

  42. One problem is that bicycles aren't taken seriously by most people. Nobody expects to buy a new car for $ 3000 (1/5 of what a decent car costs). Yet few people are willing to spend more on a bike than 1/5 of what a decent one costs.

    People who cannot or don't want to spend the money on a new car buy a used one. As you point out, the same option applies to bicycles.

    The problem is not limited to North America. In France and Germany, the "average" bike is bought at a "big box" home improvement store for $ 300. It gets ridden less than 300 miles before it is discarded after a few years.

  43. I have a huge problem with cheaply made pieces of junk. That being said, there are too many people that cannot afford expensive, quality bikes. I'm having trouble affording one.

    With all the good things that come with owning a bike, I don't want to discourage people from getting any bike they can afford. I would rather encourage them to take care of it, and pass it along to someone else if/when they are ready to "upgrade".

    I take part in a charity event every year that gives away about 500 donated, used bikes to kids. For a lot of them, it is their first bike. It's an amazing event but it wouldn't take place if it depended on people donating pricey bikes. The Kickstarter campaign is closed, but the webpage has a good video from the documentary that was made about the event.


  44. My first bike as an adult cost me about $450. I thought it was totally, ridiculously expensive and felt like quite the heal when I found I didn't enjoy riding it. I thought it was BEAUTIFUL. You can see it somewhere in one of my old posts on rideblog. It was NOT BEAUTIFUL. :)

    I think people go to stores, and there they see bikes for around $250 dollars. They look shiny and come in pretty colors. Most people ride them for fun, every now and then, or with their kids. When you then suggest they buy a different bike that costs twice as much, containing all sorts of "improvements" that don't look particularly different and aren't easy to understand, they think you're nuts.

    My LBS sells mid-range to expensive new steel bikes, from Felt and Raleigh and companies like that. The cheapest bike in the place is probably a $300 girl's Felt. The Raleighs run into $1000 easy. My BF, who should know better by now, living with me, thinks their prices are outrageous. He can't believe a bike should cost over $300. That, I think, is most folks' mentality. It's not that he's a casual consumer: he's not. He expects to ride his bikes for years. But as he doesn't ride much, and isn't educated about components and frame quality, etc, he can't understand why anyone would pay more than a few hundred for a "toy."

    People are complex, and no one motivation drives all actions.

  45. Interesting topic and comments.

    You could probably say a lot of the same things about shoes, I mean being they are also transportation aids. A lot of shoes look like shoes but are cheap and/or don't work very well as shoes, and nobody likes taking care of them or fixing them, at least not when they can just buy more cheap shoes.

  46. Ownership of something with value promotes stewardship.

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  48. Cycling is such a big culture in China and Japan, and so I don't get the "eww its made in China" comments, or like saying the bikes are made in eastern europe as opposed to China (eastern european bikes are better?)

    People in China make cheap bikes because chinese people are poor, and most who ride bikes (instead of automobiles) don't ride because they *like* to, its because they *have* to.. regardless of how ugly or badly it rides.

    People in developing nations always prefer mopeds and scooters (this isn't a phenomenon), because the roads are AWFUL and dangerous for bikes. The weather is painfully hot and the air is polluted by traffic, one bikes because one must, but if you can get in/out of traffic in one of these cities in developing countries, the faster the better.

    A 10 minute bike ride in Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta, your clothes will be drenched in sweat in less than 5 minutes, it will be wet like it rained on you, and then all the polluted air and dust particles will stick on your wet shirt. Yum. No thanks. Will prefer car with AC.

  49. There is a bike share/loaner program in one of our arts district here in Columbus, Oh. I could probably count on one hand the number of times I've seen someone riding one.
    Our problem is that the arts district (the "Short North") is totally walkable, and more people need to be encouraged to bike TO it, rather than bike once they get here.
    And the use of new bikes, thought I like the idea that the Africabike was used, is wasteful.

    Our to community co-op bike shops are a little out of the way from the Short North, and if we had one located there, I'd love to see used bikes for a bikeshare program instead.

  50. I once had a 60's green metallic Hawthorne, a '72 sierra brown Suburban and an '86 Schwinn Prelude. My short-lived effort to fix up a few vintage bicycles. These bikes ended up in the thrift store because none of the 9 (yes, 9!) LBS's would touch them, or wanted to charge me upwards of $400 just to *tune-up* the Prelude! I am not mechanically talented, so would not benefit from doing my own "wrenching."

    This is a delicate subject for me. I practically cried when I dropped off my much loved Hawthorne. It would be heaven if there was an LBS like Harris around here to support those of us who love vintage bikes. But realistically, one must make a hard choice between multiple vintage, barely-working bikes sitting in the garage, or one mass-produced bike accumulating miles regularly. Just sayin'.

    Your blog is wonderful! Thanks for your time. :D

    Ann in Geneva, IL

  51. I live in a college town (Berkeley) so there's a massive amount of bike abandonment that goes on, and have the following thoughts...

    - Most folks just use their bikes for trips under a couple miles around town. Don't really need anything high end (or even that reliable) for that. There's good public transit for longer trips. I personally use a 40-year old department store bike I got for free that's been upgraded with parts from other abandoned bikes.

    - Bike theft is a big problem, creating a deterrent to having a valuable bike.

    - Since so many people bike, unwanted bikes are rarely discarded, they're often kept around as an extra bike for informal bikesharing, stripped for parts, used in art projects (such as tall bikes), taken to Burning Man, etc. Again, since there's so much bike consumption going on there are places to recycle everything.

    - Often bikes get tossed instead of fixed because of the difference in labor prices in the US vs. in China. Thus perhaps the most effective way to lengthen the life of bikes is to teach people how to enjoy fixing bikes. This shifts the cost equation towards maintaining instead of replacing.

  52. Bike Shares are not a new phenomenon. We had them in Davis, CA forty years ago. The yellow cruisers were stolen to be exported out of the area, abandoned, abused and the program failed.
    I suspect the problem with used bikes is the problem of keeping all of the spare parts necessary to repair a fleet of dissimilar bikes that use incompatible parts.
    I live in Pasadena, CA. Latino restaurant workers on dilapidated rigid MTBs and BMX bikes share my commute. I've studied the bikes chained up in the racks and alleys around town. They are objects of scrounged parts, assembled as best they can. Often the deraileurs are not straight or dialed in, the chains are rusty and the bottom brackets squeek.
    We have The Bike Oven, Bicycle Kitchen, and Bikrowave, non-profit bike repair shops where you can rent a stand for $5/hr and get coaching on how to fix your bike from volunteers. Most of these bike owners work shifts that preclude going there, but some do. They are also places where you can donate bikes and parts, and they do get used.
    Most of these commuters ride at a slow enough pace and fear traffic enough that they ride on the sidewalk. There are LOTS of them. They are marginalized. And their dream is not to get better bikes, but to join the American Dream and get a car. For them, the bike is their means of merging into the mainstream. They are not activists, environmentalists or community builders. They are poor. They lug their laundry to laundromats on their bicycles. Add up parking ($6/day!), insurance, registration, maintenance and $4/gal. gas, and the reason they bike to work is pretty obvious.
    These people have impressed me with one lesson: The 'green' movement should not be perceived as a marketing opportunity. It is at heart a grass roots movement of thrift. Used bikes are cheaper, and can be made to work. Used, discarded tires can be made to work.
    I just need to get them, one-by-one, to appreciate the virtues of cheap lubricants (they could use fry oil from their kitchens on their chains!) and to show them that riding in the street is not as dangerous as it is in their home country, conditions could be improved a lot!

  53. People have a consideration that spending more money to repair something than they can get for it is a waste of money. What they fail to realize is the value of usage. If you spend $150 on a Schwinn Varsity that you bought for $100 to get it running for a long time, you can get thousands of miles out of it. If you calculate the value of actual usage, it's worth it: less than a nickel a mile. If you only calculate what you can sell it for after its done, its not.
    Too many people value objects at their sale price. To reject that mercantile model of values is to go out of agreement with the consumerist values we are bombarded with from all around us.

  54. At our local bike coop, we refurb or recycle and sell used bikes/parts - and teach volunteers to do the same. Our favorites are 70s 10 speeds and 80s MTBs. We get bikes from our local dump and we take all bicycle donations, big box or otherwise - and we accept trades.

    We refurb big box bikes if they aren't too bad. To me the simpler big box bikes - the better (single speeds). If we can't put them back on the road, we part them out and/or put them in the "free" pile. There is usually something we can use.

    One of the things we can do is convert the big box multi speeds into "farm bike" single speeds. These literally are put to use on local farms. We remove the derailleurs and shifters and shorten the chain - and they are good to go.

    I'm not advocating big box bikes as the quality isn't very good and the lifespans are a drop in the bucket compared to 70s and 80s bikes. That said, there are people out there who can only afford $50-$100 for a bike. The problem with buying one new is that they need shop time to get them right.

  55. Interesting post and interesting comments.

    One comment that I haven't seen relates to labor costs. Which is why I suspect that so many of the bike share programs replace damaged bikes rather than repairing them. Skilled labor is expensive. Fifty or so years ago the materials cost more than the labor to build something. Disposable income was less, so people had a tendency to purchase items that were a good value and to take care of them.
    Then came consumerism and they only way to drive the economy was to provide items that were disposable at rock bottom prices. I would say we have succeeded in that aspect of it.

    I wonder what it would really cost to build a Raleigh Sports today? Inflation calculators indicate that a Raleigh Sports from the mid 60's would be an ~$435 bicycle today. But I suspect back then it was much more valuable.


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  57. @ann ladson: Bicing in Barcelona is financially supported by user fees and car parking fees.

    Further, if you consider bike share instead as "public transport", i.e. a shared seat when you need it (or nearly so), it might make a lot more sense.

    Not sure about Vienna, but VĂ©lib' is an exception in regards to wanton destruction of bikes. The new programme in London and many others suffer relatively little intentional damage.

  58. Bikes are a tiny part of the waste stream and very recyclable, so I wouldn't worry too much. As far as Bike Share, I think it's worth any waste for all the great benefits of bike sharing.


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