It wasn't until the 1960s that the automobile surpassed the bicycle as the common man's daily means of transport in the U.K. In many parts of Asia, the bicycle is still today the common man's primary means of transport. The Chinese are evidently hell-bent on progress, and this undoubtedly means that they intend to build and import automobiles in huge numbers, possibly even surpassing the numbers in Europe and North America combined. Progress always promises more than it delivers, and it delivers a host of disadvantages as well as advantages. Against the obvious advantages of providing mobility for the common man and jobs for many people in the automobile industry, one must balance the loss of many jobs for people in other industries and a general degradation of the environment. Chevron Oil ran adverts in The Economist claiming that "it took us 125 years to burn the first trillion barrels of oil. It will take us 30 to burn the next trillion." I suppose they are basing their calculation on consumption in Europe and North America. Without China.
Despite what even the most optimistic and devoted toadies of the automobile industry may say about so-called proven reserves (under the rapidly melting arctic ice sheets or wherever), the oil supply is definitely finite. Of course, the wells are not going to run dry from one day to the next. But what remains will become more and more expensive to get at: what remains will be deeper down, in smaller pools spread farther apart. According to
the U.S. government, the energy content of one gallon of gasoline is equivalent to 115,000 Btu (British thermal units). No matter how efficient cars are or may yet become, it is axiomatic that, at some point, it is going to cost more than 115,000 Btu per gallon of gasoline to get it out of the ground and deliver it to the end-user. A man would starve in a warehouse full of alfalfa because it costs his body more energy to digest it than he gets out of it. Similarly, a society can die of energy starvation, not because there is none at all, but because it costs more to get it than you get out of it.
The days of the privately owned infernal combustion engine are numbered. The only question is whether the alfalfa-point, so to speak, will be reached in our lifetimes, or in the lifetimes of our children or grandchildren; much farther into the future is unlikely.
The entrance of the Chinese into the equation will surely hasten the arrival of the alfalfa-point with respect to fossil fuel. I wonder whether the Chinese government are conscious of this. I wonder whether the auto manufacturers in the West who are intent on never-ending exports to China are conscious of this. It does seem rather pointless that they should charge headlong into something they cannot themselves really enjoy or benefit from to anywhere near the degree that they expect or imagine. They will have just got going when they discover that they have to ration fuel. We have already seen what draconian measures the Chinese government thought justified to control an explosive population growth; they will likely repeat this when it comes to explosive automobile use, after the avalanche has already started down the mountain, of course.
How quickly people become dependent on having a motor vehicle at their disposal. The Chinese will find it much harder to go back to cycling once they have gotten used to driving, than if they were to continue cycling. And if they were to continue cycling, they wouldn't have such a mess to clean up later (heaps of rusting cars, polluted air, and so on). But then, who can deny them their historically inevitable march towards 'progress'? Who can deny them their striving to reach parity with the West--including parity in folly. Anyone who presumed to do so would be branded an enemy of the permanent revolution, doomed to be swept aside by historical materialism. It all seems so predictable, that they are bound to take a path which we know ends at a washed-out bridge.
Fact is, we shall return to human-powered vehicles, one day. By force of necessity, or by choice--the choice is ours. We will all be forced to ration energy, sooner or later. The sooner we recognize the inevitability of it, the easier it will be for us to ration for collective, socially necessary, purposes (such as food production). The later we accept it, the more likely it is that there will be a run on the dwindling stocks towards the end, marked by private hoarding and senseless violence to get at the last few drops for all the wrong reasons (just so a few machos can drive their outrageously inefficient SUVs).
What about building more efficient cars? It took millions of years, tons of pressure, and a lot of heat to turn dead plants and dinosaurs into a litre of crude. It takes a huge effort to get it to the surface and then refine it into a litre of gasoline. It takes another huge effort to deliver it to the point of consumption. All that accumulated energy is burnt up in about an hour. And for what? To transport a vehicle to the junkyard in about 5 years. Whether the millions of years of heat and pressure invested in a litre of fuel move a vehicle 10kms or 20kms, it is a pathetically inefficient means of propulsion either way.
What about renewable sources of fuel? Bio diesel or ethanol, for example. "The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year. The grain it takes to fill the tank every two weeks over a year will feed 26 people." Lester R. Brown
The human-powered vehicle (HPV) is a matchless feat of engineering. According to an article on bicycles in Wikipedia, "Fixed-gear track racing bikes have transmission efficiencies of over 99% (nearly all the energy put in at the pedals ends up at the wheel). "A man on a bicycle uses fewer calories per meter of travel than a man on or in any other vehicle, and vastly less than a man walking or running." (see
for an interesting discussion of the physicis of oscillatory motion).
A society must not use more energy than it produces, in total; if it does so over a long period of time, it dies. That is a law of nature to which we are not immune. Small areas or periods of over-consumption can be compensated for by other areas of efficiency, and the society can still survive in the long run. So we had better start gaining efficient areas, to compensate for the impending fossil fuel alfalfa-point. Bicycles could make a real difference, if only people would get on them (or stay on them in the case of China and much of Asia).
Now, I know what you're thinking... A man in a business suit can hardly be expected to ride to his job at the bank every morning. His suit'll get messed up. Well, men in business suits used to ride to work every day on their bicycles. Below is a foto of Bert Liffen, a lab assistant at University College, London, and one of Hetchin's first customers, cycling in London in the autumn of 1935. It was quite common then to cycle to work. It could be again.
I hear your second objection. What about rain and snow. Motorcyclists have a saying: there is no bad weather, just bad clothing. There are nowadays enclosed trikes (one of them is called Twike), if you don't like rain gear. How quickly people forget that inclement weather was no reason not go outside for millions of years. Farmers go out in all weather, and we have them to thank for our supper.
What about long distances and steep hills? I once lived in Santa Cruz, California, which is hilly. The city buses were fitted with bicycle trailors; for no extra charge, you could hang your bike on a hook in the trailor and the bus would take you and your bike up the hill. In Switzerland, where I live now, regional trains have a luggage wagon at the rear, also fitted with hooks for bicycles. The conductors are usually helpful in hauling them up from the platform into the wagon.
It is just a question of civic policy and collective will, that's all. There are no insurmountable technical problems to returning to predominately human-powered transport for most private purposes, supplimented by intelligently designed public transport. The greatest obstacle is our own indolence.
The HPV will some day outnumber the infernal-combustion powered vehicle, again. The sooner, the easier it will be for all of us.