Tag Archives: bicycles

1973

In 1973, the industrialized world was swept by wave after wave of crisis. US oil production was declining, and the country was reeling from the results of the collapse in 1971 of the Bretton Woods Accord, that had pegged the dollar to gold. The floating currencies depreciated, and when OPEC linked the price of oil to gold, the resulting increases were called the “Oil Shock.”

The nominal and real price of oil from 1861-2015. For more than a century, the price of oil had been declining.

In October 1973, the Shah of Iran threatened to increase the price of oil dramatically, and when the US airlifted weapons to Isreal in the middle of the Yom Kippur War, OPEC responded with a 70% increase in the price of oil, then with an embargo on the US. The price of oil rose from $3 to $12 per barrel, and the industrialized world would feel the collective effects for over a decade. The terms of the struggle over oil had been set, and from now on there was no denying that the age of oil would not last forever.

On top of that, the Club of Rome had published its wildly popular document, The Limits to Growth in the previous year. Computer simulation dramatically demonstrated the fallacy in assuming that economic growth could continue indefinitely in a context of growing populations and limited resources.

In March 1973, Scientific American carried an article by the Oxford engineer (not the screenwriter) S. S. Wilson, entitled “Bicycle Technology.” Wilson describes the bicycle as a “humane and efficient machine” that played a central role in the evolution of the ball bearing, the pneumatic tire, tubular construction and the automobile and the airplane.

One remarkable piece of information in Wilson’s study is that a human on a bicycle is the most efficient moving machine among living creatures.

If we count the amount of energy consumed in order to carry the same weight the same distance, the bicycle is more efficient than the automobile, more efficient than the airplane (unfortunately, trains are measured here). But when you ride your bicycle, you are also more efficient than a pedestrian, or a horse, a sheep or a dog. You are even more efficient than a salmon swimming upstream.


Henry Ford making bicycles?

If Toronto wants to read the future of cars and bicycles in cities, it should look south of the border to Detroit. It’s common knowledge that Detroit saw the birth of the mass-produced automobile, boomed with the domestic production of cars for everyone, then collapsed and went bankrupt as production became unsustainable.

Abandoned Packard Automobile Factory

Abandoned Packard Automobile Factory

There are a few twists to this story that are not so well known.

First, Henry Ford didn’t give us the 40-hour working week, a living wage, pensions and vacation pay. The unions representing automobile workers fought tooth-and-claw for these, and they won. If you like these benefits, don’t thank your bosses, thank the unions.

220px-Henry_ford_1919

Second, Ford hated the world he created. In the end he couldn’t stand the cities that he helped to ruin. Desparate for the world into which he had been born, he spent his final years trying to create a utopian community without cars.

And finally, manufacturing is not dead in Detroit. What’s bringing it back is not cars, but – among other things – bicycles. Earlier this year Shinola commenced production in Detroit, manufacturing watches and leather goods, and assembling the bicycles they manufacture in their Wisconsin factory.

THE PLACES WE WORK_Page_14_Image_0001

On their web page they ask “Why not accept that manufacturing is gone from this country? Why not let the rust and weeds finish what they started? Why not just embrace the era of disposability?”

And the answer: “Because we don’t think American manufacturing ever failed for being too good. Our worst didn’t come when we were at our best. It happened when we thought good was good enough.”

If old Henry were alive today and blessed with the wisdom of his later years, perhaps he’d be busy in the Shinola factory making bicycles.