Saturday, November 29, 2008

Where We Are, Where We Were and Where I Think We're Headed

It's been a rather wild year, and there's no doubt that we who have lived through it have become partakers of the ancient Chinese curse regarding “interesting times.” It's only natural for those who see something of the significance of those times to try to figure out where things are headed.

At the end of last year, oil prices were taking off like a passenger jet from an airstrip. Certain sectors of the global economy were faltering, but there was not the wholesale failure and wreckage seen in recent months. Iraq seemed to be “stablizing,” the “surge” seemed to be working. Many who had recently heard of Peak Oil (by recent, I mean those with less than a year's awareness of this subject) were like me, excitedly telling what we knew to anyone who would listen, expecting major, widespread and imminent changes, and frantically trying to prepare.

The first several months of 2008 did not disappoint. We saw widespread mortgage failures, the deaths of several banks, the appearance of massive zones of foreclosed properties, the stripping of partially-built and abandoned housing tracts, and an oil price which briefly rose to nearly $150 a barrel, as well as widespread evidence of accelerating man-made climate change. Some who followed these trends announced that Peak Oil had definitely arrived, that one proof of this would be that the price of oil would continue to rise quickly to astronomical levels (say, $300 a barrel), and that the world would see a rapid increase in geopolitical conflicts as a result.

But then the world witnessed a series of rather confusing events. There was geopolitical conflict to be sure in Georgia's Ossetian region. But the price of oil began to fall, and continued falling even as the United States was hit by two hurricanes which resulted in widespread shortages of gasoline throughout the American Southeast. I thought the fall in price was due to manipulation by corporate interests to prevent Americans from seeing the true condition of our country's energy supply and economy until after the election. Now I am thinking that while that may have been partly true from July to September, there are now much stronger natural causes at work behind the drop in petroleum prices. It seems that the failure of the American economy over the last few months had actually reached a point which resulted in a significant, long-term decrease in the use of oil and refined petroleum products. This is what drove the price of oil sharply down, along with the collapse in economic activities such as manufacturing and shipping due to the credit crisis.

Among the predictions I encountered frequently when I was just beginning to find out about Peak Oil is the thought that once oil prices hit a certain level, the global economy would instantly and catastrophically collapse. We now know that a collapse of sorts has occurred, yet it hasn't been as severe, widespread or sudden as some predicted. I still have a job, and I know many others who still do. But we are not unaffected. My company derives much of its business from providing design engineering services to industrial and petrochemical clients. This summer one of our upcoming projects was put on hold indefinitely, and within the last two weeks several petroleum projects were canceled due to the drop in the price of oil. This has put several of our other offices in a bind. Perhaps I should say that I still have a job for the time being. I feel somewhat like people who recorded video footage of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami from the relative safety of the upper stories of hotels or restaurants on higher ground, while watching their fellow humans being swept away. And the collapse is still in its early stages, according to the sources I read and trust.

As I said earlier, it's only natural when facing such uncertain times to wonder what the shape of coming events will be. Some writers analyze the fine nuances of global geopolitical games being played by the major nations of the world. Others analyze the meaning of the various financial moves being made by corporations, banks and stock markets. Yet others analyze the significance and strategy of the various “terrorist” attacks that make up the present asymmetric war against the American empire and Western dominance of the world. Then there are those who don't bother with any of those things, having concluded simply that life as they know it is about to change irreversibly and drastically, and who are simply trying to adjust as best as they can. I identify most with people in this last category, yet I am curious as to how things in the larger world will turn out. And I tend to form opinions and make predictions. Here are a few, for anyone who's interested. But take them with a grain of salt. There are, after all, many highly educated and famous “crashwatchers” writing about these things on the Web nowadays, and they have access to information that I don't possess. Look at me simply as a sort of amateur golfer on a Saturday afternoon who dreams that he's Tiger Woods.

Here then is where I think we are. The global credit crisis is a crisis of currency of sorts. It was caused by the fact that banks and investment houses created certificates of worth out of the interest-bearing debts of hundreds of millions of small, working-class people. When Peak Oil arrived (and I do most definitely believe that it has arrived), and the prices of food and energy began to skyrocket, these poor people were unable to make regular payments on their debts. This caused massive debt defaults, reducing the value of the certificates of worth based on these debts to near zero. Moreover, the poor and working-class people who drove the consumer economy were no longer able to grow their consumption to satisfy the demands of a “growth” economy. The even poorer people who actually made consumer goods in Third-World factories were not able to even begin consuming things beyond food and energy. Thus the growth economy faltered and began to collapse, driving down the prices of finished goods and raw materials such as petroleum products.

Note, however, that the collapse in prices of raw materials and petroleum is not due to finding additional supplies of these, because no new easy-to-get, concentrated supplies have been found. The new supplies of oil that have been discovered have all been deposits that will present extreme technical challenges and require lots of capital, energy and equipment in order to exploit. Remaining deposits of coal and minerals from molybdenum to phosphorus are all becoming more and more diffuse, and require digging and processing ever-greater quantities of ore in order to get a given quantity of refined product. Commodity prices have collapsed due to the collapse of the credit market, which has cut off prospective buyers from the means to buy raw materials. Because of the resulting collapse in price for these materials, and because of the increasing cost of new projects to extract these materials, extractors and miners of these materials are canceling projects right and left.

But this is a dangerous situation. Let's say that the credit crisis works itself out eventually, and buyers and sellers of raw materials and finished goods decide on a new medium of exchange, one which inspires trust and confidence that the units of its currency represent actual value. That confidence may be misplaced, but that's another story. Nevertheless, let's say that there's a restoration of confidence in credit markets which results in another attempt at global economic growth. This growth spurt will very quickly run up against the same scarcity of resources which caused the price of raw materials such as oil, phosphorus and copper to spike earlier this year. The price spike will make finished goods made from these raw materials unaffordable to most of the world's population, and another collapse will result. An ever-quickening cycle of attempts at growth followed by collapses will ensue, and this will be the proof that we have passed Hubbert's Peak for most of the resources on which our global, “official” economy depends. The fact that the collapses cause investors to cancel new mining or energy projects means that the attempts at global economic growth will falter more quickly, because of the decline of existing supplies of oil and minerals. In short, I see an ever-shortening series of cycles of attempted growth and collapse over the next few years, before a final and unavoidable stage of worldwide economic decline sets in.

As for oil supplies, I am no geologist or petroleum expert. But I tend to believe that the Energy Watch Group Oil Report released in 2007 is accurate, and that world oil production has already peaked and is now in irreversible decline. I think that 2009 will be the year in which this becomes undeniably and painfully obvious.

As far as our adaptation as a nation to these things, I have a few things to say that may be hard for some to swallow. I am a “recovering Republican” who quit the GOP in 2006, because I was disgusted by their money-grubbing, closet racism, and role in the present American corporatocracy. Yet in watching the Democrats since then, I have seen many Democratic politicians who are servants of that same corporatocracy. So while I voted for Obama in this last election (the very first time I ever voted Democrat), I am unwilling to become wildly enthusiastic about what he will do in office. My skepticism is especially strong when I see some of the people he has picked to be part of his administration. If he nominates Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state, that would not be a good sign for many Third World residents who are suffering from the invasion of their countries by rich Western multinational corporations. His choice for attorney general is Eric Holder, a man who helped defend Chiquita Brands International against charges that the corporation hired and supplied “death squads” in Colombia to murder those opposed to Chiquita's business practices. And there is the support Mr. Obama has shown for all of the bank bailouts that have taken place this year.

I think there is a real danger that Obama may turn into a mere symbol of “change” rather than being an actual change, and that “change” may be defined as nothing more than saying nice things about wanting to help poor people and having a “diverse” government. In short, I think Mr. Obama may try to take the same path that President Bill Clinton did during his administration – defining being “progressive” in terms of “tolerance” and “diversity” and talking much about supporting the little guy, yet all the while being a servant of our present corporatocracy. The strategy worked quite well for President Clinton for a while, even though Western corporations were ruinously exploiting the rest of the world and were accelerating their outsourcing and deregulation of the American economy under his watch. But Mr. Clinton and most of the mainstream media were caught entirely off guard by the WTO riots and protests in Seattle in 1999.

I think a similar surprise awaits Mr. Obama if he tries to take the same path. There is not much real difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. I think those who are in power in Washington and who are about to come into power have a common goal: to preserve the American empire and Western dominance of the world for as long as possible. Whereas President Bush did so clumsily and artlessly, Mr. Obama may be urged to do so smoothly and suavely as Clinton did. So it wouldn't surprise me to see that there is no immediate rush to bring American troops home from Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor would it surprise me to see our government continuing to aggressively push “free-trade” agreements in as many regions as possible. And while I expect that the Kyoto accords may be signed, I think our “answer” to climate change and energy will be to make a lot of noise about finding a technological fix rather than learning to live more modestly. On the home front, I expect both Democrats and Republicans to justify the need to keep the Patriot Act in force. And I expect that the poor of this country will continue to be required to bear the losses of the rich.

Yet I also expect that there will be a strong backlash if our nation's government continues to serve corporate interests as it has. I don't think that backlash will be seen first in our country, but rather abroad. It will often take the form of violent attempts by Third World residents to free themselves from American corporate domination. It will be called “terrorism” by the American media. And it will be one of the things that leads to the breakdown of the American empire, because of the costs borne by those who try to stop it and the futility of their efforts. I expect the earliest acts of that backlash to occur far sooner in Mr. Obama's administration than they did in Mr. Clinton's administration.

In short, it wouldn't surprise me to see an Obama administration trying desperately to maintain the same global “official” system that the Bush administration served. Yet the system is breaking, and the attempts so far to save it are only hastening its demise. The world is about to get much bigger again.

As far as a timetable, I have my own guesses. But I'm keeping them private. In the meantime, my advice to anyone who is reading is to work on building your own safety nets, your connections to your immediate community, and your repertoire of useful and necessary skills. And enjoy the low commodity prices while you can, because they will probably soon go back up. Today I saw regular unleaded gasoline on sale for $1.79 a gallon...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Builder Of Safety Nets

I just saw a rousing video which is posted on the site of a fellow blogger, Sarah, author of Accidental Blog. The video is of a speech given by Majora Carter at a 2006 TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference. In that speech she talks of her efforts as a black woman living in a depressed, blighted area of the Bronx to beautify her neighborhood and bring changes to make her neighborhood more healthy and sustainable. She does say a few things I don't agree with: citing “sustainable development” as a desirable goal without articulating the limits beyond which such development is not sustainable, and citing Amory Lovins as one of her influences, as well as her high regard for Al Gore (with whom I am frankly not impressed). Nevertheless her passion is undeniable, as well as the record of her accomplishments on a community level.

It is the vision and example of people like her that will be vital for communities who wish to build a safety net of alternative systems to our present political system and global official economy which is breaking down. She has inspired me at a time in which I was beginning to wonder whether my own efforts were accomplishing anything worthwhile, or whether I was wasting my time.

I have also been enjoying a series on “A Resilient Suburbia,” written by Jeff Vail, author of the blog rhizome. In that series he challenges a particular notion which has prevailed for the past few years among those who study peak oil and its effects on society. That notion is the idea that peak oil and its economic effects will render suburbia unviable, leading to the abandonment of suburbs. Mr. Vail's first post in his series explains that we are stuck with suburbia, since we do not have access to the credit that would allow us to build a substitute, and that attempting to build a substitute would lower the value of the collateral used to secure the needed credit, since that collateral consists of the already-developed real estate which comprises present suburbia. His second post states that the transportation issues faced by suburbia are influenced more by the base cost of vehicle ownership than by the variable cost of fuel, and that suburban commuting can be solved in relatively simple ways, reducing the base cost per household.

His third post talks about how suburbanites can meet most of their own needs for water, food and energy using resources that can easily be installed or implemented on a typical American suburban lot. This third post reminds me very much of how David Holmgren, a co-inventor of permaculture, made the same point regarding suburbia during a talk given in Australia in 2005 with Richard Heinberg. I remember listening to an MP3 recording of that talk in early 2007, shortly after I first heard the full story on Peak Oil, and imagining how a sustainable retrofit of suburbia would play out in my neighborhood. I still think that such an exercise in imagination would be very useful. Perhaps one day I will write a post on the challenges to re-fitting suburbia to adapt to an energy-constrained future. I will consider two real-life cases, a typical neighborhood in La Habra or Brea or Anaheim, California (an area with which I am quite familiar), and a typical neighborhood along Sandy Boulevard in Portland, Oregon.

There are three challenges I see right off the bat: first, that because most suburban dwellers are mortgage holders and not outright owners of their homes, an unstable economy might hinder their efforts to adapt their households to a low-energy future, and might even threaten their ability to keep their homes. Second, as the official economy continues its breakdown, these suburban dwellers would need to create means of supplying themselves with the sort of durable, hard goods needed by households, goods which are now mass-produced by the global economy. Third, there is the fact that even now, most suburban dwellers don't quite “get” the magnitude of the challenges to their present way of life, or the need for radical changes. I am thinking of conversations I had in 2007 with some of the people in my old neighborhood just before I moved.

Anyway, I think Jeff Vail's series covers some valuable ground, and considers questions that most of us will have to answer as we face the times now upon us, since we can't all go off to the woods and start eco-villages or other alternative living arrangements.

For those who want to see the Majora Carter speech, it can be found here: http://accidentalweblog.blogspot.com/2008/11/justice-is-what-love-looks-like-in.html.

For those who want to read Jeff Vail's series on “A Resilient Suburbia,” it can be found here: http://jeffvail.net/.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Threats and Hindrances to Bicycle Commuting

Of all the potentially helpful responses to climate change, Peak Oil and financial collapse, bicycle commuting is one of the handiest. Bicycles do not require liquid petroleum fuel to operate. Their usefulness in combating climate change is obvious – operating a bicycle generates no pollution. But there's much more. According to Divorce Your Car! by Katie Alvord, the family car consumes three times more space than the family home. But eight bicycles can be parked into the space occupied by one parked car. Other sources state that the energy and resources used to make one car can make up to 100 bicycles. Then there is the cost of owning a car, a cost which is often underestimated, but which runs into several thousands of dollars per year for each car when depreciation, maintenance, repairs, road taxes, insurance and licensing fees are considered in addition to fuel costs. A car-free person can commute by bicycle for under $100 a year.

But like all good things in this present fallen world, the bicycle faces threats and challenges. Those who wish to rely on the bicycle as transportation would do well to be aware of these hindrances, in order that they may cope with them. Therefore this post will consider a few threats and hindrances to bicycle commuting.

The American Bicycle Culture

Strange as it may seem, one of the first and most insidious threats to bicycle commuting in America is the American bicycle culture as it is represented by bike sellers. A newbie who is just getting into bike commuting is more than likely to encounter this culture upon his first visit to a local bike shop (also known as an LBS among bikers). I believe that this is especially true in Southern California. I believe that most bike shops are owned and staffed by people who still view the bicycle primarily as a means of recreation, and not as a utilitarian means of transportation.

Therefore people who walk into an LBS looking for a commuter bike will be confronted by several rows of lightweight carbon-fiber racer bikes costing over $1,000 apiece, or full-suspension mountain bikes in the same price range. If they don't find what they want in these two selections, they will find a row of old-school beach cruisers, or if they're really desperate, a row of kids' BMX bikes. Most of these bikes do not come with fenders or rack already installed, because it's clear that the manufacturers of these bikes never intended their riders to carry anything substantial.

The problem with all of these bikes is that they were not designed for rugged day-in-and-day-out, year-round use as everyday commuters. The racing bikes are particularly “particular.” Their skinny tires require very high pressure in order to reduce rolling resistance, and they are very vulnerable to flats. (I saw a guy fixing a flat this morning.) Their carbon-fiber frames and dainty wheel rims are quickly thrashed by a daily commute. These bikes are not very practical for riding anywhere else than a well-manicured velodrome. Bikes with a suspension fork or a full suspension are also problematic, since the extra componentry and complexity means extra maintenance headaches. It is also harder to mount fenders and racks on bikes with suspension components.

Those who ask the staff at most LBS's for commuting advice can usually gain clues to what the staff might say just by looking at the decorations on the walls of the LBS. These decorations usually consist of posters of sweaty, grim-faced skinny men in multicolored lycra bike racing clothes, riding in competition against each other. Or they are posters of people in full body suits almost like motorcycle sport suits, wearing helmets with face masks, riding mountain bikes down “technical” trails and covered in mud from head to toe. The word “extreme” is seen in lots of places on these posters. The staffers are usually hired on the basis of their devotion to the sport of “extreme” cycling, and they are of almost no use in advising people of how to commute by bike.

Ask them about what kind of fenders to put on a bike so that you will arrive at work relatively clean instead of having two muddy stripes on your body, and they will likely answer, “Dude! Fenders add weight – they slow you down!” Or ask about lights and you will get the same answer, or they will sell you a small, inadequate set of “safety” lights. (The next time I go to an LBS and hear a lecture about how what I want for my bike “adds weight and slows the bike,” I am going to say, “What kind of car do you drive?” When the LBS tech answers, I will say, “Man, your car has seats and doors! Don't they add weight? That'll slow you down!”)

Large bike manufacturers are also to blame for this culture of bike-as-toy. It is relatively easy and inexpensive to make a bike that is simple, utilitarian, incredibly hard-wearing and maintenance-free. But large manufacturers such as Trek and Giant are not terribly interested in simply making utilitarian bikes, since the market for such bikes would be quickly saturated, and since these manufacturers base their business model on unending growth, like the rest of the players of the game of capitalism. Therefore they are always stylistically “tweaking” their products, in order to make previous versions “obsolete.” The variations introduced into their products are not always practical or durable.

Take weight-saving innovations, for instance. Because of the industry-wide obsession with weight and speed, plastic and carbon-fiber components are increasingly being used, not only for racers but for hybrid and mountain bikes. However, carbon fiber is not as durable as advertised. Components made of resin-impregnated carbon fiber are not as durable as those made of steel. Minor scratches can render carbon-fiber forks unsafe and render carbon fiber bikes unrideable. And exposure to rain, ice, snow and solar UV radiation can introduce microscopic voids into the surface of such components, voids which grow over time until they have seriously weakened these components. When carbon fiber fails, it usually does so without warning (like the seatpost I used to have on my Surly LHT, which failed after only one rainy winter in Oregon). A failed carbon-fiber component cannot be repaired; it must be thrown away.

But last year Trek decided to capitalize on the recent strong surge in interest in commuting, and the company began marketing the Trek “Portland,” a “commuter-specific” bike with disc brakes and carbon fiber front fork. I discussed the potential disadvantages of disc brakes in my previous post, “Depression Bicycling.” In this post I am wondering why Trek decided to make a commuter bike with a carbon-fiber front fork, when it is an unnecessary innovation. I suspect that the disc brakes and carbon fiber were chosen simply to make the bike look “sexy” and “cutting-edge,” in order to sell more product to a saturated market. Now Trek is pushing “chainless” bikes which will have a carbon-fiber drive belt instead of a chain. Multi-speed models will have an internally-geared rear hub. However, in the event of a sudden worsening of our economic situation or a sudden drop in our oil supply, maintaining and/or replacing these carbon-fiber gizmos will turn into a nightmare.

One has to look hard to find independent bike shops and bike manufacturers who understand the concept of the bicycle as transportation And many of the manufacturers of transportation bicycles are overseas. Yet there are places in the United States which have a large concentration of understanding bike shops. The Pacific Northwest is one place in particular which has a large number of sellers of new transportation bikes and used, reconditioned steel-frame bikes, as well as a thriving, intelligent bike commuting culture. Perhaps the Northwest can be a light to the rest of the nation.

The Lack of Widespread Bicycle Infrastructure

Europe is frequently touted as the best region for bicycle commuting, because of the forethought shown by European urban and transportation planners in making a place for the bicycle. Europeans have been forced to do many intelligent things that are shunned by most of America. This has been due to the long-standing high cost of many resources in modern European society, resources like motor fuel, land, and living space. High costs and resource scarcity have only recently been experienced by Americans, and most of us refused to plan for the days now upon us, even though the warning signs have been evident for many years.

Therefore the transportation infrastructure in most American metropolitan areas is conducive to car transportation only, and is inconvenient if not downright dangerous to other forms of transit. In many cities and suburbs, there are no bike lanes at all. In some of these places there are not even sidewalks. Those who travel by means other than a car on roads in these areas are risking their lives. Katie Alvord's Divorce Your Car! sheds light on why this is so, and on the evil role that the major U.S. automakers have had in the design of much of the modern American urban/suburban landscape.

To be sure, there are remedies for this condition, but they involve diverting resources now devoted to automotive transport. For instance, many state vehicle codes mandate that bicycles be treated as traffic, with all the respect due to motorized traffic. And in order to make biking safer, bike lanes can be painted in many streets which do not have dedicated bike lanes. This would of course involve narrowing the lanes devoted to cars. On streets which are too narrow for a separate bike lane, “sharrows” could be painted on the extreme right hand lane to indicate that these lanes were to be shared by cars and bikes, and to reinforce the fact that bikes in such lanes had the right to “take” the whole lane in order to prevent unsafe passing. Also, city planners could devise a grid of complete routes throughout their urban areas so that bikes could get to any necessary place by practical, safe routes, and transportation departments could install the necessary signs and striping to complete these routes. This would remedy the situation seen in many urban/suburban areas nowadays where a bike lane goes for several blocks, then ends in a place that's dangerous for bikes.

Making such provisions for bikes will generate opposition, especially when space now devoted to cars is narrowed in order to provide space for bike transportation. Therefore, a key to seeing such provisions enacted is to build a strong bike advocacy presence in your locality, to push local governments to take the necessary steps to make room for bikes. It is ironic that places like Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Washington and Chicago, Illinois have seen the successful implementation of some of these measures, while a sunny, normally dry, seemingly ideal place like Southern California lags so far behind in making the road safe for cyclists.

Murderous Motorists

Sharrows, marked bike lanes and special signage are all good tools – yet they are worthless unless motorists respect and obey the message presented by these tools. The problem we have in this country is that there has been a general erosion of morals, ethics and care for others, and a general elevation of selfishness, impulsiveness and the pursuit of instant gratification. Ours is a nation of people who “do not fear God, nor respect man,” like the unrighteous judge in Luke 18:2. Such a nation buys the biggest, fastest, most powerful, most intimidating vehicles its members can afford, and these people engage in a daily game of “chicken” with each other. They believe the false promise that modern technology always delivers instant gratification, and when real life shows that this is not true, they throw adult-sized temper tantrums. Frequently these temper tantrums are expressed in the way people drive. “WHAT!!? You crossed the street on a WALK signal as I was waiting to make a right turn??! You dirty #@%*$& pedestrian!!! You slowed me down by three seconds!!! I'll cream you with the front bumper of my new Dodge Ram HEMI!!!”

As Dmitri Orlov said in a recent radio interview, Americans have a much stronger need than people of many other nations to be protected from each other. The police are supposed to do this, but nowadays one rarely sees the police on the street unless one calls the police oneself. Therefore one usually doesn't see the police enforcing traffic laws – including traffic laws designed to protect pedestrians and cyclists. In Portland, Oregon, city traffic engineers have devised several marked zones to protect bicyclists from being “right-hooked” by motorists, and have designated these zones by special signage and road striping. But look at the pictures below and you can see several motorists flagrantly disregarding these zones. I wonder if any of the Portland Police read The Well Run Dry...




These three pictures are of the intersection of Terwilliger Avenue and Taylor's Ferry Road in Portland, Oregon. The city recently painted bike boxes at this intersection to prevent cyclists from being right-hooked by motorists. The way it works is that when the light is red, cyclists move up to the front of the box, directly in front of waiting cars. The cars are prohibited by law from occupying the bike box while their light is red, and are forbidden to make a right turn on a red signal. Once the light turns green, bikes proceed forward and cars in the rear are free to turn right. Here we see motorists who either can't read English or couldn't bring themselves to wait. The lady in the silver car was talking on a cell phone while driving...

Here's a shot of another woman talking on a cell phone and violating the bike box on my side of the street.

Here's a guy who was about to run through the green bicycle crossing zone on the Hawthorne Bridge in front of a cyclist. A lady nearly right-hooked me in that very same zone about a month ago.

As I have said before, the bicycle holds great promise as a tool of adaptation to Peak Oil, financial collapse and the threat of climate change. Yet the tragedy is that the threats and hindrances I have mentioned may thwart the promise of the bicycle and hinder its effectiveness in addressing the challenges many Americans now face. The bicycle is like many of the other strategies of a safety net of alternative systems – strategies that hold great promise, yet which face significant threats and hindrances from an “official,” yet breaking system.

Sources:

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Depression Bicycling, Or How To Find Two Cheap Wheels

In my last post I described how I became a bicycle commuter, and the cost of the learning curve I experienced as I searched for what I consider to be the best and most reliable bicycle for a durable ride. My learning experience was pleasant and quite interesting for the most part, and I can remember the many hours I spent searching the Internet and doing research on the best type of bike for utilitarian transportation.

Such research and experimentation is almost always pleasant for those who have the time and money to engage in such activities. It is said that women enjoy shopping and men don't; however, I think that this statement is inaccurate. I believe that everyone enjoys shopping for things that are of personal interest. Thus one can find people who collect nice clothes and shoes, but one can also find people who collect hand tools, guns, books, guitars – and bicycles. (I never quite became a bicycle collector; I have bought only three bicycles since 2005, and have since sold one of them.)

I repeat: if one has the time, money and interest, researching and experimentation with various bicycles can be quite fun, and one can build up an impressive collection of complete bikes and spare components in the process of searching for the “dream” bike. But there is now a large and growing number of people for whom such a pursuit is entirely out of the question. These are the victims of the present slow-motion collapse of the American economy, people such as the employees of Circuit City, which recently filed for bankruptcy, or the employees of General Motors, which is on the deathwatch list right now, or employees of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut, which are cutting jobs. Such people are now awaking or have been awaking over the last several months to find that a new and unexpected day has dawned on them, and that they have to make rapid readjustments. Bike commuting can help such people save money, but they need reliable, cheap and readily available bikes if bicycle commuting is to be a help in readjusting to a frugal lifestyle.

There are resources to help people who want or need to get quickly into bicycling on the cheap. One resource near where I live is the Citybikes Workers' Cooperative, located very near the downtown area of Portland, Oregon. I had the opportunity to interview a couple of their staff today, and I asked the following question:

Let's assume that there has been a sudden reduction in the amount of oil imported by the United States, a sudden spike in the price of oil and of petroleum products such as gasoline, a sudden worsening of the economy (perhaps a full-on crash), and a sudden lack of availability of foreign-made metal and rubber parts. Assume that all of these events happen at the same time. Let's also say that you live ten or fifteen miles away from where you work, and you wake up one morning to find that all these things have happened, and you have over $10,000 in credit card debt, a mortgage, and a gas-guzzling SUV, and your boss calls you in to his office and tells you that your company needs to cut your hours in half. Assuming that one of your first ideas for coping is to commute by bicycle in order to save money, what could you do to get on two wheels cheaply?

Tim Calvert of Citybikes had many things to say in response to my question. He began by pointing out the central role played by the bicycle in everyday life in Cuba shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba was deprived of inexpensive imported oil. He also mentioned Vietnam and its bicycle industry – an industry which builds incredibly simple, yet hard-wearing utilitarian steel-framed bikes which are used by the majority of the population. He suggested that the bicycle “culture” of Cuba and Vietnam might become widespread in the United States in the event of an extended and severe economic downturn.

He had the following suggestions for people who suddenly found themselves in the situation I outlined in my original question:

First, there are two ways to go when buying a bike. One can buy a cheap new bike from Wal-Mart, Target, Fred Meyer or Sports Authority for as little as $150.00. Or, one can search for a good cheap used bike. There are many sources for used bikes, such as classified ads, garage sales, Goodwill, the Salvation Army and Craigslist. A desirable bike will have a simple frame and be capable of carrying heavy loads. In Tim's opinion, it doesn't matter much whether the frame is made of aluminum or steel, as long as a person in economic difficulty can get his or her hands on a functional bike.

However, there are bikes to avoid. Tim warned against getting a bike with a suspension fork or any suspension components, since on an inexpensive bike, such components tend to break easily. Moreover, the suspension components make it hard to mount racks or baskets to the bike. Also, lightweight racers are a no-no (especially the carbon-fiber kind), since the act of riding such bikes day-in and day-out while carrying loads will quickly tear them up. The basic strategy, no matter what bike a person gets, is to get whatever you can with the limited amount of time and money you have, then simplify it.

When buying a used bike, invest in yourself as well. Specifically, learn basic maintenance up to and including the fixing of broken wheel spokes. The more a rider knows how to do for himself and the more he knows how to improvise, the less he will have to spend paying someone to fix his ride. Riders who learn maintenance should also invest in a handy set of tools. And speaking of wheels, one should get the strongest wheel and hub he or she can find, and the thickest tires. Thick tires may not be the favorites of the wanna-be racers, but in the event of severe economic troubles, rubber products may be quite scarce and thick tires will last a long time. (I remember a recent ride I undertook with a few people who had racing bikes and thin tires. They were easily able to go quite a bit faster than I could on my Surly LHT. But two of them got pinch flats during that ride, whereas I haven't had a flat in a few months (may the Lord continue to have mercy on me).) There are other tricks that can extend tire life, such as cutting the treaded middle from a tire that's worn out and using it as a liner inside a new tire. This increases the life of the new tire and reduces the likelihood of flats.

Baskets are good and handy, and can carry more cargo than most pannier bags. (I personally have seen many bikes equipped with plastic milk crates used as baskets and secured to bike racks with bungee cords or zip ties.) In a severe pinch, improvised racks can be made from a variety of materials, including wood and rope, if the need arises. Improvised bike trailers can also be easily fabricated.

But let's say that a person still has a job, yet has suddenly become aware of the precarious state of the economy and wants to prepare for hard times. Let's say also that bicycle commuting is a big part of that person's preparations, and that the person is willing to spend up to $500 toward getting a good set of wheels. Tim also had suggestions for persons in this category: first, get a bike that's comfortable and as strong as possible. A used steel non-suspension mountain bike is a good choice. Then equip it with fenders, racks and baskets. Next, buy tools and a good floor pump.

The last thing that Tim mentioned is that the homeless population in Portland (a significant portion of the total city population) is on the cutting edge when it comes to using bicycles as basic utilitarian transportation. They are the ones who display great inventiveness in building their own trailers, outfitting their bikes for comfortable long-distance journeys and hauling heavy cargoes by bike. One thing they don't do is to carry the small “portable” lightweight bike pumps sold in many shops, preferring to carry full floor pumps instead.

I talked next with John, another Citybikes co-op worker. His answers to my original question closely paralleled Tim's answers. He agreed that a person in sudden economic distress would do best by buying a used bike, especially if such a person did his own maintenance. He believed that in a sudden economic downturn, there would be shortages of tires and tubes, scrounging of used parts to make up for the unavailability of foreign-made new parts, the increased use of patched tubes and tires rather than throwing punctured tubes and tires away as is the case now, and an increase in the number of people who were interested in learning basic bike maintenance. A big part of bike maintenance of course is keeping one's bike out of the weather when it is not being ridden, and keeping its parts clean and well-oiled.

He also believed that a major economic downturn would hurt big manufacturers such as Giant and Trek, due to the fact that so many of their bikes are made overseas and shipped to the U.S. The failure of their business model would lead to the rise of more small-scale local American manufacturers. There are already some American manufacturers of components, whose products, while expensive, are very durable.

When it comes to frame materials, John believed firmly in steel, since it is much simpler to build a frame from steel tubing than from aluminum or carbon fiber. John had a very negative view of carbon-fiber components and carbon-fiber bikes, believing that such bikes cannot stand up to the rigors of daily use as utilitarian bicycles – especially if they must regularly carry large loads. (After my experience with a carbon-fiber seatpost, I must say that I agree with him.)

John agreed with Tim that a bike for hard times should be as simple as possible. This rules out disc brakes in his opinion, since they are expensive to fix and the brake rotors can be easily damaged. A good cantilever or linear pull brake is much simpler and more reliable. Also, friction shifters are simple, easy to fix and very long-lasting, as opposed to the expensive clicking “index” shifters popular nowadays. For night riding, a generator-powered set of lights would be ideal, as there would not be a need to purchase batteries. The generator for such a lighting system could be an inexpensive, tire-driven “bottle” type, such as the Busch & Muller Dymotec or something similar.

Like Tim, John also mentioned various inventive ways of setting up a bike to carry things, and he mentioned racks and homemade bike trailers. Citybikes also sells a product they call the “Bike Bucket,” a pannier container made out of a recycled detergent bucket. One can buy a Bike Bucket for $25 from them, as opposed to spending $75 to $100 for an Ortlieb pannier bag. Or, one can buy a used 5-gallon bucket and some hardware and make a “Bike Bucket” oneself.

John also had ideas for those who saw an economic collapse coming before it actually happened and who wanted to buy a bicycle as part of their preparations. He suggested that such people buy a steel-framed bike with cantilever brakes, double-walled heavy-duty aluminum rims, rear rack, and a seven or eight-speed rear cassette for those wanting a multi-speed bike. He did not recommend more than eight speeds for the rear cassette, since too many gears would make the drive train more fragile. He also suggested that such a bike be fitted with basic Shimano components, since if something broke, it would be easier to scrounge for a replacement. One bike that we both discussed is the KHS Urban-X, a steel-framed bike with many touring-specific features that is also quite inexpensive.

Both Tim and John provided very good advice for people who suddenly find themselves facing hard economic times and who choose bicycle commuting as part of their strategy for adaptation. One key that was common to the advice of both men is to get a simple, durable bike, and to stay away from lightweight, complicated racing machines. Unfortunately, the light/fast/racing culture is prevalent among many sellers of bicycles in the United States. I shall have more to say about this in my next post, where I discuss hindrances to bicycle commuting.

Hopefully my question and the answers that were given will be helpful to many people who are being forced to consider adaptive strategies for their own personal hard times. Below are some pictures from the interview. Enjoy!


Rear view of a "Bike Bucket"

A stack of "Bike Buckets" for sale

Here, John is refurbishing a used 1980's vintage Specialized steel mountain bike.

This is a picture of Tim next to his bicycle. He bought it used and customized it to fit his style of commuting. Note the "Bike Bucket" attached to the rear rack on the right side of the bike.

Friday, November 7, 2008

How I Became A Bicycle Commuter

Nowadays my eyes are wide open and my ears finely attuned to news of the daily progress of the ongoing collapse of our present economic and social systems. I am thinking particularly of a report I read today titled, “Burning Violins,” from the Barclays Capital Oil Sketches, November 2008 edition. That report analyzed the present decline in non-OPEC daily world oil production and the likely effects of the present global financial crisis in shrinking global oil supplies, including OPEC supplies, even further in the near future. For anyone interested in reading the report, here's the link: https://ecommerce.barcap.com/research/user/article/attachment/hn95v3jbd9nmgrjjdtlmaq8/0/Oil%20Sketches%20Monthly%205%20Nov%2008.pdf. It is not good news.

Yet I was not always so aware of the signs of our impending economic, energy and environmental troubles. There was a time when I was a registered Republican. In fact, I had voted for President Bush in 2000 and in 2004. By 2005, the Iraq war had begun to miscarry and there were a few disturbing signs of the true nature of the Bush administration's policies, yet these things provoked little more than a flicker of unease in me.

Then June 2005 came. I had been assigned by my company to a consulting assignment working in downtown Los Angeles, and thus I was able to ride the Metrolink to work every day with my company picking up the tab. The office in Los Angeles had an engineer who had been given a long-term assignment to do construction inspections at a water treatment plant that was being built in the San Fernando Valley. This engineer had relatives overseas and wanted to visit them, so he asked for a three-week vacation during part of June and July. I was “volunteered” to fill in for him while he was away.

From my old house to the water treatment plant, the distance is around 42 miles. Unfortunately there was no convenient way to get there by mass transit, so every workday during those three weeks I endured a commute of an hour and a half or more each way, stuck behind the wheel of my vehicle along with thousands of other land-locked commuters while listening to KFWB or KNX for any traffic-related news. Just before I started the inspection tours, regular unleaded gasoline was selling for around $2.29 a gallon. While I was assigned to the daily inspections, I had to pay for the gas myself.

Something strange started happening as the three weeks progressed – regular gasoline rapidly became ever-more expensive, until during the last week of my inspection tours, it was selling for over $3.00 a gallon. The Los Angeles Times carried a front page picture of a disgruntled motorist filling up an SUV at a station whose sign read $3.22 a gallon. And this was weeks before Hurricane Katrina.

Different people awaken from sleep at different levels of sensory arousal. $3.00 a gallon was enough to begin an awakening in me. It got me thinking of how most Americans were forced to rely on automotive transportation in order to get anywhere, and how vulnerable our lives were when there were disruptions to any part of our automobile-based transit system. $3.00 a gallon was a significant disruption. How much of my money – money that I had counted on using for other things – was now being literally burned up? How much of my livelihood was being taken from me, never to be seen again? How much further would the price rise? These questions were in my mind, along with the realization that I had no control over the supply or price of a “necessity” I considered to be as basic as gasoline.

I don't like being dependent on large, faceless systems for my basic needs, especially when the owners of those systems do not have my best interests at heart. Moreover, for a long time I had placed a high value on physical exercise and staying in shape. So even before my co-worker got back from his vacation, I started thinking about turning to bicycling for basic transportation. I remember the Saturday when I walked into a local bike shop and started checking out potential prospects. I entered that shop knowing very little about bicycles except that they had two wheels, spokes and handlebars, combined with memories of riding a bike to go places when I was in high school.

One of the bike shop employees noticed me, and we struck up a conversation. I said something like, “I'm looking for a new bike, and I was wondering...what sort of bike would be good for basic transportation? I'm trying to escape high gas prices.” When I told the bike salesman that I was not thinking of spending more than around $300, he proceeded to very enthusiastically sell me a Giant Sedona and a helmet.

I was very proud of my new purchases, and of my determination to escape the “system” in some small way. But I was a bit nervous about riding to many places, since the farthest distance I had ever ridden on a bicycle was six miles one way, and since those who drive the streets of Southern California are not known for their charity. Therefore I started off slow, riding from my house to a nearby YMCA on the weekends, and riding from my house to the local supermarket. The YMCA was about 4 miles from my house, and I discovered that I could ride that far without dying. Therefore I became bolder and rode one weekend from my house to the Metrolink station and back again, a round-trip distance of around fourteen miles. Once I realized that I could do even this much distance, I was liberated.

I began riding from my house to the Metrolink station every weekday as part of my morning commute. I also did almost all of my shopping by bike. At first I knew very little about the tricks of the trade. For instance, I would ride to the train station in my work clothes. This meant that, depending on the weather and how much I perspired, by mid-afternoon I would start smelling a bit like a dead carp. I also carried everything I needed (lunch, books, groceries, etc.,) in a backpack which was quickly beaten up by overuse and cramming oversized cargo into its pouches.

Then one day a female epiphany on two wheels rolled by me as I was coming home from work. She had a rear rack on her bike, on which two black mesh cloth “baskets” were attached. (Later I learned that the proper name for these is “panniers.”) That weekend I rode down to the shop from which I had bought my bike and demanded a rear rack and “baskets,” which they happily sold me for $150. Now I was really riding in style!

As summer waned and fall approached, the days grew shorter and the nights came ever earlier. I knew it was time to think about lights for my bike. So off I went back to the same bike shop whose employees were happy to sell me a Cat Eye front “safety” headlight and rear taillight. I was sure that now I was fully equipped to ride in all conditions. There was only one problem with these lights, however. They were powered by AAA batteries (three for the headlight, two for the taillight), and their packaging promised run times of up to 60 hours. What the packaging did not tell a rider was how much dimmer the lights were at the end of the 60 hour run time of their batteries. There were many nights when I found myself cut off or nearly hit by cars while believing that those puny lights were actually protecting me. Of course, it didn't help that I was frequently wearing dark clothing. It would take several months before I “saw the light” about rechargeable lighting systems and reflective vests.

I remember riding to work during my first Southern California winter rainstorm. My Giant Sedona had been sold to me without fenders, as was common practice among bike sellers. This resulted in a muddy stripe up the front of my jacket and muddy splashes on my pants when I rode to the train station. I was able to purchase a front fender after a bit of searching, but the fender was rather less than adequate, and showed the state of bicycle culture at the time – the perception that bikes were toys for kids and sometimes for adults, and that no one would ever ride a bike in the rain or use a bike for serious transportation.

I started hanging out at the bike shop, asking questions about bikes in general and commuting in particular. The staff was not very helpful, as they had not met too many people who used bikes as basic transportation. But they did have some interesting magazines and these aroused my curiosity. I read about clubs which got together for long rides of over 20 miles. Some even did hundred-mile rides, called “centuries,” and this astonished me. I wanted to try riding my Giant Sedona to a faraway place. By that time I had transferred back to our company's office near Santa Ana, and it was 17 miles from my house to the office. One weekend when I needed to go in to the office, I decided to ride all the way. That experience – undertaken at the height of a heat wave – taught me the limits of the Giant Sedona as a commuting vehicle. It was the only time I ever tried a ride of that distance on that particular bike.

As I recovered from that ride, I found friends and acquaintances at work who had done long-distance rides or who had tried bike commuting, and I asked them why a ride such as I had undertaken should have been so hard. I was also doing a fair amount of Web research into the general subject of bike commuting and what was the best bike for commuting. I discovered that many people did not recommend mountain or “hybrid” bikes for regular long-distance travel, because the upright sitting position, shock-absorbers and knobby tires made a rider have to work too hard to maintain a high speed for any length of time. The sources I was consulting almost all agreed that the best bike for commuting is the classic “touring” bicycle – a bike made for long-distance cross-country travel while carrying basic camping necessities such as food, tent and sleeping bag.

At the time I made this discovery, I switched employers and found myself commuting to an office twelve miles away from my house and not located near a train station. During the first week at my new job I went to REI and checked out their selection of “touring” bikes. I was greatly intrigued by the Novara Safari, because of its putty color, disc brakes and otherworldly handlebars (I had never seen handlebars like that before). I wound up buying a Safari and selling my Giant Sedona to a neighbor across the street from my house. I also bought a CygoLite rechargeable headlight and a pair of Novara panniers. And I had fenders installed on my new Safari.

That Safari was a joy to ride. When the wind was right I could easily do 22 miles per hour for extended stretches. It was a good thing, because there were a few narrow parts of my commute where I had to “take a lane” in order to avoid having traffic squeeze me off the road. It wasn't wise to ride slowly through those places, especially down Western Avenue near Lincoln Avenue in Buena Park. I also went on a Saturday 33 mile bike ride with a cycling club in mid-Orange County, and lived to talk about it. The difference between the Safari and the Sedona was very apparent. As 2006 passed and the seasons cycled through summer and back to fall again, I picked up a DiNotte rear taillight, because I didn't want to trust my life to the wimpy Cat Eye light I had, and I had been looking for a good bright rechargeable taillight. The DiNotte is powerful enough to light street signs a block away. I knew that if I got hit, at least the lawyers would not be able to argue that motorists could not see me.

The Safari was a good bike, but it had its limitations. Its rear rack was proprietary and was rated to carry only 25 kilograms. Its disc brakes squeaked almost constantly at times, and removing and replacing the wheels was tricky because of the discs. Also, it was very difficult to find a front rack that did not interfere with the front disc brake. Therefore at the end of 2006 I started looking around for another bike. I was originally just thinking of getting a cheap backup bike to ride during any times when I might have to put the Safari in the shop for repairs. But then I discovered the Surly Long Haul Trucker. The rest, as they say, is history.

I now own a Surly LHT, one of the few that Surly painted in maroon. I ordered it during the time that Surly was just selling the LHT frames, before they began selling complete bikes. Unfortunately I'm not much of a gearhead or do-it-yourselfer, so I had to have a bike shop build up the frame into a complete bike. The shop that built the bike was recommended to me by two sources who spoke highly of its owner; yet I have to say that even he did not completely grasp the idea of a bicycle as basic transportation as opposed to a bike as a recreational toy. He tended to make suggestions about component choices to make the bike light so that I wouldn't be “slowed down.” (Imagine that – concerning a bike that's designed to carry up to 300 pounds!) One thing he did that I later regretted was to install a carbon fiber seatpost that failed after a year. (Fortunately the failure was not catastrophic.) Another thing was his choice of narrow 1.5 inch Schwalbe Marathon tires instead of the more generous 1.75 inch Schwalbes. He almost neglected to install front and rear reflectors (even though these are required by California law) and installed them only after I insisted that he do so.

My Surly now has SKS fenders, 1.75 inch Schwalbes (yes, I replaced the narrower tires), Surly Nice front and rear racks, rechargeable front and rear lights, Salmon Kool-Stop brake pads and Ortlieb panniers. I've put over 6700 miles on it over a period of nearly two years. It is my main steed, and I ride it to work every weekday unless I have an assignment that takes me out of town or unless there is ice on the roads where I now live. I have replaced the carbon fiber seatpost with a genuine honest-to-goodness steel seatpost, and I now have a Brooks B-17 saddle.

Oh, and I still have a Novara Safari. I may convert it into an Xtracycle one of these days.

My bicycle commuting journey had a number of twists and turns, and I spent a fair amount of money along the way – money that I could have saved if I had known what I was doing at the start. But there are many people who are now being squeezed or who are about to be squeezed by rising prices and economic distress, and who are in need of low-cost transportation options. My goal is to try to save you from some of the mistakes I made, and to save you money in the process. You can go much more cheaply than I did. Therefore in my next post on bicycle commuting, I'll give some general recommendations and opinions regarding inexpensive bike commuting, what sort of bicycle to use, and general bike commuting resources.