The Bicycle and the New Economy: Towards a Curated Consumerism
Posted on 16 January 2010
- February 2016
The automobile has always been a measure of success in North America. This is hardly a controversial statement. Car ownership has not only been a measure of personal success but of national success. As America flounders in its recession, the measures for national health are still found in 'key economic indicators' like housing and automobile. However, it should be clear that these indicators are fallen idols. While there is no doubt that both housing and automobiles will always be strong aspects of a healthy economy, the time now requires a different perspective. One that takes small business seriously, one that values alternative and more critical transportation paradigms, one that is more regionalized and less globalized. The era of conspicuous consumerism is over. But what will take its place?
One of the odd and unusual tenets of capitalism is the belief that people always want to pay a lower price. At least part of the current decline of the USA can be related to this. There was once a time that American manufacturing meant the highest quality in the world. People would save money for items that promised a standard of quality that rose above the disposable novelties we use today. But we are hardly proposing a backwards leap. The cities of the Rustbelt created jobs and products, but they did so at a huge environmental cost. By the time the auto industry had decentralized and other industries moved to the Far East, the Rustbelt was choked with Great Lakes pollution and Acid Rain. When America turned to the Sunbelt, it wasn't without good reason. Yet the Sunbelt was built on offshore manufacturing, unlimited credit and complete automobile dependency. The hardworking values of the Rustbelt were lost in cheap housing, cheap oil and even cheaper products. The small mom-and-pop stores that characterized the cores of Rustbelt towns were replaced by globalized chains that sat on the outskirts of suburban sprawl. The city became an expanding universe with an ever collapsing center. And collapse it did. Now the environmental disaster of the Rustbelt has been shifted to the Far East where the scale of environmental disaster is out of control. Cheap consumer goods come with a cost, a lesson we learned rather late. So, what would happen if we wanted to pay more for things?
The fact is, we already do. Its fairly well known that nearly half of all automobile trips in North America are for trips under 5 kilometers. From the sheer unnecessary misuse of the car to the obesity and health care costs that this creates, North Americans are in the great habit of lighting their money on fire. Yet, despite its great cost, the automobile has become something of a 'right' for North Americans, the very model of life, liberty and happiness. The solution, like the problem, is a matter of perspective. By using tools critically - and the automobile is certainly an excellent tool - money is saved that can be spent elsewhere - and ideally, locally. Moreover, by making choices that truly reflect the richest possible meaning of life, liberty and happiness, an experience is no longer measured by cost, but by more emotional and aesthetic standards (among others). Let's take a bicycle, for example. Riding a bicycle for all trips under 5 kilometers not only saves a great deal of money, it also adds a great deal of enjoyment to one's life. By allowing the bicycle the same transportation status as a car, both can be enjoyed for the different uses they manifest. Since the car in this scenario is viewed as only one part of one's transportation strategy it becomes a far more practical purchase than a social extravagance. It is well known that Detroit automakers refused to introduce small compact cars in the oil crisis of the 70's, they were making huge money on poorly engineered objects of socially indicated status. But this status is quickly equalized in the gridlock that paralyzes North American city cores. If a car is being used less, it should cost less too - and this is precisely why companies like Toyota have done so well in North America. But the same goes for the bicycle. If a bicycle is used more, it should also cost more. Why? Because, eventually it keeps more money in your pocket. And, because it provides endless enjoyment. Let's explain.
Unfortunately, a good city bicycle is difficult to find in North America. The North American bike companies are struggling with city bikes with the same panic that Detroit automakers are experiencing with small compact cars (or electric cars). While automakers were building big impractical SUV's, American bicycle manufactures were building balloon-tired beach cruisers or mountain bikes - which aren't unlike SUV's in their own way. Most of the manufacturing has been outsourced (cities like Toronto had dozens of independent framebuilders in the early 20th century, much like Portland has today), and the emphasis has been either on highly rarified hobbies or kitschy novelties. (Bicycles with tailfins? Only in America!). Nonetheless, a good city bike is a pretty common-sense piece of engineering. It is hardly revolutionary that a good bicycle should be comfortable, low maintenance, storeable outside in snowy weather and above all, it should be painfully obvious that a good city bicycle doesn't spray oil all over your clothes. And, unlike the automobile industry - which practically invented planned obsolescence - it should last a very long time.
Now try finding one. Not so easy, is it? A good city bike is hardly an extravagent purchase. For the suburbanite it replaces all trips under 5 kilometers while the urbanite can use it for almost 80% of their overall transportation. (That's the beauty of city life, it allows for an intense radius of lived experience, easily navigated by bicycle). A bike that can be locked against square-edged poles all day, stored outside all winter, and comes with a minimum of maintenance is a dedicated tool, and it usually costs around $700-$1200. That's dirt cheap for something that can be used for at least half your trips! Against the price of gasoline for one year the bicycle amortizes rapidly, putting more money in your pocket. Moreover, a good city bike, unlike a car, will last the rest of your life. And not only is life more enjoyable by bike, but the money saved can be spent on objects that - like the bike and car - offer even more enjoyment. Not the enjoyment of conspicuous consumerism, but objects that contribute to health, coziness, laughter and joy. Well made clothing, better eating, and more family time. Moreover, this creates jobs. We'll explain.
The neat thing about increased bicycle use is that it is actually good for the economy. In fact, it may well be the bicycle that saves North America, both its carbon footprint and amok economy. As the car and housing market become questionable economic indicators, consider that most businesses in North America are still small businesses. Small businesses may be difficult to quantify compared to massive globalized business, but they do represent a consistent and large core of the economy and also a way out of this mess. As an aggregate small businesses are much more difficult to measure than the performances of Wal-Mart or Chrysler, yet they are consistently taxed higher and play a much more vital role in the neighbourhoods they are part of. And, they keep money and jobs in the country. The automobile usage of the past put money out of the country, into the cheap Chinese consumer goods sold at WalMart to the oil imported from other countries. If this money is to be shuffled back, it will have to be towards businesses that are not so globalized and that represent new jobs and opportunities to North American citizens. The huge amount of money saved by riding a bicycle can go to Sunday brunches, art, music, home renovations and many more enjoyable artifacts. Moreover, the mentality of riding a city bicycle is a mentality that values objects that represent well crafted tools that truly enhance life - most of which cannot be found at your local WalMart. The joy is no longer found in buying or even owning, but rather using. The problem with conspicuous consumerism is that people owned more and used less. And what's the point of that?
The thing we love the most about Europe, especially France, is the way people spend their money. Car ownership is high, which is fine, but the cars themselves are small practical tools that aren't peoples pride and joy. Quite the contrary. Chances are that a typical car in Paris is covered with the dents and scratches from daily use, and this is hardly regarded as problematic. Moreover, Parisians dress phenomenally well, and they spend a great deal of money on well tailored clothes that are finely crafted. Unlike America where clothes are cheap and closets are full, the Parisian closet is a well curated collection of matchable textiles that multi-task a great deal of social affairs. And finally, Parisians enjoy eating out. The sudden high demand for bicycles in Paris does not come out of a need for cost-cutting or even reducing carbon footprints - although this is certainly important - it comes from a deep and sophisticated sense of enjoyment. Paris by bike is much lovelier than Paris by Metro, or Paris by automobile. On a bike, the whole city is yours, unrestricted. This type of consumerism, which we call a 'curated consumerism' is not only more responsible, it is far more wholistic and healthy. Small businesses from bike manufacturers to tailors and restaurants all profit. Money isn't simply moving into highly measurable firms like Big Oil and large chain retailers, it is spread around locally and significantly because its far more enjoyable to visit a local shopkeeper than a mall, and it is far more luxurious to own one nice dress instead of four cheap ones that won't last anyways.
As money leaves the country for China and Saudi Arabia along with jobs, perhaps it is time to reconsider what built this fine mess of ours. By relying completely on the automobile and cheap consumer goods - including housing - the American consumer has become just that, a consumer. Once the worlds best producer of consumer goods, the only way a recovery seems possible is through a perspectival change in the way money is spent. The values of life, liberty and happiness are excellent ones, but they need to be critically redefined as we move into a post-automobile culture. By once again putting a value on labour we will once again create and consume objects that last a long time and offer value in terms of their enjoyment. The simple act of riding a bicycle not only saves gratuitious amounts of money but it also provides the very perspectival foundation required for the paradigm shift so desperately needed in North America. Money saved is money spent on objects of significance. Carefully curated objects. Crafted objects. And not disposable novelties with a thin veneer of function. Spend less, but pay more. Otherwise, the hidden costs will rear their ugly head. They always do.
The great thing is that this is already happening. As the chart above shows, bicycle production (a key economic indicator if we ever saw one) has nearly doubled in the last year alone. This year at Interbike companies who never understood city bikes finally started making city bikes, offering a mainstream level of legitimacy to the bicycle as a transportation object. City bikes are hardly revolutionary. They are simple objects that have been around for over 100 years. Yet the status they have in North America is revolutionary. They represent a different way of living, a better way of living. And, lets face it, its far more stylish and enjoyable than a car or transit.
We'll be off to Europe for the next two weeks visiting factories and attending tradeshows. As always, if you have any comments feel free to leave them. We also welcome articles, photos and video for submission. Questions? email us at firstname.lastname@example.org