A bicycle built for a better world

Is solving obesity, traffic congestion and environmental devastation really as easy as riding a bike?

Published May 22, 2007 9:48PM (EDT)

At the Taipei International Cycle Show in March 2007, John Burke, president of the Trek Bicycle Corp., gave an address arguing that if bicycle manufacturers wanted to expand sales, they would have to do more than just focus on the old standbys of marketing and new product innovation. They would have to become evangelists for "a bicycle friendly world."

Burke, the son of Trek's founder, is an optimist. Looking at a United States plagued by obesity, traffic congestion, urbanization and environmental woes, he sees "an incredible opportunity" to sell bicycles.

But it won't happen by itself, no matter how many winners of the Tour de France ride Trek bicycles or how feather-light and ramrod-strong the newest carbon-fiber frames are. Creating a bicycle-friendly world requires hard work, government action, and money. And right now, says Burke, out of every hundred dollars the bicycle industry spends, only 10 cents goes toward advocacy.

Burke recalled how in the early 1990s, bicycle advocates used to come to him asking for money, "and I would shoo them away -- no thank you, I've got other things that I need to worry about -- then I figured it out in 1997: We're going to support these people and we're going to support advocacy." Now, says Burke, Trek spends $2 million a year aiming to encourage bike-friendly infrastructure.

"What we really need to understand is this fact: This is the fastest way you can grow this business and the biggest way that we can have an impact on society. Creating a bicycle-friendly world is a very good thing."

"The bicycle is a simple solution to a complicated problem."

Bike fans are certain to applaud -- I was pointed to a YouTube clip of the Burke speech by someone who posted to the East Bay Bicycle Coalition's mailing list. The clip's title: "The Al Gore of the bike trade?" But when I look closely at my own bicycle I don't see an object that strikes me, quite, as "simple." And when I watched the Burke speech, I couldn't help noticing that his lecture on how to sell more bicycles in the United States happened to be given in Taiwan, the global headquarters of bicycle manufacturing.

Taipei once labored under a reputation for knocking out the kind of cheap, mass-produced bikes you bought for a low, low price at the local Sears-Roebuck store but then left to rust in a corner of the garage a year later. No longer; the cheap production has been offshored to China or Vietnam or India, and Taiwan has been forced to relentlessly move up the value chain in order to survive. It has done so with a vengeance. Outside of the very highest-end manufacturers and specialty shops, the vast majority of quality bicycles made in the world come from Taiwan.

Which makes the bicycle a complicated solution to a complicated problem. A bicycle made in Taiwan by Giant or Trek or Specialized is an integral cog of the global economy, even when it is being ridden by a hippie in Berkeley pulling a Burley trailer full of locally grown organic produce behind him. You may help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil by riding a bike, but you're a long way from opting out of the world-annihilating industrial megacomplex. Bikes are high-tech products manufactured according to the latest advances in metallurgical and plastics sciences in robot-run factories connected to globe-spanning supply chains and taking advantage of the differentials in labor costs between the developed and developing world. There's nothing at all simple about the role Taiwan plays in the world economy, or how modern manufacturing processes enable precision machined parts from scores of countries to be assembled together and delivered to a bike store near you. I'm all for a more bike-friendly world, where every road has a bike lane (or at least a wide shoulder) and every city goes the extra mile to welcome bikers with open arms. But let's not pretend that there's something simple, or bucolic, about what we're doing. It's darn complicated and only getting more so.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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