Biking into the future

Autonomous cars and space travel – but what if technology will make a 200 years old invention the transport vehicle of the future?

Everything has changed,” my grandfather said. He lay in his bed in a hospital on the west cost of Norway and he was dying. From his bed he could look out at the sea. I was sitting on a chair by his bed, I held his hand and asked him to tell me what childhood was like in a small fjord in the early 20th century.

“We did not have cars,” he said. “ No electricity. No TV or radio.”

In my head I completed the list: No Internet, artificial intelligence, space travel, sensors or smart phones. Everything was different.

“Is nothing the same?” I asked. He closed his eyes. For a long time.
“The bike,” he said eventually. “I had a bike.”

The bike was not a new thing when granddad was cycling through the country and along the coasts at the beginning of the 20th century. A hundred years had already passed since the German inventor Karl Drais kicked himself around Mannheim on his Laufrad, the very first bike, the precursor of all mechanized human transport. That was 200 years ago.

“What if you had access to a bike everywhere, all the time”

I was recently invited to a TV debate. The theme was transportation systems in cities. We did not talk about self-driving cars or flying cars. Nor about drones or jetpacks, which I dreamt of as a child. And definitely not about Segway. We talked about bikes. The mood was bad.

There were two reasons for this debate to reach Norwegian TV channels. The first was that I had rented a bike in Copenhagen for a weekend and described it like this in the newspaper Aftenposten: “For someone living in Oslo biking in Copenhagen is like visiting a more advanced culture, a bit like how Neanderthals might have felt when they met Homo sapiens. A good many things are possible to recognize, but much is different and evolutionally superior.”

A hipster would use a 200 year old bike

Recently Copenhagen was, once again, declared to be the best cycling city in the world. That is not by chance. In the past ten years Copenhagen has invested EUR 134 million on infrastructure. I shall come back to what the money has been used for. The advantage gained is what every city in the world is wishing for itself. Around a third of all transport of people in Copenhagen is by bike. That is the second reason for this debate to be ignited. Fewer cars in the city is the mantra of our times, the Zeitgeist itself.

The motor car – actually a development from Karl Drais’ invention – was, in its time, a fantastic technological breakthrough. But today there are many good reasons for cities to regret the cars and wanting to get rid of them. The most important reason is the rapid growth of the world’s population and that an increasing share of them live in cities. In 1950 around 30 percent of the world’s population lived in cities. In 2050 the share will be 66 percent, according to the UN.

Cars and cities are actually a terribly bad combination. The car takes up an enormous space. On average a family car is standing still for 96 percent of the time and when it eventually starts moving it is a heavy, dangerous and noisy colossus that spreads dust and spews out fumes, usually with only one person on board. At least that is how it has been so far.

All the big car manufacturers now make electric cars and when the self-driving cars, with their adherent laws and regulations, are let out at last on the streets it will offer new opportunities for car sharing and coordinated car travel. For example, many cooperatives work with what they call “the last mile”, that is to say the distance between the public transport and the door of your home. That has proven to be totally decisive for people in their choice between using public transport or owning a car. “The last mile” can be covered by self-driving cars or minibuses that have neither fixed times nor fixed stops, but adapt to the needs of the customer, which in turn reduces the need to own a car. That’s all fine. But the cities still need as many people as possible going back to the most clean and space-saving way of transporting people. A frame, a saddle, handlebars, pedals and two wheels. We need people to be cycling.

It is remarkable that the bike has hardly changed in 200 years. OK, it now has gears and a lighter frame, some have shock absorbers or even a small electric engine, but on the whole hardly anything at all has happened. The 200 years old German Laufrad is lacking pedals, that’s true, but does not differ much from the balancing bikes kids are using today. If you look up pictures of an Iver Johnson Truss Bridge Racer from 1904, it looks like a single speed bike that a bearded hipster could be using in 2017. It has a crankshaft, hub and chain, drop handlebars, saddle and two wheels with spokes and carbon fiber rim. OK, wooden then. But that is how close you get. And this is surely a paradox: When the bike is absolutely central to the changes in society, maybe the actual hub, to use a bike metaphor, why does it not look more like a UFO than a 200 year old invention?

Innovation, regardless of business type, is basically about eliminating friction. It can be friction in the form of unnecessary work schedules in an office. To have to remember a lot of passwords. To have to take a day’s leave from work just to go to the doctor to receive a prescription. To have to look up a physical place to buy physical goods. Or it could be about eliminating friction in the purely physical sense, as feet on the ground. That is why the bicycle was such an ingenious invention that it hasn’t changed in 200 years. The bike takes away friction and transforms muscle power into movement in an extremely efficient way. On a bike you can move much faster from one place to another than if you walk. And your reach increases dramatically. On the whole you can bring along heavy goods almost without noticing their weight. You can park anywhere and you don’t have to stand in a queue of cars. And a hundred other things. No wonder the bike is so popular. But there is also one thing that makes the bike less popular, or creates friction, if you like.

Sitting in a car you are as invulnerable as Superman, at least at the low speed of city traffic. You are inside a gigantic helmet, a waterproof and windproof cocoon of steel. By contrast, if you are on a bike you are very vulnerable. Especially when meeting a car, obviously. That is why there is such a high conflict level, but also in the meeting with pavement edges, grit and tram tracks or just in the meeting with the tarmac, which in many parts of Oslo resembles a village in Sudan.

When I was a child my friend was going on his racing bike down the street where we lived. His narrow front wheel wedged itself stuck in a crack in the tarmac. A few hours later he died in hospital. That was insanely brutal. I myself have been flying over the bonnet of a car that came out too fast from a garage. A couple of years ago my wife was hit by a car and broke her arm. A colleague has been on sick leave for many months following a fall. No wonder many people do not dare. If there is one thing that creates friction in the process of increasing the use of bicycles in towns and cities, that is the health risk.

The innovation has borne fruit

Everybody using a bike knows that it is dangerous. So do those who don’t bike. In many cases that is the reason why they don’t. When I wrote for Aftenposten a colleague found out that the risk of having an accident on a bike is ten times higher, relatively speaking, in Oslo than in Copenhagen. That is why I described my days of biking in Copenhagen as a Neanderthal meeting Homo sapiens. The innovation has borne fruit.

In Copenhagen there haven’t been any innovations on the bike itself but around the bike; in the cycling lanes, clearly marked between the street and the pavement; in special traffic lights for bikes and not least in the way the traffic lights have been programmed to give the cyclists as much green light as possible; in bicycle parking spaces, cycling bridges, you name it. Everything that brings down risk and friction and enhances the experience. In return the cyclists must follow the rules just like everybody else. The police are happy to issue fines and if you forget to make a sign when stopping or turning the other cyclists will scold you as well.

The main job that the producers of bicycles are doing right now is to put political pressure on countries with a poor biking infrastructure in order to increase their market there. But even where there is a good infrastructure there is friction around the bicycle. It takes money to buy a bike, to mend a wheel takes time and knowledge, changing wires, greasing the chain, replacing parts and all that. And sooner or later the saddle, the lamp, the front wheel or the entire bike will be stolen. Should we actually own our bikes?

Not so many years ago a lot of people predicted that Spotify would have short life. People want to own their music, they said. They want to buy an album, hold it, smell it, have it on the shelf and read from the cover. Others claimed that music is like electricity or water. Why own it when you have access to it? What if you had access to a bike everywhere, all the time without the entire nuisance that comes with it?

Bike sharing is actually not a new thing. The first bike sharing service popped up in Amsterdam in 1965. It collapsed, however, after a few days because the bikes where stolen or thrown into the canal. The next generation of bike sharing came with coin slots in Copenhagen in the early 1990s, but because the users were anonymous those bikes were stolen too. However towards the end of the 1990s the first large, modern bike sharing service was launched. Guess where. In Copenhagen, of course! In recent years there has been enormous developments in sensors, mobile technology, geo-location and artificial intelligence. These have cleared the way for a new generation in bike sharing.

Together with the infrastructure, bike sharing is right now the arena for truly awesome technological innovation. Two of the companies leading the development are Chinese: Mobike and Ofo. They are both called the Uber of biking. They both have filled their coffers with money from investors and they are preparing for a world war. They both have bikes with built-in GPS, both let the users find a bike and unlock it with an app and they both let the users park their bikes wherever they wish. That last thing is especially important because it makes the system much easier to scale up when it isn’t necessary to find space for, and build, own points of return for the bikes.

“I had a bike,” I shall say

Mobike now has 100 million users in 100 cities. That’s a good start. In June they gathered USD 600 million in a new round of investment. The goal is to be established in 200 cities all over the world in the course of 2017. Revenues will not only come from the renting of bikes but from selling data that the bikes collect about pattern of use, demography, points of accidents, poor tarmac and so on. That’s how a strong and sustainable business is established.

Predicting is hard, especially the future. But I believe that technology will give us cities with fewer cars and more bicycles, and that I myself will one day be lying in a bed holding the hand of a grandchild and telling the story of what it was like for me as a child to be cycling.

“I had a bike, ” I shall say then. “But everything was ­different.”

NAME: Joacim Lund

TITLE: Technology commentator, Aftenposten


I LOOK FORWARD TO: Technology's ability to solve problems humanity has been struggling with for hundreds of years – food for all, education for all, health for all