Are Bicycles Becoming Less Sustainable?

Are Bicycles Becoming Less Sustainable?

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Bicycles have long been associated with sustainability, but some critics argue that the introduction of e-bikes and resource-intensive materials is changing that narrative.

While it’s natural for us to categorize bicycles as inherently friendly to our environment, Low-Tech Magazine’s Kris De Decker reminds us that even something as seemingly simple as a bicycle has become more resource-intensive over time, prompting the need for a return to a more basic design.

We often associate bicycles with a more sustainable future, especially when imagining happy Danish people riding to farmers markets and coffee shops. E-bikes are often presented as an alternative to cars—and the per-trip energy use savings of taking an e-bike instead of a car are significant. Yet the reality is that achieving a bike-focused future is challenging in places like the US where cars and convenience reigns supreme and bike infrastructure is minimal. To reach this imagined utopia, De Decker suggests we consider the materials bikes are made of, their lifecycle, repairability, and breakdown properties.

For example, while we assume that bike-sharing means less production, and therefore less energy and carbon emissions, dockless bicycle systems actually require van drivers (gig workers) to patrol urban areas and pick up, charge, and redistribute the bikes, contributing to 118g of carbon emissions per kilometer when riding a shared aluminum bike. The energy savings figure for e-bikes also does not consider the energy cost of their production.

We scored the Xiaomi MiJia QiCycle folding bike 6/10 for repairability—lots of standard screw types, but also many proprietary parts. We’ve never scored a regular bike, but they tend to follow our gold standard of repairability: Standard parts, repairable using commonly available tools, with a robust and persistent availability of parts and instructions.

It’s important to note that not all bicycles are created equal, and their environmental impacts vary, particularly when we consider lifecycle. E-bikes, for instance, have more parts that could require replacement and owners may struggle to find parts in the long term due to the reliance on more complex components.

In 2022, for example, bike mechanics circulated a petition to e-bike manufacturers to stop producing “built to fail” budget bicycles, as Right to Repair Europe noted.

Extending Bicycle Lifespans with Repair

Despite the abundance of brick-and-mortar stores and online communities dedicated to bicycle repair, 95% of bikes in the US were imported from China in 2018, shipping thousands of miles to reach us. With over a billion bicycles in the world, it makes more sense to hold onto our bikes for longer and extend their lifespans through repair.

Repair has always been synonymous with the cycling community, but the trend towards prioritizing “innovation” has resulted in a culture of disposability and neglectful usage of bicycles at scale, potentially turning a low-impact technology into just another consumer trend. It’s not that e-bikes and bike-sharing are inherently bad, but they need to be evaluated for their efficacy before we label them as environmentally friendly.

Simpler solutions are often better, and we already know that repairing a bicycle is one of the easiest and most effective ways to extend its lifespan.

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