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Wooden bicycles and peak oil

September 12, 2011

Inhabitat  published a slide show featuring a wooden bicycle created by Jan Gunneweg.  It’s a really beautiful work of art, and I’d love to have one (although my wife would probably go into convulsions of rage if I proposed bringing another bike into the house).

The writer who posted the slide show on Inhabitat, Laura K. Cowan,  observed that the hard wooden seat might be a problem.  In my own opinion, the seat itself would be the least of worries if someone were to try using it for practical transportation (except on glassy-smooth roads).  At every bump, crack, or irregularity in the road, the absence of pneumatic tubes would cause shocks to telegraph up through the whole bike, and rattle every bone, joint, organ, and ligament in the rider’s body.

Needless to say, if I owned it, it wouldn’t be my commuter bike on crumbling American roads, and I wouldn’t be doing any century rides on it.

So I consider this particular bicycle more of a work of art than transportation.  Mr.  Gunneweg has two more practical models (but using less wood and more conventional bicycle parts and materials), on his website.

Whether this wooden bicycle is transportation or art, it’s made an impressive contribution to the field of bicycles made from renewable materials, and  it brings up a few issues worth thinking about.

We may or may not have already entered the era of global peak oil (the point at which production of oil goes into decline), but the extraction of oil, our source of the cheap energy which has driven the phenomenal growth of technology and the world economy over the past century and a half, is already getting more expensive.

James Howard Kunstler, probably the most aggressive Jeremiah of apocalyptic peak oil predictions, has written a fictional work called World Made by Hand, in which he envisions a world returned to the technology and politics of the 6th century BC (since small unconnected city states seem to be the norm), and the culture of rural 19th century (the whole tone of the dialogue and personal interaction brings to mind barn dances, circuit riders, and one room wooden school houses).  There were a few vestiges of 21st century life in the novel, like the mysterious intermittent return of electricity (evidently someone’s working on it), and a generator run by Stephen Bullock, the local feudal lord.

It’s a very well written and enjoyable book.  The strong story line drew me in immediately, and JHK’s observations about our dependence on oil, and the consequences of having it yanked out from under us, are always thought provoking.

One observation in particular was interesting to me, and related to the idea of wooden bicycles.  In World Made by Hand, the three available means of transportation are foot, animal, and boats of various sorts.  He makes a comment that bicycles are not a viable means of transportation because of the unavailability of rubber tires, and the poor condition of the roads.

This one line in the book brought up a whole slew of questions, the primary one being:  would it be possible to create some variant of the pneumatic tire with sustainable materials on a local level?  More to the point, are petroleum inputs necessary to build a bicycle?

I’m going to leave it as a question for now.  I’ll be writing more on this as I mull it over and look over the alternative materials for bicycles which are already out there.

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