Bicycles: An Antidote to Throw-Away Culture

Bicycles: An Antidote to Throw-Away Culture

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This past week I dusted off my bike (which I rarely use) when I was short on time to meet a friend across town. I clipped on my helmet, tied my shoes, and rolled the bike onto the street. It’s a ~15-year-old bike but is still in great shape, with a strong mid-aughts vibe and a nicely cushioned seat. It was a recipe for success.

It was a muggy, 85-degree day in Philadelphia. I pedaled for three blocks until I realized one of my tires was flat. Whether by divine intervention or coincidence, someone was getting into their car on the side of the road and flagged me down. They had a bike pump in their car and offered to let me use it—and in a couple of minutes, I was back on the road.

After saying goodbye to my new friend, I was struck by the interaction. I was impressed not only by having a stranger flag me down to help but also by the fact they had the exact tool I needed sitting in their trunk (unlikely for most other technologies we use today).

Bigger than bicycles

The fact that someone had a bike pump in the car isn’t a big deal—I get that. But what I am appreciating is how bicycles on the whole predispose us to have the kinds of interactions that I had.

This isn’t a new idea. For hundreds of years, thinkers have written about how our technologies shape our societies. Whether how it is used or the impacts it has, technology can tell us a lot about our world.

Take leaf blowers for example. Writer Jules Boykoff says our machines can help us wrap our minds around complex issues, and uses leaf blowers to help readers understand how our industrialized world is violent toward our ecological systems. A leaf blower runs on fossil fuels, tries controlling nature simply to make yards look more visually appealing, and literally has us blowing our waste into public places.

Socket replacing a fan in a leaf blower
At least you can replace a lot of leaf blower parts when they break, like this fan. Also, did you know that iFixit has a bunch of annotated leaf blower parts diagrams?

“[A leaf blower] is not simply a garden tool you can drop on your foot, but a metaphor that helps us better understand how technology can reorganize space and alter social relations.”

Jules Boykoff

Much like the leaf blower, understanding bicycles as a metaphor for bigger things can help us find hope for a repairable future that resists over-consumption. Bicycles are everywhere. There are about 100 million in the US and over a billion worldwide. They have fairly standard parts (despite booming demand for e-bikes) and compared to a car, learning to repair them is far easier.

Bicycle repair shops have been seen by many as a starting point for disrupting our consumption habits as well as our grossly unequal global economy. In their study on two bicycle repair shops in the UK, researchers Simon Batterbury and Tim Dant explain how rich countries have offloaded both the production and upkeep of goods.

“Production and consumption have been separated by deindustrialisation, and manufacturing now takes place closer to raw materials or where labour is cheap.”

Simon Batterbury and Tim Dant

Intentional ownership

Bicycles, like clothes, electronics, or just about anything else used by people in rich Western nations have been made by people they will never meet oftentimes hundreds or thousands of miles away. We are disconnected from the time, energy, effort, and resources needed to create them—so we are quick to dispose. We do not maintain them. We put them in a plastic bag, wheel them to the curb, and like magic, they disappear from our line of sight.

Bicycle repair can change this habit. If we want to reorganize our social relations both globally and locally, community-focused repair organizations are a fantastic example of where to start. The social and ecological good that can be done through bicycle repair is already being demonstrated. Much like tool libraries, non-profit bike shops teach people of all ages the skills needed to repair bikes and oftentimes refurbish bikes to give to people who want to use them, while also becoming social and political spaces for groups to build community.

When we don’t understand how to repair the objects we rely on, they are invisible to us. It isn’t until we have a flat tire that we can appreciate the work needed to fix it and understand how much we rely on the materials that make the bicycle work. Intimate knowledge of the machines we rely on makes them truly visible and respected in our lives.

The practice of repairing these machines brings communities closer, teaches us to offer aid to one another, and makes us more self-reliant. It’s why the availability of parts and information, as well as the practice of sharing knowledge about bicycle repair, are standards that should be extended to many other objects in our lives.

More News

  • Hybrid car shipped 2000 miles for repair: Debate has commenced over the importance of repair in creating “sustainable” products after a hybrid owner shared that their car was shipped across the world for a repair. While hybrids are marketed as sustainable and more environmentally friendly than other options, a single trip around the world can negate those carbon footprint benefits. Having local repair options is crucial.
  • Repair saves money on back-to-school shopping: Is your kid’s lunchbox or backpack one hole or broken zipper away from being in working order? Consider repairing your existing items instead of buying new. Visible mending gives your kids the opportunity to give their fabric items their own unique style. You can find a lot of repair guides and tutorials on iFixit or YouTube.
  • Replaceable AirPod battery: An engineer who modded an iPhone X with A USB-C port made an AirPods case battery that is easily replaceable In his YouTube video, Ken Pillonel appears to be a solid Right to Repair advocate who believes that consumer electronics should have easily replaceable parts instead of just adding more waste to landfills. Thanks to the success and confidence attained through his previous projects, the engineer set out to alter the AirPods Pro charging case, but it was easier than done.
  • Data access and data sharing for cars: Data ownership can define the experience of car owners, especially when manufacturers withhold those rights. Car data can be used to diagnose problems, improve fuel efficiency, and even customize our driving experience. However, many car manufacturers lock this data away, making it difficult or impossible for independent repair shops to access it.
  • Major auto deal receives criticism: Right to Repair advocates are arguing that while a recent deal struck by automakers would require manufacturers to make repair information and parts available to repair shops, it would not require them to make it easy to do so which could prove a problem for independent auto shops and those who use them.
  • To fix or replace: What are we supposed to do when home appliances break down? Kevin Brasler, Executive Editor at Boston Consumers’ Checkbook, advises homeowners to consider fixing their appliances instead of immediately running out and buying a new machine. Even if your appliance is on the cheaper end, Brasler’s team found, “low-priced companies on average rate higher on service quality than their higher-priced competitors.”
  • New Framework 16-inch laptop: Framework, the company making repairable and upgradeable laptops, has started taking orders for its new 16-inch model. The laptop has a number of features that make it easy to repair and upgrade, including modular components and a user-friendly design.
  • A new Constitution for Repairs: The trade association NRRTS has created a document outlining the basic principles of the right to repair, including the right to access repair information, the right to obtain spare parts, and the right to repair or modify one’s own property.
  • Recent poll shows strong support for repair: A majority of Americans (72%) support the right to repair, but only 21% of Americans are familiar with the Right to Repair movement. This suggests that there is a lot of potential to educate the public about the right to repair and to build support for the movement.
  • The average lifespan of a smartphone is just 2.5 years: Most smartphones are disposed of long before they have reached the end of their useful life. Software support is crucial, and planned obsolescence through software is a major source of electronic waste. Fairphone offers 7 years of software support, while Apple offers a support period of 5 years, and Samsung offers 4 years.