by Greg Bryant
Each day, the average bike is pressed into service carrying groceries, boxes and bags far beyond its designer’s original intentions. At best we hang panniers, baskets, pods and trailers off of it: sometimes frustrating attachments to use and maintain.
In Italy and Switzerland many bicycles are built, frame and all, at your local bicycle shop.
Local economies benefit from decentralizing and personalizing bike production. Custom Italian bicycle frames are famous throughout the world because each Italian neighborhood has bike designers and builders. Northern Italy’s modern economic success owes much to a tight fabric of diverse skills in quick, custom, small-scale manufacturing. Italy has become something like the product idea shop of Europe.
The situation in the US is similar: few are now involved in community-level bike production, and setting up the appropriate scale for a new type of bike here is very much like doing a third world development project. So like a development worker, in addition to making the bikes, VanderTuin teaches workbike design and manufacture to the community, in conjunction with the University of Oregon.
Sometimes you have to start a third world project to bring appropriate technology to first world neighborhoods. VanderTuin visited such a group at the Universität Oldenburg in Germany: their international development group produced and broadcast a television show detailing the construction of a bicycle trailer. They also taught community workshops in which people built trailers — now tailing bikes and mopeds throughout Germany.
Of course communities benefit by more directly supporting their own appropriate technology research. An experimental bicycle group VanderTuin knew in Frankfurt, established as a state vocational school, created unusual, useful designs such as rainproof bikes and trikes for the handicapped. A group of ex-students from this school founded a co-op whose bicycles are now well-known in Germany.
In Hamburg another group has established a neighborhood center in which they live, work and do community service. They run a bicycle workshop cooperatively with the community where, for a subsistence fee, people come to get help creating bikes for unusual needs. In the US local inventors are unable to support themselves doing appropriate technology work like this, and no one helps since the prevailing ideology pressures them to make a business success of it, alone.
Community supported organizations can incubate endless applications of appropriate technology. Workbikes are used in local delivery of mail, pizzas, groceries, laundry and other goods. They transport the elderly, children and anyone else who needs to get anywhere. Ideally service operations are owned and run by the neighborhood, allowing them to determine in open assembly if the appropriate services are being provided.
Greenpeace Europe’s EcoBike campaign highlighted what happens when a community does not control its own bike technology. Greenpeace listed torrents of wastes and toxins associated with normal bike production; they constructed an alternative bike using the cleanest methods they could find, given their limited research funds. Most current bike production is not only environmentally unsound: bicycle factories, and affiliated mining operations, wield sufficient clout to displace people in developing countries, and to overwork unionless assemblers in politically oppressive states like Taiwan. Both the technology and economics of manufacturing have to change if they are to be truly ecological.
In the impersonal world-market the creativity of bicycle makers is stifled and the needs of bicycle riders are not addressed. VanderTuin and his colleagues are giving us a set of solutions. But until deep problems are tackled more directly, by more people, the original vehicle of personal liberation, and the modern symbol of ecological awareness, will not fulfill its potential.
Above: Jan VanderTuin fetches the mail with his utility bike, whose load is on the frame rather than the handlebars. It has a waterproof container designed for the weather in Eugene, Oregon. The model is used to deliver pizzas to students at the University of Oregon.
Below: Jan delivers packages on Manhattan's tough streets using a Long John, designed for easy manipulation of heavy loads (up to 180 pounds) in tight traffic. (NY Photo: Peter Britton). Both the narrow maneuverability of the Long John and the waterproofing of the utility bike suggest the depth of modification local workbike design could undergo with more support for alternative transport.
Below: Brad Evans rides a Long John with waterproof container on Oregon back country roads: this lightweight workbike is built like a mountain bike to handle rough terrain.
Series below: With the collapse of machine tool industries in the US during the 1980's, special purpose machines such as the horizontal mill below, shown cutting a curved miter joint, became less readily available (except from factory closing auctions). These kinds of machines are essential for quick prototyping of bikes to fulfill evolving community needs. The disappearance of such hardware burdens local small-scale workbike builders, but their primary burden is the general high cost of bicycle-building tools. Custom-made bikes are usually made for the reasonably well-funded, and so the tools are priced for recreation cycling, not for more practical vehicles. One solution is to create new tooling arrangements. VanderTuin has spent years researching inexpensive tube bending, cutting and welding.
Below: Dick Ryan of Ryan Recumbents demonstrates how a standard industry jig (a design frame that holds tubes in place for welding) is used. A jig's plate is cut with expensive equipment out of solid steel, putting it almost out of range of producers for a small local market.
Below: Instead, VanderTuin builds his own jigs by cutting rectangular steel tubes and welding them together. He then places it on any flat surface, such as this door, to do a preliminary, or tack, weld. Not only are these light, cheap, and just as good as the solid plates: they allow one bench to produce any model with a simple change of jig.
Below: In either case, bicycles are then made true with various inexpensive straightening devices, such as this one used for forks.