« What if We Replace Guns and Bullets with Bows and Arrows? | Main


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.



You haven't even mentioned two other issues: legal red tape and DRM.

Legislation. Have a look into the EU-level L1e-b directive 168/2013. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A32013R0168 . Most speed pedelec parts cannot legally be replaced except with the blessing of the speed pedelec manufacturer. See https://d1wa5qhtul915h.cloudfront.net/app/uploads/2018/01/Guidelines-for-the-parts-replacement-of-speed-e-bikes-pedelecs-up-to-a-pedal-assist-of-45-km.pdf . An extra battery for example, to extend your reach? Not allowed. https://leva-eu.com/ is a small trade association organisation that seems to try and tackle this mess.

DRM. Look at the electric drive ecosystem for speed pedelecs. Almost all bicycle and drive system manufacturers are very much into DRM. Forget about recelling most recent battery packs. Try to get a battery replaced with another one, or an engine with another one, or a sensor with another one, except with manufacturer blessing. Bosch is the worst in this regard.

I've invested serious time looking for a maintainable speed pedelec. There are some limited loopholes and grey zones. Some manufacturers used to produce speed pedelecs according to the less strict 2002/24 legislation, with less DRM. Ignore some of the most draconic legal overreach, one incurs only very minor risk.

The main issue is legal really. For FSM's sake, even the _Swiss_ speed pedelec regulation is so much more relaxed than the EU one! Switzerland is hardly known for being a laissez-fair jungle capitalist deregulator, right?

 Christopher Rowe


Thank you for the lengthy, relatively well-sourced, and in-depth article on the carbon footprint of modern bicycles and bicycle culture. The author at least reveals his bias right up front with the completely unsupported claim: "The main reason why I have opted for old bicycles is that they are much better than new bicycles." So at least we know what we're in for.

But of most significance is that this piece is an example of a concept coincidentally known as bikeshedding. "Bikeshedding, also known as Parkinson's law of triviality, describes our tendency to devote a disproportionate amount of our time to menial and trivial matters while leaving important matters unattended."

Surely we have much more important matters to attend to before we start targeting bicycles.



Hi Kris,
Fantastic article about bicycles - thank you! I really appreciate all the research you did.
I'm curious if you included the full lifecycle of emissions and the impacts of mining when measuring for instance eBikes relying on an electric grid that is fossil fuel powered vs. one that is "renewable" powered? E.g. the emissions and pollution lifecycle of solar panels, wind turbines, dams, etc.? I'm assuming you did not (since that adds huge complexity to the analysis) and stopped just at the "renewables" vs. fossil fuel type of grid. I'm also assuming you didn't include the emissions required to mine the materials for the bikes and the batteries (for the electric ones). Anyway just curious how far back up the supply chain you went for all the pieces.
Thanks so much!!
Great work


kris de decker


@ Mark

Thank you for that information. Speed pedelecs were in none of the studies I cited but what you write is concerning.

@ Christopher

Depends how you look at it. For me, this article is not really about bicycles, it is about capitalism managing to destroy everything, even a sustainable icon like the bicycle. That is the important matter to attend instead of focusing on technological solutions for whatever you find more relevant than a bicycle.

@ Elisabeth

The studies that I rely on do not all have the same system boundaries. The widest boundaries are taken by the Bortoli paper [8], which also includes the infrastructure (like cycle paths, parking, bike sharing stations). The electricity mix in the studies is almost always the electricity mix in a certain country, and almost never on an "ideal" 100% renewable energy supply. These national data do not take into account the energy it takes to build the infrastructure. The emissions required to mine the materials for the bikes and the batteries are accounted for in all studies.



Great article.
The proprietary approach to part replacement for conventional bikes is a total nightmare…
Building on the comment from Mark about DRM – there is also a growing issue about barriers to replacing or repairing batteries on e-bikes.
We looked into this topic in the context of the EU Batteries Regulation which was finalised last year.
https://eeb.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Battery-Report-2021.pdf see page 11-16
After interviewing independent bike battery refurbishment shops, they explained that even major bike battery brands like bosch and specialized were deliberately making battery maintenance challenging. With a few main issues: making the design of the battery pack impossible to service so that even small issues like water ingress (resulting in unnecessarily replacing the whole pack rather than replacing a small part); not selling replacement battery packs and changing designs (resulting in needing to replace the entire bike unnecessarily); and using software locks to prevent battery reset/cell replacement (resulting in the user replacing the whole pack unnecessarily).
Batteries packs probably shouldn’t be repaired by everybody, but they can be fixed by professionals, with the potential to save resources. The new EU law on batteries should make some of these practices illegal but we have millions of bikes on the market now with short lived batteries, and what about the rest of the world…
I agree with Christopher, that we should focus our efforts on other issues than the bike industry, but its clear that in many areas they are pursuing profit through consumerism and obsolescence, which sits terribly with the spirit of cycling or low tech… now cycling is gaining ground in our cities its important it remains the most credible and efficient way of getting around.



Thanks for this interesting read once again! As a former bike mechanic and someone, who helps in a self-help workshop on a voluntary basis these days, I can only confirm for observation that older bicycles are often more „rugged“. When I was working in a bike shop until about 15 years ago, older bikes often had repairs like flats, worn-out tires, rusted cables or brake pads needing replacement.

That being said, we also need to consider that these older bikes where mostly used for commuting or occasional recreation, whereas newer bikes like e.g. mountain bikes and trekking bikes where often also used under much worse conditions, so it should not come as a surprise, that broken rear derailleurs, cranks and pedals where often the results of accidents and severe bike abuse from people shredding down the mountains. But talking about the sustainability of the mountain-biking-industrial-complex is probably a topic for another article. ;-)

My personal sweet spot for bicycle components are the mid-90s till the early 2000s – not for frames, since these where already mostly made of aluminum. Thanks to the influence of mountainbikes, city and trekking bikes adopted much lower gears, which makes them way more usable for commuting in hilly terrain than older bikes.

Braking technology also has improved quite a lot, which is – again – much more important when you life in the mountains. And let’s not forget about lighting, which has finally become really reliable and efficient thanks to the mass-adoption of dynamo hubs, which also work in wet conditions. Most bikes used pretty standardised components during that era (e.g. 100/135 mm hub spacing with quick release axles, 68 mm English threaded bottom braked, JIS square taper cranks, v-brakes) and where quite versatile. For example, many entry-level MTBs also came with rack mounts, so they could be re-purposed as commuter bikes.

Having a steel frame with equipped with a SON dynamo hub paired with a Rohloff Speedhub (internal gear hub with 14 speeds) gives you a very versatile bicycle that can survive similar distances to a modern car but requires very little maintenance. That combination has been the go-to setup for many world travellers for many years. Only downside is, that these are very high-end-components which are expensive and hard to protect against thievery when you need to lockup your bike in town. On the other hand, the price of these components does not come out of nowhere and they probably use-up more recourses than cheaper parts e.g. from Shimano. If we consider that, we probably should not equip all bicycles in the world with the very-best components in existence to make them more sustainable (wich is also unrealistic because both hubs are made by relatively small companies).

If you want a cheap, versatile and reliable machine, look for early 90s mountain bikes – they often come with rack and fender mounts and feature very sturdy steel frames. Be sure to grab one that does not already have a suspension fork, because these will need maintenance at some point and spare parts might be hard to get for these old models. Old MTBs can often be found on classifieds very little money and are also pretty easy to maintain and customise to fit your own needs. And the latter point might be the most important. Once you put some effort into any artefact, you’ll become more emotionally attached to it and won’t let that thing go or throw it away without thinking twice.

Mario Stoltz


@Kris, thank you so much for the great article. I love the diversity of topics on your website. In this particular case, I would suspect you picked up the topic because it really matters to you personally :-)
Not that I would have numerical evidence, but I suspect part of the effects you describe can also be attributed to scale effects, meaning the total number of bikes produced, and the boundary conditions under which the players in the value chain are operating.
In a globalized capitalist economic system, manufacturers are not incentivized to produce long-lived, sustainable, repairable products unless they see a need to do so, i.e. either if there is a tangible market for such products, or if there is external regulation (with either subventions or penalties) that forces them to go that way.
In the absence of such incentives, they will produce what optimizes their economic result. Still, that includes the automatic regulation towards the bottom end: if the product becomes so bad that nobody buys it, the manufacturer will increase quality.
However, there is also a social dimension: less wealthy people may not be able to afford buying a good, let alone a sustainable bike. They certainly lack the money to buy them new, and they may lack the time and resources to buy them used and repair them for use.
I guess this calls for a strengthening of local repair and self-help initiatives, as well as for local used-bike markets, to help give all parts of society access to decent-quality individual mobility.



Thank you for the detailed article. My 2 cents:

Aluminium has a large carbon footprint mostly because smelting uses
enormous amounts of electricity. So enormous that smelters are often
placed next to a powerplant producing cheap power - which these days
usually means coal (or even worse, lignite/brown coal). But at least
in theory it could be a renewable plant. Another, much smaller source
of CO2 emissions are carbon anodes used in smelting which slowly burn
in the process, but other materials are being tested. Aluminium is
also recycled quite effectively, so overall effect might be smaller
than calculated here.

I think the main issue isn't the life expectancy of a bicycle
frame, but rather of components such as chains, gears, tyres, cables
etc. Of course they are replaceable, but if you neglected the
maintenance for a few years or returned from a long journey, you will
find out that just buying all the parts will cost you more than a new
bicycle (even disregarding the labor cost or possible compatibility
problems). It should be trivial to manufacture more reliable
components, there's no reason why a bicycle gear wears out after five
thousand kilometers despite transmitting barely 100W of power if a
similar gear in the car, connected to a 100kW engine, never needs
replacement during 500 000 km lifespan.


D. Wick


Bicycle mechanic Mac Liman has started a petition asking bicycle manufacturers to stop producing low-quality, unrepairable bicycles. Here are a couple of articles about it:



And the petition itself: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSf6dcfFQFqE6CmLxm02taF7SpTBEPG2Jq8cJBTOVebbX5L1EA/viewform

It isn't just a sustainability problem, it is also an equity problem. These are the bikes that people buy when they need something "affordable", not realizing that the bike will end up broken and useless in a matter of months.



Step one: Use local labor so you don't have to plow a big dirty boat across an ocean everytime.



Reducing bicylcle weight has always been a goal of enthusiasts. But saving 2 kilos on a 16 kilo bicycle is not a 12.5% savings. That is because the weight of the rider must be included. If a rider weighs 60 kilos, the 2 kilos only represents 2.6% weight savings -- hardly worth the cost of the lighter bike. Also going on a diet to save those two kilos would acheive the same effect at much less cost in money as well as to the environment.

Donna Berry


I use vintage sewing machines (both electric and hand/for powered) because they are more durable and reliable than modern ones. I wonder if anyone has analyzed the energy cost of manufacturing sewing machines from—before 1970 till now?
Keep up the good work!



Thanks for all this great information, and your personal comments about biking brought a smile to my face, several times.

Dr. Coyote


Thanks for the in-depth article. And you're correct, planned parts
obsolescence is the bane of bicycle longevity. I'm suffering through
the end-of-life cycle for several decade-old bikes, where simply
finding (say) chainrings and replacement wheels has become more
time-consuming than actually installing the new parts.

Andrew D


Some interesting ideas expressed here, but no means of acting on them. By what mechanism would a shift away from manufacturing most bikes in Asia towards manufacturing in local economies occur?

Also, in your rush towards 'steel is better than aluminium', you either don't know or don't understand that many of the components on your Gazelle bike are aluminium: the wheels, the cranks, the handlebars. Before 1980 most bicycle FRAMES were made from steel, but components and higher-quality wheels had been aluminium for many decades. There are also a lot of half-truths in your assertions about the current state of the bicycle industry and the availability of parts (which is actually excellent from all major manufacturers). I'm no fan of the bike industry's proliferation of new standards, but it might also be true that a wider range of types of bicycles being available might lead to a wider uptake of cycling.

Anyway, I think your commenter earlier who said we have much bigger concerns in the sustainability field than this is 100% correct. Yes, if more bikes had steel frames we would be more sustainable. But the net benefit of people cycling instead of driving outweighs the dubious sustainability of carbon framed bikes every day of the week.

More people on bikes is what we want. Your thesis is unlikely to assist in this.



I would be interested in looking at how the carbon emissions from medical system plays into the equation considering your previous article. The health benefits from biking could substantially reduce carbon emissions produced by the medical industry by avoiding many complications associated with inactivity.

kris de decker


@ Andrew

"More people on bikes is what we want. Your thesis is unlikely to assist in this."

Why? Does my article discourage cycling? I make clear that even the most unsustainable bike beats the most sustainable car.

I find your reasoning problematic. Because what you say is that it is forbidden to be critical of anything that is meant to replace the default carbon-intensive technology. I would need to delete at least half of the articles on my website, because if I would follow your advice I can't be critical of electric cars, wind turbines, or solar panels.

"You either don't know or don't understand that many of the components on your Gazelle bike are aluminium: the wheels, the cranks, the handlebars."

My Gazelle has aluminum wheels but my three other bikes all have steel wheels. I don't know if the Gazelle originally had aluminum wheels (could be) because the wheels are not the originals.

"There are also a lot of half-truths in your assertions about the current state of the bicycle industry and the availability of parts."

I am not a bike mechanic. Like any other topic I write about, I do research and rely on references written by experts to write my articles. You can question those references (they can all be found below the article) but I have not invented anything or built any conclusions based on guesses.

kris de decker


@ Nico

Biking has obvious health benefits and could lead to significant reductions in health care energy use. But that doesn't change the conclusions of this article. The equation is not between bikes and cars, but between different types of bicycles. Furthermore, you don't need to take into account effects on healthcare to demonstrate that the bike is more sustainable than the car. It is already by simply comparing energy use during the manufacturing and use phase.

@ Lawrence


@ Fabian

"If you want a cheap, versatile and reliable machine, look for early 90s mountain bikes"

Agreed, and I was riding one of those until 2013. It still gets use when a friend needs a bike. But it took me 1.5 hours to get to the city, with the road bike it's 1 hour...



Backing up @Andrew here. I'm a bike manufacturer and this piece seriously disappoints me. I build steel frame ebikes with upcycled batteries which directly replace two stroke motors in emerging markets. This article, while it contains citations lacks context. I'm very disappointed that the author, a cyclist, would make the perfect the enemy of the good.

First, the carbon emissions cited for frame manufacturer represent 0.1%-0.4% of the average Americans carbon footprint. This is such a negligibly small value. Why would you present these numbers and imply that the 3x multiplier is relevant without that critical context?

Second, the section on cargo bikes. The author implies that cargo bikes are made in large part from carbon fiber. This is erroneous. Again, i build these things and not a single manufacturer uses carbon in any meaningful way. Next is the issue of comparing to van emissions. I have no idea where this number comes from but it's trivially disprovable. Electric cargo bikes weigh in the neighborhood of 100kg, while trucks they replace weigh several multiples of that. Combining manufacturing and operations the overhead for combustion engines is obviously much larger.

This section closes with an offhand comparison to Chinese wheelbarrows and traditional steel bikes. Cargo bikes disproportionately replace cars and trucks and this comparison is so wildly ungrounded in reality. To change the world you must think seriously about the current one.

There are other issues, but I'm closing on this one. I love steel. I ride steel bikes every day and have never owned a bike of a different material. My overwhelming emotion on reading this piece is sadness. There are many of us out here fighting to make pragmatic shifts in society and making forward progress. The next time the author pens a piece like this, I hope they take the time to put numbers in context honestly and aren't afraid of the conclusion that we're going in the right direction and that it will take all of us to get there.

kris de decker


@ James

"First, the carbon emissions cited for frame manufacturer represent 0.1%-0.4% of the average Americans carbon footprint. This is such a negligibly small value. Why would you present these numbers and imply that the 3x multiplier is relevant without that critical context?"

--> Of course the 3x multiplier is important. It shows that bikes are becoming less sustainable. This is the only point the article makes. There are many things that represent 0.1%-0.4% of the average Americans footprint. Altogether they make a difference. A sustainable society will not arrive by categories. It can only happen by a more fundamental switch, one that solves the problem in all categories at the same time. And it's not going to be a technological solution.

"Second, the section on cargo bikes. The author implies that cargo bikes are made in large part from carbon fiber. This is erroneous. Again, i build these things and not a single manufacturer uses carbon in any meaningful way."

--> Sorry but carbon cargo bikes are for sale, for example: https://newatlas.com/bicycles/maniac-and-sane-carbon-fiber-cargo-bikes/

"Next is the issue of comparing to van emissions. I have no idea where this number comes from but it's trivially disprovable."

--> This number comes from this study [reference 17] Temporelli, Andrea, et al. "Last mile logistics life cycle assessment: a comparative analysis from diesel van to e-cargo bike." Energies 15.20 (2022): 7817.. https://www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/15/20/7817

"Electric cargo bikes weigh in the neighborhood of 100kg, while trucks they replace weigh several multiples of that. Combining manufacturing and operations the overhead for combustion engines is obviously much larger."

--> No it isn't so obvious because the lifetime mileage of the cargo bike is much shorter (according to the authors of this scientific paper). But you misread the article: the comparison I cite is with an electric van, not a diesel van.

"My overwhelming emotion on reading this piece is sadness."

--> Sorry to hear, but I don't understand. Scientists are researching the sustainability of bike manufacturing. I report about the progress in the field. What is wrong with that? isn't it worthwhile to know how we could produce sustainable bicycles?



Have a look at Roetz bikes in Amsterdam. They currently do rebuilt bikes from old frames. They're also launching the Roetz Life [0] ebike. Stainless steel instead of aluminium. Their stated goal is to build a bicycle for life. Not affiliated with them in any way.

[0] https://www.roetz.life/discover/

Pau Luque


Thank you for your article! I believe any discussion about the subject is positive, making us rethink our individual and collective practices.

I would like to add something regarding shared bike services: a different approach to their concept may improve their footprint, and we can tackle it considering the disadvantages presented in your article: rebalancing and high-tech infrastructure. For example, in my city there is a shared bike service for people that come from neighboring towns by bus. They address to a specific counter and write their name in a logbook, receiving the lock key for a bike. They can use it all day and return it to the bus station before it closes at night.



Great article. 3 comments:

First, I agree completely regarding intercompatibility. As an example, I recently built-up a new mountain bike on a donated frame, and the number of choices/options is bewildering. Here are some of the choice problems I ran into: (i) 29" vs. 26" vs. 27.5" wheels. Tires regular or tubeless. (ii) Hydraulic vs. cable disc brakes, different rotor sizes, different attachment methods of rotor to the hub. (iii) Shimano Hyperglide cassette hubs come in two sizes, and you need correct hub for the cassette size you choose. Derailleur cage (long vs. short) also needs to be sized appropriately for the largest sprocket. (iv) Headsets on many new MTBs are now tapered (wider at bottom). It is becoming increasingly hard to find decent suspension forks compatible with straight 1-1/8" steer-tube frames. (v) There are several different dropout dimensions for front and rear. This impacts choice of hubs, forks, quick-release levers, etc. (vi) Several bottom-bracket standards, each of which only fits certain types of cranks. (vii) Handlebar clamps and stems are now available in several diameters. Buying a new bar can require replacing the stem. (ix) Seatpost diameters are all over the place. Often need shims or spacers to make it fit. Also seatpost clamp designs not compatible with all saddles - many have a bolt in the top, only accessible if the saddle has a hole in the middle.

This is just for mountain bikes, so imagine the same all over again for road bikes and e-bikes, not to mention the many single-use tools needed for these proprietary things to actually be fitted on the bike. Often-times, individual components will not play nice together (e.g., Shimano shifters and Tektro brake levers), requiring liberal use of the Dremel to make things fit properly.

Second, your estimates of lifetimes for common components are very conservative. If you live anywhere with cold weather and cycle in the winter, the use of road salt is very bad for bike parts! I've resigned myself to having to replace the chain at least once a year (usually in the spring), and have already gone through 3 cassettes in 10 years on one of my bikes. Cables are another example - despite keeping them well lubricated, they usually need replacing every couple of years.

Third, a theoretical advantage of e-bikes is they allow the use of slightly heavier and more"beefy" components that would otherwise be too heavy for use on a regular analog bike. I don't see the components on current e-bikes as being built any better than regular bikes, but it would be nice to imagine a future where e-bike components (cables, chains, etc.) were built to a similar degree as seen in motorcycles, designed to last several years before needing replacement. The extra weight is less of an issue if the work of hauling it around is offloaded to the electric motor!



I ride Surly bikes (Pack Rat, bought new, for pavement/commuting, and a Pugsley, bought used, for off road exploring (including beaches)) because they are steel with good "parts bin" compatibility (standard parts). I'm a novice mechanic tho so I'm still learning how to make it all fit together.

In particular, I'm developing the Pugsley as my "apocalypse bike" that, with a switch of tires/wheels and handlebars, will be able to handle anything from long road miles to the beach. Hopefully that'll be my "one bike to rule them all" though I'll keep the Pack Rat for commuting - as Kris says it's great to have a backup bike in case of mechanical issues (especially when I need a bike to commute).

You might find pathlesspedalled on youtube interesting - he's recently been switching over to friction shifters on his bikes because then he can pretty much freely mix and match derailleurs, chainsets and shifters. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8CwNO-2RIg

(I'm slowly working my way thru his recommendations - waxed chains, genevalle shifters, hot-swappable handlebars....)

Finally, whilst I understand the commenters who are concerned that we have bigger fish to fry than bicycle manufacture (any bicycle is better than a car), I agree with Kris that everything should be examined from a sustainability standpoint, and in particular it's very important to understand how profit-pursuing capitalism is making a very sustainable transport option less so (whilst frustrating the hell out of consumers, shop-owners and mechanics...including me...)



PS I've tried electric, and might add an aftermarket kit to my pugsley for maximum versatility (bafang or tongshen), though I have also decided that building my leg muscles (both thru cycling and barbell weights) is a viable (tho admittedly not equal: a motor is always going to be stronger than my legs) alternative approach: low maintenance, no replacement parts (I'm only 48, decades from knee replacements....I hope!), no batteries required....



I might have a bought a Hagen cargo instead of a Bullitt if I had read this article before...even in my Hilly town

Péter Tölgyesi


I think you are right in most of the article.
Since our domestic production disappeared, I can only afford short-lived bike-shaped objects, because, you know, price is global, purchasing power is local.
If someone is not in Western Europe, another hindrance is that roads are not designed for safe biking. When my son goes on a bike tour, we are in stress. People can seriously consider biking as an alternative only in specific areas.
But I think we are going in the right direction and things will improve significantly in the next centuries.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)