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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.



Great article (as always).

The regulation issues touched on in some of the comments are a major issue in taking control of transportation production. I wonder if you ever pondered the subject of DIY motorvehicles in this context.

In many countries' traffic code there's a category of a slow moving vehicle which imposes much less restrictions concerning homologation etc.
(I imagine a DIY solar-powered AI-driven slow-moving microcamper, but that's not very lowtech.)

And as to steel frames, I wonder what you think about N55's spaceframe vehicles made of aluminium, which I always found a bit absurd, although fascinating.




I second with several comments here. The part on cargo bikes is mainly based on a single study, that is based on one single example of bike, based on questionnable hypothesis.
Your article implies that there is carbon in cargo bikes, in general. That is a false statement. Andrew said it, and he is right. According to this link, the manufacturer of the cargo bike in the study you cite, made less than 100.000€ of sales last year...(https://www.startuplus.it/startup/one-less-van-srl/).
I'm not sure it's a good example to draw a picture of an entire industry.

You could have looked at HarryVSLarry's Bullitt, which have partnerships with DHL for packet delivery in Germany: No carbon on their bikes. The battery weighs 2.5 to 3.5kg (Shimano), not 8.5kg.
You could have looked at Douze, that partnered with Toyota for manufacturing (Aluminum injection process) and sales. Well, no carbon in these frames either. Here as well, the battery is not anywhere near 8.5kg.
You could have cited Riese&Muller, well known for their bikes in Germany. No Carbon on any of their cargo models. Even the double battery option does not reach 8.5kg of embedded battery...

Interestingly enough, that same study you cite suggests a battery life longer than 10 years (in paragraph 4.1) when you write that the battery needs to be replaced every 3 to 4 years...
Why use this specific study for many numbers, but not for estimated battery life ?

It looks to me that you cheery picked. What was your intent ? I don't know. But I fully agree with those who commented here. Your paragraph about cargo bikes seems stuffed with outdated or erroneous information.
It's disappointing. I was just arriving on Low-Tech Magazine. Now I know I should take articles and analysis with a grain of salt.

kris de decker


@ alex

I was not cherry picking. I have simply cited the very few LCA's of cargo cycles that exist, and none of these is representative of the typical cargo cycle. If you know of any life cycle analysis of the cargo cycles you mention, please let me know. If there is no study, I cannot cite it.

My article is clearly supporting the use of steel for bicycles, and of course this includes cargo cycles. Obviously, the bikes you mention are therefore much more sustainable. Read the first sentence of that paragraph: "Combining energy-intensive materials, short lifetimes, and electric motor assistance can increase lifecycle emissions to surprising levels, especially for cargo cycles."

I have no intention of discouraging the use of cargo cycles, or bicycles in general. The problem that this article addresses is that a lot of unsustainable trends are combined, and this logically leads to the highest carbon footprints in cargo cycles, because they are heavier.

By the way, carbon cargo cycles may be not typical now, but let's talk in another 10 years. Carbon road cycles are relatively new, too, and they have become the norm. The carbon cycle I cite is not the only one on the market.

I made a few edits to the paragraphs to address your and others' concerns. Hope this makes things more clear.

kris de decker


@ alex

Forgot your other point: "Interestingly enough, that same study you cite suggests a battery life longer than 10 years (in paragraph 4.1) when you write that the battery needs to be replaced every 3 to 4 years..." Why use this specific study for many numbers, but not for estimated battery life ?

Most of all because 10 years is not a realistic life expectancy for a battery, and most other studies put it at 3 to 4 years (see the other references). Also note that if those scientists had used a more realistic number the carbon emissions of the cargo cycle would further increase.

Greg B


Bikes are clearly a greener alternative to ICE or even EVs. But the comparison table should include the metabolic greenhouse contribution per km, assuming the ICE comparison includes fuel. The average diet incurs a footprint of around 5 Kg of CO2 for every 1000 KCals consumed to produce and distribute the food. Assume biking demands an extra 100 kCals to go 50 km, that adds 10 gms per km to the footprint.



Here in Canada (Montreal, with hills) and getting older, I bought an ebike the other year in order to continue commuting to work. It's saddening to read that planned obsolescence is likely to require that I purchase another ebike before I retire in a few years. I'm hoping to get away with only buying a second battery.

You are comparing (in most cases) bikes to bikes, and finding that older bikes are better. I am not so sure about that. My 2000 Norco Bushpilot was a workhorse, but the mid 90's Norco road bike crashed and burned under me when I tried to cross a highway from a standstill. OK, that was components rather than frame, but a frame that lasts forever without components will still not go very far.

What we need is an extension of right to repair legislation from electronics and appliances to bikes. We also need to be able to upgrade things like batteries, and someone needs to invent a battery that is happy in cold weather like our winters. The chap that argued batteries can last for 10 years hasn't tried to use one in the winter in Montreal. I have lost range in just the year and half that I have been riding.

Sustainable bikes are going to have to come with an affordable price of admission, and many of the alternative mentioned in both your article and the comments here do not. Somehow we need both economies of scale and shorter logistics chains in order to address the lifespan of bikes in the real world.

Just my $0.02



This is an ambitious article!

I understand you'd broadly like to see a return to domestic and manual manufacturing for bicycle components and bicycles.

In particular, you first suggest that local and small manufacture of parts and bicycles would improve repairability. I don't know that this is true. I can only speak for the US, but here there certainly are small companies building bikes and components in the way you desire-- for example Paul's Components-- but they generally don't seriously offer parts for repair any more than shimano or SRAM. Furthermore, bicycle shops generally don't struggle to repair even 30 year old bikes, almost all of which use foreign made mass-manufactured components.

You also suggest that better repairability from local manufacture would extend bicycle longevity and reduce amortized costs over bicycle lifespan. I also don't know that this is true, bicycle parts suffer from heavy wear due to lots of exposed parts, and components like bearings simply need replacement once dirt abrades their races. Furthermore, while locally built frames are available today, (with just a few with vaguely internationally-competitive prices), locally built boutique components are dramatically more expensive than the offerings by shimano or SRAM. By almost anybody's calculation, the most affordable way to own and operate a bicycle per kilometer remains to purchase a Taiwanese factory-built bicycle with low-to-mid tier factory-built shimano components.

Lastly, there's also your seemingly unsubstantiated claim that local and manual manufacture would be more sustainable. I couldn't find any academic literature suggesting that this is true, there's just too much variation by industry to make such a statement. Furthermore, large manufacturers such as Trek and Shimano do publish sustainability reports, but smaller companies do not.

To summarize my observations on the above points, the typical cottage-industry locally-manufactured bicycle you evangelize does already exist, but is incredibly, unaffordably expensive and doesn't generally offer longevity benefits over conventionally built bicycles.

As an aside, I suspect bicycle sustainability has more to do with technology choice and market. The exposed nature of derailleur and chain based bicycle drivetrains means that they're consumed extremely rapidly, offering advantages only in weight and efficiency. There are some companies offering sealed gearboxes that can be used with belt drives which offer much greater longevity (some getting 30,000km of use), with some products such as the Rohloff hub suspected to have human lifespan. Bearings, tires, and braking surfaces will always need replacement but these are available technologies available right now that offer longevity advantages. These products are almost exclusively enjoyed by cyclists who ride a ton of miles, but they remain unaffordable to more casual riders because the production volumes remain low.



Seems like you are willing to take some very worst case scenarios and assumption in your references and paint them as more universal - for instance the cargo bike section where the paper is guessing about lifespan with remote and rugged use in Africa not somewhere with real roads. You really should get way way more than 3-4 years out of a battery, even with heavy use. At least assuming the battery cut off and charge/discharge rates are kept sensible I'd suggest at least 5-6 years would be more reasonable and anything putting less cycles on the battery than a really heavy user should be limited by the shelf-life more than likely, so 10-15 years is more reasonable expectation. The brushless style motors aught to last as long as the frame with minimal care if they are not being abused by the conditions - bearing replacements are likely but not the whole motor.

You also never compare the expected lifespan for a frame really, regular steel is fine and cheaper but it rusts... Aluminium, the composites and Stainless shouldn't just degrade badly, so assuming you can replace the consumable wear parts it doesn't matter if they cost more to produce upfront - you won't need another unless it is in a pretty serious accident.

Regular steel is also going to tend to a much heavier frame - there isn't even a mention on how that increases the energy required to use that bike, which matters. It will even matter alot over the bikes lifetime if the users are putting in the miles - food ain't CO2 free. There is a reason bikes have gotten lighter as it became affordable to make them so - it makes the bike easier to ride. And that is far more important than a relatively small differential in upfront CO2 costs, as people won't use them at all especially in hilly areas if they are so heavy it kills you trying to get them moving.




Thank you for bringing up the environmental cost of food when considering life cycle sustainability. Obviously, such calculations aren't well defined, with some studies ignoring food and some including it. However, from what I can see, the ECF's sustainability report[0] is often considered as the academic consensus in this field, and they do include food. Because of this, they find that e-bikes and conventional bikes have nearly identical costs/km, 22 and 21 g CO2/km, respectively. The ECF also has a useful page[1] on other facts and figures on bicycling, which you and others may find useful.

[0]: https://ecf.com/groups/cycle-more-often-2-cool-down-planet-quantifying-co2-savings-cycling

[1]: https://ecf.com/resources/cycling-facts-and-figures

@ Foldi-One
I like your holistic thinking on aluminum frames, but aluminum does have material properties which could limit the long-term longevity of bicycle frames. In particular, because bicycle frames experience cyclic loading, fatigue becomes important to consider. I'll defer to this Quora post which discusses the phenomenon[2]: "Steel will fatigue just like aluminum, to a point, then you hit the endurance limit. At that loading or less, steel is essentially free of fatigue effects no matter how many cycles are applied. Aluminum has no similar “endurance limit” and continues to fatigue even at much lower loading driven by the number of load cycles."

Ultimately, I'm just being pedantic and I share your belief that it's important that bikes are built so people enjoy riding them, rather than policing their sustainability to an absurd standard. When riding a bicycle is 10x more sustainable per km than driving a car, it's obviously much more important that bicycles are built for enjoyment than sustainability. By way of example, a policy banning Aluminum as a frame material could diminish (optimistically) 10% of bicycle ridership but (optimistically) double the lifespan of a bike frame. Holistically, the population level energy use becomes .1*10 + .9*.5 = 1.45 times the original-- so what sounds like a nice, environmentally conscious policy is actually quite disastrous.

[2]: https://www.quora.com/Why-does-aluminum-become-fatigued-by-any-load-and-will-develop-large-cracks-while-steel-isnt-fatigued-by-loads-under-a-certain-threshold



dear kris x
no car.
steel frame + shimano
i maintain a beautiful late '90s road bike.
mostly ride it to a supermarket.
hilly demanding 15
miles round trip.
in the spirit of bastiat ...
"Despite the intuitive sense that electric bikes would require more resources than regular bikes, life-cycle analysis shows that they actually consume 2-4 times less primary energy than human riders eating a conventional diet. This conclusion is largely due to the considerable amount of transportation and processing energy that is associated with our western food system."

HERE: http://www.electric-bikes.com/betterbikes/Ebike_Energy.pdf

am luddite 4 sure
don't want an e-bike.
perhaps should spend more time
love the work of u!



The best material for a bicycle is .... not the steel: THE TITANIUM. a titanium frame can last a life or even more because it doesn´t have rust problems and except in case of accident, the material will matain fresh for all his life. Secon aluminium, specially in wet areas like UK, but the fatigue of the material after 40 years or more is noticeable an d can crack. Steel ... rust. But can be repairable (Paul brodie does with 80´s and 90s frames, why not more shops do that? )

Carbon fibre ... a waste of energy. Not reciclable yet and not the best for daily use. Lot of scarfs and chips etc I don´t like it.

The bes choice for daily use and 20-30 year of minimun life: Aluminium mid range bicycle. For a entusiast: Titanium, it will last for ever. But only if you know what you whant, if you chage a lot it is useless this article, but has resale value and people still like titanium frames, specially good ones so it will be in other hands for many decades.



@ Mark

Hello Mark,
With regard to the European text, I read on an obligation for manufacturers not to block the way to other manufacturers of spare parts (article 57).
Did I miss something? Could you point out which part of the text is causing the problem?
Thank you so much,

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