The Decline of the Car: Rise of the E-bike

in the post-covid Anthropocene, it’s more than just technology that needs to change, it’s the culture

The Decline of the Car: Rise of the E-bike
Photo by Huy Tu on Unsplash

The automobile revolutionized the world. It added to the general trend of democratization; once mass-produced vehicles became the norm it became suddenly possible for a much wider swath of the disenfranchised public to travel freely, and freedom to travel is one of the staples of a open democracy. In the 21st century, a similar revolution needs to take place, one which permits people to “climb aboard” a mode of transportation better suited to the needs of modern citizens and the needs of a world wracked by climate change: the electric, pedal-assist, bicycle.

But, in order to explore this topic, we first need to explore the history of the car. Our exploration takes us back in time to 1914, a time eerily similar to our own.

In 1914 Henry Ford did something incredible for the time: he offered “$5 a day” to his workers. He did this primarily to establish a standardization of his workforce similar to his earlier standardization of the assembly line. Due to the grueling schedule and workload required, alongside the numbing repetitive nature of the work itself, Ford had a problem with “chronic absenteeism.” He wanted to dominate the automobile market but he found that his workers at the Highland Park Ford Plant were simply not willing to put up with the conditions he needed to maintain. So, he offered his famous pay raise, cut an hour off the 9-hour shift, and added a third shift to ensure constant production. Of course, the “doubling” of pay came with caveats. Workers would continue to receive their original pay rate (around $2.30) and through a profit-sharing plan would later receive a bonus. But only if Ford’s “Sociological Department” signed off on their “Americanization” — they needed to show that their homelife was appropriately American, that they could speak English, and that their wives stayed at home (by 1922 this practice had mostly came to an end since people generally disliked having Ford’s operatives poking into their homes).

There’s a bit of a simplification passed around (and mythologized by comments from President Obama) that Ford’s move was intended to allow his workers to afford the vehicles they worked on. In reality, his goal was primarily to increase production speed to the point where he could begin lowering the price of his cars (thereby capitalizing the market). However, as Harley Shaiken, an economist at the University of Berkeley, California, points out: Regardless of the reasoning behind the move, one of the side effects was a major enhancement of the middle classes buying power.

What we need to understand is that Ford’s move created a positive feedback loop within the middle class — they were able to purchase more effectively, and through that purchasing power they were able to expand their lifestyle, purchase more, and command more power over their position within the labor market. The goal of companies during this time became a model of positive competitiveness — each company trying to outdo the others in terms of benefits offered to workers. Over time, this methodology sadly diminished, and then reversed, becoming instead a model of negative competitiveness: the cheapest worker being what every company searches for.

Photo by Wade Lambert on Unsplash

Electric bicycles need their Ford moment

There are a number of promising electric bicycle technologies on the market today. There are also two different markets to consider: the European market and the American. In the United States, the emphasis is more on cheap and speedy “recreation” e-bikes, while in Europe the e-bike is seen primarily as a commuter vehicle (and legislation ensures that the market maintains this focus).

The United States is the perfect place for a revolutionary moment in electrical bike production and use, a shift away from the recreation-focused business model which currently dominates the market, toward a model emphasizing the “car replacement” value of electric bicycles.

The problem is that those few companies working on more advanced e-bike systems remain utterly focused on the upper-class market. Advanced electronic e-bike systems almost always remain prohibitively expensive to purchase and notoriously limited in terms of lifespan and durability. In order for the average person to take the leap from automobile to e-bike, both the cost and the quality of the e-bike systems need to be improved. But this would require a reorientation on the part of the business model of the leaders in the industry.

The goal cannot be to continue to cater to recreational bikers or wealthy technology-enthusiasts. If the market is going to change, then the model of how e-bikes are produced and sold needs to change as well: the average worker needs to be able to purchase a workhorse e-bike which stands up as a reliable vehicle; they need to learn to trust that their investment will be worthwhile. This means that the producers of e-bike systems might need to take the initial risk and shoulder an expanded financial burden.

The ideal electric bicycle is one which maintains affordability (if the people who produce it can’t purchase it, it will never expand its market reach), durability and ease-of-repair, and true commuter-centric features.

In forthcoming articles, I plan to explore what “commuter-centric” features actually are, inspect the big-name products currently on the market, and further investigate the environmental and social benefits of a shift to electric bicycles as the normal mode of transportation in the 21st century. I will also be exploring some practical arguments for how e-bike producers (especially those based in the United States) can go about striking forth into this bountiful territory.

Interested in my other articles about e-bikes?

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash
Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month!

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