Shipping and cycling: the world’s two main forms of transport

At one end of the spectrum we have the dirt poor: those few billion people for whom insurance means breeding. At the other end are the stinking rich, with ecological footprints the world cannot share in lest the whole planet go to shit in a week. If you have a computer, you belong to that second group.

I want to turn the spotlight though on a much bigger group, in terms of sheer numbers, the group in the middle, numbering three of four billion. Many are surprised to learn that, despite their dull teeth, life expectancies for the world’s middle group are almost equal to ours in the first world (because they’re not sedentary, I suppose). But what is more important  about them is this: a lot of the goods and produce rattling into your city each day in containers came thanks to their efforts. Shipping is a portal between your car-centric city, and their cities  with few sealed roads, inadequate trains and fewer privately owned automobiles than our cities had a century ago. All this means the workhorse of necessity in those countries is the humble old bike.

developing world cycling jpg

If you like, you can take this tidbit to mean the bicycle modal share of your city (which seems like every bike advocate’s obsession these days) is not 1%, but maybe 20 or 30%, if you think of your city as stopping at its economic boundaries, not its geographical ones. Or, if that just seems weird, here’s another way you can view the bike’s workhorse status in manufacturing nations: you can view cycling as the backbone of the global economy, right up there beside shipping. I don’t mean it was the backbone of production in the interwar era. I’m referring to the present. Shipping moves goods between cities, while, in the cities where those goods are produced, it is bikes that move people. Forget your nostalgia. The great age of the bike is right now. The manufactured goods all around you, and the palm oil filling your pantry, were produced by people using bikes for their transport.


I’ve just had an amazing free eBook recommended to me called Bicycling Around the World. Unlike most of us when we ride a long way, the authors stopped to take photos.  I don’t mean selfies with iPhones. I mean photos that will cause you to think about the bike’s role in the world now. I’m guessing there are more working bikes on the earth at this time than there have ever been in the past.

Putting aside my own work (designing bicycle cities that those of us in the first world might want for ourselves and offer as a model to the developing world too), I can entertain another scenario. The manufacturing nations could inspire us. Scrolling through this book, awestruck by the colour and charm of cycling in the developing-world, I can naively imagine us adjusting to their way of life.

1 Comment

  1. Anecdote: I grew up in one of those places, cycling in “their” way. When I was transplanted to Auckland and I saw what it was like for “us” to cycle, I gave up on bikes, for a while. Then I tried doing it as the Romans did for a while, only to give up again. Lately, I’ve been reverting to form, cycling here as I used to in the old country. Much better, despite the environment.

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