Memo to Bicycle Industry: Bikes ARE Climate Action

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Students striking in Belgium

The future belongs to bikes, and the future is coming up very fast.

The Surly Big Easy bike was launched this week at Frostbike, an annual event for dealers and suppliers of QPB, the company that owns Surly. These are challenging times for bike dealers; many people are buying online where they can often get cheaper prices since they can go around the dealers.

Rich Tauer at Frostbike

Rich Tauer at Frostbike/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0At the Dealer Awards Dinner, QBP President Rich Tauer tried to rally the troops with suggestions for improving their business: selling used bikes (good idea) and setting up bike pickups for internet buyers. I looked around at a room full of young, passionate advocates of bikes and cycling and thought that Mr. Tauer was missing a much bigger opportunity, a much larger group of passionate activists who naturally think of bicycles the way I do: as tools in the battle against climate change, as the lowest carbon form of transportation on the face of the earth. Or, as activist Andrea Learned puts it: Bikes ARE climate action.

We covered Andrea Learned before, after she wrote an important post in Greenbiz. I noted at the time:

Andrea Learned is really on to something here. Bikes are not just transportation. If a fraction of the attention and money was devoted to them instead of electric and autonomous cars, they could make a real dent in the carbon footprint of transportation.
Greenbiz cover

Greenbiz/Screen capture

But I skipped over the title of her post, Global climate action, meet the bike industry — now, collaborate and missed who she was really writing it for, which is the bike industry. She quotes John Burke, the CEO of Trek, who wrote in 2016:

I think the next 20 years are going to be the time for the bicycle. The bicycle sits at the intersection of environmental issues, health issues, congestion issues — three major problems in the world. And the bicycle is a simple solution. And you're seeing more and more cities make investment in the bicycle infrastructure.

Except we really don’t have 20 years for that transformation. Things are moving much faster than that. And since John Burke wrote that article, much has changed. For one thing, a movement is sweeping around the world as students are striking for climate action. These are students who understand that cars are a big part of the problem; many of my own kids’ generation refuse to drive because of climate change, and these 16 year olds will not be racing to the DMV for licences. This market is huge.

©. Students striking in Australia/ Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

© Students striking in Australia/ Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

They are known as Generation Z, but they may well become Generation Bike. They don’t actually trust the internet very much; according to Business Insider, only 9 percent of them use Facebook. "Generally, members of Generation Z are tech-savvy, pragmatic, open-minded, individualistic — but also socially responsible,” said one analyst. And right now, they are the most visible and vocal climate activists. They get this.

Bike conference

Lloyd Alter at Frostbike/CC BY 2.0

There was not a bike person at this conference who I talked to who didn’t get climate change up close and personal; they are out there riding in it. One bike shop owner from Colorado told me a tale of a guy who drove up in a pickup the size of his parking lot, bought a bike, and kept coming back for new wheels for different conditions, finally noting, “Wow, maybe this climate change thing isn’t just political.” Fine, you can try and change them one by one. That won’t make much of a difference.

What matters are the tens of millions of young people who, when they are not thinking about the issue or striking for climate change, are forming their thoughts about how and where they want to live. They are the market for bikes. They are going to want to go to cool bike shops where they can talk to real people and take delivery of a properly assembled bike, not a box dropped on their parents’ front porch. They are the ones who will bike to the climate rallies where they lie in the road in front of cars.

We have seen this movie before.

When I was 16, my parents moved and I had to go to a new high school, full of rich kids who drove and even had a student parking lot. On the first day I rode my CCM bike up and the only friend I had there told me that bikes were not cool, and if I wanted to, I could discreetly park at his house nearby and walk from there.

earth day 1970

© Earth day, 1970/ Hulton Archive/Getty Images

By the time I graduated three years later, Earth Day had dropped, environmentalism was cool, and nobody was driving to school. Now, there were bike racks everywhere; the world had changed. In a lot of ways, it feels like 1970 again; we are on the verge of another youth revolution, where they are leading the fight against climate change and carbon emissions. And the vehicle of choice in this revolution will be the bike. The last time, the established manufacturers like Schwinn and CCM blew it by missing the changes in the market; let's hope that they are smarter this time and get out in front of this movement.

Lloyd Alter was a guest of Surly Bikes at Frostbike in Minneapolis. He hopes that they will still speak to him.