Two hundred years ago this month, an environmental and fuel crisis inspired one of our greatest inventions—a device so simple, efficient and useful that it’s turning out to be part of the solution to today’s environmental and fuel crises.
As a Treehugger article explains, the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora in April 1815 spewed so much ash and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere that it blackened skies, and 1816 became known as the year without summer in much of Europe and North America. The largest volcanic eruption in recorded history led to widespread crop failure and famine. Livestock died because there was little to feed them, and they became food themselves. The costs of fuel for horses, mostly oats, soared.
German forester Baron Karl von Drais needed a way to inspect tree stands without relying on horses. In June 1817, he built a simple wooden two-wheeler, without pedals, that he called the Laufsmaschine, or “running machine”—although it came to be known as a draisine. His invention led to the first conflicts between cyclists and users of other transportation modes, including pedestrians. Carriage ruts in unpaved roads made manoeuvring on two wheels difficult, and cyclists started riding the brakeless bikes on sidewalks, which led to widespread complaints and bans in some countries, including Germany. Many people were simply opposed to the newfangled devices and their riders.
These conflicts diminished
Bikes and their riders still face backlashes—in part because so much urban infrastructure has been dedicated to
The benefits of increased cycling go beyond reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Riding a bike is good for your physical and mental health. Bicycles can move more people with less space and are far more efficient than cars. Most of the fuel used to power a car is either lost or used to propel the massive vehicle, whereas fuelling a bike’s engine—that’s you—requires only a healthy diet. In cities where traffic is heavy, cycling is often faster than driving. It’s even more energy-efficient than walking! You can also save a lot of money on fuel, parking, maintenance, insurance and purchase.
Costs to society—and taxpayers—are also lower. Bikes are easier than cars on infrastructure such as roads, help reduce health care costs and can alleviate poverty as people spend less on vehicle-related costs. Streets become more human-centred, and businesses along bike lanes can benefit.
Cycling isn’t possible for all people at all times, especially during harsh winters. But as more people get out of their cars, those who need
Those who fear
Two centuries after their invention, bicycles are still the most efficient and beneficial form of transportation we have. Get out and ride if you can! It’s good for you and the planet.