Sunday, October 28, 2007

Ivan Illich on Bicycles

Ivan Illich was a man who thought a lot about people and the way we live in the world. On a recent train trip to Portland, I read Ran Prieur's interesting little zine Civilization Will Eat Itself. Ran's zine had a link to his website and one of the things I found there was an excerpt from Illich's Toward a History of Needs. Ran chose to call this excerpt Ivan Illich on Cars but I found the more interesting nuggets were actually about bicycles.

Illich writes:


A century ago, the ball-bearing was invented. It reduced the coefficient of friction by a factor of a thousand. By applying a well-calibrated ball-bearing between two Neolithic millstones, a man could now grind in a day what took his ancestors a week. The ball-bearing also made possible the bicycle, allowing the wheel -- probably the last of the great Neolithic inventions -- finally to become useful for self-powered mobility.

Man, unaided by any tool, gets around quite efficiently. He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometer in ten minutes by expending 0.75 calories. Man on his feet is thermodynamically more efficient than any motorized vehicle and most animals. For his weight, he performs more work in locomotion than rats or oxen, less than horses or sturgeon. At this rate of efficiency man settled the world and made its history. At this rate peasant societies spend less than 5 per cent and nomads less than 8 per cent of their respective social time budgets outside the home or the encampment.

Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometer of flat road at an expense of only 0.15 calories. The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man's metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion. Equipped with this tool, man outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines but all other animals as well.

The ball-bearing signaled a true crisis, a true political choice. It created an option between more freedom in equity and more speed. The bearing is an equally fundamental ingredient of two new types of locomotion, respectively symbolized by the bicycle and the car. The bicycle lifted man's auto-mobility into a new order, beyond which progress is theoretically not possible. In contrast, the accelerating individual capsule enabled societies to engage in a ritual of progressively paralyzing speed.

Bicycles are not only thermodynamically efficient, they are also cheap. With his much lower salary, the Chinese acquires his durable bicycle in a fraction of the working hours an American devotes to the purchase of his obsolescent car. The cost of public utilities needed to facilitate bicycle traffic versus the price of an infrastructure tailored to high speeds is proportionately even less than the price differential of the vehicles used in the two systems. In the bicycle system, engineered roads are necessary only at certain points of dense traffic, and people who live far from the surfaced path are not thereby automatically isolated as they would be if they depended on cars or trains. The bicycle has extended man's radius without shunting him onto roads he cannot walk. Where he cannot ride his bike, he can usually push it.

The bicycle also uses little space. Eighteen bikes can be parked in the place of one car, thirty of them can move along in the space devoured by a single automobile. It takes three lanes of a given size to move 40,000 people across a bridge in one hour by using automated trains, four to move them on buses, twelve to move them in their cars, and only two lanes for them to pedal across on bicycles. Of all these vehicles, only the bicycle really allows people to go from door to door without walking. The cyclist can reach new destinations of his choice without his tool creating new locations from which he is barred.

Bicycles let people move with greater speed without taking up significant amounts of scarce space, energy, or time. They can spend fewer hours on each mile and still travel more miles in a year. They can get the benefit of technological breakthroughs without putting undue claims on the schedules, energy, or space of others. They become masters of their own movements without blocking those of their fellows. Their new tool creates only those demands which it can also satisfy. Every increase in motorized speed creates new demands on space and time. The use of the bicycle is self-limiting. It allows people to create a new relationship between their life-space and their life-time, between their territory and the pulse of their being, without destroying their inherited balance. The advantages of modern self-powered traffic are obvious, and ignored. That better traffic runs faster is asserted, but never proved. Before they ask people to pay for it, those who propose acceleration should try to display the evidence for their claim.


Illich really goes to the heart of what I respond to about a bicycle. It seems to me that a bicycle is perhaps mankind's most delightful gadget. I am swifter with a bicycle than I am alone. With a bicycle I can go more places, see more people and carry more things. Traveling by bicycle makes me stronger but still keeps me in touch with my limits, the shape of the land and the weather of the moment. On a bicycle I am still an active particpant in my journey rather than a passive passenger.


Anonymous said...

"Traveling by bicycle makes me stronger but still keeps me in touch with my limits, the shape of the land and the weather of the moment."

This quote right here is worth every bit as much as what Illich said. I suspect that one of the reasons it's so hard to get more adults on bikes is that we don't want to feel our limits, to feel limited or slow. Limits are there to feel, to push against from tiem to time, and sometimes to stretch outward just a little bit more. Without feeling our limits we can't begin to dream of what we MIGHT achieve beyond them.

Well put. Thanks so much. --BH

Tai-po said...

Love the post...expresses the joy and common sense of riding a bicycle.

That and I like that he included Chinese people and our durable bikes.


rob hawks said...

A few years ago, I was at the Green Festival here in SF with my son. He liked to go there because he liked the food. Go figure. While checking out all the booths, we came across the Earth First booth, tucked away on the side of the hall in a low traffic area. They had piles of bike stickers (distinguished from bumper stickers) and among them I found one that my son loved. It read: My bicycle has taken me places school never could. Funny and not so funny that that statement could resonate with a then nine year old boy.

brad said...

What I got from Illich was that as a vehicle goes faster, it takes up much more real estate so as to keep it from bumping into other things. He stated that the ideal speed for any vehicle is around 12-15 mph. Slanted towards bicycles udoubtedly, but thoughtful to all road users nonetheless. Thanks for the post

Anonymous said...

Fun to read, but a little short on accuracy.

"Man on his feet is thermodynamically more efficient than any motorized vehicle..."

More efficient than a gasoline-powered car, sure, but not more efficient than a light, well-designed battery-powered vehicle.

David Levinger (Santa Rosa, CA) said...

An even more thorough discussion of bicycles in the transportation system can be found in Illich's essay titled "Energy & Equity." The full text is even available online at

Having read the series of Illich's writings 15 years ago in grad school, I was searching for his writing on the bicycle... imagine my delight that the top hit to my query was from my friend's blog. Hi Kent! :)

poru said...

Hi Kent
I want to find the book that you quote.
What's the name of the book please?

Kent Peterson said...


The quoted lines come from an essay that is included in Illich's book "Energy and Equity."

poru said...

thanks Kent
I'm gonna find it!!

Winslow said...

Thought I might bring to your attention a recently published essay by Illich that is a follow-on to the well-known and widely-cited (and still very useful) "Energy & Equity" essay you've cited here. In 1983, Illich held a seminar in Mexico City on the subject of the social construction of energy. His address to that gathering was only published in 2009. In it, he states that in certain ways, he was wrong in 1974's "Energy & Equity," namely in comparing walking and cycling to driving in cars both in terms of energy efficiency. The former create a commons, the latter consume and destroy that commons, creating scarcity in their wake. Pedestrians and cyclists, he realizes, even move through entirely different kinds of space than cars do. And so forth. You can read about it here: