As is often the case, large-scale historical changes often come from seemingly unrelated and surprising places.
In the late 1800s, the technological advancements of a new invention were set to help revolutionize societal norms and usher in a new era in our democracy.
What we think of today as the humble bicycle was at the time a relatively new technology undergoing rapid innovation and fast becoming an obsession in America. It brought mobility to the masses, providing a cheap, fun, and fast mode of urban transport.
Most interestingly, bikes had a very unexpected effect on our democracy: they helped facilitate women’s mobility, giving more freedom, more opportunities for interaction, and even empowering women to organize:
In 1890s Europe and America, bicycles were seen by many as an instrument of feminism: they gave women a measure of increased mobility, began to redefine Victorian ideas about femininity, and were eagerly taken up by many women active in the suffrage movement. Bikes helped stoke dress reform movements, which aimed to reduce Victorian restrictions on clothes and undergarments so women could wear clothes that allowed them to engage in physical activities. (Source: Vox)
Today it’s hard to imagine the bike having such an important historical role yet it was so important that it led Susan B. Anthony to make the following claim:
Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. (Source: Brain Pickings)
THE COMING MOBILITY REVOLUTION
As we have our foot firmly in the 21st century, we now seem to be on the cusp of a similar revolution in transportation. Consider the following developments:
- Cities are becoming the centers of our civilization. Year after year, the planet is growing ever more urbanized.
- However, over the last century, we have built cities around cars
- This has had major unintended consequences like pollution, gridlock, car crashes, rise in immobility related diseases, energy crisis, oil wars, global warming, etc.
But cars have also had massive negative social impacts as well:
- Devastating communities with freeways and large, traffic-filled streets.
- Creating miles of economic blight were foot traffic, once the lifeblood of local economies, has been replaced with auto traffic, zipping past empty storefronts.
- Discouraging the mixing and mingling of people, a vital part of any healthy, functioning democracy.
- Eliminating fast, quality personal mobility for the elderly, children, the poor, and the disabled.
Due in part to these large-scale unintended consequences of cars, the bicycle has made a comeback in recent years. We have started appreciating the bike’s massive benefits to our cities, our citizens, and the whole planet and have started investing more money in bike infrastructure.
But there is a deeper, more powerful disruptive force that might catapult the humble bicycle to challenge the almighty car: massively disruptive technological gains.
With the falling costs and increasing power of both batteries and computing power, with easier access to capital via crowdfunding platforms, with design and engineering tools such as CAD (computer aided design) and 3D printing allowing for rapid prototyping, and an ever increasing engineering talent, the bicycle has morphed from it’s traditional form factor creating a brand new category of mobility: electric bikes, electric scooters, electric bike/car hybrids, electric boards, electric unicycles, and a whole ecosystem of lightweight electric vehicles (LEVs).
These new forms of mobility shed the size, weight, pollution, carbon footprint, and dangers of cars while keeping their speed, convenience, and versatility. Electric motors propel users with little to no effort making sweat, long distances, and hill climbing non-issues. Compact and foldable form factors allow for easy storage and mass transit access. Baskets and trunks allow for cargo. And protective shells allow for weather protection.
LEVs are much more affordable than cars, don’t require any insurance or gasoline, encourage physical movement keeping riders healthy, offer urban mobility to almost anyone, don’t require expensive swaths of city space to store, and have seven times the lane capacity as clunky cars.
And they are set to revolutionize urban mobility:
[LEVs] could eventually be what PCs were to minicomputers or what desktop copiers were to giant Xerox machines. (Source: Harvard Business Review)
Yet solving pollution, gridlock, car crashes, energy crisis, oil wars, global warming may just be these new vehicles’ first act.
DEMOCRACY IN CRISIS
The past few decades have seen a decline in democratic vibrancy and health in the United States. Polarization has been on the rise (Source: Pew Research). Public opinion has almost zero influence over public policy, a huge red flag for a democracy (Source: Global Research). And Trump.
The thing about democracy is, it ain’t easy. It takes work.
Benjamin Franklin’s famous reply when asked about the Constitution is particularly prescient today: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
But instead of working towards a more perfect union together, we’ve slowly allowed little bubbles to form around us, separating us from each other and our common purpose of a better future. Our homes, our cars, our cubicles have left us detached from each other. We don’t get out and have conversations with people with backgrounds and different viewpoints and thus fail to appreciate where people are coming from. And now, what was supposed to be a democratizing and broadening technology, the social network seems to have done the opposite: created digital bubbles that amplify the extreme versions of our own beliefs, causing idealogical battles instead of cooperative discussion, contemplation, experimentation, and action.
I WANT TO RIDE MY LEV
Just as the bicycle gave women the freedom of mobility which then translated into much greater social involvement, organization, political activism, and the expansion of our democracy with women’s suffrage, lightweight electric vehicles like e-bikes, e-boards, e-scooters have the disruptive potential for another surprising yet powerful impact on our democracies.
Instead of being trapped in front of screens and inside cars, the adoption of these wheels will mean more people on the streets without bubbles. It will mean increased exposure to different opinions. It will mean increased exposure to the various hardships many communities. And as it did with the suffrage movement, this increased freedom of mobility might mean a renaissance of public organization, participation, and conversation.
This isn’t mere speculation or naive nostalgic wishful thinking. Today, wherever increased bike infrastructure and adoption have occurred in modern, metropolitan cities, we have seen an increase in economic vibrancy of local communities. This means that people are really getting out more and having more and more physical interactions.
When will this translate into political action? It’s hard to say.
But e-bikes and other lightweight electric vehicles just might be the technology that actually brings people closer together, closer to their cities, their local communities.
And that’s exactly what a healthy, vibrant democracy needs to function. It begins with face to face conversations. It begins with a larger perspective than ones own bubble. It begins with strong social bonds.
And a little fun couldn’t hurt either!