Tuesday 21 October 2014

Detroit, change and the shift to bikes

One of the main purposes of writing blogs, it often seems to me, is to prove yourself right. Preferably so many times that you even come to believe it yourself.

I try not to do too much of this, in case it becomes embarrassing, but I noticed today some evidence of one of my repeated theses: in this case, that – despite all the rhetoric about technology – change is actually slowing down and has been for some time.

After all, I have been driving in Minis and flying in Jumbo Jets my entire life (I’m 56), and – although I know their internal machinery is very different – that is only what you would expect.

The first submarine entered service in the Royal Navy back in 1901, and half the period since has seen the rapid development of submarine technology, culminating in 1960 with the launch of the nuclear powered Dreadnought.  The second half has just been rapidly slowing variations on that theme.

See my book Unheard, Unseen for details (at least about early submariners).

In the past generation, we have seen the return of real shops, real food, bricks, trams, and the delivery of food to the door rather as our grandparents experienced it.  I know we also have mobile phones and Facebook, and I suppose that does change the way people live, but not in comparison to the vast changes going on a century ago.

So what are we to make of the reinvention of the failing city of Detroit as a centre of bicycle manufacturing?  Like Oxford, Detroit began as a bike manufacturing centre, and became as a result a twentieth-century car manufacturer.  Detroit seems to be edging back, according to an article in the latest edition of Fortune.

Seven bike manufacturers have set up there in the last few years.  Detroit Bikes even invested 2.5m for a 50,000 sq ft factory.

What is interesting about the article in Fortune is their misunderstanding of the way Europeans think.  They assume that it is the collapsing population of Detroit, which means less traffic, which is encouraging people to move around by bike instead.  In Europe, I think we see it the other way round: it is the complete impossibility of navigating across London by car that is leading so many people to take up cycling.

It isn’t exactly plus ca change, but it is an example of technological history coming full circle.  And this time, history seems to be saying: do it right.

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