The Power of Bicycles

As children, without car or driver’s licence, it is the bicycle that provides with the ultimate sense of freedom and independence. As adults, the bicycle provides different type of freedom — freedom from work, freedom from stress, freedom from routine. The bicycle scratches our itch for adventure and provides us a brief escape from reality.

What if that the freedom a bicycle provides is more impactful than just the independence of child? What if the bicycle could inspire us to tackle some of the most complex problems?

Allow me to take you on a journey. It is July 2009 in a tiny village in rural Zambia. Belita, a 15 year old girl who lives in the village wakes up before dawn to feed her family’s chickens before school. Belita commutes daily to Chalala Basic School, 3 miles away over unmaintained dirt roads. Unlike many of us, Belita does not have access to car or a school bus. So she has to make this long walk on foot. Now letus think about this for a second. How good your school attendance be if you had to walk that far to get to school? I admit that mine wouldn’t be very good. It takes Belita 90 minutes to get to school and by the time she arrives, she is late and fatigued by the long commute. She doesn’t have time to complete her homework in the morning so she quickly falls behind. Belita attends school only three days a week. Her academic performance is lower.

Now let me ask you what would happen if we gave Belita a bicycle. Fast forward to 2011 in the same tiny vilage in rural Zambia. Belita wakes up before dawn, feed her family’s chickens. Belita collects her new bicycle
which she recently received from World Bicycle Relief, a charity organization that delivers purpose-built bicycles in places like Zambia. The 3 miles commute to school takes only 20 minutes on a bicycle. So Belita arrives on time, prepared, with energy to focus. She attends school five days a week and her academic performance is soaring. The bicycle has reinvigorated her energy towards life and now she on the track of her lifelong dream of becoming a nurse.

Scientific American once published a really great study to determine which animal species consumed least energy to travel a fixed distance. We’re talking about efficiency of motion. Perhaps, not surprisingly, the condor, with its ability to swing on tenfold wingspan ranked no. 1. The human strolled across the finish line an underwhelming third of the way down the list. Turns out we’re not designed for speed or efficiency. We are, however, quite adept in overcoming our deficiencies using our brain. Researchers then re-ran the 
study, providing human with a single tool — a bicycle. With the aid of a bicycle, the human is all the way to the top of the list, above the condor, the most efficient animal species on planet. Behold human creativity and the power of the bicycle. The bicycle is an incredibly powerful tool. With the aid of a bicycle, a human can carry 5 times as much weight, he can travel 4 times faster than the person on foot. That trip to the market that yielded 40 pounds of rice, yields 200 pounds with a bicycle. A hour and half commute is now 20 minutes. The statistics are staggering; staggering enough to be life changing for Belita and others who do have access to modern forms of transformation.

Studies have proven that in places like Zambia, a bicycle can improve academic performance by 60%. Bicycle has power to free people from poverty. Now that is what I call freedom. But not only is bicycle a very powerful tool, it is also a very simple tool — two wheels, pedals, handle bar and seat, connected by simple metal frame. Bicycle is old technology. It was invented in Germany in 1817 and much of the original construction is made unchanged since the last 200 years. I don’t mean to suggest that a bicycle is without its challenges. We need to fix flat tyres and repair used bicycles. But if we can overcome these small hurdles, we have such an incredible tool. The bicycle is powerful and yet it is simple. Bicycle has the ability to meaningfully improve huge global problems like illiteracy, poverty and hunger. Basic transportation is bicycle’s core competency. Basic transportation is only one of the thousands big hairy problems that we face today.

Can we take what we learn from bicycle and apply it to other issues as well? I think so. The bicycle though can become a source of inspiration. Incremental solutions to Zambia’s some of the worse problems don’t require rocket scientists or billion dollars. The bicycle is an example of how a simple tool can have a profound impact on the world. We all are up to the task. Sometimes we don’t need billion dollar R&D budget to tackle big problems. All we need is creativity and a bit of perspective. World Bicycle Relief is changing the world through the power of the bicycle. What other everyday tools are we overlooking? Simple, sustainable solutions exist for many of the world’s complex problems. In some cases, a meaningful solution may be parked in your garage with a flat tyre and a thin coat of dust. All you have to do is to re-imagine its potential.