Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

01.28.13

Where are the Bicycles in Post-Apocalyptic Fiction?

After the apocalypse, don't look for a backpack; look for a Schwinn

Randall Parker hits on one of the things that always irritates me about post-disaster movies and books:

I'm reading some after-the-electromagnetic pulse disaster novels where the electric grid has collapsed. Lots of people walking home or fleeing home on foot. In the vast majority of these novels there is no mention of any means of human transportation between a car and walking. So some guy has to walk home hundreds or thousands of miles across a post-apocalyptic landscape to get back to his family. Every person he comes across either is on foot or has some Mad Max truck fuel. What's with that?

Is this bias by the authors due to a total lack of bicycles, skate boards, roller skates, and push scooters in their rural or suburban neighborhoods? Am I so out of touch with life in some American states that I'm mistaken in thinking that large areas have no bikes? I do not think so. In the United States annual bicycle sales at 20" wheel size and above run at 11 to 14 million per year. If we suddenly couldn't get any gasoline easily tens of millions could bicycle and maybe well over a third the population. Throw in skate boards, roller skates, and other smaller stuff and 3 mph travel seems avoidable.

What's even weirder: post-plague novels have this problem. So, fine, most people do not own a bicycle. But if 99+% of the population has just died surely there is a bicycle for each and every person still alive. Hiking is really optional in such a scenario. The average travel speed should be above 10 mph if almost everyone dies.


Why is it that in this sort of fiction people are either hoofing it, or riding horses?  They never get on a bicycle, or use a wheelbarrow; it's animal power, a home-distilled-ethanol truck, or nothing.  Yet on modern roads, a bicycle is at least as fast as a horse, maybe faster (forget what you've seen in Westerns; horses don't like running flat out for a full day any more than you would.)  Of course, horses have advantages--they're doing the work instead of you--but also disadvantages.  Bicycles don't break their legs, they don't need to be fed, and on a modern road, their gait is a lot smoother.  The bicycle was a radical transportation breakthrough, especially when combined with the paved road, which is why millions and millions of people in poor countries still use them. 

So why doesn't it occur to any of these people to get on a scooter, or a bicycle, or to put their stuff in one of those little folding granny shopping cars rather than in a suitcase?  One assumes that most of the authors are more familiar with these things than with horses, or the procedures for building an engine that runs on ethanol.  Or perhaps rather than consulting their local resources, they could look at how people travel in poor countries where electricity and infrastructure are scant.  Hint: bicycles are more common than horse-drawn carriages.

Even more irritating is the absence of something that Parker didn't mention: gains from trade.  People have to scavenge or make everything, either by themselves or as part of a cooperative community.  Where are the traveling peddlers, the trade caravans?  Why isn't anyone buying protection with goods--or at least, exploiting the manufacturers efficiently, rather than killing or imprisoning them to get their stuff? And how about social dynamics? Why do none of the groups, good guy or bad, have any internal politics beyond the crude desire of the number two guy to become the number one?   

Of course, a more realistic world would sacrifice some of the sweeping epic.  It is in some way profoundly depressing to think that even if a plague destroys 95% of the population, we will still having petty fights with our sister because Mom loved her better, wondering whether we can really afford to buy a softer bed or if we hadn't better be putting that money into better zombie defense, and desperately pitching customers to unload those stupid novelty swords we bought a gross of.  Still worse to imagine that we'd be doing all this while rolling around town on a Schwinn, rather than astride our majestic steed.  

So it is necessary for post-apocalyptic authors to forget much of what they know about the world.  And apparently, the audience manages to follow suit.