Last year, my son and I picked up a 40-year-old motorcycle for $200. We hauled it home in our minivan and made a winter project of it, rebuilding the carburetors, going through the brakes, tracing electrical system gremlins, mounting new tires, replacing bearings, repainting the 80s purple accents, the works. I took a 2-day MSF course and got my license in the spring, all with the goal of gaining a new perspective on transportation.
In many places around the world, 2-wheeled vehicles are the primary way of getting around, rather than being a secondary form or “hobby ride” as they are usually thought of in the U.S. Whether it’s bicycles in Amsterdam or ancient Honda motorbikes in Vietnam, super-economical 2-wheelers are the way to get around, often hauling startlingly large loads in the process. (Do a search for “bikes of burden” and you’ll see what I mean.) In my time in the Dominican Republic, I’ve seen a family of 5 ride to church on a 2-stroke dirt bike, little girls in frilly dresses and all. Or a man riding down the highway with a half-dozen 10-foot lengths of 6” PVC pipe along for the ride.
On a motorcycle, you’re exposed. You are part of the environment. As author Robert M. Pirsig noted, “In a car you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.” Motorcyclists call cars “cages.” On a bike, you are not hauling that massive cage of comfort and safety around, with all its benefits of security and heated seats and tendency to isolate the occupants from their environment. As one result, you use much less fuel, among other resources. (My antique 700cc bike got 65mpg on my last tank, while offering a delightful time on my 25-mile commute.)
Obviously, motorcycles aren’t for everyone, and there are excellent reasons to opt out of riding. But my point is that in less affluent societies, transportation is not about owning the latest luxury hybrid. The value of economy is much greater than comfort or style.
I subscribe to Low Tech Magazine, an online publication (although you can buy print-on-demand versions of back issues) that features unique conversations and brilliant solutions to problems of technology. This publication (and its even more pre-industrial sister, No Tech Magazine) offers excellent food for thought to weigh in our careening world. Their recent email newsletter was no exception, describing an inventor in the Netherlands who designed a method for gathering methane from drainage ditches that he uses to power his moped. But the article that most caught my attention was a look at the chukudu – a two-wheeled cargo scooter used in the Democratic Republic of Congo, made entirely of wood.
A chukudu can be built in a few hours (for simpler versions from dimensional lumber), and stout versions (often made of eucalyptus) can move well over 1000 lbs of cargo. In some cities, these are called the “backbone of the local transportation system.” Individuals can earn a comparatively solid living transporting goods around town. In that war-torn nation, it’s been said that “if you have a chukudu, you can’t starve.” It is a fascinating and brilliant transportation solution, made from wood.