Why do so many bikes end up underwater? The reasons can be bizarre and varied: NPR


Will his bike end up in this canal?

AURORE BELOT/AFP via Getty Images


hide caption

toggle caption

AURORE BELOT/AFP via Getty Images

Why do so many bikes end up underwater? The reasons can be bizarre and varied: NPR

Will his bike end up in this canal?

AURORE BELOT/AFP via Getty Images

When you peek into a waterway, you’re probably expecting aquatic life and the occasional trash. But the reality in many urban metropolises is that beneath the surface of any waterway could be an incredible number of…bikes.

It’s a strange social phenomenon that has forced bike-sharing companies to fish thousands of their rental bikes from the rivers of southern China; and a rental company simply went out of business in Rome because too many of its bikes were dumped in the Tiber.

In Amsterdam, 15,000 bikes are removed from the canals each year – a number that has actually improved over the past few years.

Why did so many of these wheeled vessels encounter a watery grave? And what happens to a bicycle once it has changed terrain?

Jody Rosen is a contributing writer for the New York Times magazine and the author of Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle. He joined All things Considered shed light on this maritime mystery.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On the extent of this trend in the world

This is a phenomenon that first caught my attention because I started seeing information from various places. You know, a Citi bike here in New York where I live arrived at a docking station, a little bloated with oysters and barnacles. I started googling online and noticed that it was a very common phenomenon on at least three continents. So it’s certainly a widespread problem, but the extent of the problem, I think, is kind of by definition unknown because after all, it’s hidden. I mean, there are bikes that are literally covered by the waterways of the world. So it’s not something for which we can have definitive or reliable statistics, by definition.

Why do so many bikes end up underwater? The reasons can be bizarre and varied: NPR

Citi Bike is the most popular bike share in New York.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images


hide caption

toggle caption

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Why do so many bikes end up underwater? The reasons can be bizarre and varied: NPR

Citi Bike is the most popular bike share in New York.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

On the existing documentation of this line

When you see the bike go in and slide under the surface of the water, there’s just a certain satisfaction, a certain free zone in there. And I say that not because I did it myself, notice. This is a practice documented online, for example on YouTube quite extensively. So there are a lot of videos you can see where people are throwing bikes in water and taking videos of it for fun and sport.

So that’s definitely a factor. But there are all sorts of other types of vandalism surrounding this, which I think is interesting. If we go back to the city of Amsterdam, where there are so many bikes, it really is one of the main cycling cities in the world. And there are so many channels. It’s sort of an ideal environment for soaking or drowning bikes. And that’s been such a big problem historically that there’s this municipal core of what they call “bike fishers” there that the city employs to dredge bikes out of the canal.

On the role of self-service bicycle services in increasing this

I think that is what is causing the current widespread phenomenon. The fact that these bike programs are proliferating around the world, which I think we can say is a good thing – we need more bikes in the city – but there are simply more of them. And in fact, you can imagine people feeling a bit more unpunished, that a would-be bike drowner would feel less guilty throwing a bike in the water if it’s a shared bike that has a bank or some sort of corporate sponsor logo on the fender as opposed to, you know, Joe-Schmoe’s bike.

There may be what you might call a political dimension to this. We are seeing a sort of increasingly heated debate about what types of vehicles belong on city streets. Motorists react to the increase in the number of bicycles on the streets, sometimes with great annoyance and sometimes with outright violence. It may therefore be that at least these drowned bicycles, these ransacked and vandalized bicycles reflect a kind of permanent battle for the right to the roadway.

In China, we’ve also had cases of people explicitly stating that the reason they threw bikes in the water was because the bikes compromised their privacy. These bike share programs do keep track of the riders who rent them using apps on their mobile phones. And so it’s kind of an irony because at some point in the 19th century the bicycle was really seen as an emancipatory machine, a vehicle of liberation, that gave people a new kind of personal mobility, a new kind of freedom they’d never experienced before. Well, now there are bikes spying on their riders. So there can be complicated motivations and politics going into this.

Why do so many bikes end up underwater? The reasons can be bizarre and varied: NPR

People in Shanghai use the Ofo (L) and Mobike self-service bicycles.

JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images


hide caption

toggle caption

JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images

Why do so many bikes end up underwater? The reasons can be bizarre and varied: NPR

People in Shanghai use the Ofo (L) and Mobike self-service bicycles.

JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images

On what happens to the bikes when they are collected

This is another mystery. And we know that in some places, for example in Amsterdam, they are recycled. There is a program there to recycle them. And one of the things that I find amusing in the example of Amsterdam is that the civil servants there attribute this phenomenon partly to drunkenness. You know, people who maybe had a little too much to drink, maybe they’re walking home after a long night at the bar, they might see a bike and say, “What the fuck are you doing ?” they feel a little happy and they throw it in.

Well, it turns out that many of those bikes are recycled into various types of food packaging, including the metal used in beer cans. So it could be that there’s some kind of ecosystem at work where someone, a drunken person, throws a bike in the water, that bike eventually gets pulled out by the bike fishing boat, it’s recycled into can of beer, and another drunk person comes along, drinks too much of that beer, throws another bike in the water, and we go around.

This story was adapted for the web by Manuela Lopez Restrepo


npr

Not all news on the site expresses the point of view of the site, but we transmit this news automatically and translate it through programmatic technology on the site and not from a human editor.
Back to top button