Is Vehicular Cycling Antifragile?

There are certain things in life I know I should do but for one reason or another I put off.  Reading Taleb is one of these things.  He never fails to leave me mentally exhausted, but always in a good way…like that feeling you get after a long ride.


I picked up his latest book Antifragile (2012) after reading a post by Charles Marohn over at Strong Towns.  The book promises to share with us things that gain from disorder and holy moly does it deliver.

One thing I learned from this book is that the transportation grid is fragile.  Automobiles are fragile.  When your car breaks down, it may be days before you get it back.  The mechanic has to hook it up to a diagnostic computer and order parts from Asia.  If your tire goes flat, you can’t fix it on the side of the road.  You have to put the spacesaver spare on, take it to a shop, get it fixed and then head out again.  It costs time and money…lots of both.

Mass transit?   Extremely fragile…think fine china.  Just ask people in the Bay Area or Washington DC who are big-time inconvenienced when there are transit issues that bring the system down.

Bicycles?  Not so much.  In fact, bicycles are antifragile.  Cycling actually benefits from disorder and disruption.  If gas goes up to $10/gallon, what happens to the number of people on bicycles?  Exactly.   What if gas goes to $10,000/gallon (a true Black Swan)?    If your bike tire goes flat, you can fix it yourself in five minutes on the side of the road.  As long as your bicycle isn’t too exotic, you can fix just about anything that goes wrong with it…on the spot…usually for pennies.  The worse things get, the more likely it is that more people will decide that cycling makes sense.

It’s the same with transit.  If the transit grid goes down due to safety concerns, power down, terrorist threats or something else, most people who rely on it will buy a bicycle before they buy a car.  Chances are they have no place to park a car.  They can park the bicycle next to the sofa in the living room. Some will discover that they can bike everywhere and never have to take transit again.  Others will adapt until things get better again.  Just about any way you slice it, though, vehicular cycling benefits from disruption and disorder.  It’s antifragile.

Bicycles with fat tires are more antifragile than bicycles with skinny tires.  Bicycles with fat tires and suspension forks are more antifragile than bicycles without.  Fat tire bikes with suspension forks don’t even require roads.  In a future where there is not enough money to repave existing roads let alone build new ones, fat tire bicycles may very well be the preferred mode of transportation for an increasing number of people.  They will get you where you need to go when nothing else will.  That’s something to think about.

Antifragile is not the same as not fragile. Not fragile systems can survive change.  Antifragile systems thrive on it.  They’re at their best when the world as we know it is falling apart. That’s when they grow in popularity.  They provide a way forward.

I don’t mean to suggest that the future is going to be bleak, but I do think (at the very least) that perhaps we should have a discussion about how we’re going to fund our transportation grid and deal with some of these other issues we continue to kick down the road.   Or not.  Either way is fine with me.  I have a bike with fat tires and a front suspension fork.  I’m antifragile.  I can get where I’m going, come what may.  You, too, I hope.



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