Where do bicycles go when they die?
July 28, 2022 12:25 AM   Subscribe

Every year, thousands of bicycles are tossed into rivers, ponds, lakes and canals. Jody Rosen, author of Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle, ponders the question: why do so many bikes end up underwater?
posted by verstegan (38 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
The first evening of my first trip to Amsterdam, my partner and I were walking back to our friend's house after dinner when we saw two guys run up to a bike and absolutely yeet it into a canal before high-fiving and running off. Now, nearly 6 years of living in the Netherlands later, I've never seen anything like that, but it still feels like one of the Dutchest things I've seen here.
posted by wakannai at 1:41 AM on July 28 [13 favorites]




Recently metalloid biologists have made the exciting discovery that in fact, bicycles and supermarket trollies are NOT as previously thought separate species, but are in fact dimorphic male and female forms of the same organism. Like many anadromous species of marine origin, they must seek out suitable freshwater environments to spawn, such as ponds, canals, and smaller rivers. The lifecycle of the offspring between spawning and maturity is alas still a mystery to science. Further research is still required, but many experts are hopeful that coathangers and paperclips will prove to form part of the eventual picture.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:29 AM on July 28 [67 favorites]


On the theme of aquatic cycling, I have a vague memory of one of those wacky news stories they used to have at the ends of news bulletins about there being a weird sporting contest in one-legged bicycle diving: all participants had only one leg, and they had to pedal a bicycle off a high diving board and plunge with it into the pool below.
posted by acb at 2:40 AM on July 28


Amsterdam uses boats with huge metallic claws that grab stuff from the bottom of the canal. They are fascinating to watch and also wait for them to bring up something other than bikes - such as this one bringing up a small boat.

Bikes do get pushed into the canals although sometimes the wind itself will push some in. The canals don't have any rails or other safeguards for most of their length so its easy for stuff to fall or roll into them.
posted by vacapinta at 3:19 AM on July 28 [4 favorites]


There’s a YouTuber who does “magnet fishing“ where they take super-powerful magnets and drag up metallic objects up from bodies of water all over the world. They find endless bicycles, scooters, constantly. It certainly seems to be a thing.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 3:53 AM on July 28


I was traveling in semi-rural China heading further out in a bus on the highway. On the right was a service road, that was in worse and worse condition as we went along. The potholes got progressively bigger and bigger, until they were more like pits. But these pits were filled in with old twisted bicycles frames that were smashed down into the biggest holes, and the farmers transporting produce on their three wheel trucks were driving right over the mashed bikes. Seemed pretty practical, topping that off with a little concrete would have been perfect.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:03 AM on July 28 [2 favorites]


We were in Amsterdam once about 8 or so years ago. We saw an enormous land-based claw machine (I don't know the technical term, but it looked like an earth mover of some kind) pulling wads of old bikes and other junk out of part of a canal... just dripping with sludge and weeds. A whole group of tourists and locals alike were transfixed for ten minutes or so, waiting to see what else would come out of the murky water.

When we lived in Miami Beach back in the '90s, we once saw a huge barge coming out of the river in downtown Miami, loaded with an enormous heap of bicycles and bike parts. Bike theft back then was rampant, and I used to lock my Schwinn by removing the front wheel, and locking the back, front wheel and frame to a sturdy parking meter, then I'd take my seat in to work with me. I never had my bike stolen in five years down there, but I knew several people who had Kryptonite locks popped off even in busy areas with lots of people around.
posted by SoberHighland at 4:40 AM on July 28


As the article mentions, bikes in rivers is a Japanese thing, too. Perhaps, as the article claims, "The discovery (of dozens of bicycles in a pond) took many in Tokyo by surprise," but that's merely because bikes go in rivers, not ponds.

Remember the stinky spirit in Spirited Away that actually turned out to be a polluted river spirit? The first thing that got pulled out of him was...yep. (Skip to about 5:08)
(Sorry, Facebook link because I couldn't find the video anywhere else)

Here I'm pretty sure it's just people being cheap. Throwing away big garbage, like bicycles, costs money and takes time (you need to schedule a pickup date with the city, buy a garbage sticker, put it out on the designated date). Littering is free and only takes a second.
posted by Bugbread at 4:42 AM on July 28 [7 favorites]


I think there are a few factors involved. One is that there may be no obvious way for people to get rid of a bike that is too small now or that has a bent rim. It may be too large for garbage pick up, and even if it isn't, municipal sanitation workers are often sensible and kind enough to ignore any bike left on the curb whether or not there is obvious damage, as that's also where people leave bikes they are coming back for. It's not going to be entirely clear if a bike leaning against a lamp post is there because someone hopped off it for a few moments and went inside or if it's meant to be part of the mound of garbage on the other side of the lamp post. How would you tell if a bike in an alley beside an over full dumpster is hidden there so it won't be pilfered, or if it got joy ridden thirty feet and that is where it was left just beyond the owner's range of vision when they came outside again, or if someone barked their shins on the stupid thing's pedals and kindly heaved it to one side so that no one else would get hurt and no car would damage it?

Since bike theft is endemic, the erstwhile owner may have left it out in hopes that someone else will scavenge it. Bikes left unattended migrate a lot before they eventually are clearly just scrap. I am currently watching one that overwintered in my neighbour's back yard and which is now lying all but hidden in the weeds three houses down on the wrong side of the street. I'm not going to haul it out of the weeds even if that could result in the person who owns it figuring out where it went; they might know perfectly wall and moving it somewhere more visible could result in it migrating again to some other location they don't see. All I know is that it is still rideable but won't survive another winter. If I lived in a high traffic area it would be miles away by now.

Finally bikes do best if they get left somewhere dry inside. But by their nature they get ridden in the rain and then are too wet to bring inside, or have to be left outside because hauling them up two flights of stairs is just too inconvenient. So then they start rusting. And even if they don't start rusting they need a lot of maintenance. There are an awful lot of bike owners who are not riding their bike because one of the tires is getting too soft, or the handlebars need tightening, so it sits outside somewhere unobtrusive while the maintenance issues start to multiply. I think an awful lot of bikes decay outside while their owners are still hoping to get them running again.

There is also a slippery slope to vandalizing bikes. A six year old is really not being naughty if they hop on another kids trike and send it skimming along for a couple of yards before they hop off again. A home owner is really not being officious if they remove their neighbour's kids bikes from their driveway and put them (with increasing lack of gentleness) onto the lawn of the family that owns them. It's common for people to become desensitized to moving other people's bikes, either from altruism, irritation or for fun. The distances moved and the carelessness used is likely to increase over time. Those bikes that get pitched into the river may have been handled by a dozen strangers before they ended up propped against the embankment some Friday night when the drunks were out looking to create some splashes. And by then the perfectly good bike someone left in the bike rack in April maybe rusted and bent enough that the drunks are correct to believe at the end of September that nobody wants it anymore.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:43 AM on July 28 [7 favorites]


At least hurling a dockless bicycle into the river is both a defiant stand against late-stage capitalism AND a petty act of vandalism.

I have nothing against docked bicycles. You know where to get one, there's some guarantee that one will be available when and where you might need one, and they don't need to litter the landscape in order to provide a useful service.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 5:45 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


I really wish bike maintenance was something that children had to learn. At 3, my son knew all the steps to patch a tire even if his hands are nowhere near strong enough yet. At least he'll know that things can be fixed.

There are so many good bikes that people think are garbage! It makes me sad.
posted by Acari at 5:47 AM on July 28 [5 favorites]


I remember in my childhood hearing some public swimming pool staff talking about how several times a year the person who opens up in the morning as to pull a bike out of the pool -- meaning someone had to get the bike over one, possibly two, tall chain link fences before tossing it in the water.

Maybe there's some prehistoric urge people have to throw bikes in water that overpowers civilized thought.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:30 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


I can tell you why the very fancy new bike formerly ridden by that prick Lucas from Ms. Davis's class ended up in the lake in the woods behind Brian's house and it's because this motherfucker had the gall to call Brian's little sister Jennifer fat and then trash the fairy garden she'd been building in one of the stumps by the nature trail. He's lucky he didn't end up in there with his bike, fucking prick.
posted by saladin at 6:31 AM on July 28 [28 favorites]


Is this like the New York City phenomenon where people toss their broken umbrellas directly onto the sidewalk?
posted by bananana at 7:20 AM on July 28


What is this bicycling docking or undocking? A couple obvious possibilities spring to mind, but I haven’t heard the term before.
posted by eviemath at 7:37 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


“Docked” are rental e-bikes/scooters that you return to a docking station to charge (probably also where you checked-out the bike), whereas “undocked” are just free-roaming rental e-bikes that the owners round up via GPS or something and take back to a non-public central location to charge before redeployment.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 7:50 AM on July 28


What is this bicycling docking or undocking?

Rental bikes - they can have a dock, which is where you have to return them to end the rental, or dockless, where you click buttons on an app to end the rental.

And throwing stuff in the water is fun. It creates a splash, a ripple, and you might get to watch it sink if the water is clear. The bigger the thing, the more the splash and ripple. That's all there is to it.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:51 AM on July 28


I liked this phrase: sticking [bicycles] in high tree branches to roost like nesting pterodactyls.

Incidentally, "The Nesting Pterodactyls" is the name of my new band
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:30 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


Because you can't yeet a car
posted by scruss at 8:31 AM on July 28 [7 favorites]


Uber intentionally destroyed thousands and thousands of share bikes. During the early pandemic.
posted by aniola at 9:01 AM on July 28 [2 favorites]


One of my favorite walks in Paris is along the Canal Sant-Martin. The last time I was there, five or years ago, it had been drained for maintenance. It was full of bicycles. So many bicycles!

Edit: I should have read TFA first :)
posted by sjswitzer at 9:05 AM on July 28 [4 favorites]


verstegan ... versteken? Is this a Dutch eponysterical?
posted by pulposus at 9:16 AM on July 28


It was full of bicycles. So many bicycles!

And stones too I would guess, but they blend in a bit better.
posted by biffa at 9:22 AM on July 28 [4 favorites]


Uber intentionally destroyed thousands and thousands of share bikes. During the early pandemic.

In my town, some unnamed hero at the local transfer station caught one of these shipments and alerted some bike activists. They were bricked and reinstalled with open source software, and are now being launched as an ebike pilot for service workers downtown.
posted by SoundInhabitant at 1:04 PM on July 28 [10 favorites]


Isn’t there a bicycle shortage along with all of the other supply chain delays and shortages? Seems like a sub-optimal time to be throwing them in canals or rivers.
posted by eviemath at 2:41 PM on July 28


Isn’t there a bicycle shortage along with all of the other supply chain delays and shortages?

No not really any more, unless you are talking specific high end products. Most of the general shortages are over - there is no out-of-the ordinary backog of ships in the CA ports anymore or anything.
posted by The_Vegetables at 2:57 PM on July 28


In my town, some unnamed hero at the local transfer station caught one of these shipments and alerted some bike activists. They were bricked and reinstalled with open source software, and are now being launched as an ebike pilot for service workers downtown.

I was so frustrated when the uber-destroying-bikes thing happened. This story made my day. Thanks for sharing.
posted by aniola at 3:21 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]


I saw a probable tweaker yeet the parted-out carcass of a probably stolen bike into the Willamette River once. I'm pretty sure the motivation was just to destroy evidence. He seemed to have done it before.
posted by bink at 5:35 PM on July 28


The_Vegetables: This is getting a little off-topic, but while it seems that supply-chain issues have cleared up quite a bit, they have not entirely disappeared.

The most recent article I could find, published about a week ago, states that the queue of idling cargo ships destined for the Port of Los Angeles (the busiest port in the United States) has been reduced by 80% since the beginning of this year. But there's stilll a queue of about 20 such ships.

This article from a couple of weeks ago cites Gene Seroka, the executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, as saying that they are still not meeting their own internal goals regarding delayed cargo. "There are 29,000 rail containers sitting on the port’s docks for an average of 7.5 days, Seroka said at the news conference with Lyons. He said the ideal amount of idle rail cargo should be no more than 9,000 units, sitting for two days at the most. And 20,000 containers are remaining on the dock for more than the “important aging category” of nine days, he said."

So while it's true that most of the supply chain problem (~80% perhaps) has been resolved, and this will probably continue to improve this year, there are still supply chain problems and container delays at California ports right now. (That's not even getting into the trucker protest at Oakland.) Whether this is still seriously impacting bike supply in North America specifically, I can't say.
posted by skoosh at 7:39 AM on July 29


Was not expecting a chunk of the answer to be drowned people.

Toilets? People really are irredeemably bad.

I picked up a pile of human shit and toilet paper less than thirty feet from an outhouse at a trailhead last year. Why? Why do people do such horrible things in certain places and not others? Backpacking cross country last year I saw so much garbage, everywhere people thought they could get away with it and were unwatched. I suppose water hides even more sins.

In Denmark I saw a teen upend half a chocolate shake onto the sidewalk and then I saw a middle-aged woman accost her and give her what for. The teen sheepishly scraped up the mess and scurried off with her friend.
posted by liminal_shadows at 11:57 AM on July 29 [1 favorite]


I just pulled this out of the canal...

Metafilter: I should have read TFA first :)
posted by k3ninho at 2:54 PM on July 29


Recently metalloid biologists have made the exciting discovery that in fact, bicycles and supermarket trollies are NOT as previously thought separate species, but are in fact dimorphic male and female forms of the same organism.

This is complete and absolute rubbish and it's bad and you should feel bad about propagating this mainstream cis/het normative sexist bullshit! MODS!

I mean i know it's the status quo, but...

...once again the so-called experts are blinded by bias and only seeing and touching only their own particular part of the elephant in a darkened room and conflating two entirely separate species due to be totally unable to see the glaringly obvious polymorphic gender of bicycles. What gender is a bicycle? It depends on when and wear it is, and whom!

Sheesh, it's like scientists don't even ride bicycles. A shopping cart or trolley usually has four wheels and no pedals, locomotion, drive appendices or even any kind of pneumatic rubber.

It's everything like claiming that primordial jellyfish or sponge and a highly evolved tool using primate are the diimorphic genders of the same species. While they both may have wheels, one is just a simple cellular structure and organism evolved to collect passing nutrients and the other is closer to an apex predator.

Like many anadromous species of marine origin, they must seek out suitable freshwater environments to spawn, such as ponds, canals, and smaller rivers.

I don't even know where to start with this. I mean, first off it completely omits salt water habituation, but again the experts have it wrong and kind of backwards. A bicycle that ends up in either fresh or salt water isn't necessarily spawning but perhaps being either murdered or committing suicide.

It's whole lot more like a whale beaching itself due to predation, overpopulation or escaping trauma or starvation and a whole lot less less salmon swimming upstream to spawn.

A bicycle in the water is not successfully reproducing. It's part of the food chain!

However, it gets complicated. Very complicated.

The lifecycle of the offspring between spawning and maturity is alas still a mystery to science. Further research is still required, but many experts are hopeful that coathangers and paperclips will prove to form part of the eventual picture.

But they are close, and yes, coathangers and paperclips can be involved, but so can many other things including rust, oxidation or exploding stars releasing heavier metals into the cosmos.

Like us or parts of us, bicycles start in the fusion of elements and stars. They may even spend time as paperclips, or automobiles, or washing machines, or pocket knives, in the same way a human may material spend some time as a cow.

Or cooking pots and pans. Or rust, or raw oxides or ore. Ultimately they all exist as proto-bicycles in the same exact way a proto-human exists in food, oxygen, carbon, minerals or ore.

In reality we're surrounded by proto-bicycles in our rocky iron crust and core, or in the nickel and cobalt of meteors. Parts of bicycles naturally form even without symbiotic hosts.

The circle, sphere or wheel is a fundamental part of reality due to the digits of pi, the existence of prime numbers, and basic trigonometry.

This intellectually liminal space is the ineffable birthplace of a bicycle - mathematics and geometry. They exist before they come to be. Every round thing we know is a proto-bicycle or neo-bicycle.

Thus bicycles are never truly born and they never truly die. While some bicycles are more platonically bicycle-shaped than others, and some bicycle shapes may retain their true bicycle form for longer than other bicycles, there is neither a clearly defining moment of either birth, death or reproduction in the lifecycle of the bicycle.

And, curiously, just like life and sentience as we know it, the qualities and life span and reproductive cycle of any given bicycle isn't decided by how purely it represents any class or singular definition of the platonic ideal of a bicycle because the perfection of the phenotype of it's form isn't defined by refinement but situation and symbiosis.

The part that bicycle biologists somehow seem to always miss and forget, the part that leads them to try to identify - two completely different objects such as a bicycle and a shopping trolly - is that bicycles do not exist without a complex symbiotic relationship between the bicycle itself and whatever living entity rides it or owns it.

Locally and right now that is mostly sentient homo sapiens, and only some given fraction of sentient homo sapiens. This is another part of the puzzle that confuses biologists studying bicycles.

Further, it's likely that this symbiotic relationship can only exist with a sentient or intelligent and land dwelling host in some form of gravity.

And, so, logically bicycle is incapable of reproducing without this symbiotic relationship.

Further, we may logically presume that aquatic life is not a suitable symbiotic partner for a bicycle - which is precisely why this theory about - pardon my language - fucking shopping carts and bicycles being the same species of binary genders and reproducing in water of all the silly things is so assertively and energetically wrong!

While we have no proof of bicycles existing elsewhere in our solar system, galaxy or universe, it's likely that if any sentient life exists anywhere we may assume that extraterrestrial bicycles also exist and also have symbiotic relationships with other sentient, land dwelling forms of life.

While the symbiotic relationship between bicycles and humans is not parasitic, there are many unanswered questions about why this symbiosis is not universal to all humans or sentient life here on Earth. Why there is such an imbalance between humans and bicycles and it's not an even one-to-one pairing.

Which brings me to my next point:

There is a lot of alarming evidence that the reproductive rates of many bicycles are negatively impacted due to a number of factors including abuse, neglect, an inability to find suitable sentient symbiotic partners as well as large scale and acute environmental adversities leading to unacceptably high research rates.

The decades of studies from the late, great biocyclist Dr. Sheldon Brown is that the true reproductive spawning grounds are in a number of diverse, fertile places - including used bike stores, thrift stores, garages, non-profit bike co-ops and kitchens, and, even more darkly, flea markets, junk yards, pawn shops or even illicit chop shops or stolen resales of whole or parts of bicycles.

Though it's been noted that chop shops and bicycle theft drastically contributes to the mortality rate and detracts from spawning rates of bicycles, rapid increases in oxidation events even as it may add to the food chain.

Further, there are many variations in the intensity of the symbiotic relationship, reproduction cycles and food chain of bicycles.

Many bicycles of many different values and sub-species or other biological traits just keep rolling and reinventing themselves from parts, endlessly.

Some bicycles regrow or change form, which also leads to the confusion about species and gender dimorphism. Unlike some kinds of invertebrates there are no set steps or cycles

Some bicycles only briefly form symbiotic relationships - if at all - and many almost immediately become part of the food chain through oxidation or worse, and never have a chance to fully blossom.

This confounding phenomenon has been seen across all phenotype and species of bicycle from the crudest form of a Bike Shaped Object or BSO to the most refined and evolved or extreme examples of what a bicycle can be, not at all like all other forms forms of life. There are scruffy, rough and weird weird survivors that can deal with almost anything. There are refined aristocracy that can barely handle a load of laundry. Or vice versa, and everything in between.

And because of the polymorphic, agender, multitudinous panoply and spectrum of the very definition of a living bicycle that is dependent on this complex, symbiotic relationship with a sentient and presumably gravity-dwelling organism not only is it very difficult to actually tell when a bicycle is born, alive or dead but those values may change drastically depending on the compatibility of a particular or unique symbiotic relationship that is synergistic and mutually beneficial.


To wit, and be very clear and succinct - bicycles are never fully born and never truly die.

They come into existence as soon as they're wanted, needed or desired by a sentient being and often functionally outlive that first symbiotic relationship to continue in wildly divergent, complex and polymorphic symbiotic relationships in segmented parts or seeds or even go through the furnaces of cosmic or terrestrial reclamation.


Ultimately this means that if you've ever been in any kind of symbiotic relationship with a bicycle and if other sentient life has existed, will existed it will eventually exist again as a bicycle in some other place or time, because they are inherent and inevitable in the fabric of the material universe as we know it.



PS:

Today I finished rebuilding my broken-framed bicycle from a new frame over 4+ days of work and parts recycling and so on, and I went on my first real 15 mile ride and grocery run and it was really, really good.

Do you have bike problems with maintenance, fit comfort or other issues or questions keeping you from riding your bike and having a fulfilling, fruitful and loving symbiotic relationship with your bike?

I may be able to help, send me a message. I know a lot about bikes at this point. Any biking question at all, including fitting issues, techniique, gear, DIY repairs and a whole lot of information about ebikes.

If you can stump me you need to go to a serious pro for a specialty aspect of sport-focused biking at higher levels and maybe I'll learn something new.

I want to help anyone with their bike because I'm biologically and weirdly compelled due to pressures to help bicycles reproduce to fulfill this symbiotic relationship that I have with a certain weird spectrum of a certain sub-species of a polymorphic, evolving bicycle.

Which just happens to be right next to me as I sit on my porch and keeps correcting my spelling and grammar.

I may or may not have some amount of rust and metal under my fingernails. I'm not sure where that fits into all of this, but I could taste it when I had dinner a while ago.

posted by loquacious at 9:24 PM on July 29 [4 favorites]


loquacious: does your newsletter contain insight into the n+1 and n-1 aspects of living alongside bicycles? Never mind if not, I want to sign up anyway!

n+1: there's always room for another bike
n-1: but one more bike will get you disinherited, divorced or dumped
posted by k3ninho at 12:37 AM on July 30


My current bike was an orphan, left on the street to die. We found it and restored it to full functionality. I've been using it for 15 years with minimal maintenance and it's very usable. Nothing fancy, just a good-enough everyday bike. It's sad that so many bikes are discarded when there is so much life potential left in them.
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:05 AM on July 30


If you live in East Anglia, most bikes do seem to gravitate inexorably towards the river Cam.
posted by phigmov at 2:12 PM on July 30


loquacious: does your newsletter contain insight into the n+1 and n-1 aspects of living alongside bicycles? Never mind if not, I want to sign up anyway!

I can't believe I forgot to talk about that, but it can be inferred.

Both n+1 and n-1 are the closest evidence we have of the actual moment of conception, birth and clearly definable reproductive cycle of the bicycle,. At certain threshold levels of n+1 density you may find find yet another bicycle has been "born" when you weren't looking. And when n-1 happens, that bicycle goes out into the world to migrate to other n+1 environments in which to reproduce.

Another curious and unique factor to the lifecycle of the bicycle is how often it involves metallic parts that ostensibly have nothing to do with the genomics of bicycles. Bicycles themselves can be implied to be tool-using in how they may augment or adorn themselves with bits of common hardware, and through the natural bicycle food chain and oxidization those parts sometimes end up being reborn as bicycles themselves. But that food chain goes both ways, and sometimes a bicycle can become many paperclips.

One of the most disturbing parts of the bicycle food chain is how they often do end up as shopping carts or even cars, but they aren't the same species or in direct symbiosis with them, but as indicated above the reverse of this is also true.

A bicycle is not known to be a predator, apex or otherwise. Metaphorically a bicycle is more like a tree or part of a healthy forest that exists due a complicated network of symbiotic relationships.

There are a number of rather controversial studies and assertions that a bicycle may actually be the fruiting, sporing body of a metalloid fungus. I personally support this theory, which would align nicely and help explain the sheer diversity and complexity of phenotypes represented in bicycles, especially considering how some obviously bicycle-related species or examples may have as few as one wheel and other rare, unique examples may have four or sometimes much more than four wheels.
posted by loquacious at 12:28 PM on July 31 [2 favorites]


I used to live right next to a canal towpath, and would occasionally hear the whine of a stolen moped joyriding up and down there at three in the morning. I kept hoping that one night this whine would be followed by a splash as the thief accidentally skidded into the water, but it never came.
posted by Paul Slade at 12:16 AM on August 1


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