Category Archives: planned obsolescence

Planned obsolescence and cycling

I promised further reflections on Alex Steffan’s lecture I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. I have been recently thinking a lot about planned obsolescence, that is designing a product to cease to be functional after a certain amount of time or after a certain amount of use.  The centennial light at the Livermore Firehouse in California is often cited as an example. Over 100 years after its first use the light bulb is still working. It is most often associated with technology – manufacturers not providing backward compatibility when a new version of software is released, printers which cease to work after a certain numbers of pages and products with built in rechargeable batteries which don’t charge any longer.

Regular readers of my blog (does my blog have regular readers?) will know that I enjoy cycling for work and for pleasure. Over the summer I converted my old bike from an 18 gear touring bike to a fixed gear. There were a few reasons for this – firstly after reading Sheldon Brown it struck me that fixed gear riding might be quite fun, and secondly, not that I’m known for being a fashion victim, it seems to be quite trendy at the moment (I even removed the mudguards). However, the real reason was that I needed a new back wheel for my bike and they seem impossible to get (In short I needed a 126mm axle with a freewheel block, rather than a 130mm or 136 mm with a cassette. There are work arounds, but they are expensive – it involves changing the axle spacing, buying a cassette, new chain, new shifters, front and back derailleurs. I suppose I could have got a custom made wheel, but the fixed wheel approach seemed to be the cheaper option.

Some might have limited sympathy with me complaining how I can’t get parts for a twenty-year old bike, but a the writer of a recent letter to Cycle magazine complains that he is unable to get replacement parts which were standard just one year ago. I hear that 8-speed is the next thing that will be impossible to replace.

The irony here is that cycling is such an environmentally friendly hobby (though I’ll reserve judgement on thinking about the environmental impact of events such as the Tour de France). The manufacturers of low quality Bike-Shaped Objects (BSOs) have much to answer for the UK’s volume of unused and scrapped bikes, but manufacturers of good quality bikes are not without blame either.

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