At Columbia University’s Earth Institute
, they point out that a small percentage of African people can afford cars or motorcycles, and it's a place where bicycles are expensive, as are the public buses. One problem is that bikes are all imported from China or India — there’s no local business making them in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Earth Institute is trying to make transportation more widely available and also stimulate a local bike-making enterprise. Carbon fiber is great, but too expensive. Aluminum or chromium-molybdenum steel are good alternatives, but difficult to work with. Bamboo, on the other hand, is both strong and light, grows locally and has great vibration-damping abilities. The idea of Columbia’s Bamboo Bike Project
is to source cheap bike parts from Asia, rather than whole bikes, and build bamboo frames.
Actually, the idea is catching on internationally. Bamboo also grows wild in the American South, and the nonprofit HERO group — based in a poor corner of Alabama — has launched (with a Kickstarter campaign that runs through Aug. 29, and aims to raise $40,000) Semester Bike, designed to employ local residents in making bamboo bicycles. Its specific innovation
is a lightweight “Hextube” frame made from bamboo lined with carbon fiber and laminated with epoxy. A completed frame weighs just 4.5 pounds.
The New York Times reports
that bamboo bikes are “catching on with urban and commuting cyclists.” Startups making them include Boo Bicycles, Renov Design, Panda Bicycles, Organic Bikes and Calfee Design. The bikes tend to be rather expensive (up to $7,000!), so if you can’t afford to buy one fully done, you can make one yourself. The “How to Build a Bamboo Bike” page on Instructables.com
is very popular, with more than 325,000 views. That's one of its completed bikes in the two photos above. Here's more about the Alabama effort on video: