11 November 2010
Flexibility and adaptation
Michael Jennings
What is this guy selling?

When I recently wrote about taxis, Brian drew attention to my observations about the utility of motorcycles in the developing world. The most obvious part of this comes from their low cost, both to buy and to operate. Another part comes from the fact that they require less surrounding infrastructure than do larger vehicles. Motorcycles can use narrow roads with relatively rough surfaces, and if you have a wide road a great many more motorcycles can use the road than can larger vehicles. The motorcycle infrastructure can have an ad-hoc quality to it, also. Disused railway bridges will be converted into bridges carrying cyclists and motorcycles. Used railway bridges will have an extra carriageway for motorcycles attached to the side. The weight and size of cars and trucks is such that they require much more dedicated infrastructure. When you take into account that the average number of passengers on a motorcycle in many developing countries is higher than in developed countries - a motorcycle somehow carries a husband, wife, and two small children is almost a cliche in some of these places - the toll in terms of congestion is much lower than for full sized cars. (There is a disgustingly congested an polluted stage that cities go through when their middle classes do become rich enough to afford cars and the infrastructure has not yet caught up. Bangkok went through this stage 15-20 years ago. Hanoi and Saigon are going to go through it soon, if they are not careful). You see people on motorcycles carrying large amounts of luggage, barrells full of live fish, panes of glass of the sort that people carry across the road in chase scenes in 1960s Bond movies. Somehow they manage it. Motorcycles are modified into all other kinds of vehicles, too. The tuk-tuk is basically the front of a motorcycle with the back of a rickshaw or sometimes a light truck. Judging by the variation in design from place to place, they were initially an ad-hoc development and many of them still are. This sort of modification would not be legal in more developed markets, but in poorer countries it still happens.

In my recent sojourn in Asia I saw all of this.

Most charming, though, was perhaps the fellow pictured at the top of this post. I was wandering down a dirt road in a village on the other side of the Mekong from Luang Prabang in Laos. This fellow rode past with a motorcycle with an odd sidecarriage. He gestured to me, clearly selling something. I nodded politely, as people attempt to sell you things a lot in such places. My guess was that he was selling food of some kind, but I wasn’t really hungry However, he gestured that I come over and look. He opened the top of one of the metal barels, to make it clear what he was selling.

The answer was ice cream. His motorcycle sidecarriage had inbuilt refrigeration and was conveying ice cream. He gave me a free taste. He didn’t really need to, as it was hot and an ice cream was quite appealing. So I bought an ice cream, as I am sure he knew I would.

Although selling ice cream to any passing western tourists was no doubt a good sideline, the bulk of his business was local people. Or, to be more specific, local children, who clearly enjoy an ice cream just as much as children do anywhere else. (Not exactly a surprise). If you want to do this in England, you have much higher costs because you have to use a van, and no doubt lots of health and safety crap. But in Laos, you buy a motorcycle and adapt.

Oddly enough, while reading Bruce Sterling’s blog today, I found this slick, rather self-congratulatory video.

VIMBY - Take on the Machine: Episode One

Although the people in it are clearly having a good time, the “hacker spaces” in it strike me as close to being something resembling native reservations. In the poor world, the whole country is the hacker space. While a bicycle that makes ice cream may be cool, the poorest countries of the world have managed it long ago, because their children like ice cream and people like making a living. Why have we lost this? How have we lost this? Losing this is going to cost us.

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