I want to ask about the utility of bicycles vs. horses, but in a rather specific circumstance.

In the future, there is war (the particulars are irrelevant), and it causes the usual loss of population and infrastructure. But it's big enough to be a world-wide loss, and it happens over a series of decades. A number of people with lots of money see the collapse of human civilization coming. And they decide to work to preserve civilization with their resources (and also end up ruling the new civilization they helped save, but I'm sure that didn't figure at all into their motives).

So things collapse, but "softly". Basically, things go back to around the early 1800s in technology, then crawl up to about 1850. So, there is a steel industry of some sort, there is some manufacturing infrastructure, but there are still a lot of hand-made goods, and a lot of people are farming. But what's different from the 1800s is that the new society can take bits and pieces from modern day and keep them going, even with a weaker infrastructure.

Cars and most other ICE-powered vehicles don't exist; most of the fuel infrastructure for them just couldn't be preserved and maintained. Diesel trains become the typical long-distance vehicle.

Given that, how would people in rural areas get around locally in this society? In the actual 1800s, the vehicle of choice was a horse because... well, what else are you going to use? But in this world, there's enough infrastructure and knowledge to allow for bicycles. Not to mention that at the start of this collapse, more people probably know how to ride a bike than a horse, so they could have started with them and keep them throughout the fall.

So here's the question: what are the advantages and restrictions of a bicycle in a relatively rural environment? Assume that there is enough knowledge, materials, and infrastructure around to maintain bicycles (the local blacksmith can repair a bike much like they could shoe a horse, and vulcanized rubber is available). Would they effectively be able to go off-road, and if so, how effectively compared to horses? Could they handle wooded terrain as well as a horse, and if so, how would that influence bicycle design? Would bicycles have similar range to a horse over dirt roads? Would a local lawman prefer a bike over a horse, and would he be able to follow criminals who used horses?

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    $\begingroup$ Your question requires more context for quality answers. You seem to be asking for one answer on a world wide basis. Answers will differ based on terrain. Also have a brief look at the Wikipedia page on bicycles before posting. It answers many of your questions & many of your assumptions are incorrect. $\endgroup$ – pHred Apr 18 '19 at 2:15
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    $\begingroup$ "Cars and most other ICE-powered vehicles don't exist; [...] Diesel trains become the typical long-distance vehicle." this is contradictory $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Apr 18 '19 at 11:42
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch not at all - they said most other ICE vehicles don't exist. The key is the word "most" - which implies some do exist, such as diesel trains. Presumably the fuel which is produced is prioritized for the trains, thus none being available for cars. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Apr 18 '19 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ does this civilization maintain good roads? $\endgroup$ – John Apr 19 '19 at 14:25
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    $\begingroup$ You really need to limit the number of questions you ask at once, what is that ten separate questions? $\endgroup$ – John Apr 19 '19 at 15:29

11 Answers 11


As far as I understand, bicycles actually need a pretty developed industry. You can make a basic bicycle of you have access to steel tubes, welding and ball bearings - and that's already fairly advanced technology for a post-apocalyptic world.

The main issue here is that the less technology you have access to, the heavier and less effective your bicycles are going to be, until you reach the point where you have an unwieldy beast usable only on the paved roads, and that slowly.

Without modern plastics you have only leather saddles that are heavy and take time to manufacture. Without access to aluminium you have steel rims instead of aluminium rims - heavier, slower, more prone to deforming. Without precise machining you won't have reliable gear shifting (modern derailleurs are a very complicated piece of engineering). Without gear shifting you will have problems going off-road.

I'm also not sure you will be able to produce lightweight tubes and off-road worthy tyres in post-apocalyptic cottage industry.

I would say, the best the people in your world can hope for is a comparatively heavy single-speed steel bike, that would need reliably do about 14 km/h on a gravel road. That good enough to visit a neighboring farm or bring stuff to town market, but not something you want to chase brigands off-road on.

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    $\begingroup$ You've basically said what I was going to, but you've missed a key point. Never mind derailleurs, bicycles didn't even have chains until 1880s technology. It was pedals on the front wheel axle until then. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Apr 18 '19 at 7:51
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    $\begingroup$ My grandfather told me about the bike he had when he was a kid (he was born in 1929). His wheels were wooden ones. The steel ones were very expensive. Gears were non existing. Only 1:1. Of course no tubes in wheels. Only kind of tubeless protection on wheels. Almost no spare parts (or at least very expensive) so if he needed one he had to make it himself. The point of his stories - he spend so much time fixing his bike all the time he didn't had time for school so his father destroyed it because walking on foot was more time saving than taking care for bike. $\endgroup$ – SZCZERZO KŁY Apr 18 '19 at 8:41
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    $\begingroup$ I've thought about chains. I actually can't tell how hard it would be to manufacture a chain without the modern technology. Also, there exist a variant of a belt drive for a bicycle. I, again, can't say how effective timing belt world be without the access to modern synthesis (although it seems that the answer world be 'not very'). $\endgroup$ – Cumehtar Apr 18 '19 at 8:47
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    $\begingroup$ Overall, the hardest part of the question is that there people in this post-apocalyptic world do not need to invent the modern bicycle. They, presumably, have at least some examples at hand, and need to reverse engineer them using inferior technology. And, I think, it would be possible to copy modern planetary gears with the technology gunmakers and watchmakers had in 1600-1700s, but the effort spent on it would be prohibitive. $\endgroup$ – Cumehtar Apr 18 '19 at 8:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Cumehtar That's why I gave example of my grandfather. Before WW2, without saving materials for war effort. If then parts were rare and pricy we could safely assume that world would also try to focus it's resources on some kind of rebuilding while not looking for markets for the over production created by war effort (so like with the steel production). $\endgroup$ – SZCZERZO KŁY Apr 18 '19 at 13:19

Horses are capable of traveling long distances at good speeds, but require significant upkeep. Food, water, shelter, etc. In contrast, a bicycle's speed and distance is entirely dependent on the human controlling it.

As far as going off-road is concerned, it would depend on the terrain. I'm not a professional biker, but biking in rough terrain is definitely extremely taxing on the body. In comparison, a horse would have an easier time with grassy terrain and the like and the human would not need to exert as much energy to drive the horse in the correct direction.

As far was wooded terrain is concerned, the density and type of underbrush will definitely matter. Anything too dense for a bicycle to move through will prefer a horse, even if the horse can only move very slowly through the terrain.

As far as range is concerned, horses have significantly larger range than a human when it comes to longer trips, as humans will tire faster, even if they can maintain good speeds on a bicycle for shorter to moderate ranges.

And finally, I doubt a bicycle powered by a human is going to outspeed the burst speed potential of a galloping horse. So a lawman pursuing horse-riding lawbreakers using a bicycle is probably just as ludicrous in your scenario as it would be today.

Overall one cannot necessarily replace the other, and which one to use will depend on the scenario.

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    $\begingroup$ On a side note about endurance, a man in bicycle would easily win against a horse (on a street of course, but maybe even on a not-so-rough terrain), for instance quora.com/… $\endgroup$ – McTroopers Apr 18 '19 at 6:24
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    $\begingroup$ "As far as range is concerned, horses have significantly larger range than a human when it comes to longer trips, as humans will tire faster, even if they can maintain good speeds on a bicycle for shorter to moderate ranges." The Tour de France is about 3,500 kilometers over 21 days of riding. That about 166km/100 miles per day. That's the same speed the Mongols could manage going full-out, with multiple horses per rider. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Apr 18 '19 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ @KeithMorrison the tour de france also crosses several mountain ranges and is not a continuous event it makes for a poor comparison, especially since the mongols, had to swap out horses. $\endgroup$ – John Apr 19 '19 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ @KeithMorrison I'd like to see evidence that the Mongols could manage 166 km per day for three weeks straight. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Apr 19 '19 at 15:33
  • $\begingroup$ @kingledion, the estimate is that, pushing it, they could go that fast but like you I have strong doubts they could maintain it. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Apr 19 '19 at 22:16

From my own experience - I ride both bikes and horses - all I can say is that it depends. On a paved road, even one that's disused, a bike wins hands down. On good, solid dirt - a typical dirt road or fairly smooth trail, the bike & horse will be fairly well matched on the level. As the slope increases, the horse will gain advantage*, but will more than lose it on the downhills. However, if you have steep climbs, soft or sandy ground, need to weave through brush, or things of that sort, the horse does much better.

*And if the footing is decent, a horse can climb slopes that I could never pedal. Indeed, I've done a few on horseback that I don't think I'd even try on foot :-)

  • $\begingroup$ Of course, if you come to really rough terrain, you can carry the bike. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Apr 18 '19 at 14:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Keith Morrison: Or you can get off and push the bike up the steep hills. Gets tiresome, though. For instance the road from Windermere to Ullswater (English Lake District), or most of Yorkshire... $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Apr 19 '19 at 4:36

Other answers speak to the building and maintenance of bicycles. I want to talk about infrastructure. Roads in particular. Roads for cars are very expensive and time consuming to maintain and repair. They require asphalt (which is likely not possible with that tech level) in huge quantities.

Concrete is a reasonable alternative that would be available, but it also requires huge amounts, ways to transport it, and a lot of time and labor. Fill holes with gravel then cover with a layer of concrete. Once concrete fails though, it needs to be removed and re-poured.

The lack of large vehicles like cars and trucks means that a road doesn't have to be as strong as ones we use today. More like driveways (per the link above). But that's still fairly extensive.

For either asphalt or concrete, you need reliable transport from elsewhere. Trains would certainly work for most of the ride. But you still need to move the gravel and everything else from the nearest train tracks (if not the station) and then to the building site. With enough labor (especially multitudes of people grateful to have a home), you can manage with horse-drawn carts or even wheelbarrows. But it's something to plan for.

Rammed earth roadways require some level of equipment to create, but that can possibly be done before access and use of machinery disappears. Ditto for clearing and creating other styles of dirt roads.

If you're only riding a horse and not pulling a cart, a trail-style road can work for both horses and experienced bicyclists with mountain bikes or other wide-wheeled bikes. Carts require wider flatter roads and so do regular bikes.

enter image description here

Mud, rocks, tree roots, and general deterioration affect trails and roads of all kinds. What works great in year one can be a nightmare in year five. Some dirt roads are not hard to maintain (though they take a lot more time and effort than you might think) and others are very complex. Depends a lot on the weather, plant life, traffic, etc.

Mud, rocks, tree roots, and general deterioration

Your society will likely use both horses and bicycles

Because of the difficulty in creating and maintaining roads, the local powers that be will only have a few roads.

  1. A couple well-maintained arteries for horse-drawn carts. Especially to and from the train station, local industry, and the central marketplace (and the rich part of town).

  2. A few bicycle (and hand cart/wheelbarrow) friendly paths for people to get around locally.

  3. Minimally maintained trails appropriate for both foot traffic and horses.

People who live "downtown" only need a bicycle and can rent/borrow a horse if needed. Or they may walk everywhere and use a bike-share for longer distances in central areas or along arteries.

People in areas further out are more likely to have a horse. Chances are they're farmers anyway and horses will be useful to them in ways beyond transportation.

In our current world, we already have law enforcement on horses and on bicycles. They serve various purposes and it's rare they have to "chase someone down."

enter image description here


I'm ignoring the bit about diesel trains, because if you can make diesel trains you can make diesel cars and this whole question is pointless.

So assuming no diesels, bicycles will dominate personal transport, because as other answers have said, they're just so much quicker and cheaper.

But they will not make horses totally obsolete. Bicycles have hardly any torque. You are extremely limited in how much weight you can carry or pull. So horses and oxen will still be very important for pulling plows and carts.

  • $\begingroup$ "if you can make diesel trains you can make diesel cars" That all depends on how many people it takes to make those engines, and the availability of diesel fuel. If you only extract and refine enough oil to make the trains run, then you can't have cars. $\endgroup$ – Nicol Bolas Apr 18 '19 at 17:51
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    $\begingroup$ A horse is a grass-fed engine capable of outputting 1 HP of mechanical power. A human is a much more expensive grain-fed engine capable of outputting 0.25 HP of mechanical power. Letters will be carried by couriers on bicycles, anything heavier will go on horse-driven wagons. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Apr 18 '19 at 18:32
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP: Humans are much more expensive? I bet you've never owned a horse :-) $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Apr 18 '19 at 19:36

Wikipedia has the following claim by the inventor of the bicycle Karl von Drais.

„1. Berg auf geht die Maschine, auf guten Landstraßen, so schnell, als ein Mensch in starkem Schritt.
 2. Auf der Ebene, selbst sogleich nach einem starken Gewitterregen, wie die Staffetten der Posten, in einer Stunde 2 [Poststunden Weg]
 3. Auf der Ebene, bei trockenen Fußwegen, wie ein Pferd im Galopp, in einer Stunde gegen 4 [Poststunden Weg]
 4. Berg ab, schneller als ein Pferd in Carrière [Rennbahn].“

Roughly translated:

  1. Uphill on a good country-road as fast as a fast marching person

  2. On a plain road after rain still as fast as pony-express.

  3. If the road is dry as fast as a galloping horse
  4. Downhill faster than a racing horse.

Considering that he used a bike made out of wood without even pedals the speed is quite impressing. The question of course is how early 19th century country roads in Germany looked like, but I would assume, that they weren't any better than what you have in your post apocalyptic world.

Of course speed will depend on the fitness of the rider, and more exhausting than riding a horse. On the other hand a bike needs less maintenance and can be repaired faster and easier. You have to remember that horses need a lot of food, which of course the bike doesn't.

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    $\begingroup$ Never forget that on long trips one needs plenty of time to let the bicycle rest and graze the grass for a while. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Apr 18 '19 at 13:23

Why are you forgetting electricity?

It is very hard to come up with an apocalypse scenario that doesn't involve total extinction where ability to use and produce electricity is lost. The basic principles are widely known, the means of producing it and the material needed too widespread to get rid of, and it's just so damn useful. It scales easily, so you don't need massive infrastructure to produce and use it--unlike petroleum--and it's highly flexible in how it can be used. Batteries can be an issue, at least on the high end, but the lead-acid battery was invented in 1859, so not as much as you might think.

So electric buggies.

  • $\begingroup$ With all those crazy people on youtube there must be somebody trying to do that, right? Build electric component from scrap and such... $\endgroup$ – genesis Apr 18 '19 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ Elementary school kids build electric circuits with a potato as a power source. And the first hydroelectric dam at Niagara Falls was built in 1874. It was well within the capacity of mid-19th century technology. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Apr 18 '19 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ I don't disagree but I am curious what would be different given that we now have 150 years more experience and waste...I guess you could keep even a computer running for quite a while if you salvage properly. There is just no motivation to do that in this world. $\endgroup$ – genesis Apr 18 '19 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ "So electric buggies." That requires batteries and the ability to produce electric motors. The latter isn't a big problem, but the former is. Especially if range is important. The infrastructure and rare earth elements needed to produce high-capacity batteries on such a scale simply wouldn't be there. And without high-capacity batteries, I'm not sure that they are feasible. Also, my thinking on electricity in this world is that it's mainly going towards industrial processes at this point. Rural and even poorer urban areas wouldn't even have electric lights. $\endgroup$ – Nicol Bolas Apr 18 '19 at 15:06
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    $\begingroup$ @NicolBolas, you're thinking of electrical use on an industrial level, and electronic-heavy usage. Consider a home: if you're not worried about powering computers and stoves and refrigerators and washers and driers and electric heating, but only use it for things like lighting, maybe some fans for air circulation, and water pumping, a small windmill-powered generator easily handles household needs, and a standard lead-acid battery bank provides backup. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Apr 18 '19 at 20:19

On paved roads bikes win hands down, but people will use horses anyway

Human are endurance powerhouses we are not fast (unless on good roads) but we can keep going for nearly forever.

ultralong distance unsupported off-road marathon cyclists can cross 2,745-mile (4,418 km), averaging around 170 miles/ day. this is a nonstop even where bikers carry their own camping equipment. On paved roads the current human 24 hour non-stop record is ~500 miles. Note these are humans pushed to their limits however they could not keep this up dozens of times a year. But even if you say they could only manage half that on average is only slightly slower than a horse off road and much faster on roads.

A horse would drop dead over such a course. A trained horse with a rider can travel about a 100 miles in a day. But if I run down a criminal on horseback I'm not winded afterwards and can still fight, more importantly if I pull out a gun the horse steers itself while I aim.

but it is really a apples and cadillacs question, horses have two huge advantages. We use horses because it is something else doing all the labor not you, even normal person, or heck even a child could ride a horse long distance.

More importantly horses can pull carts and thus move goods, if your a farmer you are not trying to get from A to B you are trying to move GOODS from A to B. Now cargo bikes do exist and if roads are good I expect many will use them, but that is something people who cannot afford horses will do, just like today. Finally horses can pull a plow, which makes them infinitely more useful to a farmer than a bike, especially if your schizo tech can't make tractors for some reason. Note however farms may have both as bicycle powered farm machines were quite common, as are horse powered engines they just work at different scales, a beet cutter or lathe might be bike powered while a millstone would be horse powered.


An interesting checksum to this argument is to look at various armies of the 1920's and 30's, which actually raised units that traveled on bicycles. The Finnish ski troops which decimated the Russians during the "Winter War" were actually reconnaissance troops who were trained to patrol the forests on bicycles. These are 1930 era steel, one speed bicycles as well, but well suited for travelling through forestry trails in the woods.

Two-Wheeled Warriors – A Brief History of Bicycles on the Battlefield

enter image description here

German troops on bicycles. More here

Many armies used bicycles as a low cost alternative to motor transport for administrative moves. Cycle troops could move faster and carry more than marching infantry, so provided an advantage to the armies which chose to use them. In the end, motor transport proved to be an even greater advantage, and a first class industrial power which could produce tanks, aircraft and warships was equally able to produce trucks in sufficient quantities as well.

So long as there is a large enough industrial base to produce the parts to make bicycles, then bicycles can be competitive with horses. However, if the industrial base is too small, then horses will become dominant.

  • $\begingroup$ German troops on bicycles... Is this an eco-Blitzkrieg? ;) $\endgroup$ – Shadow1024 May 8 '19 at 15:28

The difference is towing capacity

A bike is only as powerful as its attached human. Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins can generate over 400 Watts in peak power for an hour or so...but he is a Tour de France winner. You can hit the bike in the gym to see how much power you can produce; I'd suggest that 100 Watts for a couple hours is good for an in-shape human

James Watt generated the unit "horsepower" by doing experiments on mine horses. A horsepower is 735 Watts (incidentally, Watts were not invented by Watt, though they were named after him). The mine horses were worked in 4 hour shifts, so they generated this power over a four hour period, then rested, as was apparently the common practice in the day to prevent over-working.

I'd say you could assume a horse will generate around 10 times the power output of a man. Now, apply this to towing capacity. It is a lot easier to take your produce to market with a horse than with a bike. Living in a rural area and in a post-apocalyptic world, this is going to be the most important thing to you.

  • $\begingroup$ Of course, this is changed if you factor in time you run the power. As time increases, the Horse becomes less optimal than human power. Humans are evolved to be the best persistence predators in the world. Sure the horse is faster than the human, but the human can keep a consistent pace longer than a horse. So long as humans can track the horse, or any animal, the human wins (the only speed record our species holds in the animal kingdom is the Ultra-Marathon, which is about a 100 mile run). $\endgroup$ – hszmv May 7 '19 at 20:06
  • $\begingroup$ @hsmv No way a human wins in power integrated over time. A human that can do 100W for 16 hours a day is no better than a horse that does 400W over 4 hours. The latter is standard for work horses, the former is quite a challenge for the average human; try 100W for just one hour on an exercise bike at the gym. Of course, a horse could be pushed significantly beyond 400W for short times, or beyond 4 hours for a working day ... $\endgroup$ – kingledion May 8 '19 at 0:17
  • $\begingroup$ @kingldion: Your not factoring in the Horses' rest period vs. a human rest period which covers for the gap. Assuming that the horse works exactly four hours a day this is a 4 hours up, 20 hours down gap. Humans in manual labor can do an 8 hour shift. This would be 8 up, 16 down. This is where the power integrated over time tilts against the horse's favor as the human machine can be run for twice as long as an equine machine, with less down time. Even if a horse can do more work per hour (735 Watts/hour to 400 Watts/hour... cause we're talking humans in manual labor ready conditions)...+ $\endgroup$ – hszmv May 8 '19 at 13:31
  • $\begingroup$ @kingldion: A horse only runs 4 hours out of a total 24 hour period, netting a 2940 Watts/Operational period of a Horse, where as a human runs for 8 hours of a 24 hour period, netting 3200 Watts/Operational Period of a Human. Already, humans close the gap with a 260 Watt/Operational period lead. And this gets repeated the next day and the next day and the next day and the gaps widen in the human's favor... Persistent predators rely on needing a shorter recovery period than your prey. Your other problem is you're pitting an exceptional horse against an average human+ $\endgroup$ – hszmv May 8 '19 at 13:47
  • $\begingroup$ @kingldion: Even at that comparison the 100 w/ 16 hour per day vs 400 / 4 hour per day you place from that is still in the human's favor as the horse and human arrive at the same point in their work period. In a hunt situation, in order to survive, the horse will have to sacrifice 8 hours of the 20 hour rest period to get away from the human sufficiently enough that the human cannot keep up... that is you're gonna run the horse... or to put it another way, the horse will have to run three work periods straight to without the recovery period, to escape the human on two work periods. $\endgroup$ – hszmv May 8 '19 at 13:54

A blacksmith works with cast iron, not the aluminum, titanium, and carbon fiber of modern bicycle frames (frame materials). I'm not sure that you can rely on a blacksmith fixing the typical preapocalypse bicycle. Steel would be the most accessible, but it's also heavy and most prefer lighter bicycles.

It's possible that they might build cast iron bicycles. But wood might be a better material, as cast iron is heavy. (Science of Cycling: History of Bicycle Frames)

On a flat, an off-road bike can expect ten to twelve miles per hour (about sixteen to twenty kilometers per hour). Some people may do better or worse, as fitness matters.

A horse can do twenty miles in an hour (but then needs to rest). Or two miles in three minutes (and then needs to rest). Reference.com. So for a moderate distance, the horse will outrun the bicycle on the flat or uphill. A bicycle can go faster downhill though. And a fit cyclist can ride farther than a fit horse. Horses are sprinters, not distance runners.

The greater problem might be that if you go twenty miles (or even two), the lawman might be out of jurisdiction while the criminals will find friends. There are reasons why the typical pursuit involved a posse rather than a single lawman.

"Manufacturing" a horse is easier than a bicycle after an apocalypse. All you need is two horses of the appropriate sexes and sources of food and water. A place to shelter the horses is helpful but not required (mustang). It's a slow process, but it mostly happens naturally.

Bicycles will be easy to find at first, but repairing them will tend to make them heavier and therefore slower (except downhill). This will also be expensive. It can take hours of a blacksmith's time to make a small part that an assembly line would have made in seconds. And bicycles have a number of small, breakable parts.

Incidentally, if you have diesel trains, you could also have diesel trucks and cars. I've driven a diesel Volkswagen Rabbit. Any kind of diesel will tend to be durable and capable of burning a wide variety of fuels (e.g. vegetable oil or motor oil), albeit possibly with some modification.

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    $\begingroup$ Making a bicycle out of cast iron is ridiculous. Bamboo would be the obvious choice (and you can find such today). It isn't as robust to make it out of wood, but wood frames are far more likely and readily available. And steel would be the metal of choice anyway, not cast iron. This isn't the "lost all knowledge and reverted to the stone age" kind of apocalypse - the knowledge wasn't lost, just the larger infrastructure supporting modern life. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Apr 18 '19 at 13:19
  • $\begingroup$ A possibly useful note, but "Cast iron" is NOT a 'primitive metal working' skill. Wrought Iron is what you're possibly looking for, but the difference from working in modern steel is rather limited. Castings for a bike, whether iron or steel, would be of highly limited use. Especially compared to composite steel and wood bike designs. $\endgroup$ – TheLuckless Apr 18 '19 at 16:01

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