AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Lurking under the surface of any waterway could be dozens or hundreds, even thousands of bicycles. Bike-sharing companies have fished out thousands of their rental bikes from rivers in southern China. Another rental company simply stopped business in Rome because too many of its bicycles were thrown into the Tiber. In Amsterdam, 15,000 bikes are pulled from canals each year, and that is actually an improvement from before. People are obviously not trying to ride across water. So what's with all these sunken bicycles? Well, Jody Rosen has given this a lot of thought in his book "Two Wheels Good: The History And Mystery Of The Bicycle." He joins us now. Welcome.
JODY ROSEN: Thanks, Ailsa - great to be here.
CHANG: Great to have you. OK, so I just mentioned a few examples there of these underwater bicycle graveyards. Can you just really briefly paint us a picture of how widespread this is around the world?
ROSEN: Yeah. This is a phenomenon that came to my attention first because I started to see news items from various places. You know, a city bike here in New York City, where I live, turned up at a docking station kind of blistered with oysters and barnacles and things like that. And I started Googling around online and noticed that this was a very widespread phenomenon on at least three continents. So it's definitely a widespread problem, but it's also - the extent of the problem, I think, is sort of by definition unknown because after all, it's hidden. I mean...
ROSEN: There are bicycles that are literally covered by the waterways of the world. So it's not something where we can ever have, you know, definitive or reliable statistics kind of by definition.
CHANG: So what's going on here? Like, is this theft, vandalism, something else?
ROSEN: You know, I think it's a complicated combination of factors that are at play here. And there seems to be a deep, deep history of mischief making that surrounds bicycles - people tossing them into lakes, rivers, canals for the fun of it. Bicycles seem relatively disposable, you know? They're cheap compared to other things. You often find them sitting around. If you're inclined to make mischief, you know, a bicycle is a pretty fun thing to make mischief with, especially if it's unlocked and in the vicinity of a body of water.
CHANG: Can I just ask you, like, these underwater bicycles - is this a thing that's getting worse and worse as more bike-share programs crop up and there are more just bikes everywhere?
ROSEN: Absolutely. And that's what I think is behind the current widespread phenomenon - is the fact that these bike-share programs are proliferating across the world, which - you can imagine that people feel a little bit more impunity, that a potential bicycle drowner, you know, feels a little bit less guilt attached to tossing a bike in the water if it's a share bike that has maybe, you know, a bank or some sort of corporate sponsor's logo on the mudguard...
ROSEN: ...As opposed to, you know, some individual Joe Schmo's bike. And there may be what you might call a political dimension to this. We're seeing a kind of increasingly heated debate over what kinds of vehicles belong on the streets of cities. Motorists are reacting to the increased numbers of bicycles on the streets, sometimes with great annoyance and sometimes with actual violence. So it may be that these drowned bikes, these trashed and vandalized bikes reflect a kind of ongoing battle for the right to the roadways.
CHANG: Let me ask you, what happens to all of these bicycles once they are recovered? Like, are they just tossed somewhere else?
ROSEN: This is another mystery. And we know that in certain places - for instance, in Amsterdam, there is this municipal core of what they call bicycle fishermen there that the city employs to dredge the bicycles out of the canals. And officials there attribute this phenomenon in part to drunkenness, you know, that people who've maybe had a little bit too much to drink - maybe they're wending their way home after a long night in the bar, might see a bike and say, what the heck? Well, many of those bikes, as it turns out, are recycled into various types of food packaging, including the metal that's used in beer cans. So it could be that there's a kind of ecosystem at work, where someone, a drunken person, tosses a bicycle into the water. That bicycle is eventually extracted by the bicycle fishing core. It's recycled into a beer can. And another drunken person comes along, drinks too much of that beer, tosses another bike into the water, and around we go.
CHANG: That is Jody Rosen, contributing writer for The New York Times magazine and author of "Two Wheels Good: The History And Mystery Of The Bicycle." Thank you so much for joining us.
ROSEN: Thanks, Ailsa. It was really fun.
(SOUNDBITE OF 9TH WONDER SONG, "SEASON COURAGE")
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