Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The Rise of Tricycle Pushcarts

[Guest post by Albert. I spent some time as Albert's guest on the little island of which he writes. It is one of my favorite places in the world.]

"Even in backward mining communities, as late as the sixteenth century more than half the recorded days were holidays; while for Europe as a whole, the total number of holidays, including Sunday, came to 189, a number even greater than those enjoyed by Imperial Rome. Nothing more clearly indicates a surplus of food and human energy, if not material goods. Modern labor-saving devices have as yet done no better.

Lewis Mumford, Myth of the Machine : Technics and Human Development, 1967.

In rural México, the number of holidays competes with the number of workdays to see which will find more space on the calendar. Not that the people don’t work, mind you, just that they like to keep hours at any given task as brief as possible, to maintain perspective. As in most agricultural regions of the world, diversity and entrepreneurship is ingrained. When times are especially tight, this instinct goes into overdrive.

I have been wintering in a small Mayan fishing village that is part of a natural reserve and like most villages in México it is laid out on a New England-style town grid. There were no ancient Roman master planners or 1950’s city engineers that surveyed these grids. Nearly all were spontaneous extensions from a single spine road that sent off perpendicular ribs at regular intervals, and those sent off cross-lanes at approximately the same intervals—usually 6 or 8 homes on a side—that created the matrix. Grids like these, as the Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese and Romans understood, enhance the interactions amongst people and encourage a free flow of products, services and information.

Living on one such street, all of them unpaved here, I have noticed a discernible uptick in the number and variety of pushcarts. Here they are called tricyclos. In other places—Denmark or Holland, for instance—modern pushcarts are “cargo cycles.” They can take different forms but the most common is what is known in the bike world as tadpole or front-load trike—2 wheels in front and 1 wheel in the back. These are ideal for food vendors or pedicabs which require frequent interactions with the scene on the street.

A world leader in trike evolution is Christiania, the 800-member urban ecovillage in Copenhagen. Their company, Christianabikes began in 1976 as a small cottage industry to support the alternative community. Today Christianabikes is transnational in reach and constantly improving its designs. For long-hauls, it has low-slung cargo bikes. For vendors like those in Mexico, it has a simple tadpole design that can be customized to meet virtually any use. What we see in Mexico are mostly Chinese-made clones of Christiania’s original design, or Mexican fabrications of the Chinese fabrications tacked together in local welding shops. Creations like these, which date back a century or more, should be acknowledged to be ‘open source’ by now.

What struck me is that I cannot recall a time in the past decade that I have been observing these vendors when there were more of them. Call it a sign of the times, but every few hours another passes by the front of my house, shouting out what he or she is selling. In the morning its newspapers and fresh, hand-made tortillas. Around lunchtime is it fresh garden vegetables, epizote, bread and other kinds of unprepared food. There might be a tricycle for fruits and juices, another for tomatoes, onions and peppers, another for potatoes, beans and rice. By late afternoons they may pass by with fresh sweetbreads, steaming hot tamales, or corn on the cob.

A man with his tricycle grinding stone offers to sharpen machetes, knives, scissors, shovels, or any other sharp objects. A man with a blender (12V but it could as easily be pedal-powered) makes cups of shaved ice with sweet corn or coconut.

You can buy a tricycle brand-new, assembled, already painted in taxi colors of orange and white, and be ready to take a fare straight from hardware store to wherever they are going. The price of a new Chinese-built trike is 3200 pesos, about US$229.32 at today’s rates. The board that goes across the bars for a seat was salvaged from the trash at no cost, but perhaps some cushioned fabric is sewn over to help you through the potholes. Typically a fare pays 20 pesos ($1.43) for up to a 10-block ride.

I asked a tortilla vendor who plies a regular daily afternoon route how much he sells in an average day. “100 kilos” is what he said. His corn tortillas sell for a 3-peso mark-up over the tortilla factory (and there are three of them within a 5-block radius). So if he sells 100 kg, he makes 300 pesos per day, enough to pay for the tricycle in just under 11 days. Perhaps his wife has a masa roller and automated oven at home and he makes his own tortillas and the margin is even better.

Stopping by the largest of the tortilla factories in town — a one-room addition to a family home, which now employs three women from outside the family to turn corn meal masa into machine-stamped tortillas — I inquired how many tortillas they make in a typical day. “Ocho o nueve,” she said, meaning eight or nine metric tons — 8000 to 9000 kilos — and remember, this is just one of three within a short distance, and many people prefer to make their own at home. The entrepreneurial drive explores for available niches and fills them. Many of these factories supply restaurants and grocery stores. Retail home sales pass through bulk buyers at the tortilleria, like my local trike man, who do just fine with the small margin people are willing to pay for the convenience of not walking around the corner.

I noticed that my man sometimes gets lucky and lands a really big sale, however. Maybe someone is throwing a big party (and this happens often) and needs 20 kg. Or a tendajón finds itself short on a holiday weekend and buys 50 kg. His route is pretty small, just a few blocks, but if his son could run his trike in the mornings, or a second trike in the afternoon when he is making his rounds, perhaps he could extend his family’s range and double their earnings. Then again, as I’ve seen, he’s not interested in that, preferring to live quite adequately on 300 pesos per day ($21.50) in a town where the average unskilled worker makes even less than that. Or perhaps he has another job already and is just enlarging the family’s income by putting in a few extra hours while schmoozing with his neighbors.

For me, I’d rather save 3 pesos and ride my bike a couple blocks to the tortilleria, but that’s mainly because, being a writer, I need excuses to force myself out of my chair. As times have become tougher for average people, I’ve also noticed more homes along my bike route opening their front rooms to make tendejóns or comidas economicas. A comida economica provides a home-cooked meal with table service, giving the buyer a plate of whatever the family is making that day. A tendejón is an informal home store. It might have home-grown pigs, chickens or eggs for sale, or garden produce. It shares the same root word, tener (to have), as the more formal store or mini-mart (tienda), but whether for legal reasons or just wanting to keep it more neighborly, a tendejón is an unpredictable collection of wares in someone’s living room, next to their Christmas tree and fluorescent blinking statute of the Virgin of Guadelupe.

Between the tendejón and the tienda lie the more formal abarrotes, or package stores, which usually sell cold beer, insect repellent and junk food. These are usually under a residence or in an adjoining building to the family’s principal dwelling. There are one or more abarrotes, tendejóns and tiendas on nearly every block.

Tricyclos are a common sight in much of Yucatán Peninsula, as they are in Asia, Africa, South America and other parts of the two-thirds world. In the United States you mention a tricycle and people think of Monty Python or Laugh-In. In the global south they are multifunctional and ubiquitous. You see them as fishermen’s friends, beach-roving gear-buckets for surfers, portable crepe parlors, bellhop cabin service, and the poor man’s moving van.

Low-tech Magazine, an on-line compendium, describes many novel uses for pedal power, from archival scans of Sears Catalog pages circa 1892 to a modern recumbent cargo quads. Corn grinding, water pumping and sewer-system cleaning are all potentially portable, pedal-powered services. These are niches that will likely be explored in the South far sooner than when people in North finally decide to come down off of their high horses and get a third wheel.

12 comments:

beetleswamp said...

if you're not ready to go all-in on a trike or your streets are too crazy with cars for three wheels there are always porteur racks for the front of your current ride.

Brant Jones said...

This entry is why I like your writings so much and why I don't fear collapse but I'm almost looking forward to it. It reminds me of something I read in Masanobu Fukuoka's "Natural Farming." There he tells how the ancient Japanese woodsmen would gather at the edge of the woods at the start of the day and, arm in arm, would go into the woods singing. Today, he says, the woodsmen have chain saws and bobcats and can cut down much more wood than they previously could but no one sings anymore.
Thanks also for the references.

Polyorchnid Octopunch said...

Interestingly enough, here in my home town of Kingston Ontario (in Canada), I'm seeing more and more of those trikes here, though the usual model here is two wheels in the back with the cargo behind the rider. Might have to do with wanting more drive wheels in winter... there are several services (grocery delivery for local produce etc) that are using them now. I think this is being more ideologically driven than economically driven, but I'm sure the money they save on gas (and the exercise they get means they save money on the gym too) is welcome.

Paul Thompson said...

What's missing from this picture, is the dead hand of government - regulation. Such enterprise would be all but impossible in most places on North America, Western Europe or Australia. Try 'hanging out your shingle' here and watch how fast a government official (ranger, 'health' inspector, licencing official or cop) will show up and demand (with menaces) a share of your effort, for the Leviathian.

hawlkeye said...

Joel Salatin in his recent excellent Folks, This Ain't Normal, tells the story of the food police poking a thermometer under a dozen eggs he had on display at a growers' market. The temp was too high for regulations, and he was asked to destroy them immediately. When he explained they were just the display carton and that he sold from a cooler behind him, it didn't matter. Right now, in my presence...splat.

This institutionalized contempt for food producers is not going to end well...

kollapsnik said...

Salatin is a firebrand. He makes lots of excellent points. Yes, the regulators are serving corporate interests. But, guess what, they would serve those interests even better by not existing altogether. As we rebel against them, we also entirely give up the ability to control the corporations' ability to poison us with impunity. There is nothing normal about this country any more. All roads lead to collapse... through collapse.

hawlkeye said...

Please explain further, if you don't mind, because it seems they're poisoning us with impunity now. I'm thinking of the recent revelations of blackbird poisoning by the USDA. When the governmental agencies become fully populated with the pimps of industry, who exactly is regulating whom? Criminals helping criminals.

I see the regulators serving corporate interests because they ARE the corporate interests in the revolving door career merry-go-round. How can legitimate controls be returned to the agencies when they're all Self Appointed Inc.? Thanks...

TH in SoC said...

Kollapsnik,
I get your point and I agree. I'll have more to say on that point elsewhere, particularly in reference to a certain antebellum congressman with big ears from Texas who is trying to become President.

DeVaul said...

When I was in Thailand, nearly everyone had a portable grill that they pushed to a certain spot each day. They would sell grilled anything, or fresh cut fruit, making it totally unnecessary for anyone to have a kitchen that did not exceed a hotplate and a rice steamer.

My wife keeps asking me if she can sell this or that outside our house or downtown, and I just say "no" because I cannot possibly explain to her all the laws and regulations against that here.

The regulations came about because of the criminal negligence of the food industry during the late 1800's and early 1900's, which libertarians refer to as the "golden age" of small business.

Death by e.coli and food poisonng was so ubiquitous that it was not even recorded for statistical purposes. The same situation would exist in Thailand if they did not have modern medicine, and stomaches made of iron.

I have my own three wheeled bike now, and it has a basket that will allow me to deliver pottery or mushrooms to anyone who wants to buy them, but I regard that kind of future as one where hunger and frostbite are as common as freedom.

Lidia17 said...

hawlkeye, where I live in Europe, all eggs are out at room temperature, in delis, butcher shops, and in supermarkets of all size.

Just imagine the expenditures involved in refrigerating billions of eggs unnecessarily.

casperhooey said...

Hawlkeye, Ultimately it's all about power. There's no way big business is going to allow changes that strip them of their power. Companies directly stamp out a lot of competition and try to never pay for the harm they do. Regulations play a part in it just like what's omitted from regulation does. Both taxes and tax cuts have a role. At this point it may not be the best use of resources to try to fight them either, at least in the political and regulatory arena. What's got to happen and what's inevitably going to happen is the big powers are going to cave in on themselves and can't enforce all the rules anymore, or exempt themselves from all liability. There'll be new players for sure, but without the resources to run this same kind of monstrosity again, there's a chance nothing as big and horrid is going to rise up from the ashes. A lot of the practical ideas Salatin's putting out are excellent and the new book's a good one, but the last few chapters are pure idealism and have little to do with lived reality.

Franz said...

I like your blog. I bought a Christiania cargo bike last year and we as a family use it and adore it. It's a happy and cheerful way of travelling short distances, tax free, burning calories instead of fuel. I even mentioned lots of different cargo bikes in my book, "Back to basics" (On sale from Amazon) which talks about how to cope with the forthcoming depression. I suggest that everyone gets a cargo bike now and some land to grow food.
Things will not be very pretty in a few years - invest now in good skills!
We really need to go back to basics - politicians included.
http://backtobasicshub.blogspot.com/

Take care!
Franz in England