Why It’s Hard to Find a Used Bicycle in Denmark

(Photo: king_david_uk)

Visiting friends in Copenhagen and cycling around the city, I wondered why so many bicycles were new (and, having experienced Scandinavian pricing, expensive). When I lived in England, I bought a three-speed BSA bicycle from the wonderful Chris Lloyd Bikes repair shop for only £60 (about $100). The bicycle had already lasted 40 or 50 years; according to Laplace’s rule of succession, it would probably last another 40 or 50 years — at least with regular maintenance. Which I provided. When any problem turned up, I took the bicycle back to Chris Lloyd, who set it right for a right price.

That’s the difference from Denmark, with one of the world’s highest hourly wages. In a modern factory, that cost is more than balanced by the productivity of highly sophisticated and automated machinery. However, as Baumol and Bowen found for playing music quartets, repairing a bicycle wouldn’t happen much faster with fancier tools. Bicycle repair, unless you find a tricorder, requires a lot of human expertise and time. If the repair takes a couple of hours, in Denmark that could cost $200 or $300.

At those prices, anyone except the handiest will just junk the old bicycle, carbon-dioxide pollution be damned, and buy a new one.

(Related: used bikes are very dear in Portland as well.)

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  1. Rod says:

    Aren’t people who spend a lot of money on a bike and use them often more likely to have the skills to repair their bikes?

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 16 Thumb down 19
    • Bob says:

      I’m not sure. It seems to be a baseless assumption. You may have a lot of money to spend on bikes, and you may use them often, but that doesn’t necessarily imply you’ll take the time to learn the skills needed to repair the bike.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 24 Thumb down 3
    • Daniel says:

      I think the point is that people don’t sell the used bikes if they are broken.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2
    • ExoByte` says:

      No. Similarly, a small % of car owners, computer owners, shoe owners, watch owners and clothing owners can repair those items. Also, those who spend more money on those items are not more inclined to be able to repair those (quite the opposite I’d suspect).

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 1
  2. rationalrevolution says:

    True, but there is little to be done about it other than implement regulations.

    The same case exists in America with things that are built in China. It’s cheaper to just pay the Chinese to make a new thing than it is to pay an American to fix it. That’s true of pretty much all electronics. I recognized this as a child in a discussion about VCR repair, so it’s pretty obvious.

    Regardless of the wage, as manufacturing efficiency increases, repair of used items becomes increasingly less economical (and ironically, the incentive to build repairable items also decreases).

    Generally speaking, there is an inverse relationship between labor efficiency and material efficiency. The less efficient labor is, typically the more efficient we are with our use of resources. The more efficient labor becomes, the less efficient we become with our use of resources.

    In many ways modern production techniques are very inefficient with resources, while be very efficient with labor. When you are producing something manually you want to minimize waste. When you automate it, often focus on minimizing manual labor, often as a cost of material waste.

    For example, if you are carving wooden gun stocks by hand, you’re going to want to get the most out of every piece of wood possible. Stuff like standardization is less important. You may make different styles of gun stocks based on the cut of wood and try to maximize the amount of wood you use from each tree. And if you make a mistake on a gun stock, chances are you will try to salvage that piece by modifying it a little or using it to make a different type of gun stock, etc.

    On the other hand, if you are automating that process your focus is going to be on maximizing throughput. You want to all your blanks cut identically, so if this leads to more waste of wood that doesn’t fit the standard, that’s less important. Instead of making use of odd ends, etc., those will just be discarded.

    Likewise if there is a mistake and a stock gets damaged in the process it will just be discarded. It’s more efficient to maximize the process than to try and maximize the use of the materials.

    This is true of all manufacturing processes, all you are doing here is calling out one specific example, but really you could call out millions of examples in every nation on earth.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 43 Thumb down 1
  3. Sara says:

    There’s another factor which I think is equally important: bike theft. Last year alone, almost 70,000 bikes were stolen in Denmark. When someone has their bike stolen, they wait for the insurance money and then use that money to buy a new bike.

    Thumb up 8 Thumb down 4
    • David says:

      Why wouldn’t they buy a used bike?

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0
      • pawnman says:

        Why would you use insurance money specifically designed to replace your bike with a new one on a used bike?

        Thumb up 4 Thumb down 4
      • James says:

        Because you’d then have a large fraction of the insurance money left over to do something else with?

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1
    • Joe J says:

      Unless they are being stolen and taken out of the country, there would still be old bikes around. Wondering if there is an underground incentive to sell your bike somehwere else claim it stolen to get a new bike.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0
  4. Mike B says:

    Usually if something has high repair costs then resale value goes down. If you look in the right places you should be able to find some very inexpensive bikes in need of repair. Learn how to repair a bike and you’re golden.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1
    • Søren Have says:

      As mentioned by Sara, bikes are often stolen and then either leave the country or is left some where until the Police picks it up. At that time the owner has gotten the insurance money and bought a new one.
      It is then sold on auction – some to private people, some to professional repair people.
      So it is possible to buy used bikes in Denmark. You can also buy mine for €100: 13 years old, OK kept, one gear, with a child seat on the back :-)

      Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1
      • Mike B says:

        I am reminded by differences between the resale value of bottom end used cars in the UK, which I believe is very low, and the US, where it is much higher. In that case the requirement to pass the MoT test and high user scrappage fees drives the cost of used cars down to essentially free. In the US there are few inspection tests so cars can be driven in a much lower state of repair and the lack of regulation in the scrap market means that there is a much higher price floor so it is hard to find American used cars much below $1000.

        Re bikes if you look in Craigslist you can find used ones offered in working condition for prices that are lower than it costs to rent. My friend did this on a trip to San Francisco and then just gave the bike away to the hotel concierge telling him to find someone who needs it.

        Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
  5. Joe says:

    How does a tricorder repair a bike? I’ve always assumed that the tricorder was a diagnostic device and the actual repairs were still performed by humans. From diagnostic standpoint, it seems that there isn’t much difficulty in figuring out what’s wrong with a bike.

    But, maybe I’m not enough of a star trek geek to see how.

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  6. Consumer says:

    That’s actually true not just for bicycles. In any western country with relarively higher wages that happens all the time. Pretty much any electronics product will cost much-much more to repair than scrapping it and buying a new one.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
  7. Kevin says:

    It seems someone should load up the surplus of damaged bikes into a container and send them to a place with affordable labor.

    It’s also worth noting this while article is based on the anecdotal observations of a visitor.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2
    • Jeff P says:

      As for Kevin’s idea of sending damaged bikes to a place with affordable labor, that happens – at least in the Far East. If you drive around the Philippines you’ll see shops everywhere which sell “Japan Surplus” items, including used bicycles.

      Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  8. James says:

    Maybe you should ask why people sell (used) bikes in the first place. Seems to me there are two main reasons: either they are serious riders who want to upgrade to the newest tech, or they bought the bike on a whim, don’t use it, and are clearing out the garage. The supply of the first sort is pretty limited anywhere, while in a place where bike riding is common, there will be few of the second sort, and they will be fairly high-end (like buying a used Porsche). Since both Denmark and Portland seem to be that sort of place, you would expect few used bikes.

    It does make me wonder why no one imports used bikes to Portland from other places. There are about 15 adult bikes on the local Craigslist today, at prices from $45 up to $1800.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1
    • Joe J says:

      That would explain why there are no used bikes for sale. However not what the author commented on, no used bikes for sale or in circulation at all.
      A third reason to get a new bike, child out grows it.
      Other possible reasons: I’m guessing here, bikes weren’t in fashion a few years ago, or some new reg came out saying old bikes unsafe for some reason.

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    • Gunnar says:

      You’ll find plenty of used bicycles if you look in the right place:

      http://www.dba.dk/cykler/cykler-og-cykelanhaengere/

      10.000 used bicycles.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1