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.)


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?


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.


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.



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.


Why wouldn't they buy a used bike?


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

Mike B

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.

Søren Have

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 :-)

Mike B

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.


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.


Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor not a bicycle repairman.


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.


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.

Jeff P

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.


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.

Joe J

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.


New bikes can be expensive. Take a $2000-3000 road bike. I would certainly pay $200 to fix it.

But ... sign of the times perhaps? I think the same situation applies to many things ... i.e. small consumer electronics like computer printers for instance. Things are so cheap that even spending an hour on skilled labour to fix it will cost more than the device itself. Is that a testament to our innovation that goods are made cheaply and efficiently, or is it an indication that our wage expectations are pricing live human beings out of the modern economy?


Fix a printer? These days its getting cheaper to buy a new inkjet printer than replacement ink cartridges for the old one :-(


Inkjet printers are a special case where the the ONLY profit function they have for the manufacturer is to sell the ink cartridges, which are, by weight of ink, more expensive than gold. Literally. Look it up.

Bicycles are are not in that class.


Not only is labor expensive, bike parts are also ridiculousy so. To buy a whole bike in parts would cost many times over what a ready made one costs. Having lived in China and seen domestic pricing there, one can imagine that margins on new bikes are lucrative enough to make the repair shop want you to just buy a new one instead. The merchant has always made more money then the handy-man..

Joe J

Doesn''t jive, one old bike becomes the cheap parts to repair a dozen other bikes. With the idea a old or broken bike would get tossed, it is parts for free.

Chris Alban Hansen

I live in Copenhagen, Denmark, and I rarely see new bicycles.

I guess our bicycles look new compared to what you may find in other cities or countries, but the fact is that new bicycles are expensive and even expensive to insure in Denmark, especially in Copenhagen.

Most people I know do not buy new bicycles for that particular reason.

As pointed out in another comment, we have a lot of bicycle thefts. The deductibles in the insurance is typical around 200 dollars, and a new bicycle costs from 400 dollars.

Basically, we buy used bicycles and when they get stolen, we get our few dollars from the insurance and buy yet another used bicycle.

So, why do our bicycles resemble new ones? It could be that Danes in the rural areas of Denmark buy new bicycles more often as the thieves mostly haunts of Copenhagen. So they sell their used, but pretty new looking bicycles through classified ads to Copenhageners.

That might pretty well be the circle of a bicycle's lifetime in Denmark – bought as new in small towns, sold used to Copenhageners and stolen a few months later then being shipped abroad.


Mikael Colville-Andersen

A massive overhaul of a regular bicycle in Denmark costs about $150 at a local bicycle shop. The minimum wage in Denmark is about $25 per hour, if you're working at McDonalds. It's not the price that is the key factor. It's a huge cultural perception of the bicycle as being merely a tool that makes our everyday lives easier. There is little bike geek fetischism. It's like vacuum cleaners... we all have one, we all use them. We don't wave at other vacuum cleaner enthusiasts on the street or polish our vacuum cleaners.

On this subject, Freakonomics is desperately seeking -nomics but misses the mark because it is all about culture.


The inverse of this is evident with automobiles in Cuba.

Philip Kaare Loeventoft

Except that there is a big market for both used bycycles sold online and in shops too, and that people *do* get bicycles repaired. There is just a very big price difference between the expensive downtown bicycle shops, that I imagine you frequented as a tourist, and the cheaper ones in for example Noerrebro or Oesterbro.

But of course the wages do have an impact on what kinds of repairs make sense. I think everybody has been to the bicycle repair man once and got told, that it would be more expensive to repair the bike, than just buy a new one.


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

There you'll find 10.000 used bicycles for sale.


For many people living in Copenhagen at all age and wage levels, myself included, their bike is their only mean of transportation. I use it every day. Therefore I also spend money on my bike unlike something I would use only once in a while, as could be the case other places.

Regarding reparation it should be obvious from the city's many bike repair shops that bikes do get repaired.

Another important point is that you can spend money on your bike in Copenhagen because the chance of getting it stolen is less than the value of having good transportation.

Finally, maybe the reason why you see all these new bikes is because they actually get used.


I can't help but wonder just how you are determining that the bikes are new. To a casual glance, there's not a lot of difference between my maybe 20 year old road bike (bought used) and a new one.


I think one of the main reason are theft. East european gangs are driving around throwing bikes on a trailer, and exporting the bikes.

I got 2 bikes stolen in 7 years(had both of them less than a year), and a lot of my friends gets theirs stolen as well.

The prices are high indeed, but I think theft is the main reason why people have new bikes instead of old, and the fact that it's a nice thing to have a newer bike.

The best thing though, would be to have an old bike, as they aren't that attractive to steal.

/Michael - Odense, Denmark

Caleb B

Can anyone tell me why the hell the bikes are so expensive in the first place?
$100 for a used bike??? In Dallas I can get a used bike for $30 and it'll only be a year old. What am I missing, why so expensive over there?

Chris Alban Hansen

Wages are high. Taxes are high. It's the Scandinavian welfare and labor model. Either you love it or you hate it. But everyone here get free healthcare and education, and in the end we can afford to pay $100 for a used bicycle.

Frits van Zanten

I had a similar experience on a bicycle holiday in the steep hills of Dordogne, France in 1982 (!) where the local repair man refused to put a new wheel in my bicycle ('too expensive') when the bearings broke down for the third time in a row (two times before leaving for the journey; after the second repair everything, I was assured, was allright now), fortunately on walking distance from the repair shop. Unfortunately 10 miles later the bearings were worn out again. The remaining part of the bicycle holiday we stayed on the remotely situated camping site. Back home no arguments, a new wheel. Wages in Holland made a new wheel cheaper than the repair. In France the new wheel however was 4 times as expensive as the repair (that lasted as mentioned only about an hour).