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?

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 :-)


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.


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.


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?


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..

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.