(Note to people who don't care about bikes: I will be writing a non-bike post soon. Maybe. The downside of having a potpourri blog like this is that sometimes I will get really obsessed with a single topic and talk about it to the exclusion of anything else. For weeks. But hey, it's not like you're paying for this thing and I only get like fifty hits a week, so, neener.)
Over on Lovely Bicycle, there is a post entitled A Handful of Rust: Bicycles as Waste that's engendered some pretty interesting discussions. I can agree with the gist of it: that ideally, every bicycle (or object in general) would be built to last, and we would place a higher priority on fixing the objects we own instead of buying new things. It is true, we should do these things. However, I think there is a tiny bit of elitism in the sentiment that "more expensive/handmade/vintage is better," plus the idea that anyone can afford a "good" (i.e. more expensive/handmade/vintage) bicycle if they're willing to save or hunt for it. No, not everyone can afford it, and no, they're not always better. Somebody below the poverty line, who bikes not because they want to but because they can't afford a car or can't get a license due to their legal status, isn't going to have an easy time pulling together even $300 for a low-end "real" bike. For them, a bicycle is not intended to be a thing of beauty, it's a form of transportation plain and simple, and I'd be a real jerk if I told someone who might be supporting a family on a few hundred dollars a month that they're doing it wrong by buying a cheap Walmart bike and replacing it every few years. Of course, not all people who buy the cheapest bikes are poor illegal immigrants... but at least SOME of them are, and they're the ones least likely to be able to change their ways. Any blanket condemnation of cheap-ass unrepairable bikes has to include at least a small caveat for those people who use these bikes not out of ignorance or wastefulness, but because it's the only option.
I also don't believe that there is a direct 1:1 relationship between the price of a bicycle and its quality. Granted, I haven't had much experience with different makes and models of bikes, but I DO ride a lower-end (though not department store level) comfort hybrid, and I've noticed that comfort bikes in general tend to get the short end of the stick in bike-blog-land. To which I wonder: why? Yes, a bike like mine won't get you speed, it won't go on the roughest trails, it is not as aesthetically pleasing as a Dutch bike. But as a general, all-purpose bike? It's great! I can take it a mile to the store, load it up with 20 lbs worth of stuff, and bring it home, and then ride some twenty miles on paved roads at a national park. It's slower than most of the other bikes at the park, sure, but it'll get me up all but the steepest hills, and that's more a fault of my still underdeveloped leg muscles than the bike. I've read some reviews (again, mostly from people whose tastes run to fancier road bikes) that these bikes cause back pain if ridden for a long period of time, but I've not had that happen yet, cross fingers. Some bike blogs, including Lovely Bicycle, say that it's better to get multiple bikes for multiple uses, and to that I agree... again in theory. But in reality, I don't have the space for a half-dozen bikes or more. I could say I wish I did, but I don't: me and Rob have been on a big decluttering kick lately in preparation of moving into a smaller place, and having multiple bicycles, however awesome and specialized, would interfere with this new less-stuff philosophy. So a bike that can "do it all, kinda" is the best option I have, and so far it's been a great bike. Although maybe I'm just one of the lucky ones for whom a comfort hybrid fits like a glove.
Department store bikes also serve an important purpose by allowing people who might be a little rusty on their biking skills (many adult bikers, myself included, had not ridden since childhood before taking it up again) to not make a huge initial investment in what might turn out to be an expensive piece of modern art, if they can't remember how to ride or dislike it for whatever reason. Of course, a bikeshare or rental program would serve this purpose just as well, or better. I would have only needed to use a bikeshare bike a couple of times before realizing, yeah, I like this, and spending the money on my Raleigh without buying a $70 BSO from Amazon first. The fact is, most people won't invest a lot of money in something they're not sure they're going to like, so a $100 crap bike isn't a lot to spend in order to realize that you enjoy biking and want to get a better bike in order to fully enjoy it.
Of course, there's labor concerns involved with these department store bikes, most of them being built in China with semi-slave labor. Then again many Dutch bikes are built in Eastern Europe with semi-slave labor that is only marginally less exploitative than the Chinese factories. My Raleigh was built in Vietnam and I'm almost certain it was built by slaves. See also: most cars. Unless you get your bike from a local builder--and I may do that for my next bike in five or ten years--you're almost certainly going to get something made by people working in substandard conditions. Keep in mind that a bike made with exploited labor is still better in a human rights sense than a car made with exploited labor, as that car also requires daily infusions of fuel, the extraction of which exploits additional thousands of people. Everything in life is a compromise.
Maybe "timeless" vintage bikes have a better chance of not winding up in the dump than blue-light specials, but maybe not. Some people on the thread mention that they have department store bikes that have lasted for years and been passed down. And some of the vintage bike-buying bloggers seem to get a new bike every year, which doesn't seem to me to be any less wasteful than the recurrent Walmart bike buyers, except that they'd probably donate or sell their old bikes instead of junking them. But when it comes down to it, consumerism is consumerism, and everyone is guilty of it, whether they're spending $200 on a new department store bike every few years or constantly upgrading a vintage bike to make it "perfect." How many replacement parts are made with slave labor, anyway?
My opinion? Find one or two bikes you like, pay what you're comfortable with, and run them into the ground. You're still supporting a lot of unseemly things, but not as much as if you were to keep replacing and upgrading, whether it's to a Walmart bike or a vintage bike. And remember that no amount of "bike waste" comes even remotely close to the environmental and social damage wrought by the car. This doesn't give one a pass to be needlessly wasteful, but it's an important bit of perspective.