Everyday “City Bikes” Need a Stimulus

dutch_bike_pic.jpgThis Oma-fiets (or, Grandma-bicycle, in Dutch) sits for sale at the Market Street storefront of "My Dutch Bike" while a typical "American" bike is pedaled by outside. Photo by Frank Chan.
Like so many people, when Soraya Nasirian saw Dutch people on bicycles, she had an epiphany. "Why aren't more Americans riding bicycles like this?" she wondered. "Why do Americans ride hunched over, on bikes with no racks, carrying their stuff in all kinds of bags and riding so fast and aggressively?"

Seeing an opportunity, Nasirian teamed up with Dutch husband Oscar Mulder to open up a new business to peddle Dutch pedals: My Dutch Bike on Market Street just east of Second Street. Their shop sells a few high-end Dutch city bikes, as well as the bakfiets, the Dutch answer to cargo bikes. Their sales are good enough to keep them in business, she says, although most of their business is online, and they will be moving soon to another location.

My Dutch Bike is just one manifestation of a veritable frenzy of marketing to the fastest-growing segment in the bicycle market: everyday, utilitarian bicycles. It sparks some interesting questions: What can we do to encourage the trend? What will the quintessential American, or San Franciscan, city bike look like?

In every country where bicycles are commonplace transportation, almost every single bike comes equipped with lights, fenders, a rack, and chainguard. In Germany, those items, plus a bell and a kickstand, are mandatory on any bike not sold as a stripped-down "sports bike."

David Baker's "Old Dutch" has all these elements, and the typical Dutch bike geometry - large (28") diameter wheels, very upright posture - that makes them especially elegant for urban transportation. "I have 12 bikes, but this is the one I pick when I go on most trips," Baker says. "It turns the act of riding into this very pleasant and restful ritual." Riding it feels like you're on a "great ship of state."

The fact that his bike is heavy and geared to a slow one-speed is part of the charm to him. He rides for exercise, so a highly efficient bike defeats that purpose. And the large wheels, while being heavier, have less rolling resistance, handle our rough pavement better, and provide more momentum. It helps he does not have to carry his bike up the stairs.

"If our city were serious about promoting bicycle culture, and meeting the MTA's goal of cutting car use in half by 2030 while doubling bicycling and walking, we have to find a way to subsidize new "city bike" purchases."

This is one of the reasons that Gary Fisher thinks that an American "city bike" has to be lightweight. Talking to me from the European bicycle dealers' show in Germany, Fisher explained that most bikes there stay on the ground floor. Also key, he said, is that people there dawdle around on safe bike paths. "In the United States you have to share the street with traffic and it feels safer to keep up a higher speed. In Germany, you just go your own pace."

Industry leaders are always looking for the next electric bikes or the next "mountain bike boom" and many are betting on city bikes for those purposes. Marin's Joe Breeze makes nothing but city bikes these days, and all the big companies have a line of upright bikes with commuting accessories.

Some think that electric bikes are the route to mainstream acceptance of city bicycling in the United States. In Europe, Fisher says, electric bikes "are the absolute rage," accounting for 30 percent of sales by value. Business people love them because their extra cost brings extra profit. From the user's perspective, the bike looks and feels like a regular bike; the lithium ion batteries kick in power only when needed to climb a hill or increase speed. These are not motorcycles; the rider still has to pedal. At an average cost approaching $1,300 each, however, electric-assist bicycles are not the people's bike.

As our bicycle culture develops, will we too get a quintessential American, or San Franciscan city bike, in the same way that the cultures of the Netherlands, Denmark and China, all have bikes so typical of their respective countries?

That's doubtful. Like this city and nation, our city bikes will be probably be diverse.

It does seem important, though, that we usher in the era of the city bike. Nobody has to carefully think through what kind of lights, trunk, and fenders go best with their automobile when they buy it! Nobody has to tuck in their pant legs or adopt an aggressive, athletic posture when they step in their car or walk to the bus. The same has to be true for bicycling if the movement to put the bicycle at the center of urban transportation systems can expect to be successful.

3351593617_b23c80db96.jpgA woman rides a city bike in Amsterdam. Flickr photo: Amsterdamize
Whatever the variety of styles of the new city bikes, they should all have in common the basics: lights, fenders, a rack, chain guard, and a bell. A kickstand would be nice, too. Most will probably sport the 27-inch wheels of road bikes (28-inch wheels, while elegant, are difficult to find replacement parts for).

Also, let's be honest, they won't be cheap. An adequate bicycle with all the "city bike" accessories will cost at least $500; a good one costs more. That's less than a car, sure, but it's more than a year's worth of transit passes and a prohibitive expense for vast numbers of people.

Here's the answer to sparking that new market in city bikes: government subsidy.

If our city were serious about promoting bicycle culture, and meeting the MTA's goal of cutting car use in half by 2030 while doubling bicycling and walking, we have to find a way to subsidize new "city bike" purchases. We already subsidize transit passes at a cost of several million dollars a year. A one-year program to match the transit subsidy with a bike subsidy - let's say that's $2 million - could provide $250 coupons for the first 8,000 residents to qualify. Measures could be built in to the program to ensure the bikes actually remain in the possession of the intended coupon recipient and not sold for a profit, but even if there's "fraud," the program will promote city bikes and urban bicycling.

Such a program, which we could dub "Cash for Cycling Eco Stimulus," would work better at the national level, of course. Even a tiny program, say, using the $123 million not claimed from the $3 billion "cash for clunkers" auto purchase subsidy program, could provide $200 coupons for 615,000 people, close to the 700,000 who claimed some cash for their "clunker." Even that absurdly small program would be a huge boost to the American bicycle industry, whose sales hover around 13.4 million units annually today.