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.

  • Aaron B.

    I ended up with my racing-style road bike mainly because it’s what I found on Craig’s List that was cheap enough, light enough, and my size. I sometimes regret its shortcomings on comfort, but I don’t have to work very hard to get over those hills or get up to speed. If it weren’t San Francisco, I would definitely be on a city bike or hybrid.

  • ZA

    ‘My Dutch Bike’ have very many pretty bikes, and I only wished there was more stock with Aluminum frames to deal with SF’s hills.

    “What will the quintessential American, or San Franciscan, city bike look like?”

    I suspect Xtracycle has answered that question. Otherwise, the typical San Franciscan bicycle will/should include:

    – A relatively light-weight frame
    – Plenty of gears
    – Anti-theft features
    – An inexpensive rack with detachable pannier or other grocery conveyance (ideally for a maximum weight of 6 wine bottles)
    – At least one (if not 5) totally unique expressions of ownership and identity
    – Possibly folding ability to stow on Caltrain/BART/MUNI/restaurant seating.

  • brianna hoffner

    i’ve been wanting a city bike for a while now for many of the reasons listed — comfortable position, a bit of easy-to-use cargo space… and hopefully a lot less time in the shop.

    i do want to take issue with one thing in here, though:

    “At an average cost approaching $1,300 each, however, electric-assist bicycles are not the people’s bike. ”

    did you click through to mydutchbike’s website? their bikes START at $1600 and go all the way up to $3000. by your own numbers, they’re not selling “people’s bikes” either.

  • I’m with brianna on that. I’d love to get my wife one of these, but we just couldn’t swing that much money. Even living a car free life, being in the city doesn’t leave much in the way of expendable funds.

  • A new bike subsidy would be particularly effective in Richmond and West/East Oakland, where many people can’t afford to drive but public transit isn’t as viable due to low densities. The irony is that these areas have no bicycle infrastructure to begin with, though.

    A bike shop in Portland already has its own “Cash for Clunkers” for trading in old repairable bikes for a discount on new ones: http://www.joe-bike.com/cash-for-clunkers/

    What ever happened to the bicycle version of parking coupons and commuter checks? I’m pretty sure congress finally passed a $20 per month bicycle commuting incentive, but I haven’t heard much about it since. It seems like that would only serve a small fraction of people since it would negate transit and parking benefits, and you’d probably already need a bike to being with.

  • ZA

    I also meant to add…

    A “cash for bikes” incentive would be great, but it’s worth thinking it through a bit.

    A purchased ‘city bike’ is good, using that city bike is even better. It’s too bad this tax-fringe incentive isn’t getting more play [ http://www.commuteconnection.com/assets/pdf/Bicycle%20Commuter%20Federal%20Benefit.pdf ].

    Also, if the objective is in some way to support American workers, a “cash to repair beaters” might be more immediately useful to those thousands of bike-repair shops and co-ops across the US, than a subsidy to buy a new bike which will probably have to be imported. As far as I know, there are no American-made ‘city bikes’ any more, with US companies shifting to more performance bikes.

    Alternately, should the US government invest in a specific ‘general purpose bike’ (again)? Perhaps the best place to start is with the Post Office, and restore a network of bicycle postal deliveries – and use that as the basis of design experimentation with a relatively high number of government-bought bikes per year. After all, a bike that’s good for delivering the mail will be a bike good for most urban uses.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    With prices starting above $1500, My Crazy Expensive Vanity Dutch Bike isn’t exactly the conveyance the vast proletariat has been yearning for. And honestly, have you ridden one anywhere other than in front of the shop? They are rather heavy.

    I carry my bike up stairs and it’s not because I don’t keep my bike on the ground floor. It’s because my “ground floor” is well above street level on a big hill. My house is 600′ above sea level which gives me plenty of time to contemplate each and every pound of the bicycle I’m riding. To me the electric bikes are a very big win because while they’re also heavy, they pull their own weight and more. With electric assist I can make that 600′ climb with racks of groceries. With that big Dutch bike I’d be lucky to make it at all.

  • zsolt

    It’s nonsense to think about city bikes like this. Like we have to replace our bikes with something new and shiny and expensive, bought at a downtown boutique with a fashionable Euro-name. They sell their bikes for $1600. Yikes WTF?? So we may want to be living without cars, but our lust for expensive shiny objects is strong as ever.

    Let’s not turn biking into a throwaway culture. Most bikes on the street today can be retrofitted to be better city bikes. There are plenty of great steel frames out there, offered for $25 on Craigslist, or rusting somewhere in a garage or even on a garbage heap. A new handlebar here, a spring saddle there, a basket or rack in front, and it’s THE quintessential city bike. THIS is what we should be focusing on. How about posting a HOWTO article on this next?

  • While I admire “city bikes” and agree that a less aggressive, more European approach to urban bicycling would be a good thing, subsidizing bicycle purchases seems silly to me. Put the money into bicycle infrastructure!!! Let’s face it–people don’t drive cars instead of bikes because cars are cheaper than bikes. Cars are way, way, way more expensive. People drive cars because they are not paying for the true cost of driving, and because they perceive bicycling in the kind of traffic we have to be unpleasant and dangerous. Change those two facts and all sorts of bicycles will magically appear on our streets without any kind of subsidy necessary whatsoever.

  • Nick

    I read it was against CPSC regulations for a bike shop to sell a new bike with lights already attached. It had somewthing to do with not wanting to promote cycling at night. There’s a long thread on Bikeforums about this topic.

    A lot of people in SF have adopted the mass-produced mountain bikes of the 80’s and 90’s as their city bike. Steel frames, fender and rack mountains, functional and not prone to theft. Cyclists in Toronto do the same.

    As for a Bike Stimulus package, I’d like to see the SFBC coordinate a letter writing campaign to the President for the funds necessary to build out the Bike Network and beyond. We are after all the biggest grassroots environmental organization in the city. It would create such a buzz if the President came to SF and had on his agenda a bike ride through the city streets with the Mayor, SFBC staff, and others. Surely 10,000 letters of support could secure the funding if not the acceptance of the invitation.

  • Definately agree biking is the way to go. Anything that keeps the streets less clogged is alright with me! While saving the environment and excercising? Perfect!

    Has anyone heard about Commuter Nation? It’s a program that helps cuts commuting costs by using pre tax benefits!

    Check it out – it doesnt only help with biking, you can also save money on public transportation, vanpooling and parking through the program!

    http://www.commuternation.com/sf

  • taomom-
    While I agree with your conclusions, I think to be competitive with cars, cycling needs every help it can get. The bicycle industry could use a cash infusion like C4C, and poor people can get help with mobility issues. With more bikes on the road, there will be more of an impetus for planners to accommodate them. Case in point- Market St car restrictions after B2Work day mode split numbers came out, and increased bike lanes in places like Santa Rosa, where a large cycling community already present was able to lobby for them.

  • Dave Snyder

    For the record, David Baker told me he got his Dutch bike for $50 at a flea market in Amsterdam, not from a high-priced novelty shop.

    I agree that simply building the bike network is the most important thing to attract more bicyclists, but other measures help. And if you accept the capitalist paradigm (which I do, reluctantly, though I would prefer recycling and a DIY culture), then this kind of economic stimulus might just be a winner.

    And, it would also be an income redistributor, and help to forge an alliance between us mostly middle class bike activists and social justice folks who could use a little help buying a decent bike.

  • zsolt

    Ummm. I don’t think that heavy government subsidies and repeated bailouts of the car industry that we have seen for the last 100 years are in tune with the “capitalist paradigm”. Last I checked, free marketers are against bailouts and subsidies. If the capitalist paradigm truly would be applied to the idea of driving cars (= drivers have to pay the true cost at the pump and toll booth) instead of being subsidized like crazy, that might indeed be helpful to the cause of cycling.

  • Tomtakt

    I saw a lot of basic, but shiny new city bikes on sale in Munich this past year for 150 – 300 euros. Sure, a $1500 bike may be a nice piece of eye-candy and pack a lot of convenience, but it’s also highly theft-prone and, as mentioned, not the democratizing Model-T of city bikes. Why isn’t anyone selling low-cost utilitarian/city bikes in the U.S.?

  • ZA

    @ Tomtakt –

    “Why isn’t anyone selling low-cost utilitarian/city bikes in the U.S.?”

    In the “toy” market, they are selling cheap products barely worth the label ‘bicycle.’ –> http://www.walmart.com/browse/Bikes-Scooters-Skates/Bikes/_/N-8v8yZ1z0hbmrZaq90Zaqce/Ne-aqda?ic=48_0&ref=125871.413746+500734.4293906723&waRef=125871.413746+500734.4293906723&exp=500734.737&catNavId=133073

    But they aren’t exactly utilitarian, urbane, or long-lasting. At that pricepoint, you’re buying convenience … even if you can get a very competitively-priced better bike from Craigslist or a basher bikeshop.

    This is the only product from that retailer that I could find that would even begin to offer the features necessary to qualify: http://www.walmart.com/Schwinn-Mens-26-Delmar-Cruiser/ip/10727434

    Those mass market sellers still think of bikes as lifestyle products (leisure or fitness), rather than actual leisure or fitness machines, let alone daily commuters.

  • We have been selling the Dutch brand Gazelle in Australia and I can tell you they handle hills. This is because you can buy models with gears up to 27 gears.
    Have a look at some of the bikes you can get;

    Dutch bikes in Australia

  • hooli

    “For the record, David Baker told me he got his Dutch bike for $50 at a flea market in Amsterdam, not from a high-priced novelty shop.”

    That means it was stolen. From someone who needs it to get to work-shops-school- and everywhere else. And had an extremely difficult financial time replacing it. Income redistribution indeed.

  • Jorge Ullfig

    Not all of Europe in in the bike frenzy, cities which are hilly rely on the tram network. Even with 27 speeds, witch only about half are really useful, (the others are mostly repeats), gets to be complicated and that is not what carefree city riding is about, my internal hub 5 speed practically gets me around everywhere, and its transformed into more speeds just by stepping on the pedals while i ride, in other words, i also ride for exercise, while a high efficiency bicycle overrides this.

    And finally, I you want to be an urban cyclist, you have to find the right city, these are the ones that where designed before the car kraze, on a human scale, and if if you live in the suburbs, forget the bike for regular utility riding, distances are just too long and riding is boring. Cheers, jorge

  • Our bicycles are not designed to go up steep hills although we have a few customers who beg to differ. We are not a boutique store. We even offer law away plans to get people owning the most comfortable bicycle there is. Keep in mind you get what you pay for. Excellent quality long lasting handmade bicycles from the bicycle capital of the world, Amsterdam. These bicycles are made of steel, still in Holland and imported directly to our North American customers. We welcome any bike though to come to our shop and have it converted to a utility bicycle. Our mechanic, Josh Boisclair is an expert and will give you a free estimate on parts and labor involved to do this.
    It is also very important to note that we not only sell to customers in SF but also nationwide. I find it absurd to call us a boutique or eye candy store when really the investment overall will probably be cheaper then the 10 cheap bicycles you end up buying in the long run not to mention all the maintenance and uncomfortable ride you will endure. See our website under blog and see how handmade bicycles were made. BTW Gazelle sells many aluminum bicycles as gazelle Australia mention up to 27 gears which can handle any hills.
    Although when i lived in Nob Hill and Pacific Heights i dont ever really remember seeing more then a handful of riders and they were all sponsored out!!!

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