San Francisco Company Brings Good Design to City Bikes

James_Orange2_small.jpgOrange Public Bike in Golden Gate Park. Photo: Public Bikes

With a burgeoning market for bicycles made for practical urban commuting, a new company based in San Francisco has a vision for bridging the divide between the cruiser market and high-end racing models and possibly change the perspective about the role bicycles can play in American cities.

Public Bikes, founded by designer Rob Forbes, has positioned itself as a manufacturer of bicycles that are more practical and durable than the carbon-fiber rockets used solely for recreational riding and more stylish and functional than beach cruisers. The target rider, according to the company, is the everyday urbanite who might be inspired to ride a bicycle for most trips if it met their city mobility needs and had a stylish flair. 

"I think a lot of biking culture has been built around that idea that
bikes are first for recreation and they get the most visibility in the
media from performance athletes," said Forbes. "If you go to a bike store and look at
large manufacturers and you look at what’s next, it’s always lighter
materials, from steel frame to carbon, you just always follow this path
to lighter, lighter, lighter."

Forbes argued that the growing number of city dwellers who use bicycles as a primary mode of transport need their bicycles to fill a more useful role and come from a wholly new taxonomy than recreational rides. Forbes recounted several stories about the difficulty of finding well-made bicycles that aren’t meant solely for speed, including one about a friend of his from Marin, "a pretty athletic guy," who went to a bike shop and was about to spend $1800 on a new road bike, when he asked the shop manager to put a kickstand on it.

"The guy looked at him like, ‘you loser,’" said Forbes, and refused to put a kickstand on the bike. His friend walked out without buying anything.

rob_forbes_2.jpgPublic Bikes founder Rob Forbes and a chartreuse Diamond bike. Photo: Matthew Roth

"In our country we subsidized cars and oil and asphalt and suburban
development," said Forbes. "I think there just wasn’t the focus from a manufacturing
and retailing perspective on ‘let’s supply some bikes that people can
really use to get around because people have said we’d much rather have
you in your car, commuting.’"

Public Bikes takes delivery of an initial order of 1,000 bicycles in a few weeks and will officially launch at the end of April with an online store, where most of the bikes will be sold. The company is based in South Park, a small oval park-block in SoMa, and has a warehouse in Potrero.

The bicycles are marketed as unisex, though they come in two styles, the sloped top-tube Mixtes ("particularly appealing to riders who may wear a skirt or dress to work
or for casual wear in the city," according to company spokesperson Dan Nguyen-Tan) and the traditional double triangle Diamonds. All bikes are made from lightweight steel and come in small, medium, or large, with a single-speed or three-speed and eight-speed internal hub transmissions. There will be four colors in the first run: Chartreuse Green, Powder Blue, Cream White, and Orange and the bikes will retail for $650-$1200, depending on the features.

While the bicycles were fabricated in Taiwan, Nguyen-Tan said the
company was a proud San Francisco native and he hoped the city’s unique
bicycle culture would embrace them. Public Bikes will also hold a launch
event in New York City in mid-May.

Nguyen-Tan said Public Bikes would stand out from competing bicycles like the Specialized Globe series because of the quality of the design and the bicycle’s aesthetic, which is clearly drawn from the styling of European city bikes from the 1950s-1970s. Nearly fifty vintage bikes hang from the walls of the Public Bikes office for inspiration, including a beautiful silver Mercier MecaDural from the early 1950s.

"We think these bikes will feel good when you ride in a city, because they function well but also they look good," said Nguyen-Tan.

shoes.jpgThe company will also sell apparel, like these Vittoria 1976 clipless pedal shoes. Photo: Matthew Roth
Cream_white.jpgCream White Mixte with red panniers. Photo: Public Bikes.
  • YES. These businesses will be a (probably under-appreciated) major step in advancing bicycle culture in the City.

  • tea

    Absolutely.

    That is pretty much my commuter. Steel frame, comfortable position, basket, trunk, 3-speed internal hub. Simple to maintain, indestructible. The perfect city bike.

  • andrew

    Hey, they even have brakes! Real progress.

  • Also, I’m studying in Denmark right now and pretty much all the bikes are what we call “commuters” and have internal hubs. I’ve really wished I could get a bike like that when I return – this is great except that I’m not really a fan of the bright and uniform color schemes. I hope they’re light enough for SF, too.

  • Jym

    =v= There goes my monopoly on alarming charteuse green bikes.

  • Jym

    (No monopoly on typos, though, alas.)

  • Uh, what exactly would I need to do to have Streetsblog run a full-length advertisement for my company like this?

  • whir, does your company seek to improve the city by reducing our over-reliance on cars for transportation? Please drop us a line.

  • Very cool! Seems like this fills a need among many downtown dwellers for a downtown-kinda bike.

  • Jeremiah

    Love the modern touches on a classic frame design. The weight should not be too high, 25 lb or so? Deep dish wheels, internal hub, chain guard, for that price I would like to see a nicer saddle. I’m not the biggest fan of twist grips. Defiantly making bikes for normal people (and allowing people to bike into their later years.

    Bravo, lets hope that this level of quality can be maintained when this style gets popular. Perhaps the Consumer Products Safety Commission should raise the bar on bike quality, preventing crap bikes from even being available.

  • Nick

    Funny you mention the “kickstand scoff”. At least 10-15 years ago, rear racks and panniers were held with a similiar disdain. Now you can’t walk a block or two without seeing some beautiful person riding a bike with one. The times are surely changing.

  • Very cool. If I rode a bicycle, this is what it would be. . .

  • smushmoth

    I suggest disc or drum brakes as they keep your rims much much cleaner, which in turn keeps you much much cleaner when you carry your bike inside. Not to mention they work better in the rain.

  • Jim

    Spelling police: defiantly = definitely

    The CPSC’s appallingly low standards for bicycles aren’t applicable to a four figured piece of rolling near-art.

    The Public Bikes are cute but lets face it: a light bike is a fun bike. A fun bike is the one you ride the most. Light is not the enemy.

  • Maureen

    I’m was “sold” until I saw they were made in Taiwan. I’d like to buy my next commuter bike from an American company because I want to support “green” American businesses. Is this an impossible dream?

  • Ian

    Nice looking bikes, and looks are definitely important when it comes to emerging commuters. But function is just as important… and those fenders are just not long enough to keep you dry. These look similar to the fenders on other “commuter” ready bikes I’ve seen at the local bike shops this year. Great style, but coming up short (literally) in the function department.

  • ZA

    Very cool, alas I already have all the bikes I need for the foreseeable future…and I’ll take an Al frame over steel almost any day.

    @Maureen – well, Congress sold out the last protections for American bicycle manufacturers of everyday bikes in the 90s, with the sale of Huffy. It was a crappy bike that wasn’t keeping up with the times, but nevertheless was the last inexpensive bike manufacturer left in the States. Those that remain are high-end manufacturers like Trek and Specialized…and more and more of their parts are coming from China or Taiwan.

  • Gerrit

    Finally people are getting some sense. I’m from the Netherlands and it’s impossible to find an affordable regular bike in the Bay. I say regular because road-bikes are not for commuting to begin with. I seriously do not understand why people like having wet/dirty clothes and a soar back and scrotum. On top of that..most road-biking hipsters are biking so slow it looks really pathetic (I’m not saying you should go fast…but cmon..its a road bike!).
    Look at this http://www.batavus.nl/images/batavus_stadsfietsen_favoriet-10-726-2144-1491-1137.jpeg …the simplicity and practical use just makes me drool lol

  • Jym

    =v= It’s rough competing with China’s race to the bottom, and I give these folks kudos for going with Taiwan.

    Some American framebuilders still exist, though by and large it’s an expensive specialty item. If you’ve got the money, you can go that route. (I prefer folding bikes and support a green business named Green Gear, who makes the Bike Friday in Oregon. The aforementioned alarming chartreuse bike is a Swift Folder built by Human Powered Machines, also in Oregon.)

    That said, I think this venture is worth supporting.

  • juan rapido

    The bikes look great, and I love their philosophy, but the lowest price is $650 — way too much. You’re better off getting a used beater from craigslist or a garage sale and putting money into it. You’ll still be ahead of the cash for a new bike. And you’ll be reusing something instead of buying a new something.

  • Tom Brown

    Their bikes look pretty but I don’t see lights on any of the bikes at http://publicbikes.com/bikes.php

    @smushmoth I don’t understand how disc or drum brakes give you cleaner rims but my next bike will have disc brakes to reduce wear on the rims.

  • Peter Smith

    i’m down with internal hubs, but how about a real chainguard?

    i’d also like to buy american — not for any nationalist-type nonsense — just for ‘going local’, etc.

  • peternatural

    Those look great, but keep in mind that there are plenty of cheaper options for bike commuting available today. You can get a decent hybrid or comfort style bike on the low end for $500 or less, then ask the bike shop to put on fenders, rear-view mirror, a rack, a rear pannier or two (attached or removable), front and rear lights, and toe clips (or clipless pedals). You can get all that for under $700. (Don’t forget to get a lock too 😉

  • peternatural

    Plus a kickstand. And consider spending extra for an ergonomic seat, which could be well worth the extra cost. E.g. like this one:
    http://www.ismseat.com/products_typhoon.htm

    Also note that most local bike shops give discounts for SF bike coalition members.

    Speaking of, SFBC members get a 10% discount at Rainbow Grocery, which adds up to boocoo cash monies pretty quick 😉

  • smushmoth

    Why disc/drum/roller or coaster brakes (or a fixed gear) keep your rims clean….
    Almost all of the grime on your rims is brake dust on bikes with pads that contact the rims.

  • Tom Brown

    @smushmoth Speak for your own rims 😛

    This is my city beater on a Durango to Moab mountain bike tour. Note the Caltrain tag. http://lh6.ggpht.com/_m1olLPlfi2E/SqbYa3NYNII/AAAAAAAARWo/l0Ygwjd5uCw/s640/IMG_1216.JPG taken here http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&q=38.023412,-108.526842&ll=38.024312,-108.52694&t=h&z=16&iwloc=near&lci=bike

  • smushmoth

    Good for you gear head…..

    This is an article about CITY bikes, you know ones with kickstands and fixed racks/baskets. Try riding singletrack or even a fireroad with a kickstand, they tend to pop out over rocks and break.

  • Tom Brown

    @smushmoth The Good Roads Campaign is not over; a bike built to survive city streets would probably fair quite well off road. Solid general use bikes, such as the ones described in this article, work reasonably well on most fireroads and some single track. I’ve taken a few city bikes (with baskets, racks and kickstands but nowhere near as pretty as the featured bikes) on easy dirt tracks. No broken kickstands yet. http://lh4.ggpht.com/_m1olLPlfi2E/SyXmAFI-t7I/AAAAAAAATBg/sldy7I9ic6U/s512/IMG_1558.JPG http://lh5.ggpht.com/_m1olLPlfi2E/RsQHl1dpX9I/AAAAAAAAALs/jeHujzu8CUY/s512/IMG_0952.jpg http://lh3.ggpht.com/_m1olLPlfi2E/S7wzFunobdI/AAAAAAAAVOE/odejuhtzGN0/s512/IMG_2245.JPG

  • Davey Jones

    I was with it until I saw the clipless pedal/shoes. Totally impractical for daily commuting. And the white bike looks like a ripped off ghost bike!

    I agree that a used bike from 20 years ago will have these same features and functions for less cash. +1 on the need for lights and full-coverage fenders — especially the front fender mudflap down low near your feet– on a functional city bike. A dual legged kickstand is probably in order as well.

    Can’t tell if the rear dropouts are horizontal, they should be.
    How sturdy is the rack? Does it have any special features worth noting?
    A person could do better than the high centered baskets on the handlebar, which tend to make the front wheel flip sideways when parked, and the bike to fall over. Also throws off steering on bumpy roads when loaded up.

    Show me belt drive, internal geared hub designs– and I’ll bite.

  • peternatural

    It’s fairly trivial to change pedals on a bike. The fact that a particular bike is pictured with clipless pedals doesn’t mean that bike has to have clipless pedals!

    As for being totally impractical: no. I commute daily with clipless pedals. I keep a pair of sneakers at work that I change into once I get there. If I’m going somewhere other than work, I can toss an extra pair of sneakers into my rear pannier. Yes, it’s sort of a pain, but I could always switch back to regular pedals if it bugged me. In practice it works out.

  • When I lived in New York City, I used to ride to meetings in a full suit and tie with my Sidi clipless shoes. It wasn’t exactly high fashion, but I never felt awkward about it. The cool thing about the pace of fashion, by now you can get shoes that are dressy and clipless and don’t have to bluff it like I did.

  • Steel frame, comfortable position, basket, trunk, 3-speed internal hub. Simple to maintain, indestructible. The perfect city bike.

  • these bikes will feel good when you ride in a city, because they function well but also they look good

  • i’d also like to buy american — not for any nationalist-type nonsense — just for ‘going local

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