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.