With the recent launch of Citibike, the world's largest bicycle share program in New York City, cycling as a viable option for city commuting is literally gaining traction. A means of transport around long before the automobile, the bicycle has been in and out of vogue since its 19th century invention as a human-propelled alternative to the horse. This time, however, the attention seems different.
Any follower of design will know there are iconic products that seem perfect just the way they are; the paper clip and stapler for example. Like a Beatles song, they can be copied but are never quite as good as the original. For a very long time the commuter bicycle fell essentially into that category. While all the technical innovation was in the Velodrome or the Tour hills of Europe, the trusty commuter bike battled the daily grind, and little changed over the last 40 years. Now we are in a golden age of biking. With North American bicycle industry sales topping $8-billion and expected to reach $77-billion globally by 2015, this remarkable transformation is less about the bike itself and more about the products and services that have flourished around it.
Change has been spurred on by a tsunami of change from increasing numbers of urban dwellers to rising gas prices, environmental concerns and those desperate for better health. This is not ephemera, but like all good design is about problem solving. Here is how smart design is propelling the cycling industry and in turn the urban experience.
1. In Japan, where space is at a premium, a remarkable underground bike park system has been developed. Slip your micro-chipped bike through sliding doors and wave bye-bye until it's time to retrieve it with the simple swipe of a pass card. For anyone who has had a bike stolen, or a developer looking for a market advantage, the ECO Cycle is not just a better bike rack, it's the equivalent of hi-rise apartment design.
2. Bike shorts not appropriate at work? In stark contrast to the Spandex crowd, boutique clothing company SF Tweed has created a range of work clothes specifically for daily cycling. The ultimate immersive design is invisible and fashion-friendly design such as those by SF, Levi's commuter cycling jacket, Paul Smith's bike friendly attire and others make the move from saddle to work seamless and stylish.
3. The emergence of bike sharing systems in London, Paris, Toronto and now New York, mean that to be a bike commuter does not even require bike ownership. While safe commuting tips and a helmet system are missing from these programs, properly funded, bike sharing takes cars off roads, eases public transit and creates a greater appreciation of the city around us.
4. In our data driven, results focused world, "Just Do It" is no longer enough. Now we need to measure everything from calories burned, to kilometers covered, altitude, and even carbon offsets. While location-based apps such as Google Maps, Foursquare and Yelp are practical, tracking apps turn biking into multitasking. Riders can check off wellness goals and feel good about their environmental contribution.
5. When it comes to electric bikes, there is much to dislike. From their street brashness, to the perceived laziness of the rider, and ultimately the question of whether they are a bike at all. But for all these negatives, e-bikes meet many of the same goals other riders enjoy. Design evolution is bringing innovations such as on-board Wi-Fi in a cool, sleek look. Check out the Michael Strain designed Levitation bike, for instance.
6. As city planners grapple with increased urban density and the resulting traffic gridlock, bike lanes have become a major conflict issue. To some, they reduce access for cars and public transit, while for others they make commuting by bike a safe means of moving around the city. Investment in urban bike systems transform the way we move around urban centres. In the Netherlands, 25 per cent of the population commute by bicycle, while Boulder, CO is a North American leader at 9.9 per cent, significantly reducing the burden on public and auto transit. By contrast, just over 3 per cent of the Washington DC population commute by bike, and a mere 1.6 per cent do so in Toronto.
7. College and workplace campuses have long offered transit to move their population around - something the Guinness brewery learned more than a century ago when it built an 8-mile tramway to move employees and goods around its St. James Gate Brewery in Ireland. Now Google has acquired 7,000 bikes for employees on its Mountain View, CA campus. Arthur Guinness knew that healthy employees were good for business, and like health insurance on wheels, corporate bike programs have now become a valuable HR employee benefit.
For health, environmental, and economic reasons too, in the long summer days ahead it's helpful to be reminded of avid cyclist Albert Einstein who famously said "Life is like riding a bicycle -- in order to keep your balance, you must keep moving".