Category: Bikes (Page 2 of 2)

Can a cargo bike pass the ultimate test of suburban life: A trip to Costco?

The bag of chips, inhumanely large, groaned under the strain when I heard the passerby say it: “Now that,” she said, “is the kind of bike you need for Costco.”

Mercifully, the bag didn’t explode and send a thousand kilograms of quinoa- and chia-infused tortilla skyward, but instead settled nicely into the saddle bags of my Xtracycle, which gave me a chance to collect my thoughts. “Yes, random passerby,” I thought. “This is exactly the kind of bike you need for a trip to Costco.”

This moment came about halfway into my recent urban cargo-bike experiment. After hearing about the benefits of cargo-bikes for years in Europe, I’m finally seeing more and more on North American streets these days. It’s easy to see why. They’re ultra-practical machines, capable of transporting all those loads of suburban life, from children to shopping bags. They’re the minivans of the bike world.

So I jumped at an offer from local bike shop BikeBike to give a cargo bike a whirl. But I didn’t just want a spin around the block. I needed a challenge; the ultimate test of the cargo bike as a modern suburban family vehicle, where I could test if a bicycle really can support our profligate North American consumerist lifestyles with the absurd conveniences we feel entitled to: Yep, a trip to Costco.

I convinced my 11-year-old son to tag along, both to bear witness and also help pick up the stray groceries that I imagined dropping from the bike as we rode home (I envisioned a slow-mo scene in which a barrel of cranberry juice dislodges itself and bounces down a hill before bursting into a tart tsumani that washes a school bus from the road), but since he was more keen to ride himself than suffer the indignity of watching his old man strain to push him up the hills, I turned down BikeBike’s offer a bakfiets. That’s a cargo-bike model you’ve probably seen in photos from Amsterdam, in which effortlessly sexy moms pedal kids sitting in a wooden box affixed to the front forks. Bikebike had such a model that came installed with a child seat that looked Lay-Z-Boy-esque in comfort, but I instead opted for an Xtracycle. On this model, most of the junk was in the trunk — a frame extension on the back could accommodate everything from straddling children to surfboards to, in my case, some massive panniers primed for bulk foodstuffs.

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Off we went, on a crisp Saturday morning. The Xtracycle handled more smoothly than I expected. Once I got riding, it felt like any other bicycle, save a rather wide turning radius. It’s not the lightest frame in the world, but I barely noticed its girth or weight while riding. Especially when we managed to discover a multiuse pathway that took us from a quiet residential street past the gauntlet of a big-box retail district, right up to the entrance to the Costco parking lot.

Normally I enter such places on a bike the same way a young wildebeest crosses a crocodile-infested African river. Tentative and alert, I ride almost expecting a GMC Suburban to unexpectedly leap from the shallows and clamp its jaws around my tender rump. But riding the Xtracycle felt different. This was where its additional size finally came to mean something to me. I was the king of the road, bitches, and those GMC Suburbans bowed to me for a change.

Amazingly, this Costco had a well-placed bike rack that looked like it had actually been used before. So we locked our machines, flashed our card, and entered the Shangri-La of bulk retail, where the food samples are plentiful and everybody appears tired.

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As far as test experiences go, we knew we had our limits. We wouldn’t be able to revel in an orgy of bulk groceries like we might had we been driving an F-150, but we pushed it as much as we dared. We loaded our cart with the staples on our list and a few giant bags of snacks packaged to make us think they are healthy, and got into the checkout line with hundreds of others who also didn’t want to be there. Before we left, though, we knew we had one more thing to do to make this an authentic Costco experience: I dropped $3 for two foot-long hot dogs, and we headed outside.

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As the hot dog rumbled in my gut, I loaded the panniers with our haul. Months worth of granola bars, prepper’s sized boxes of pasta and those faux-healthy tortillas —  the bike bags opened wide and took everything we threw at them. A few people stopped to gawk, cargo bikes being rare in these parts apparently, but once I cinched up the panniers with the attached straps, we were good to go.

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On the flat bits, the loaded cargo bike felt almost no different than it did before. But I dreaded the uphill, for good reason. This is where I started feeling the weight of all that food. So I quickly gave up any pride in a swift ascent and shifted down to the Xtracycle’s granny gear. With my legs spinning furiously, the hill proved little trouble. Before I knew it, we were cresting the rise near the Lamborghini dealership, where a few bored-by-the-recession salesman stared at us through the windows with dumbfounded looks on their faces. Try hauling this load with your $300,000 Italian engineering, bitches.

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About halfway home, things were going so well I decided we might as well do another errand on our trip. This made perfect sense for my suburban family test — no self-respecting suburban mom has time to restrict herself to just one errand on a Saturday morning. So we would do the same.

I took a slight detour and pedalled toward the shop where my lawn mower was in for a sharpening. My mower isn’t exactly a John Deere — it’s a 15-year-old push model — but still, it’s a lawn mower. After a little rearranging, and the help of a few bungee cords, we had it strapped onto the bike. Off we went, my son expressing a mix of dubiousness and embarrassment at the load that was trailing behind me.

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The Xtracycle, however, barely batted an eye. Loaded with groceries and a lawn mower, we turned toward home barely breaking a sweat (Ok, I sweated a little bit) where a neighbour, out gardening, stood and stared wordlessly as we rolled by.

As we unloaded, I felt a little pride in the Xtracycle. It passed this suburban test with barely a flinch, and I had grown a little attached to this big-hearted giant, in the same way you feel about Andre the Giant in The Princess Bride. Only later did I read that the bike is built to haul hundreds of pounds of gear — one person later told me he once used a cargo bike to move all of the furniture from his home — so our load, as impressive as it felt to us, was child’s play.

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But hauling capacity isn’t everything. The experience did prove that cargo bikes can live up to their claims of convenience and versatility. I reluctantly returned the ride after the test, thinking about all kinds of things I could do if I had my own cargo bike. Next stop: Home Depot.

 

The sharing economy comes to bikes, but can it replace the government?

Spinlister is a cool little app that just feels right. It brings the so-called sharing economy to the world of bikes in a no-brainer, intuitive way.

But the company is aiming higher than its modest Airbnb-type success so far, and betting on an even bigger idea, if only it can get it off the ground: Can the convenient borrowing of somebody else’s bike replace the need for a government-operated bike-sharing?

Spinlister already offers an Airbnb-style app, but has bigger plans to make bike-sharing easier.

Company officials sure think so. Andrew Batey, Spinlister’s Chief Marketing Officer, told me the company didn’t set out to replace bike-sharing, rather they were simply trying to solve a customer need.

On its most basic level, Spinlister enables the sharing of personally owned bikes. If you have a bike with some downtime, you list it for rent on the app. People who need a bike log into the app, search for those on offer nearby, and go pick up the bike for the pre-designated rental time, with the app handling the financial transaction. It’s Airbnb for bikes, a slick and easy sharing app (that, not incidentally, also works for snowboards and skis) that makes a whole lot of sense.

But the company has bigger plans, and this is where things get really interesting. Traditional public bike sharing thrives on little, impromptu trips. Unplanned rides rides home from the pub. Commutes on sunny days when the bus is full. Last-mile commutes, from the train station to the front door of the office. Not the stuff Spinlister currently thrives on.

The company, however, has developed a so-called “smart” bike (I know, that term makes me roll my eyes too) that Batey says has the potential to do away with traditional bike-sharing systems and their taxpayer-funded costs.

Spinlister’s “smart bike” enables bike-sharing of privately owned machines.

Here’s how it would work (or skip this paragraph and watch the video below): In a nutshell, it’s Car2go for bikes. The bikes are equipped with GPS and nifty Bluetooth-enabled locks. Using a smartphone app, you locate a bike nearby, track it down, then unlock it. You go about your ride, then lock the bike anywhere you want, while the app takes care of the rental-fee transaction. Another tap on the app makes it available to the next rider. No need for docking stations like a traditional bike-sharing program.

Spinlister – The Global Bike Share: Challenges Traditional and Broken Bike Share Model Through Advanced Technology from Spinlister on Vimeo.

But there’s one more important aspect. Each bike, rather than being bought and paid for by program administrators (which, with traditional bike-sharing programs, tend to be government agencies) is privately owned. The rental fee is split by the owner of the bike and Spinlister.

Batey says this idea eliminates the need for taxpayer-funded programs and big, sometimes controversial, rollouts of docking stations.  

“To date, there has been no bike share (except ours) that is sustainable without government funding and private sponsorship,” Batey wrote to me in an email. “Through back channels, (politicians have) said their reasoning is self preservation. When bike share fails and needs more funding, it will be the problem of another administration. Until then, it’s seen as a win with popular support. That just seems like a significant waste and misuse of funds to me. Especially when a self sufficient option exists, costing the city absolutely nothing to implement.”

If that quote sounds perhaps a tad, well, conspiratorial, Batey might have good reason. Plans to launch the idea in Portland last year were scuttled by the city government, ostensibly over concerns that Spinlister’s plan would have negative impacts on the city, such as the city being forced to pick up the costs of dealing with bikes that are stolen, parked illegally, or left to rust in poor locations. There were other concerns as well, and Batey minces few words (even if others might disagree with his read of the situation): “The city there threatened to create a special tax just for us as they didn’t want us competing with their traditional bike share model they’ve been trying to launch for 10 years.”

Chicago's Divvy Bike Share System

Many traditional bike-share systems, such as Chicago’s Divvy, rely on docking stations that can be difficult to place in dense urban areas.

This kind of reaction seems to be what’s holding Spinlister back. Yes, there are some outstanding questions that even the company acknowledges need to be ironed out in the real world, but the company is largely ready to go. It just can’t find a city willing to give it a shot. Most cities these days have well-established bike-share programs and city governments aren’t interested in competition. Somehow, before it has even had a chance to test its business model, Spinlister has found itself to be the Uber of the bike world, at odds with city governments everywhere.

But there’s little doubt the idea is worth a try somewhere. So what will it take?

What the company really needs is a city that is big enough to sustain the business, with a decent bike culture, a populace that understands the sharing model of Car2go, lacks an established bike-share program, has a soft-spot for entrepreneurialism and a hard-spot for government spending.

Sound like a city you know? 

In fact, I already signed up to buy one of the smart bikes if the idea ever takes hold in my city of Calgary. Perhaps living in a bike-share-laggard city will pay off in the end.

 

Behold: the ultimate tool for transforming our cities, the humble camera

For all the work that goes into making streets safer and more welcoming for cyclists, consider perhaps the greatest and most under-appreciated tool of this transition: The ubiquitous camera.

Street photography is nothing new, of course. From Henri Cartier-Bresson to Robert Frank, impromptu moments from city life have always been at the forefront of photographic art.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous Hyères, shot in 1932.

You could even argue the first photograph ever taken of people was street photography.

“Boulevard du Temple,” a daguerreotype made by Louis Daguerre in 1838, one of the world’s first photographs to include people.

 

That influence has only grown in recent years, from blogging (the Sartorialist) and then social media (Humans of New York, everything on Instagram that isn’t food). And thanks to that little computer in your purse that happens to have a camera lens attached to it, sdtreet photography these days transcends even its own medium and helps define the esthetic of cities.

That’s why it’s evolved into such a powerful tool for urban cycling. Consider Mikael Colville-Andersen’s Copenhagen Cycle Chic, which spawned imitators all over the world.

 

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The original Copenhagen Cycle Chic photo by Mikael Colville-Andersen.

Cool photos, right? But because these photos involve bicycles, and everything about bicycles these days is political, this type of photography is inherently political.

In Toronto, during 2011 and 2012, photographer Lincoln Clarkes captured dozens of images that became Cyclists, a book of photography of people on two wheels, most of them looking sexily non-plussed despite the hostile environment surrounding them at the time. While not overtly so, the politics of these photographs is obvious considering Clarkes shot them at the height of late mayor Rob Ford’s anti-bike backlash, when the ever-thoughtful mayor compared riding a bike in Toronto to swimming with sharks.

A shot from Lincoln Clarkes’s Cyclists.

In the book’s forward, Clarkes is quoted saying the photographs serve as “sexed-up, environmentalistic, fashionesque portraiture, which is a subtle protest against the petro-chemical and automobile industries.”

Here in Calgary,  a bike-loving man named Peter Oliver has started a formal project to harness the political power of bicycle street photography. He’s part of a group that rallied support for the adoption of a pilot project of downtown bike lanes last year, and now he’s hoping to solidify that support by giving people a glimpse into exactly what those bike lanes have wrought: People on bikes.

#YYC #yycbike Photo by @brycemeyer

A post shared by People on Bikes YYC (@peopleonbikesyyc) on

Oliver hopes showcasing photographs of everyday cyclists in Instagram will help dispel the notion that all cyclists are latte-sipping hipsters or angry Lyca-clad suburban commuters blowing through red lights (or sometimes both).

“I really want to get down to people on the street, and show the diversity of people who ride bikes,” Oliver told me over a beer recently. “I want to break down the stereotypes about who cyclists are, and show that’s it’s just ordinary people doing what they do. It’s just part of their life.”

Bryce Meyer, a top editorial photographer, jumped at the chance to be the first contributor to People On Bikes YYC. Meyer, a former competitive road cyclist who ended his itinerant career in his early 20s after being robbed at gunpoint while training in Arizona, says the project is less about the politics or fashion for him, and more of a passion project. He loves everything to do with cycling, and he thought this was a way to give back to a cause he cares about while indulging himself (the fact that he’s managed to learn how to shoot photos while riding his own bike certainly helps — “Forget the viewfinder,” he advises. “Trust the shutter.”)

“It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing cutoffs with socks up to your knees or whatever,” he says. “It’s all about the riding.” 

It’s a simple concept that has proven political punch. Think about the defining images of Amsterdam, and you’ll probably think about a bike. In Paris, those cafes will elegant French women fingering cigarettes often have bicycles as a backdrop. Even in Montreal, photographs of hirsute young artists riding a Bixi bikes are becoming a de facto brand.

All of which shows that bikes can be a seamless part of any city.

 

If it ain’t broke: Why is everyone trying to fix cycling with gimmicks?

There’s something about the simplicity of the bicycle that seems to make everybody want to improve it.

Kickstarter is filled with bike ideas, from bizarre bike lights to bizarre bike carriers to bizarre bike blankets (yes, that’s a thing). There’s nothing inherently wrong with this — most industries would kill for this spirit of innovation. But something about bikes also seems to breed ideas that contravene the old adage of innovation: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Case in point: This so-cute-that-it-crosses-over-into-ridiculous bike that looks like a car. Called the PodRide by its inventor, a Swedish dude named Mikael Kjellman who has already raised tens of thousands of dollars on Indiegogo, this contraption is basically a recumbent bicycle covered with fabric.

 

Mikael Kjellman and his PodCar.

Kjellman, by all accounts a clever and well-meaning guy, says he invented the PodRide to help beat the Swedish winters (there’s a heater inside) and to take advantage of “the environmental benefits these vehicles could have if they were made more popular.” The invention has been making the Facebook rounds these days, mostly, I would argue, because the thing is so damn adorable.

But as a practical idea? The world has already figured out how to keep riding year round: By building safe bike infrastructure, maintaining it for the winter, and dressing for the weather (in fact, somebody, ahem, wrote a book about winter cycling). It’s not rocket science

In fact, I’d argue the PodCar may actually set back the cause Kjellman is purporting to further. Not only does this thing perpetuate the notion that riding in winter is something abnormal that requires special gear, it also creates the impression that bicycles would be a more practical transportation option if they were just a little bit more like cars.

In the big scheme of things, I hardly think the PodCar is a major threat. But there are other ideas out there that perpetuate the idea that cycling is in need of some kind of tech or design fix that really could set  back the cause of urban cycling around the world.

Cycling seems to lend itself to giant hare-brained architectural ideas (particularly in London), like the SkyCycle, the floating bike lane dubbed the Thames Deckway, and the bike routes running through abandoned subway tunnels. All of which sure look futuristic in the renderings, but seem to sidestep the reality that cycling isn’t just about transportation —  putting bikes on a street makes cities better for everybody because it brings a more human scale to the streets.

Even smaller projects, like this lusted-over airbag helmet or these concept bicycle designs that seem to draw eyeballs at all the bike bike-industry trade shows may seem well and good, but they aren’t exactly furthering the cause of getting more people in cities on bikes.

And despite my soft spot for Elon Musk, and his heartening talk about the urban transportation problem, his recent hint that he’s working on some kind of autonomous bus seems to be a solution for a problem that has already been fixed. If it is, as the speculation goes, some of kind of vehicle to transport people to and from transit stops, also known as the first mile/last mile problem, well, such a vehicle has already been invented. It’s called a bicycle.

Here’s the thing: We already know what works. Bikes haven’t changed much in 100 years because they work. Separated and safe bike lanes work. Want an innovation that will really disrupt the bicycle industry? Invent something to break through civic politics and bureaucracy preventing more bike lanes from being built.

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I’m not saying we shouldn’t innovate. E-bikes, cargo bikes and carbon builds have all shown massive improvements in recent years. But let’s not get distracted on frivolities.

Or at least put your innovative brain power into stuff like this or this. At least the ride will be enjoyable.

The great hope of bike-friendly cities: Ikea

If you haven’t yet seen a photograph of the new bicycle that Ikea plans to sell — hell yes, we’re calling it the Bikea — close your eyes and imagine what a bike made by Ikea would look like. Yep, you got it.

The official photo of the Ikea bike, which will be sold in Europe later this year.

The news was greeted in the bike world by a weird mix of surprise and derision. Does it come with an allen wrench? Do you have to put it together yourself? How will they get it into a flat box? It’s easy to write off the idea as a dabbler’s attempt at entering the bike market. The company isn’t exactly known for producing high quality goods, as that sagging bookshelf in your home office can attest. And there’s little doubt the bike snobs among us will be quick to ostracize Ikea bike riders as triflers who wouldn’t know a real bike if it rolled over their toes.

But I won’t be among them. I think it’s fantastic that Ikea is producing a bike. Mostly.

Here’s why: For one thing, the bike looks pretty good. I’ve long been lamenting the lack of affordable, practical bikes in North America. Such machines are still (relatively) rarely spotted on the streets of many cities, and it drives me batty to see casual cyclists still buying what seems to be the default for North Americans: mountain bikes. Mountain bikes are great for, well, mountains, but too many people buy them thinking they’ll use them off-road, but then never take them beyond the paved paths of their city, leaving them saddled with what can be uncomfortable rides loaded with too many gears, useless suspension systems and finicky parts that require too much maintenance. In a word, they aren’t very practical, and in a world where we put convenience above pretty much everything, impracticality can be a killer to people adopting a more bike-friendly life.

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I haven’t tried a Bikea yet, but it appears to be nothing if not practical. It looks well designed in that default Dutch mode, built for comfort and stability, with a unisex aluminum step-through frame and adjustable handlebars. It has an internal hub for gearing (although I’d prefer three or six speeds, rather than the two that are on offer) and a belt-drive, both of which should reduce maintenance requirements and improve reliability. It is built to accommodate easy add-ons, including a cargo trailer and, presumably, some kind of minimalist glassware or vase.

At $800, it’s not exactly cheap, but I think that’s a good thing. The risk is producing a poor-quality bike that won’t last. This seems like a reasonable price, as long as it’s a decent quality ride.

I know what you are saying: There’s nothing new here. Such bikes are available now, being produced by smart, quality bike makers all over the world. Your local bike shop has them for sale right at this moment. I agree, and you should go buy one. Like right now. As an added bonus, you’ll be supporting your local bike shop, not some Euro-giant furniture retailer, and you’ll get quality service from someone who actually lives in your community.

All of that is true, and that’s why I buy my bikes at such places. If you’re reading this, you’re probably doing the same. But therein lies the problem that the Bikea can address.

Unlike your local bike shop, Ikea has reach and scale, and the ability to reach those kinds of people who don’t read long shoegazers on the Internet about Ikea bikes, and have thought so little about what kind of bike they should ride they’d just go for that impractical mountain-bike-that-never-sees-a-mountain from their local Wal-Mart. If the Bikea is successful, it holds the potential to change the way average consumers think about everyday bikes, in the same way Ikea changed the way North American consumers think about home design. Like it or not, Ikea is a consumer influencer, and if the company can shift the way North Americans perceive everyday bikes, that can’t be a bad thing.

Once that idea moves, perhaps it will be the gateway bike, leading people to a Linus, or a Detroit Bike, or a Surly or Devinci,, purchased from their local bike shop, or any of the other great brands currently making our cities better. Bring it on, Ikea.

Hmm, does that Ikea bike look familiar? Something like this model from Detroit Bikes?

Now, if only the company can make a kids’ model, so we can forever destroy the department store, faux full-suspension, unserviceable pieces of shit that litter our landfills. C’mon Ikea.

Edmontonbikes.ca

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