Few things in the bike world are as hot right now as e-bikes. Every manufacturer seems to be sensing that now is the time for electric bikes to finally catch hold in North America.
Here’s the latest evidence: Two approaches to ebikes, from both an industry leader and an upstart, that are almost complete opposites.
Here’s the first one: Bosch, the German company that has led the way toward pedal-assist ebikes in the past decade, has a new version out that seems built to address the problem of consumers worried that e-bikes just look weird.
Bosch has a new line of electric drives that seem to be based on the need to make e-bikes look as much like a bike as possible. Photo by Bosch.
The company’s new drive unit is 20 per cent smaller, 19 per cent lighter, and features “a cleaner, (more) integrated look, to more closely resemble traditional bikes,” according to a media release from the company.
It comes with other improvements, such as an improved range and, perhaps most significantly, no longer has resistance on the pedals when the motor is turned off.
But still, the headline here seems to be that Bosch is betting that consumers will be more willing to buy an e-bike if nobody can’t tell it’s an e-bike.
Bosch’s new electric drive offers more improvements, including a wider range. Photo by Bosch.
It’s launching an e-bike with a claimed range of 380 kms per charge, using a massive battery pack that can push the bike to 55 km/hr (which, it should be added, is more that twice the bike-lane speed-limit in many cities). While this thing does have a brute eastern-European charm, it’s a monster, accurately described in the press release as “a hybrid between a cross-country motorcycle and a mountain bike.”
So if you’ve been contemplating an e-bike, but have been holding off because they look too much like a, er, bike, and you feel the need to travel 400 kilometres on one charge at motorcycle speeds, this may be the bike for you.
There you go: two bikes at opposite ends of the conspicuous spectrum. Maybe e-bikes have truly arrived after all.
It was a long and uninteresting series of events that led me to ride my daughter’s Breezer Downtown EX down the side of a mountain, but here’s the important part: It was fun.
An outing during a family camping trip that went a little bit differently than expected found us at the head of a fantastically fun single-track through the Selkirks of southeastern British Columbia, me on a beautiful full-suspension mountain bike, she on her beloved yellow urban ride, complete with basket and blinking lights.
Don’t try this at home. Maybe. Photo by Nadia Honnet.
I convinced her to trade bikes with me, partly because I thought putting her on a proper mountain bike would be the safe thing to do on a mountain-bike trail (I didn’t neglect my fatherly responsibilities completely). But partly because I relished the thought of crushing a mountain bike trail on a teenager’s city bike.
Hence, I found myself cresting tabletops and rounding berms at full-speed, fenders bumping along and V-brakes squealing under the strain. I feel like I should tell you that this is unadvisable, and you should not do it.
But in the midst of this ride (which, not coincidentally, was a heap of fun, especially seeing the looks on the faces of other trail riders on $6,000 carbon-framed full-suspension downhill rigs who did double-takes on my basket), one thought kept popping into my head: Do you really need a mountain bike for this?
Of course, a proper mountain bike is the right thing to use, for safety and enjoyment. But the experience got me thinking that perhaps we North Americans have let our gearhead tendencies get the best of us. Cyclists, in particular, seem to obsess over having the “proper” bike for whatever kind of ride they are doing: A road bike for a country road, a mountain bike for a trail, a city bike for a city ride. It’s getting to rather absurd lengths when it’s now possible to buy a bike specially built for gravel rides.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a sucker to the n+1 philosophy of bike ownership as much as the next bike nerd (a formula stipulating the ideal number of bikes you should own, in which n is the number you currently own). But riding a totally inappropriate machine down a trail and having a blast doing it reminded me that maybe we don’t need a different bike for every ride. Maybe sometimes having a bike that’s good enough is, well, good enough. Maybe we should stop subtly shaming people who show up for a group road ride without a proper road bike, or who ride a hard-tail on a rocky trail. Maybe, ultimately, the ride is more important than the machine we ride on.
But then again, maybe I’m not thinking clearly because my brain got rattled on that mountain bike trail. Man, front suspension would have been nice.
On my most memorable ride this year, a 70 km highway ride up the highest paved mountain pass in Canada, I wore a helmet. On my recent mountain bike trip into the Rockies of southern B.C. , I wore a helmet. But in my last video, in which I rolled through the streets of Calgary’s new protected bike lanes, I did not.
That raised a few eyebrows, at least in the comments of the video on Facebook and YouTube, some of which you can see below.
There was enough of a conversation about the issue that I feel the need to offer some explanation. As someone who rides a lot, I’ve put much thought into the helmet question.
I’m not going to rehash the helmet debate. It’s an endless, and at this point rather fruitless, conversation. If you want to understand the reasons against wearing a helmet, I recommend reading this piece by Peter Walker and watching this Ted Talk by Mikael Colville-Andersen.
In a nutshell: I wear a helmet in situations in which I feel the risk of being struck by a car or the risk of crashing is great.
That means if I’m winter commuting on busy thoroughfares, I wear one. If I’m highway riding, or mountain biking, I wear one. Because I live in a city that is just getting started in building safe bike infrastructure, that means I often wear a helmet in the city.
But, most importantly to the video that sparked this post: if I’m riding on safe bike lanes that have a physical barrier between myself and vehicles, I don’t feel the need for a helmet.
This, I understand, can be difficult for people. “But you can fall off your bike anwhere, anytime,” I hear. “You can’t predict when you might crash.” This, to me, speaks to our irrational assessment of risk. There’s good science that says your chances of being killed on the roads are about equal for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists (Clarification: The rates vary depending on how the rates are measured, but in a nutshell, motorists have slightly lower fatality rates, cyclists and pedestrians are about equal, and all of them are far lower than motorcyclists. Check it out). In my city, for example, one pedestrian is struck by a car every day, on average. In the last decade, there were 3,834 pedestrian-involved collisions, resulting in 3,317 injuries and 95 fatalities. For comparison’s sake, between 2004-2008, of the 2,174 people who died in traffic collisions in Calgary: 1.4 per cent were bicyclists, 6.9 per cent were motorcyclists, 10.4 per cent were pedestrians, and 76.2 per cent were drivers or passengers.
In other words, you are hella more likely to be struck by a car by simply walking the streets than riding a bike on them*. Yet only cycling is perceived as dangerous enough to require a helmet. It makes no sense, yet helmet use has gone from the fringes to orthodoxy in a generation. It’s now so ingrained in many people that it’s unfathomable that someone would choose to ride without a helmet. Yet the idea of wearing a helmet as a pedestrian is so absurd as to be laughable. The most dangerous thing you will do in your day, statistically speaking, is drive a car, yet where is the helmet debate there? Such a suggestion would get you laughed out of the room. Yet, if we were to require helmets while driving, we would almost assuredly save more lives than if we require them on bikes.
This illogical helmet fundamentalism creates a false perception that cycling is inherently dangerous, which discourages people from riding. That discouragement is harmful. It means my city is not enjoying all of the benefits of a more robust bike culture, including the increased safety and health benefits that come when more people ride. Part of the reason that I chose not to wear a helmet in that video (other than the fact that I felt completely safe while riding the city’s separated bike lanes): I’m trying to combat that unnecessary culture of fear around cycling.
That’s me on a lazy roll through my city’s bike paths.
The other thing that bothers me about this whole debate is the way it distracts from the real issues around bicycle safety. While the data about the macro safety implications of bike helmets remain sketchy (and I’m lucky enough to live in a jurisdiction that hasn’t fallen for the false promise of a mandatory helmet law), it’s beyond debate that building a strong network of protected bike lanes creates a safer environment for people on bikes. If you really care about bike safety, this is where you should focus your efforts.
So if you choose to wear a helmet, I completely understand and support that decision. If it gets you on a bike, it’s a wonderful thing. I will continue to wear one for many of my rides. But if you spot me, or anybody else, riding without one, all I ask is that you stop before trying to shame them and give some thought to the real issues around bike safety that impact all of us.
* I just want to clarify this. The likelihood of death is about the same for cyclists, motorists and pedestrians, according to a study by UBC. In my city, more people are struck walking than cycling in raw numbers, but that doesn’t mean the proportional rate of collisions is the same.
Upate: A nice reaction to this piece came from Treehugger’s Lloyd Alter, including some fascinating information about perceptions that was new to me. It’s worth a look.
Anyone who rides a bike on a regular basis knows that good storage is essential. From your keys and a pump to a puncture repair kit, there are numerous different bits and pieces you need out on the road.
On top of that, there may be times when you have shopping to carry, need a change of clothes, and more. Rather than hanging bags from your handlebars or overloading your pockets, there are more practical, convenient options out there on the market.
Let’s look at five of the best.
While the prospect of carrying a large, standard backpack just for your tire pump, wallet, and keys might seem like an unnecessary burden, there are more streamlined ones designed exclusively for cyclists. Small- to medium-sized packs are ideal for lightweight storage, and ensure you don’t need to put anything on the bike itself.
The best cycling backpacks usually feature a bladder for hands-free drinking, zip pockets for your valuables, and padded straps. Be sure to go for a design that suits your individual needs: if you commute to work and change clothes when you arrive, you’ll need a larger backpack. On the other hand, if you carry just a few things while mountain biking, go for the smallest size you can find.
Another benefit of backpacks is that you can keep them with you when you dismount easily.
A handlebar bag can be your best pal while riding. A model with a quick-release function makes for a no-fuss solution, with no need to dismount for access.
These are perfect for carrying snacks, drinks, your wallet / purse, keys, repair kit, or a camera; if you’re planning to stop for a break, you should have room for a book or tablet, too. The best handlebar bags can also be carried over your shoulder, for when you leave your bike.
Handlebar bags work brilliantly for endurance cyclists, mountain bikers, and commuters alike.
The basket may not be for everybody, nor does it suit bikes for every application; if you have drop handlebars, you might even be unable to attach one in the first place. If you’re a dedicated mountain biker, of course, you’ll probably be unable to fit a basket onto your handlebars, not will it actually withstand the rigors of such vigorous riding.
If, however, you’re a commuter or just love to take leisurely rides, a basket is a fantastic storage solution.
Wicker baskets are common, with a rustic charm suited to quirky or colorful frames; metallic and wire mesh models are also extremely popular. These offer a high level of protection to the goods being carried, and while canvas baskets are foldable for easy storage, they offer little in the way of resilience.
Bicycle baskets may be attached to the handlebars, the frame’s front, or the rear, and carry numerous items without affecting your balance (provided you don’t overload it).
Saddle bags are a neat, simple storage option. These are available in a massive selection of styles, sizes, and colors, to suit different needs.
For just the essentials – phone, keys, cash, repair kit – a smaller saddle bag will fit under your seat beautifully, out of the way. Larger bags are available though, and keep clothes, food, and drinks safe from the elements.
Some saddle bags also feature built-in LED lights, to help you stay visible and safe on nocturnal rides. You may prefer to buy a saddle bag with a Velcro strap, for easy attachment and detachment.
Panniers are bags made to strap or clip to your bike’s front or back. These tend to carry more than baskets and saddle bags, and keep your body unrestricted; they’re also available in different sizes.
You should look for panniers featuring quick-release clips which are also secure, so you have no worries about them coming off while you’re pedaling away nor having to struggle to remove them.
Invest in panniers that are weatherproof, and that leave plenty of room for your heels (if attaching to the rear).
Each of these solutions helps you to bring everything you need with you while biking, be that spare clothes, bottled water, work docs, laptops, repair kits, food, or anything else. Have you thought about how these could make your biking life easier?
The Priority Continuum, the perfect winter bike for my commute?
For years, I’ve ridden the same winter commuting bike, which I affectionately, but sometimes derisively, refer to as my p.o.s.: a crappy 20-year-old mountain bike whose best days were in the last century.
I converted this 20-year-old Specialized to a single-speed in an attempt to avoid rust.
While I do have a soft spot in my heart for this bike, that spot often grows hard. The machine is an entirely practical choice: after the salty slush of my commute destroyed an older, beloved bike, I turned to this one begrudgingly. With minimal components and a frequently replaced chain, it does the job. It also, however, clicks when I pedal, has untrustworthy brakes, can’t take a bike rack, lacks the components for proper fenders, and often rides like it has a deflated soul.
Which leaves me wondering why I have never seen a bike specially made for winter commutes. I know what I would like: aluminum frame to resist rust, good fenders, a strong rack for waterproof panniers, disk brakes that work in the cold, internal gear hubs that keep out moisture, studded tires, and either a belt drive or some kind of chain guard to keep the drivetrain clean and dry. All at a price reasonable enough to remain practical. In other words: a practical, low-maintenance, affordable, rust-resistant bike. That bike may exist somewhere in the world, but it always felt as accessible as a mermaid.
I’ve long felt like this was a failure of the bike industry. Obsessed with selling high-end performance bikes, the fact that a winter commuter wasn’t readily available seemed like another miss by an industry that is only starting to catch on to the idea of bikes as a form of urban transportation.
But then, my own busty fish-damsel emerged from the sea in the form of a smiling dude named David standing in the lobby of a bike-industry event beside a rather plain looking bike. Something about that machine caught my eye, and I went in for a closer look. My heart skipped a beat. My knees weakened. Was this my dream winter bike?
My mermaid was David Weiner, founder of Priority Bicycles, a New York-based online retailer that specializes in practical, low-stress urban bikes. And he was hawking the Continuum under the idea that it was a four-season commuter bike. While I was skeptical at first, I quickly found the machine was like the Millennium Falcon in that she may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts:
Aluminum frame (to resist rust)? Check.
Belt drive and internally geared hub (to resist rust)? Check.
In fact, Weiner told me the Continuum was built specifically with year-round commuters in mind.
“Simply, I wanted to build bikes that my friends could ride year round without worrying about maintenance, and at an affordable price,” Weiner told me via email. “When we launched the EIGHT last year we were surprised with how well it sold in the winter season and how many customers were coming to us telling us that it was their winter commuter of choice. This of course made sense due to the rust/grease-free drivetrain.
“However, one complaint we had was that the hub could freeze in extreme temperatures. We started to think that there must be a better solution… Hence we worked on upgrading the EIGHT with a NuVinci hub (ideal for sub-freezing weather and the ultimate in no maintenance) and some incredibly durable fenders.”
I was convinced. I pulled out my credit card and my order was placed within the week. A few days later, a big box arrived containing the first new bike I’ve ever purchased exclusively for use in winter. Just in time for a cold snap.
As far as cyclists go, I’m not much of a gear-head. While I perform basic bike maintenance myself, one of my ultimate goals in a winter commuter is to reduce maintenance. My big enemy in this fight has always been rust. In my icy, slushy city, salt is my Moriarty. And simply hosing off a bike after a commute is not an option in a city where hoses quickly freeze and stay frozen.
So riding my Continuum through the tail end of a Canadian winter has been a test. We’ve had a few bitingly cold days, a bit of late-season snow, and a whole lot of slush, ice and salt as we lurch into spring and the snow melts.
As you can see, rust can be relentless. It’s already hit some components.
Rust is already gathering on some parts of the bike, after only a few weeks of use.
But on the important parts, the Continuum is riding smooth and rust-free. The best part? I have spent almost no time thinking about the bike. I’m not worried about the chain, or the brakes or anything else. It just works.
The drive-train, thanks to the belt-drive and internal gears, is free of rust.
Is this the ultimate winter bike? I’m not quite ready to declare that (ask me in the middle of next February), but it’s been holding up very well for me. The NuVinci hub has withstood the cold, the belt drive has stayed smooth in the ice and snow, and the fenders have been keeping my ass dry.
I’m not yet ready to give up my old mantra that the ultimate winter bike is the one that works for you. But perhaps what’s more important is that the bike industry is finally coming around to the idea that people are riding bikes all year round in cities. Thanks Priority. It’s about time.
Why are two icons of the Canadian automobile industry pouring resources into the creation of a electric bicycle being sold around the world?
For Frank Stronach and Fred Gingl, two Canadians who powered Magna into one of the world’s strongest auto-parts companies, the answer is simple: The future.
In the late 2000s, the pair, through Magna, purchased BionX and honed the company’s electric-bike-drive system. The system, which is integrated into the bike’s rear wheel and is powered by a battery affixed to the frame, offers an electric assist to the pedaling rider, and can now be found on e-bikes all over the world.
But in late 2016, the pair took the idea further in the form of a complete bike. The Elby is a high-end integrated e-bike that Gingl has high hopes for, not just as a business venture, but in helping push a fundamental change in our transportation system.
“I’ve always wanted to change how we get around, even from my early days in the automotive industry,” Gingl wrote to me in an email. “The bike is an inherently efficient mobility solution with so many health benefits for the individual, not to mention the way it eases traffic congestion and abates pollution for us all.
“It’s been tried and true for over 100 years, but if we could work to build a bike with an adaptable, regenerative drive system, we could make it a convenient option for everyone, not just an efficient option. And if we can make it convenient, we can really change how we move from point A to point B.”
That ambition is obvious in the Elby. I’ve ridden e-bikes before, but none feel as complete. The machine feels like it was designed from scratch as an electric model, not a traditional bike supplemented with a motor.
Still, the big question remains: Will the Elby be the model that breaks through the North American market? E-bikes are already ubiquitous in China, and they are quickly being adopted in some European markets, after years of skepticism there. But in North America, reaction to the promise of e-bikes has always been an enthusiastic “meh.” Sales are on the rise, but they remain small.
The bike sure nails one of the requirements for North American tastes: Tech. Comparing the Elby to other brands is a bit like comparing an iPhone to an old Blackberry. When the Velofix mechanic who showed me the bike — the mobile bike shop has a deal to deliver and service Elbys — called it the “Tesla of e-bikes,” he wasn’t far off.
Gadgetry flows through nearly every part of the bike. Most importantly is the electric-assist motor. You can set it to four levels, depending on how much help you need. It also includes a throttle for those times when you’re feeling especially lazy. The motor tops out at about 30 km/h, to ensure it remains a bicycle in the eyes of the law in many jurisdictions.
The Elby also has a a mode that regenerates power from the back wheel to charge the battery, not dissimilar to an hybrid car. When descending a hill, tap it into regenerative mode to give the battery a jolt.
It’s powered by an on-board computer that can even be swapped out for your smartphone with a Bluetooth app that includes turn-by-turn navigation. That includes a USB port so you can charge your phone while you ride.
All that is pretty cool, but it’s all a bit secondary to the important part of any bike: How it gets you around.
On this, I found the Elby performs very well too. The 500 watt motor and range of 90 miles (144 kilometres) is bigger than most e-bikes, but I find this stat to be a bit of a non-starter. If you’re riding 150 kilometres in one go, kudos to you, but most commuters won’t go a fraction of that distance in a given trip. So in practice, that range means, basically, you need to plug it in for recharging less frequently.
With wide tires and nice stiff aluminum frame, the bike rides well, and it’s certainly an attention grabber. I had a few people cast a sideways glance at the step-through frame, but I like the design. Step-throughs are comfortable, easy to ride and criminally overlooked in North America. By building the hefty lithium-ion battery into the bottom of the frame, the Elby has a low centre of gravity that feels almost supernaturally stable (don’t test that too much, please).
Elby trumpets the toughness of the bikes, saying it was designed for all weather conditions. I certainly tested those claims, having given the bike a test through several weeks of the harshest winter we’ve faced in years. All in all, the bike held up well. The stable design and wide tires did well on ice roads and the snirt (for you sun-belters, that’s a slippery mixture of snow and dirt), and the pedal-assist certainly came in handy when plowing through small drifts of snow.
After years of having smartphones die in my pocket during -20 C commutes, I didn’t hold out much hope that the Elby’s battery would fare well in the cold, but it did surprisingly well. I certainly noticed a decline in longevity of the battery in such cold weather, but it never stranded me to pedal a 55-pound machine uphill all the way home without a little help. In fact, I came to reply on the pedal-assist so much that I had to start dressing warmer for my commutes, because I could no longer rely on my usual pedaling pace to warm my body from the inside.
Back to that big question: Will the Elby be the model that finally drags e-bikes in the mainstream? Perhaps, but it first needs to overcome a problem of value.
I don’t mean price. In a world of $10,000 carbon-fibre full-suspension mountain bikes, The 9-speed Elby’s $3,700 US price tag isn’t astronomical, especially among e-bikes, but it’s a lot to expect in a culture that doesn’t value utility bikes enough. That’s the cultural problem that needs to be overcome.
Part of that will be identifying those who can benefit most from e-bikes. It’s become a bit of a cliche to say e-bikes are a boon for older riders who have lost a step, but it’s true. It’s also true that e-bikes are ultra-practical, especially for commuters. And trips to the grocery store are a breeze with a good set of panniers.
This is the perfect time for e-bikes, which have been called the most environmentally friendly motorized machines ever devised. There’s a gap in most North American cities right now: As bike infrastructure is slowly built out, there are still long distances that many commuters must overcome to reach those bike lanes. The Elby can fill that gap.
“People have a greater understanding of the role technology can play in improving the quality of their lives, their communities, and the wider world. We’re aware of our impacts and want to be responsible with them, while also enjoying ourselves,” Gingl gold me.
“Elby’s the perfect solution for someone like that. Now all we need is safer commuting infrastructure to keep up with the abundance of electric vehicles that are about to hit the market.”
It’s the zombie of urban issues. The idea that refuses to die: Bicycle licences. Cue blood-curdling scream.
For those feeling uneasy about the growth of cycling on our city streets, one knee-jerk response always seems to be the suggestion that bicycle licences can somehow fix whatever problems they think exist. I’ve written much about licences in the past, but the issue still gets raised regularly, including in my inbox.
So in response, here are reasons that I think bicycle licensing is a bad idea:
According to some opinion polls (and we know how accurate those are, right U.S. electoral college voters?), the idea of bicycle licensing is a popular one. But when you get a little closer to the issue, their reasons people support the idea vary. Is it to control scofflaw cyclists? Is it to raise money for bike infrastructure? Is it to register bicycles in case of theft?
With so many motivations, it’s difficult to determine which problem licensing is intended to fix. One of them? All of them? Because of that vagueness, proposals often strike me, not so much an argument in favour of licensing, as much as a scattershot attempt at finding some reason, any reason, to limit cycling.
If you feel like licensing can solve a true practical problem, then it’s worth discussing. But if you’re using bike licensing as a vague way of stopping something you don’t like, then your proposed solution is bound to be dumber than the sum of its parts.
Registration is unruly
Over the decades, many cities (including my own, which ended back in the 1970s) have tried to licence bicycles, for a number of reasons. Nearly all of them have failed because it’s really difficult to operate a bicycle licensing program properly. It’s logistically challenging, time-consuming and expensive. It tends to fall to police or firefighters to manage it, and they usually have better things to do. It also requires mass buy-in from the public, which has proven impossible in many places. That’s why so few cities do it anymore.
An example: In 2010, San Jose, California abandoned its bike licensing program after decades because it was widely ignored and expensive to manage. “The program doesn’t make enough in fees to cover the cost for busy cops and firefighters to create and maintain a useful license database,” wrote the San Jose Mercury News. It was the same story in Toronto earlier this year when the idea was rejected. As it was in many other cities around the continent who have tried, and then rejected, bike licensing, usually after the requirement was widely ignored by bike-loving citizens.
In theory, it’s possible to operate a successful system (Honolulu has one of the rare systems that seems to actually work, if you don’t count those who ignore the law, and the homeless who see it as a pretense for cops to steal their bikes), but with so many cities trying and failing, it takes a special kind of stubborn to think it will work elsewhere. In other words: It’s been tried, and it’s failed. It’s time to move on.
There are better ways to control cyclists
Some people are understandably angered by cyclists who don’t obey the rules of the road. This is a real problem (caused often, I’d argue, because poor infrastructure gives cyclists few legal and safe options), and there are several ways that it can be deal with, including licensing. But since most cities can’t get their shit together to even operate a proper licencing system, it makes you wonder how effective the system would be in changing cyclist behaviour.
Besides, some cities have already devised a system to improve cyclist behaviour. It’s called bike-friendliness. Visit the world’s great bike cities, and you’ll see how a mix of education, bike infrastructure, and a culture of tolerance and mutual respect on the roads can solve those scofflaw woes.
But if that sounds like too much work, we could try another solution: simply enforcing the laws that already exist to manage the behaviour of all road users, including cyclists.
It rarely makes money
The idea of requiring cyclists to purchase a licence as a way of generating money to pay for new bike lanes makes intuitive sense. The problem is, it almost never works. As already discussed, the logistics of operating a city-wide bike licensing system are so complicated and expensive, they often cost more than any revenue they might bring in, especially if the licensing fee is low enough to encourage compliance. In fact, some programs end up costing taxpayers money rather than generating it.
On a larger scale, this is a question about user-pay government services. If you really think cyclists ought to pay for infrastructure, beyond the taxes they already pay, that’s a debate worth having (provided user-pay requirements are adopted for all road users, not just cyclists). That, however, is a separate conversation, except in the idea that licensing seems to to be an inefficient system for collecting that user fee.
It doesn’t prevent theft
In many cities, bike theft is a problem. A big problem. But licensing doesn’t stop theft, it can only help reunite recovered bikes with their owners. That’s why you should record the serial numbers of your bikes, and report them if your bike is stolen. If you do so, you’ve just eliminated the need for a mandatory bike licensing program.
Because it’s stupid
Beyond the points listed above, my sense is that many of those who support bike licensing do so out of a warped sense of equity. This is the car-equivalency argument: motor vehicle operation requires a licence, therefore bicycle operation should too.
The problem is that bikes and cars are not the same. The reason we, as a society, require licensing and insurance for cars is because of the mind-boggling destructiveness of cars on both our property and our species — motor vehicles cause so much mayhem with such regularity that we require their operators to be tested for their skill, and have the capacity to pay for the destruction they will almost inevitably wreak.
Bikes are not like that, therefore the requirements should be different. Sure, bikes are involved in collisions, but compared to the destructiveness of cars, the damage inflicted by bikes is laughably small. On a personal level, the health benefits of riding a bike probably outweigh the risk, and you might reasonably win an argument saying that bikes offer a net health benefit to society. To think we should more heavily regulate something that benefits society as a whole is stupid. We should regulate things that harm society. Cycling should be encouraged.
To recap: There may be a good argument in favour of bike licences (and I hope you’ll let me know if you have one), but the graveyard of bike licensing is filled with the corpses of well-meaning initiatives that died because of bureaucracy, apathy, mismanagement, misguided notions and all-around stupidity. At some point, it will be time to kill this zombie for good.
Thanks to the helpful tweet below, I adjust the wording of Calgary’s bike-sharing plans to reflect the fact it ended in the 1970s.
By pounding over the hills of San Francisco in a 1968 Ford Mustang GT, a scowling Steve McQueen, in the unfortunately spelled action movie Bullitt, managed to define coolness for a generation of baby boomers, in spite of the corduroy blazer.
But those days are long gone. These days, driving a muscle car in that manner is more likely to get you shunned by hordes of millennials waiting in line for the Google bus. For them, what’s more likely to impress, if a vehicle chase scene in a movie are what defines the outlook of a generation, is this one.
That’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Premium Rush, a chase scene masquerading as a B-list action movie that attempts to cash in on the generation-defining outsider esthetic of the bike messenger, and, more specifically, the bike: The fixie. Or, as the movie rather clumsily puts it: “Fixed gear. No brakes. Can’t stop. Don’t want to, either.”
You see fixies everywhere you see millennials these days, and not just the organic kale kombucha market: They are all over cities, typically with ostentatiously coloured rims and narrow handlebars, delivering their bare-headed passengers to their destinations via spanking new bike lanes.
For those of a more, well, experienced generation, however, the appeal of the fixie can be a little elusive. One gear that you can never stop pedalling? No brakes? Kids these days, sigh.
As somebody claiming a place, in outlook if not chronology, as a bridge between those generations, I decided to do my part to close that generation gap with my latest Shifter challenge. The ultimate millennial bicycle chore, albeit a simple one: Riding a fixie to the local craft brewery to pick up a six pack.
I’ve only dabbled with fixies in the past, so I’m not exaggerating the role of a fixie n00b. I convinced my cousin to lend my his well-trod machine, resplendent with bright orange rims, bullish pursuit handlebars and, thankfully, two sets of rim brakes (yeah, yeah: true authenticity would call for no brakes at all, but the learning curve of using pedals to stop is steeper than my tolerance for the risk of dropping a six pack).
The absence of sagging cables and dangling derailleurs gave the fixie some handsome and clean lines, so I knew had to match. I pulled on my skinniest jeans, wrapped a messenger bag around my shoulders, installed Snapchat on my phone, and I was off.
Hearing JGL say “the pedals never stop turning” is one thing. Actually pushing off on a bike when the wheels never stop turning is another. Your intellect may be ready for it, but your feet are not. The pedals of the fixie felt like a sentient being. They revolved independent of me, as I if they were driving and I was just a passenger. They felt like Google Car, for bikes, especially as I fumbled to get my Blundstone into the toe clips. (A side note: Pedal clips? Really? Sure, they worked for Stephen Roche in the 1987 Tour de France, but really?).
Still, once I got a rhythm down, I rode with few problems. For a while. It’s funny how a fixie makes you realize how often you coast on a bike. Like when you approach a curb and attempt to pull your front wheel over it. Try that sometime without stopping your spinning. It’s hard. And weird. I wouldn’t say it was dangerous, but wasn’t not dangerous.
I steered toward one of those steep and narrow foot bridges over a busy thoroughfare that Europeans point to as proof of our hatred of pedestrians, wishing only occasionally that I could shift gears on the way up. I rolled down the other side with my feet held wide and the pedals spinning furiously and independently. I was getting into a groove now.
Until I reached the brewery and encountered my next problem: for all its clean lines, there was nowhere on the bike to pack my beer. No rack. No basket. Not even one of those hipster leather beer carriers that I usually mock. I guess millennials are more practical than they are given credit for.
I emptied my six pack into my messenger bag and gingerly pedalled for home, hoping that my lurching cadence wouldn’t result in broken bottles. The rest of the way home was uneventful, but left me wondering why or if I would ever choose to ride a bike like this.
To recap: Compared to a plain old freewheel bike that you might see a Gen Xer ride (if most Gen Xers weren’t always driving expensive crossover SUVs two blocks to their kids’ school drop off because they are afraid little Johnny might get hit by someone else’s expensive crossover SUV who is also driving because of fear of other vehicles), the fixie has a few challenges: As a newbie, it was tough to get started. Difficult to stop. Challenging while climbing hills. Frightening to descend hills. Awkward to mount small curbs. And this model was definitely lacking in cargo space.
On the positive side: Well, the bike looks good. Fixie adherents often tout the control the fixed-gear provides, but lacking experience meant I felt the opposite. I did enjoy the responsiveness of the bike while rolling at speed, and with with time I may end up being able to do those rather awesome slide/stop things you see in alley cat videos, but until then, sorry millennials, but I’ll be hauling my beer in the ugly rack on the back of my plain old three-speed.
Some riders of fixies came to their defence. Here’s a few of their thoughts:
The appeal? Practical. Stylish. Honest. Affordable. And makes you tough as fuck if you do long rides on them. https://t.co/oFmuD0Tii6
On my bicycle commute to work, I cross the river on an old iron bridge. During certain times of the year, after the ice has melted but before the spring runoff has muddied the water with sediment, when the light enters the water just right, I can see the floor of the river. There, resting forlornly at the bottom, is a bicycle. I can’t make out much detail beneath the water like that, but it looks like an old mountain bike. Nothing fancy, probably a 12-speed, or maybe 15, one of those default models that North Americans buy because they imagine themselves riding off-road like in the magazines but rarely do. This one, I imagine, spent most of its life being pedaled down pathways on Sundays before it ended up being indignantly tossed in the river. There it lies now, an alien in an underwater world.
Seeing a bike like this always makes me feel a little melancholic. Bicycles are nothing but tools for us, mass-produced items we use for a specific function. But somehow, they become more than that. Unlike, say, a hammer or a microwave oven, bicycles work themselves into our consciousness more than most of our tools. Perhaps it’s our reliance on them that builds that connection. They get us to our destinations. They keep us fit. They provide joy and recreation. They become companions and trusted friends. That’s why, I think, we react so strongly to images and stories of bicycle theft and vandalism, like that bike resting at the bottom of the river.
Stories like this: In 2008, Toronto police tracked a bicycle thief to a cluttered local repair shop, where the store’s owner purchased the stolen item. They arrested the owner for dealing in stolen goods and unwittingly uncovered a massive and long-running bike theft ring spearheaded by a charismatic conspiracy theorist named Igor Kent. Police eventually recovered more than 3,000 stolen bikes stashed in all manner of repair around the city. What so outraged the city about the crime was its brazenness and the indifference of the police to it. Torontonians seethed over the incident, as if Kenk had come to embody the frustration of every bike theft, every bit of bike vandalism and all those years of police inertia. And yet, Kenk emerged as a somewhat sympathetic character. He even tried to reclaim the stolen goods from police upon his release from incarceration, saying he cared about the bikes more than anyone.
Both sides of this bizarre tale illustrate the special relationship we have with bicycles. For victims, such thefts feel intensely personal, like being robbed of a reliable friend. For the perpetrator, it’s difficult to imagine another device driving such emotional delusions and feelings of misplaced attachment and responsibility. Driving both emotions, I think, beyond the simple economics of bike theft, is the communal nature of cycling. In most cities these days, to ride a bike makes you part of a club. Riding in a city breeds a kind of fellowship with others on bikes, a feeling that is both welcoming and exclusive. So when that fraternity is broken by theft or vandalism, the sense of betrayal can cut deeply. That’s why seeing those fragments of bikes scattered throughout the city instills such emotions: So many of us have felt the sting of bewilderment and betrayal that comes with bike theft and vandalism.
Yet, as much as our emotions fight the notion, bikes remain commodities. They are products that break and are discarded. They are stolen and stripped and resold. They are vandalized and tossed into rivers. No matter how much we love them, bikes can disappear at any time, so they are never really ours. We are only their stewards. They truly belong to the city. Bikes are part of a city as much as sidewalks and lampposts. Walk the streets and you’ll see the remnants of this relationship. Wheel-less frames still locked to racks. Old wheels rusting away in back alleys. Forgotten machines, stripped of saddles, shivering under blankets of snow. We may buy bikes, and act like we own them, but eventually they’ll be absorbed by the city.
But this isn’t something to lament. This is what makes bicycles such a perfect part of life in the city. There’s an ecosystem at play, and bicycles are part it. The machines may break down, or be picked apart or abandoned, but they can always be reclaimed. Unlike most of the tools in our life these days, from mobile phones to electric cars, bikes remain the beautifully simple mechanical devices they’ve been for 100 years, which means we can understand them. We can tinker. With a few simple tools, they can be taken apart, adjusted, and put back into action by just about anyone. That old frame may look like it’s rusting away, but all it needs is a wrench to bring it back to life.
So that feeling that wells inside of me when I see that bike at the bottom of the river isn’t only loneliness. More importantly, it’s a reaction to the wasted potential of that machine, its removal from the patterns of life of the city. But that’s easy to fix. Someone just has to pull it from the river, fix it up, and take it for one more ride.
This is a translated excerpt from Des Velos Dans La Ville, a French-language photo book featuring the work of Laurent Chambaud and several writers, including the author of this post, Tom Babin. This except is copyrighted by Presses de l’EHESP, and reprinted with permission. You should buy the book! It’s available here.
Several years ago, Zak Pashak was in the market for a new bike. Not an expensive carbon-fibre race machine, or a $10,000 status symbol. He just wanted a simple, practical bike that wouldn’t require a lot of maintenance, time or money.
But he was quickly turned off by the athletic focus of the bike shops he visited, where salespeople pushed him toward tricked-out bikes well beyond his needs. Eventually, he found a bike that worked, but the experience planted a seed in his brain.
Today, Pashak is a bit of a folk hero of the American bike scene thanks to his company Detroit Bikes, which uses Motor City mechanical know-how to churn out American-made versions of that bike he had such trouble finding all those years ago: Simple, reliable, sturdy, well-made city bikes without needless bells and whistles.
“I just thought there’s people like me who want to buy a bike, and they can’t,” Pashak told me recently.
But the market for such bikes in North American remains small, which leads to a bigger question: Why are so many North Americans reluctant to embrace the kind of bikes Pashak is building? And is that reluctance holding us back from more bike-friendly lives?
Several years ago, I had an almost identical experience as Pashak. After a tough winter of bike commuting, the constant need to fine-tune my slush-saddled commuter bike had sapped my already limited gearhead tendencies. At that point, I was in desperate need of a bike that wasn’t so damn needy.
Yet, I struggled to find one. After months of searching, I finally came across a bike so nondescript I might have missed it had my state of mind been different: Comfortable steel frame, three-speed internal hub, no-fuss matte black finish. It even had coaster brakes — I didn’t even know foot brakes were even a thing anymore.
Years later, I still ride this bike nearly every day, and I love it. It’s the easiest, most practical and efficient ride I own. Best of all, it demands almost nothing from me.
The A-Type by Detroit Bikes.
Such city bikes are much easier to come by these days than even five years ago. But when shopping for a new ride, many consumers, especially those not already immersed in the bike world, tend to default to the standard machines we’ve been sold for several generations now: mountain-bike style frames brimming with gears, often upsold to include suspension systems and carbon parts.
These can be great bikes in the right situations (like, say, scaling a mountain), but for some casual city cyclists, they can be expensive, impractical and sensitive. The risk is bigger than just a consumer choice. If you’re trying to use your bike for more than recreation, it can be completely discouraging if that bike doesn’t support that kind of lifestyle. If you’re bike is uncomfortable, you’re less likely to ride on a sore ass. If it can’t carry stuff, you’re less likely to use it for errands and shopping trips. If it’s loaded with needless gears that are in constant need of adjustments to prevent them from annoying rattling and rough shifting, you’re less likely to choose the bike.
So why do so many of us buy them?
Pashak likens it to the consumer demand for impractical SUVs. Most consumers have no need for off-roading gas-guzzling 4x4s, but they still sell by the bucketload. We tend to have a weakness for aspirational consumer goods, and we conflate stuff with lifestyle.
You really see a contrast when visiting the great bike cities of Europe, which are overflowing with practical, unsexy, well-used bikes in all manner of black. Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize says Danes see bikes, not as status symbols, but as household appliances (he likens them to vacuum cleaners, which was an apt analogy, until we also managed to turn vacuum cleaners into fetishized status items. Thanks, Dyson).
I’m not saying everybody needs the kind of bike that Pashak is building — hell, I’ve never even tried a Detroit Bikes model — I’ve just seen how my own practical ride has made it easier to choose a bike as my transportation choice more often. I still love my road bike and my mountain bike, but they stay in the garage when I’m headed to the pub or grocery store.
Where I see hope in this scenario is the always reliable North American quality of laziness. Perhaps the only thing we value more than consumer status symbols is convenience. And if you’re looking for convenience, not much beats a reliable, time-tested, ultra-practical, universally unsexy, plain old bicycle.