Folding Bikes: Let's start with the horse before the cart

Meeting bicycling scholar Prof. John Pucher from Rutgers uni - he lives in Central Jersey and hasn't owned a car for over 35 years. Beats my 15 or so, but who's counting? Read John's academic bio. A cooler article about him in Momentum mag.

More about this on the Bike Friday blog.

I've just attended the American Institute of Architect's Fit-City 4, an annual half-day conference Promoting Physical Activity Through Design.

It was well attended, and I was one of three people who actually rode a bike, specifically a folding bike to the conference, stashing it under the reception desk. Naturally, bicycling was a central topic in addition to walking and stair climbing. Yes, there was even an expert stair designer on the panel, and the Dept of Mental Health and Hygiene (cleanliness is next to clueyness?) developed a lime green placard you could take away to hang in your stairwells.

It reads, "Burn Calories, not Electricity." Not bad slogonometry, but if only they'd asked an advertising copywriter to give our "say it straight, then say it great" treatment, you'd end up with something snappy like "Burn Carbs Not Hydrocarbs". (Or as my seatmate Dave Miller, cognitive engineer and veteran of Bike and Build put it, "Burn Ass Not Gas." We copywriters are incorrigible ... )

I liked one contributor's talk about a 'scenic, educational and circuitous route to the bathroom' benefiting both the abled and otherly-abled. "That's truly universal design," remarked Dave Miller. The case studies were very interesting, but left right at the end when people's tummies were grumbling. I would have opened with one, and sprinkled them throughout the worthy though comparatively prosaic keynotes. Oh they never built a monument to a critic ...

I met the lively and decidedly unprosaic bicycle scholar John Pucher, who presented tables showing how the USA was at the bottom of the pile in bicycle use, and Australia embarrassingly not far behind. In particular, he showed that women make up a fraction of USA cyclists compared to men, but rival the male ridership in other European countries. Same goes for the elderly - the older you are in those countries, the more likely you are to ride.

Sustainability conferences like this are always worthwhile, if for no other reason than to reiterate thorny problems and maintain momentum towards solutions. And, as a friend Max once said, "people do not need to be informed, so much as reminded." Professional pow-wows get people aware, networked and motivated - one architect asked about my bike nestled in reception, and went away "inspired to start riding again".

However, conferences often simply preach to the choir, and miss the opportunity to break new territory - perhaps due to political agendas and a bit of 'that's the way it's always been done.'

After being a Evangelist Behaving Badly at the Bikes in Buildings hearing (I learned quick that you don't get up and speak out of turn - but at least I didn't throw a chair like at the Rent Control hearings), I made sure to voice one, and only one contribution. The title of my spiel could be summed up thus:

Why not start with the horse, rather than the cart? Pictured: We call this, "under the table"

Since this conference was about "Intelligent Design", I pointed out that unintelligent, or rather, shortsighted design has led us into the mess we're in. I challenged the architects and designers present to start from the end user, with the piece of transport you can take with you. How hard could it be now - just leave a little extra space around each desk, wider turnstiles, put a bicycle symbol on the big blue wheelchair button ... and pass a bill allowing folders in all buildings at all times. I also pointed out that the social problems they all raised - obesity (older people and the otherly abled can ride because everyone can get their leg over a folder), tiny NY apartments (a folder takes less space), mass transit compatibility (you don't need a separate rail car for folders unless EVERYONE starts riding them), theft (take it indoors) - were all pretty well handled by buying even a cheap folder. I bookended my spiel by telling them I was not there to sell them a folding bike. That drew peals of laughter.

I hoped keynote speaker and DOT Commissioner Janet Sadik-Khan, who's made giant bunny hops for NY cyclists, wasn't sitting up there planning to let down my tires. You could say my agenda is somewhat at odds with the bill she is pushing to require storage space in buildings and encourage facilities like bicycle parking garages (watch my movie of the Cycle2City facility in Brisbane). But frankly, I cannot see the point of me pushing that platform when she and most other advocacy groups are doing it so well. I'm just the lone strangerette flying the folding flag.

Before I'm accused of selling folding bikes and thus stimulating the economy, health awareness and sustainability, I'm not saying folders are the only kind of bicycle you should ride, any more than I am saying kill the car. All are useful when appropriate. I'm just wondering why no one in these 'intelligent design' conferences ever starts with the "appropriate bicycle". At least ONE person could entertain that notion. Several architects came up to me after and said, "you've got a point." Time after time, people bemoan lack of space but never start from the thing we're trying to make space for. We push smaller cars, cellphones, slimming diets, personal stereo systems - why not smaller bicycles? (And smaller strollers, please).

What do I mean by appropriate bicycle?

If you want to ride mountains, get a mountain bike. If you want to be a roadie get a road bike. If you want to tour, get a packhorse bike. If you want to do triathlons get a tri bike. If you want to ride with someone very close in front or behind you, get a tandem. If you want to commute with a ton of stuff get an extracycle. If you want to ride but do less work, get an electric bicycle. If you want to be clever, get a unicycle. If you want to be scary impressive, get a BMX. If you want to ride to work and not have hassles locking, storing etc, get a folder.

And, pass a bill that says every building must have copious storage space for regular bicycles, but in the interim, which could last for years - please folders allow folders inside at all times.

Now for some emotional caveats ...

If you hate folders because you think you'll look like a dork - ok don't ride one.
If you your like regular bike better - ok don't ride one.
If you can't afford one starting at $125 or however much that cheapest folder on the internet is, despite the fact you have spent twice that on chai latte's and your iPhone just this year - ok don't ride one.

I will wait with you (inside) while building managements hum and ah about about allowing bikes inside, and hope your clunker doesn't get stolen by someone packing a chainsaw.

A bigger wheel even USES MORE RESOURCES to make, so if you don't need it for the job, save it for your time trial or 24 hrs of Adrenalin win.

Taking things to the extreme, I like bikes but they're not porn to me - I don't particularly want to see whole sidewalks clogged up with metal tubing - this picture is only cool because it's the Bisbee Bicycle Brothel and not the pavement.

But aside from these arguments, which are not real barriers - more preferences - put the horse before the cart and get the right tool for the job. REI and EMI and the like build their livelihoods on that premise. You can get a folder for under $200. Not a real good one, but it will do the job.

The Executive Director of the AIA, Rick Bell, made sure I didn't get too carried away with my folding tirade but did concede that even at the AIA offices they were wondering how to park bicycles inside. Have I got an intelligently designed bicycle for you, Rick ...

Now - here's a place in NYC where bikes AREN'T allowed and that's perfectly OK by me.

tikit on trial in NYC - my own mildly ballsy 'bikes in buildings' experiment in NYC

Get your tikit off the carbon express Bike Friday's Mission

Below: John Pucher makes a powerful point ... More of John's barcharts on the Bike Friday blog. What's gonna turn the tables on this? Maybe the widespread adoption of an everyperson bike - a folding bike!

USA is the lowest bicycle using nation - and I'm embarrassed to say - after Australia.

USA does not like to use the bike for work trips. And shame on you New York! Well, you do walk a lot, and you're pretty fit compared to some, we'll give you that ...

Bicycling for all ages and stages overseas - better a folder than a walking frame...

More of John's barcharts
The full montymedia ... John's Fit-City4 presentation : Cycling and Walking for All New Yorkers: Path to Improved Public Health
Can you stand more Puchernomics? Of course you can ... More John Pucher articles

Thanks to my fellow Joschi yoga teacher trainee Karyn Menexas of Dept Mental Health and Hygiene for connecting me with this conference.


Dave Miller said…
First, David Mollitor, my bike and build buddy, came up with the famous quip: "Driving burns gas, biking burns ass. Burn ass not gas." Credit should go where credit is due!

To solve a problem, the most important part is determining what the problem is.

Storing a bike so it doesn't disappear while you're not riding it is pretty important, and I agree that the folding bike is a pretty good solution to the "where do I store my bike when I'm not riding it" problem. As much as a folding bike isn't going to displace my race bike or TT bike, I could see getting one when I get back to NYC, because space is expensive, especially indoor space. I wouldn't say it's categorically wrong to devote indoor space to bike storage, but it's tough to convince a builder or building owner to devote salable real estate to something like storage, especially if it's not premium-rent producing.

As for the Fit part of this whole thing, we're in a crisis. For all of human history save the last 50 years, the universal problem has been getting enough to eat. Now, even in India, there is a perponderance of overweight people. For the first time in history, a generation will have a lower life expectancy, without cause of a plague, wars, or disaster.

And if that's not bad enough, we're poisoning the biosphere and quickly running out of hydrocarbons to use for energy. Our generation's children will ask us, incredulous, "you BURNED hydrocarbons?"

The solution is half simple. bike and walk more, eat less. simple.
reforming the food system (see Michael Pollen on that issue), the transportantion infrastructure, and our way of life is hard, but commuting by human power goes a long way towards battling the Bulge and the Barrel.

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