It has been seven years in the making, but the bicycle commuter tax provision has finally passed both the House and Senate. President Bush signed it into law last Friday as part of the “Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008” (read more about the Bicycle Commuter Benefits Act here, here, and here if you are interested). I realize that a tax incentive for bike commuters stuck into a massive financial bailout bill is not really design news, but the passage of the commuter tax benefit did get me thinking about changing attitudes toward bike commuting since I first started riding to work many years ago.
I write on the blog fairly often about various “commuter oriented” or “transportation oriented” bikes because, from a design standpoint, that is the product category that interests me the most. I know that infrastructure and road safety issues are the biggest factors in getting more people comfortable with the idea of cycling on the streets, but I believe that good product design can also be a major factor in persuading some of those people to consider using bikes for transportation. Historically, the U.S. bicycle industry has not done a very good job of reaching outside of the enthusiast realm with its product offerings. In the past, some people in the marketing departments at major bike companies have been happily preaching to the choir rather than working to actively grow the market and expand their customer base. To be fair though, the industry in the U.S. has changed a lot in the last few years. The product development/ marketing change has been noticeable in the 3 years that I have been writing this blog, but the industry still has plenty of room to grow. Products aimed at bike commuters seemed non-existent when I started occasionally riding to work after college in the early nineties. These days, it is great to see many different products on the market geared toward transportational cyclists including complete bikes, components, accessories, and clothing. Still, I think the products on the market now are just the tip of the iceberg. I believe that in the next few years we will see a greater focus on development of products for the many, many people out there who do not currently ride bikes at all (now is a good time to read Mark Sanders’ blue ocean post if you haven’t already).
Based on my interest in transportation oriented bicycle designs, some of you might be surprised to learn that my current primary commuting bike is an old road bike with slightly wider tires, a rear rack, lights, and mountain bike pedals (not the pedals shown here). My yellow Cannondale may be a beater with mismatched 8-speed parts and a dented frame, but the riding position is very similar to that of my good road bike. Even with a lock, spare tube, a few tools, and my lunch in the trunk rack, the bike is pretty light and responsive. For me personally, a road bike makes a great commuter because it is a type of bike that I love to ride anyway. Occasionally, I ride my other commuting bike (also pictured), a fixed gear that is set up basically the same way with a high seat, low handlebars, and an absence of extra niceties like fenders. Both of those bikes work for me, but I realize that they are not a good transportation solution for the average person. As someone who loves cycling, I consider my commute to be free riding time. I don’t want to lock up one of my good bikes outside, but I do want to ride a bike that feels a lot like the ones I ride for fun on the weekends. To use Mark’s example, I fit firmly in the “red ocean” of existing cyclists and that drives my choice in bikes for commuting. In contrast to cycling enthusiasts like myself though, the average person who may just be starting to entertain the thought of bike commuting to save money or reduce their carbon footprint, isn’t looking for a hard workout or a personal best time to the office. That potential bike commuter wants a bike that is comfortable, practical, and easy to use. They don’t want or need a trickle down version of a racing bike; they are looking for something that is specifically designed to meet their transportation needs- a bike that is easy to use, comfortable, and efficient, but also fun. I really believe that that creating an enjoyable user experience is the key to growing the number of cyclists in this country. As I have said, commuting on a road bike works well for me, but let’s face it- I am about as bike obsessed as anyone. I fully realize that my idea of a good time on a bike is not the same as the average person’s.
So what kind of bike would appeal to the average person who doesn’t currently ride? I don’t have all the answers, so I want to pose the question to all of you. What can designers at bicycle companies do to convince the general population, not those of us who are already cyclists, that riding a bicycle to work is more fun than driving a car? Design is all about solving problems, and I consider this issue to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the goal of getting more people on bikes. So let’s hear it, what are some features that the ultimate “blue ocean” commuter bike needs? What would make the average person perceive a bike as a practical, even more enjoyable, alternative to a car? There are already some really good bikes and components on the market that reflect industrial designers’ attempts to answer those kinds of questions. In this post though, I have refrained from mentioning specific products by name because I am interested in hearing completely new ideas. Realistic or “out there”, refined or not- just throw out your best ideas and observations in the comments section and let’s see what we can come up with as a group. Consider this a virtual brainstorming session on the concept of a commuter bike for the masses; remember no ideas are bad ones in the earliest stages of the design process, so lets hear them all.