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Alexander Girard cruisers from Electra

Utility / Cargo Bike 12 962

This afternoon, I took a short break from a project that I am working on to browse through the design magazines on the corner of my desk. The stack included the December issue of Metropolis and the Jan/ Feb issue of ID Magazine. Bicycles are a pretty common site in design magazines these days, so I was not surprised to see a few of them as I flipped the pages of both mags. Metropolis mentioned the “Madonna” bike (pictured here) in the Observed section. The bike is a variation on the Electra Amsterdam model with a custom seat and grips, color coordinated rims, a matching bell, and illustrations by Alexander Girard on the fender skirt. Electra also has another women’s model that features illustrations by Girard. The “Tree of Life” bike can be seen here or here. Those of you who are not familiar with Girard by name are probably still familiar with some of his work. He is best known for the textile designs that he created for Herman Miller in the 50s, working with such notable furniture designers as George Nelson and Charles and Ray Eames. Too bad Girard is not still around to see the application of his work on these two bikes. Personally, I think they both look great.

ID mentioned the Trek District, a belt drive single speed which you may remember from a post back in August. That bike has received a lot of press since it was unveiled at Trek World this summer, so I was not surprised to see it in ID. The District and the Electra bikes that I just mentioned certainly look different, but they do have something in common. All three bikes appears to be designed as complete products rather than as just frames with a standard component specs. Details like the color coordinated rims, grips, saddles, components, etc. that work with the frame graphics are nice touches on all these bikes. It is great to see that attention to detail on commuter/comfort oriented bikes. My guess is that we will continue to see more new bikes, which will appeal to people who are new to riding, with that holistic design approach. What do you think? Do designs like these three have potential to appeal to a wider audience than the average cruiser or comfort bike?

Photo credit: maXimo

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  1. Ron December 16, 2008 at 11:39 pm -  Reply

    “What do you think? Do designs like these three have potential to appeal to a wider audience than the average cruiser or comfort bike?”


  2. Anonymous December 17, 2008 at 9:12 am -  Reply

    I agree that this will have superficial appeal to a population of non-cyclists who are attracted to bright colors and shininess. I expect the excitement will wear off before the first drop of sweat appears and the bike will never be ridden again – only to end up being donated to a non-profit recycling program (like the one I run – I’m speaking with some authority here).

    This design sells bikes, but not bike use. What sells bike use is when thoughtful people make design and purchase decisions that support everyday/allweather pedal vehicles like recumbents, commuter bikes, velomobiles, trikes and streamliners. It’s time to leave the 19th century designs behind, leave the 20th century transportation choices behind and make the 21st century world a sustainable one by going more places under our own power on vehicles that can do it in more conditions.

    Nick Hein
    Morgantown, WV

  3. James December 17, 2008 at 9:36 am -  Reply

    Nick, I certainly think there is room in the market for all-weather pedal vehicles like the ones you describe (I wouldn’t have staged the competition otherwise). I do, however, disagree that it is time to “leave the 20th century transportation choices behind”. The auto industry is full of different choices that appeal to different types of users, and the bike industry should be no different. An enclosed velomobile or streamliner appeals to one segment of the market while an updated traditional Dutch bike appeals to another. Why not have both?

    Despite your comment about the superficiality of “bright colors and shininess’, I am sure that, as a designer, you will agree that aesthetics DO matter when it comes to selling any product (including bikes). Personally, I am more likely to opt for something like a Dura Ace equipped Tarmac SL over a brightly colored cruiser, but in either case, the “styling” of the bike is a big factor in the purchase decision. I am not going to even try to pretend that aesthetics are not a factor in bike choice for me or anyone else. Different styles appeal to different types of users and of course there are different performance/ functional factors to consider, but lets face it; when a customer walks into a bike shop, no matter what type of bike or price point they are considering, looks really do matter.

  4. GhostRider December 17, 2008 at 10:00 am -  Reply

    James, Nick’s point is that YES, the design/color/styling of the bike does help sales, but none of that actually sells the “use” of said bike.

    Design and styling are of tremendous importance for that initial sale — even the most jaded cyclists among us are attracted to a sleek shape and vibrant styling, no matter how much we try to deny it. What companies need to bring to the table is also a way to sell the utility, fun and functionality of those designs to encourage actual use!

  5. James December 17, 2008 at 10:59 am -  Reply

    Thanks Ghostrider, I didn’t mean to pick on Nick and completely gloss over his point. I just got hung up on a couple of buzzwords in the comment. Certainly, I agree that “user centered” functional solutions are the design issues that will cause people who are new to cycling to continue using those nice looking new bikes that they purchase. A product’s functionality is more important than aesthetics and I don’t mean to imply otherwise (though the two can be intertwined). I just want to stress the fact that those design elements, which might make someone happy with a product long term, are not necessarily the same ones that drive the initial purchase decision. It is important for designers to think about both sets of issues from the onset.

    I guess the question I should pose to Nick (and anyone else who wants to weigh in) is this- what is wrong with these bikes from a functional standpoint? The Electras in particular have many features that make them practical for short urban commutes (and the basic design is proven in other countries), so why are potential customers likely to hang them up after the first ride?

  6. cafiend December 17, 2008 at 5:00 pm -  Reply

    People will groove on a design and then turn around and curse and throw things at an actual cyclist on the street.

    People will buy a thing to own it and then tire of it and dispose of it without ever improving the conditions under which more dedicated users of other forms of the thing operate.

    It’s all cool.

  7. Matthew Roche December 18, 2008 at 3:35 am -  Reply

    I agree and disagree. Making bikes with coordinated components may lead to better desirability. Packaging works.

    However, it is the very interchangability of bike components that makes them so valuable. I can take a thirty year old bike and make it useful as new as a commuter. However, my refrigerator and stove, all very high end, are unrepairable. They have things like “sealed burners” that mean they cannot be rebuilt. My Volvo bearings just went and I had to buy a new, $500 wheel instead of replacing $30 worth of hub bearings. Again because they were “sealed”.

    Components that are tuned to a specific model are great for manufacturers, but are the core component of planned obsolescence. No one will stock parts that are specific for one model, one year, so when a bike gets old, it will be thrown away, not rehabilitated.

    Don’t argue for a system that creates waste and retards what makes bicycles the cultural phenomenon that they are now.

  8. Mark H December 19, 2008 at 4:07 pm -  Reply

    Alert- this is long winded since there’s so much to address here.

    That doesn’t necessarily mean that coordinated components are not interchangeable with regular bike parts.

    If the Trek is designed well, the hub and cranks are standard and the only non-standard parts you need are the chainrings, cog and belt. In fact, Trek would probably want to do it that way since it doesn’t require as many expensive custom parts, even if they make them themselves under their house brand(s) (as an aside- I wonder how much you have to replace to adjust your gearing)

    Actually, that goes for parts in general, of course- yes you can get custom non-standard components made, but it is probably easier and cheaper to get modifications made to an off the shelf part wherever possible. Or even just use well matched stock parts.

    Speaking of the Trek, I like how they make the horizontal dropouts slide back and forth like a Gios Compact. The nice/elegant part about that is that the driveside seat and chainstays are not welded together, just bolted to the dropout, so it makes it easy to put a new belt on by completely removing the driveside dropout.

    Back to the coordinated parts and the question, “Do designs like these three have potential to appeal to a wider audience than the average cruiser or comfort bike?”

    Yes. Remember the Shimano Sante component group? That was a nice, fashionable component group that many bike makers made coordinating bikes for. Certainly, it did appeal to a different audience than the average cruiser or comfort bike (how successful it was is a different matter). But for the most part, it was standard interchangeable components. What did that do for high end road bikes?

    Actually, I can’t say for sure.
    Yeah, I worked in a bike shop that carried a Sante-equipped brand or two, but that was a while ago, so I forget how well they sold.

    Though they have an appeal, I’m not sure if that is still the same as resulting in increased sales. I can see how a nice looking cruiser or comfort bike may get people off the fence and buying now instead of waiting.

    For more expensive products I think the styling is just a means of cannibalizing sales from another bike…. and selling coordinated clothing, helmets and accessories.

    Reading back through the comments, regarding aesthetics vs. functionality vs. use- I’m reminded of Virginia Postrel’s book, “The Substance of Style,” where the premise is that people are more satisfied with designs they like- even if they have more problems with them, they are willing to overlook them (actually, was that this book or some other?)

    Though people may buy the nice looking bike and then get rid of it pretty quickly, what is their satisfaction index vs. a comparable ugly bike? And does that change their attitude towards biking at all? (probably not)

    But yeah, they’re fashion accessories- people will tire of them and dispose of them when the fad (as they perceive it) ends and they’re not hooked.

    So, what would make a better bicycling gateway drug? Is it the commuter bike for the masses design? Is it one of the designs like Nick envisions? Is it Critical Mass type of events? Is it sustained higher gasoline prices?

    Personally, I think it’s college campuses and their environs that are bicycle friendly. Certainly, it’s that and enthusiasts I met in collee that got me more into bikes.

  9. Anonymous December 19, 2008 at 11:03 pm -  Reply

    James, et al,
    To answer James' question directly Q: "What is wrong with kitschy cruisers?"

    A: "They've never achieved market penetration any greater than 3%". At least not since the widespread advent of cars. The message to me is that for bikes to achieve the popularity of cars, they'll have to have the utility of cars. I agree that it's going to be a challenge doing that in a vehicle that weighs < 60 lb instead of 6000. Hey, I'm an engineer – that kind of challenge excites me. I submitted a couple of designs to the contest with features that I thought would help give some car-like utility.

    I ride all of the different kinds of bikes that come into our shop. Even though we're in a small community, the 3000 bikes we've had donated represent a wide variety of designs and quality levels. The best bike for utility I've ever ridden is the HP Velotechnik Grasshopper (folding) that I bought this year. However, I don't ride it in the Winter because I don't want road salt all over my $3K ride.

    The additional features I want are an enclosed/weatherproof drivetrain and a stowable fairing for more speed and rain protection. The current crop of velomobiles is suitable for people in less hilly areas than WV, but too heavy for the breathtaking hills we have here. They are also difficult to transport in a car (for the rare occaision when you need to) because of their large size.

    I'd like to say how I've addressed those issues in my design submission, but I don't want to affect the judging. Or maybe I already have.

    Thanks for the great conversation, I'm passionate about this as you may have guessed and I enjoy hearing from others who share the passion.

    Nick Hein
    Morgantown, WV

  10. Billy Oblivion December 20, 2008 at 4:08 pm -  Reply

    Look, I *love* bicycles and bicycling. I’ve commuted in sub-zero(F) and +100 (again F) temperatures, ridden in blizzards and thunderstorms, in mud and on ice.

    I *believe* in bicycle commuting in ways even most riders don’t, and for reasons most of them haven’t even thought of.

    But there is no bicycle design, no combination of ooooh shiny and practicality, no magic rake of the forks or comfy seat that will get even a significant minority to ride a bicycle on a regular basis.


    I’m sad it’s not. I’d *love* it if it if potential employers didn’t look at me weird when I ask about shower facilities at the office. I’d be grateful as all heck if there were more and better places to lock my bicycle up, if cage drives were more aware of me.

    But it’s SO easy to drive a car, and it’s *hard* to ride a bicycle.

    On a bicycle you have to plan ahead, you have to think, you have to arrange your life. You have to know what the weather is going to be, you have to leave early when it’s raining or snowing (if you have the guts to ride in the snow). Riding *feels* more dangerous than driving a car.

    Hell, it IS more dangerous, you get exposed to the world. The rain, the snow. The glass on the street, the neighborhoods along the way. You smell the city you move through, you hear it. It gets on your clothes and in your hair (if you have any). You get hot in the summer and cold in the winter you get wet in the rain. And you HAVE to deal with the world around you.

    And most people don’t want that.

    So fuck them. Building bikes for them is a waste of time.

    It would be GREAT if even twice as many people could be convinced to ride bikes to work regularly–just the economy of scale to support them would eventually bring the price of *good* commuter bike down considerably.

    I ain’t holding my breath though.

    What was the question?

    Oh yeah. Will these sorts of designs get more people commuting? Riding? Maybe if they price point is low enough. There just aren’t enough people out there willing to spend seven or eight hundred bucks on what is (to them) a toy.

    The Electras are close in price. I’d buy one if I could get it shipped over here.

  11. Anonymous December 21, 2008 at 6:59 pm -  Reply

    to quote:
    “And most people don’t want that.
    So fuck them. Building bikes for them is a waste of time. “

    The original point was how to reach the 97% non-cycling public and get them to take the 80% of trips that are under 5 miles, under their own power. Yes, building bikes that they won’t ride IS a waste of time. That means finding a bike that they WILL ride. To me that’s what makes engineering fun – designing/building a product that inspires peoples’ minds to override their lazy-ass tendency.
    Nick Hein
    Morgantown, WV

  12. Trisha August 18, 2009 at 2:26 pm -  Reply

    I am a serious commuter bicyclist, in all conditions: hot, cold, wet, I don't care. I ride a solo Terry road bike some of the time and a Cannondale tandem most of the time. I also recently bought the Electra Alexader Girard. I ride this bike in town for errands because it is comfortable, convenient and VISIBLE. I get more attention as a bike rider on this bike than any other I own, even the tandem and this is in a bike friendly city: Portland, Oregon. My visual impact on this bike has a greater effect in awakening non-riders to the potential of bike riding. I constantly am asked, "Where did you get that bike?!"

    So, let's open our eyes to the power of aesthetics to inspire change. If riding a beautiful, user-friendly bike will get 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 people out of their cars, even just to grab some groceries, I think that's a positive shift. And maybe some number of those folks will keep riding for a long time or greater distances and inspire even more people to do the same.

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