This year’s Oregon Manifest Constructor’s Design Challenge, 23-24 September, aims to coax into being “the ultimate modern utility bike” through a design/build competition. With high-caliber design teams joining top bicycle artisans and Levi’s® as a sponsor, the event will bring to widest attention a set of problems and opportunities near our heart.
We have partnered with Jonathan Reed of Quixote Cycles to create such a bike, now in final stages of finish and testing, and are excited and grateful for the chance to show it in such company. At the same time, we have some misgivings about the format and evaluation criteria of the event, the way they seem likely to influence the results, and the public messages they may send about utility biking. Utility bikes are our life, passion, and livelihood, so naturally we consider any related promotional activity worth criticizing.
An earlier published version of this post raised some hackles among interested parties as rudely critical in tone coming unhelpfully late in the long process leading to the event, and more seriously flawed in propagating false hearsay, rumor and innuendo, some undead from 2009′s inaugural event, such as that this might be another Rapha-flavored race-with-six-pack pretending to be something else, that child passengers and other large loads might be barred, etc. After reflection and discussion, we, or rather I, (Todd) acknowledge laziness in some of my thinking, immoderation in seeking to entertain, and I apologize sincerely for the bad feelings resulting among people whose goals we share. Keep reading for criticism, always meant constructively but this time better informed in head and heart.
Mandatory OM entry features include:
- Anti-Theft System
- Fender System
- Lighting System
- Load-Carrying System
- Freestanding Under Load (while parked) System
Since almost all of the thousands of bikes we’ve sold since 2007 have met most if not all of these criteria, not as accessories but as integral features, we were intrigued by the emphasis on innovation in the program’s materials. Modern (and old) utility bikes incorporating such features in a high state of refinement are, in fact, quite normal in some parts of the world, increasingly including Portland. It will be some time yet, probably never, before most of the utility patents issued for bicycles in the 1890s come to market. Is it lack of innovation preventing utility bikes from becoming “the transportation mode of the future for millions of Americans who want to live healthier, more sustainable lives, but don’t think of themselves as ‘cyclists’”? We don’t think so.
Having sold so many utility bikes to just such Americans (and just as importantly, having failed to sell many more), we think the main challenges are not design related as much as psychological and sociological. And to focus on design imperfections only reinforces the real problems: few are ready to acknowledge that the problem is us, in our sense of entitlement to effortless speed, in our alienation from our bodies’ evolved locomotive function and historical living patterns of proximity to daily needs. As Jonathan says, “the big shift we’re after is in the mind of the public, not the design of the vehicle.”
We think the foremost obstacles to utility bicycles going from thousands to millions, to them replacing the 82% of all car trips in America that are less than 5 miles, are the false beliefs that bicycles can’t, needn’t, shouldn’t carry children and a household’s weekly groceries such distances, because bicycles are a youthful pursuit and American adults — parents especially — need to own cars anyway. And if bikes could or should be up to family duty, they would need somehow to be light enough to offset the weight of the cargo, their riders’ lack of physical conditioning, and to make them easy to lift onto car racks. And finally, useful bicycles need to cost less than bicycles designed to win races, because, well, utility bikes aren’t something grownups who can afford cars aspire to rely upon, right?
It’s a quixotic challenge, countering such beliefs. Frankly, we don’t think any bicycle design innovation will pierce these and many more plates of interlocking car-cultural armor. Real progress will continue with independent-minded people tilting these windmills with tools already existing (if sometimes hard to find) to live better, defying and dispelling myths of inadequate design.
Bikes can and will continue to evolve in small ways, tracking industrial design, process and materials development as well as the restless currents of fashion. Occasionally many small steps, most traced already in the past, will occur together and appear to be a leap. Striving for better is grand, but diminishing returns are the norm, and actual regression a too common result. (As when, for example, features are integrated in so design-school cool a way that they are not serviceable independently of more costly structures, nor interchangeable with current and future functional equivalents. Modularity is a more practical design virtue than what the organizers seem to call for with “each design element/feature should meld seamlessly with the entire bike.”)
This is the same as it ever was since the bicycle’s big-bang Jesus moment in the 1880s when two roughly similar size wheels with pneumatic tires and an indirect pedal drive to the rear wheel came together in a triangulated frame to make what everybody still instantly recognizes as a bike. If it could speak, it would say “I have forgotten more than you will ever know.” Many other OM entrants have voiced similar opinions, describing as arrogant or futile briefs to reinvent the wheel.
Oregon Manifest’s Field Test for the ultimate utility bike is not one or a series of 5- or 10-mile rides with a household’s typical loads, but a 50-miler at “a brisk pace” with off-road sections and steep grades, carrying… “a small bag of groceries, an oversized postal box, poster tube, and/or a six-pack of beverage containers.” Small stuff, maybe only a six-pack. Only flat-fixing tools may be carried. Time to the finish line may be recorded, but appearances to the contrary it’s not a race: no points for quicker finishes within the cutoff times to each control station. This is to help identify the design that will appeal to non-cyclists as practical transportation for everyday life?
We think it is misguided to evaluate utility bikes in a test appropriate to sport bikes, such as any brisk, hilly, 50-mile ride with minimal cargo represents.
Organizers affirm that the Field Test is no race, but an imperfect attempt to simulate the stresses of perhaps a month of normal riding in a torture test. Since riding fast is harder on a bike than riding slow, so much the better for culling weak entries. We acknowledge this rationale, and the honest difficulty of doing better in a single festive day rich in awesome, sweat-kissed, countryside photo opportunities.
Snark aside, the Hawthorne effect refers to the influence of an act of measurement upon the things being measured. If the test for a bike meant to be ridden only 50 miles a month will be 50 miles in one go, fast and hilly, the kind of bikes offered up for testing will tend to skew toward what the test demands, not real-life use cases. If tests show that it is good to drink 2 glasses of water a day for a month, what about 60 glasses in 4 hours?
This matters because a bike that is nearly ideal for the most accessible, low-intensity, short distance utility applications will tend strongly to suck for hilly 50-milers, and vice versa: bikes that are great for fast steep extended effort tend … not to be ridden day to day, least of all by the non-cyclists this competition ostensibly aims to innovate toward. There’s some crossover, of course. But we sell some brilliant, popular utility bikes meeting all entry criteria the likes of which would be extremely difficult if not impossible even to complete the OM Field Test while bearing the loads for which they are designed. Thus the test effectively excludes design approaches of great demonstrated utility, favoring instead those of the same old, vastly overplayed sport-oriented priorities. If we’re touchy about this, it’s because every single day we talk to casual or non-cyclists ostensibly interested in a utility bike for daily errands, but who balk at features that would likely make the bike unpleasant or impossible to ride 50 hilly miles.
Bicycles are frequently superior to motorized transport over urban distances. But over 50 miles, for the vast majority of humanity their relative slowness will always make them vehicles of recreation, duress, or the mix that is sport. Those non-cyclists, what do you think they might make of this challenge? These many people who do not know, and might even be terrified of the truth that they actually can ride a bike 10 or even 50 miles? Will they trace in the smiles and grimaces of the torture test riders hope that any day now, the bike that will integrate seamlessly into their modern lifestyle will be invented? Or will they dis-identify, recoil further from the dramatic spectacle these sweaty riders present? Are we overthinking?
More troublesome than the distance and terrain for a utility bike is the lack of meaningful cargo. It’s not about a six-pack of beer versus water versus a poster tube, a melon or a dozen eggs: it’s about all of those things being almost nothing. Even the most non-utilitarian triathlon bikes can be fitted with 72-oz aerodynamic hydration systems, or pull well-designed trailers to carry much more.
Since every bicycle can carry its rider and a little bit of almost anything, every bike is a utility bike to an essentially meaningless extent. As Kierkegaard said “When all are Christians, Christianity eo ipso does not exist.” We feel strongly that meaningful utility in a bicycle is almost entirely linear with cargo capacity, to the extent that it remains otherwise attractive to use in daily life conditions. More isn’t always better, of course, but if there’s a problem in general with bikes in America being not useful enough, it’s that they can’t carry enough, well enough. And the Field Test doesn’t test this seriously.
We know the test will be fun in the way any athletic event is fun, but fun also in the opportunity to challenge the biases inherent in its conception. We can’t show our bike to best advantage with only the cargo required. Therefore, our Oregon Manifest bike will complete the 50-mile course carrying in addition to the little stuff six twelve-packs plus a little girl, a payload weighing about 5 times what we expect may be the lightest entries. The bike will be heavy, but more to the point, we guess the lightest in relation to its payload of all entries. It will be ridden by the girl’s car-free mother, whose broken thumb is in a cast (may be a splint by Field Test day).
Her name is Diana Rempe, and she has ridden an early Portland-made Metrofiets cargo bike with her daughter and groceries aboard for years. She, and people like her represent the social innovation and inspirational example that transform not just industries, but societies. She’s the secret weapon. She’ll wear a skirt, sit upright, and she just might cross the finish line early.
Our strategy? Cheat. Diana is strong, and no stranger to racing, but to reset the tare after shouldering a proper utility bike load, our entry integrates our Stokemonkey electric assist system. To our thinking utility is about pragmatism, about the bike’s ability to bear loads gracefully instead of the athleticism of the rider. Besides, it’s not actually cheating except in the minds of the pure. Our entry remains legally a bicycle, breaking no contest rules. Because it’s not a race.
The point is certainly not that electric assist is essential to a modern utility bike, nor even often desirable. But neither is the ability to haul big weight over 50 miles with hills alongside people carrying almost nothing on far less substantial machines. We feel compelled by the structure of the event to show a more elaborate solution than we would recommend for most common real-life scenarios, at least in the flattish bike-estuarial calm of inner Southeast Portland. We’re not in the sporting goods industry. We wouldn’t even show up for a spandex knife fight. But if forced into that ring, we’ll bring a gun.
In spite of all the critical opinions expressed above, we wouldn’t be participating in this event if we weren’t confident that great good can come of it, far broader good than our narrow, biased perspective as Portlanders, parents, sellers and users of utility bikes permits us now to understand. We can’t wait!
Coming shortly before the event: full disclosure of our design. It has some innovative bits, even, but is mainly a novel conjunction of existing design elements: 5 or 6 old stones bringing down a dozen birds.