Rules of the Road

New materials and innovative design are making folding bicycles an urban reality. But can American car-culture change enough to make them safe to ride?

After management at his workplace told him he couldn’t bring a mountain bike into the building—having already lost two street-parked bicycles to thieves—Cecilio Rivera bought a folding bike. At his current job with an insurance company in downtown Manhattan, the security guards don’t blink at the portable Swift Folder under Rivera’s arm. “It’s a very compact bike, so I can walk in with it in plain sight,” he says. “Not all buildings are that generous. Some will make weird excuses like ‘it could cause an accident’—but if they don’t like it you can stuff it into a large bag.”

The bicycle is in many ways the healthy city’s best friend. Aside from its rider’s screams, it is quiet, burns no fossil fuels, and keeps its passengers in good shape. Real estate brochures feature well-kempt beaming couples on bikes for good reason. Yet the reality of urban cycling is more a grim battle between brave rider, foul weather, bad roads, belligerent motorists—and building-management bureaucracy. Even exiting an apartment building can require obstacle-course maneuvers involving a heavy bike and six flights of stairs. Cycling commuters find little in corporate America to welcome them and their prized machines. Office showers are rare, and bikes are commonly regarded as a fire hazard and often forbidden from elevator buildings, forcing cyclists to lock their bikes outside. (Bike shop wisdom has it that all bikes weigh 50 pounds: a pricey 20-pound bike needs a 30-pound chain; a 50-pound clunker can be chained up with a flimsy lock.)

The folding bike is an increasingly popular solution to such commuting woes. The Swift, designed and built by industrial designer Peter Reich with the help of former bike racer Jan VanderTuin, is elegant and uniquely easy to fold: once the seat is pulled up via two quick-release levers, the rear wheel and triangle swing neatly underneath from a pivot in the crossbar. It takes about ten seconds to collapse the bike into a duffle bag. Its appeal to people like Rivera, a former competitive rider, is that its rigid frame handles a little like a racing bike. This February Reich will introduce a new version, the Swift-R, which is lighter, fits (when collapsed and taken apart) in a Samsonite Oyster suitcase, and can be ridden by a wide range of people, from an 11-year-old girl to a 6’5” cyclist into fixed-wheel riding. The designer is also securing a deal with a manufacturer to bring out a mass-produced version of the original model.

Folding bikes have been around for years—WWII paratroopers carried them into battle—but the availability of strong lightweight materials has contributed to a new array of “performance” folders. Another contributing factor is the air-travel boom, which has made the flight-with-bike an affordable possibility. Oregon-based Bike Friday was founded in 1992 by two brothers, Hanz and Alan Scholz, who wanted to avoid paying airline surcharges to transport bicycles in boxes. Their folding machines fit inside a standard suitcase but are considered good enough to race or tour over distances, and the company has sold more than 11,000 bicycles in the last 12 years. This spring the Scholz brothers will launch a new folder aimed specifically at commuters. In the United Kingdom the oddly named Airnimal Designs recently launched its commuter model, the Joey, a sporty bike that folds in 30 seconds and fits in a suitcase in three minutes. Airnimal boldly touts Joey as a solution to “transportation woes, and the health and fitness problems of sedentary lives led in the shadow of pollution.”

Pedal power as urban health promoter is also the pitch of the iXi bike, aimed specifically at people who don’t normally cycle but are perhaps considering an alternative to crowded buses, trains, and gridlocked intersections. Designed in Massachusetts by Phil Karl, a former Samsonite suitcase designer, the bike is light (about 25 pounds) and features a grease-free belt drive instead of a chain, grip-shift gears contained in a sealed hub for easy start/stop riding, and pedals and handlebars that fold down for storage in narrow hallways. The iXi bike’s frame also comes apart at the middle, so space-deprived city dwellers can keep the bike on a shelf, under a bed or in the trunk of a car. Codesigner and chief spokesman Errol Drew sees the bike doubling as a “campaign tool for cycling in the city” and reveals an idealistic agenda not unusual among bike advocates: “I do believe the world could be a better place if more people rode around on bikes. I love my car, but I think we need to provide people with an interesting alternative, and existing bikes don’t really do that.”

Recent sales figures suggest that collapsible bikes may already be making an impact on city commuting. Dahon California, the largest folding bike manufacturer in the world, reports a “huge surge” in sales during the last 18 months, with a 67 percent increase on sales in the first quarter of last year (compared with the previous year) and an estimated 300,000 folding bike sales for 2004. In Japan and Taiwan one, out of every ten bicycles sold is a folding one according to Dahon’s president David Hon, who predicts continued growth in the United States: “Increasing gasoline prices and governmental policies promoting alternative transport are giving our market segment a strong push.”

The benefit of a folding bike in the city is obvious. According to Noah Budnick, projects director at New York biking, walking, and mass transit advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, people can “sneak them” aboard trains that don’t allow bikes during peak hours, as well as into office buildings and apartments. “New York has to be the largest folding-bike market in the United States,” Budnick ventures. This assumption is cautiously backed by Charlie McCorkell, owner of Bicycle Habitat, one of the city’s biggest bike stores, who calls New York a “great untapped market.” He has seen an increase in folding-bike sales, notably of the British-built stalwart of the genre, the Brompton.

The League of American Bicyclists, a 125-year-old bicycling advocacy group, estimates there are three million people who now regularly use a bike as part of their commute. “A lot of people do mixed-mode commuting; for example, they bike from home to the train station,” says the League’s Patrick McCormick. In New York City, an annual Department of Transportation survey of bike traffic over East River bridges has seen a striking increase, from 1,100 riders during a 12-hour period in 1980 to 3,000 riders in 2002 and more than 4,000 during the same period last year.

One bump in the road toward cycling utopia, however, is car-loving America’s particularly virulent strain of condescension toward bike users. “Most people who bike regularly have had an ugly encounter—or several,” McCormick says. His organization has successfully campaigned against cyclist-bashing by talk-show radio hosts on several occasions, most recently by Atlanta-based DJs on WNNX, who jokingly suggested in April last year that it was fun to smoke pot and “nudge cyclists off the road.” In 2003 the League secured a deal with Clear Channel to redress similar remarks by airing a series of “Bike to Work Week” public-service announcements aimed at motorists and cyclists last spring. The radio spots cheerily pointed out (between ringing bicycle bells) that more than 60 percent of American adults are overweight, that 22 percent of car trips taken are less than a mile long, and that half of the working population in the United States commutes less than five miles.

In New York antagonism between cyclists and motorists (and some pedestrians) has hit feverish pitch, with a spate of arrests during the monthly bike riders’ Critical Mass demonstration and a bill introduced last year in the City Council—stalled in a committee—that would have forced cyclists to get licenses, which biking advocates claim would be a serious disincentive. (Research in several cities has shown that putting more bicycles on the road leads to fewer biker-motorist accidents.)

Folding-bike makers also have to overcome the popular perception that their machines are slow and wobbly—and make people look ridiculous. Folders have long been associated with eccentric inventors like Alex Moulton, the British engineer who worked on the suspension system of the original Mini car. He argued that small wheels were sturdier and quicker to accelerate, and built a series of small-wheeled machines—including collapsible models—with built-in shock absorbers that were popular in the 1960s. (The architecture critic Reyner Banham famously rode one to school while teaching at U.C. Santa Cruz.) With gears, of course, small wheels are capable of speeds equivalent to any bike; Moulton proved this by building one that broke a world speed record for nonrecumbent bikes. Nevertheless, the crackpot inventor image lingers around the folding two-wheeler. Last spring the Israeli paranormalist Uri Geller, famous for bending cutlery using psychic power in the 1980s, launched the BendIt-BagIt Bike, a 29-pound $550 machine that folds into a bag (no ESP required). And in July the British inventor of the pocket calculator, Clive Sinclair—famous for his ill-fated personal electric vehicle, the C5—unveiled the 12-pound plastic-and-aluminum folding A-Bike, with stroller-size air-filled tires and an undeniably comical riding position.

But the fiercest resistance to folding bikes comes from inside the industry. Bicycle purists are extremely difficult to please. Any departure from the conventional geometries of the bike frame is greeted with suspicion. David Black, who recently began distributing the German-made Birdy Bike (created by engineering students and road racers Markus Riese and Heiko Müller) in the United States, described the response of most bike stores to the $990 folding frame with double-front forks (a shock-absorbing design inspired by a 1930s BMW motorcycle): “Skepticism, scrutiny, indifference.”

For similar reasons Drew chose not to sell iXi at bike stores but through sporting-goods retailers. Its distinctively styled body, with an aluminum swooshlike curve, was derived from a performance concern to minimize flex, but it takes few cues from traditional frame design. “We needed a stiff frame because of the drive belt,” says Karl, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. Critics have contended that the iXi’s belt drive will not deliver the same performance as a tried and tested chain; but Karl and Drew claim to have gone to great lengths to improve the efficiency of belt drives.

Design, of course, can only achieve so much in the campaign for city cycling. To bring the unwashed masses out on the streets on bikes requires substantial investment in infrastructure. “The average person is intimidated by traffic,” says Tom Kelley, an official with New York Road Runners who began commuting to Manhattan from Tarrytown last summer, taking a Swift Folder on Metro North trains and riding from the 125th Street station to his 89th Street office. In good weather Kelley rides the full 27 miles home, a journey with its own navigational obstacles, including the fact that the best biking route out of Manhattan, Riverside Drive, deposits the rider onto the cars-only Henry Hudson Parkway. To cross the Harlem River, Kelley has to cut a meandering path across Inwood and ride with roaring traffic across Broadway Bridge. “There should be a bike lane going straight across the bridge into the Bronx,” he says. “In general, cycling is underappreciated in the city—the car rules.”

Thanks to late senator Daniel Patick Moynihan, the situation for city cyclists is considerably better than it was 15 years ago. Moynihan’s influence on the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (“Ice Tea”) and its successor, the Transporation Equity Act for the 21st Century (“TEA 21”) ensured that a portion of federal funding was allocated to the building of bike lanes, trails, and racks on streets and buses. A reauthorization of the act, TEA 3, was stalled in Congress this year but is expected to be passed in 2005, with provisions for cycling likely to be intact. To get the funds implemented requires public pressure on local government, but due to strong advocacy, Manhattan now boasts a 32-mile designated bike route around the island, including the wildly popular waterfront greenway on the west side, which has turned the ride between downtown and uptown from a slog into a sublime experience. The once grubby stretch of disused piers is now a kind of high-speed catwalk for Lycra-wearing riders on titanium machines.

Inevitably veteran city cyclists look longingly at the greener grass in Europe, where bike parking areas are provided on building premises and, in many cities, the bike lanes are so heavily used that pedestrians dare not put a toe inside the line. In New York bike lanes are treated as extra parking spaces—even by the police. But our famously car-loving culture isn’t stratified. Chicago, which boasts 90 miles of bike lanes, last July opened a $3.1 million downtown “bicycle station” that provides free indoor parking for 300 bikes, showers, towels, and lockers for commuters for a dollar per day, and a mechanic for fixing flats. According to Transportation Alternatives, efforts are under way in New York to improve access to bikeways on bridges and greenways, and provide more places for cyclists to safely park their bikes.

Ultimately the folding bicycle is a pragmatic American response to a problem that doesn’t exist in more bicycle-friendly cultures. The Swift, Birdy, Airnimal, Bike Friday, and iXi make a strange menagerie, united in their ambition to change the image of the folder by increments, one rider at a time. Test-riding the clean-lined Swift Folder through Brooklyn is certainly a proud experience for any rider used to heavier, springier, or sillier machines. Brooklyn’s notoriously awful roads notwithstanding, the bike offers a smooth, responsive ride that makes pedaling uphill a breeze. Folding it up has the effect on bystanders of a magician’s trick. The United States has a long way to go to greener, safer cities, but the folding bike is, as Reich puts it, an “interim step.” He adds, “It’s always easier to change the tool than to change the infrastructure that supports it.”

Recent Programs