The Bicycle Design Project has been making its way around the Internet lately, and I feel compelled to share some brief thoughts on it. There are a few really interesting ideas that these design teams have come up with, so from that perspective it's cool. But I have a HUGE problem with the premise for this competition, which can be summarized as: Americans don't ride bikes for transportation because the existing products don't meet their needs. We're going to design new bikes that are more compelling products and change the world.
The problem is that this idea, that all you need to do to upend the transportation paradigm of every major American city - even Portland - is design the right product, is magical thinking. It's completely unhinged from reality. "If only bikes didn't suck," the reasoning goes, "more people would ride them and we could reshape transportation in America."
The biggest problem with this premise is basic: bikes don't suck. There are cool ideas emerging from this competition; I particularly like the modular accessory system on the San Francisco entry. But none of these designs actually transcend the qualities of existing bicycles and result in a fundamentally more compelling product. Perhaps this is because I am too deeply embedded in bike nerdery to recognize the shortcomings of bicycles currently on sale or the special appeal to the non-cyclist that these designs represent. But I don't think so - most of these designs seem as though they would be most interesting to someone who is already a bike nerd.
I think the problem with this competition is that the bicycle is already an extremely good, extremely compelling product. People love bicycles. They fucking love them! Spend any time actually talking to non-bike nerds about their bikes, or about riding bikes, and you will get a positive response from the large majority of people. They enjoy the sensation of riding, and many of them have strong feelings about their personal bicycles. But they are either unwilling or afraid to ride them on city streets. That is the problem with the popularity of cycling in America. Just look at the places where bicycles are incredibly popular, especially in the developed world. Places like Amsterdam, or Copenhagen. Is bicycling huge there because they've got way cooler bikes than we do here? No! People are mostly riding around Copenhagen on inexpensive cruiser-like city bikes. There is something about Copenhagen that makes riding a bike to work seem appealing and accessible to people. That's the secret sauce, and no amount of trendy product videos are going to have the same effect. Copenhagen is a cycling city because the city considers bike-friendliness a civic priority and enacts public policy and infrastructure to that effect. Unfortunately, copying that model is a lot harder than designing and voting sexy city bikes.