The manifested, Kickstarted Faraday in production as seen at Sea Otter
Ed note: when the press release for the latest batch of Oregon Manifest’s (a heavily-promoted design contest) bikes arrived in my inbox, I was troubled by the visual echoes of previous winners and the Vanmoof. Discussed it quite a bit with industry insiders, saw commenters mention it, exchanged email with the organizers and designers, and Patrick recalled his time judging NAHBs… Here’s his take.
Our world is changing. The economy of our parents, where people worked for a company for 40 years, got a gold watch and then lived well on a pension is effectively history. The nature of the jobs we do and how we do them is evolving faster than some of us can manage. Five years ago no one was talking about social media and now every corporation on earth has a social media director. Go figure.
How we get from place to place is changing as well. Witness the rise of services like Uber. Even the car itself is changing, for good reason. Fossil fuels are going to go extinct the way the source of those fossil fuels (dinosaurs) did. At some point in the future, we are going to be without our beloved, gas-sucking cars. We are likely to have electric cars, but from our current vantage, it’s hard to know how the automotive landscape will appear in 20 years. It may be that many of us who currently own cars won’t.
To many of us, the bicycle is an obvious answer to many of our needs. It is the single most efficient mode of transportation man had devised. It uses no fossil fuels (unless you count your own imminent mortality), takes up little space when in motion or at rest and can be accessorized to carry a load, say a bag of groceries, or two.
However, most bicycles sold today are meant for pleasure riding, not service. Chances are, if the bicycle is to augment our transportation needs in the future it will need to offer levels of convenience and utility that recall a car, though we may have to forego the windshield wiper and iPod jack. They will need to accommodate loads beyond ourselves. We will not stop needing groceries and if the human race is to survive, we will need to keep making babies. So at minimum, any bike we expect to augment or replace a car will need to some capacity to carry groceries and kids. I can hear it now—“Don’t make me pull this bike over.”
Clearly, we need fresh ideas about what a bike is, what a bike can be. Enter the Oregon Manifest.
The Oregon Manifest started out with a clear mission: It was “a design/build competition to create the ultimate modern utility bike.” That’s a laudable endeavor, full stop. That’s exactly what we need.
The Manifest served multiple functions. First, it gave a bunch of very creative frame builders license to go pursue some wild ideas. It posed the question: What is your idea of the ultimate utility bike? Utility is not a constant. When I was 20, the most important thing I might move by bike was beer. I’m a parent now; I like to move my kids by bike.
The next thing the Manifest did was to create a megaphone for these builders to show that they were capable of making more than racing-oriented road and mountain bikes. It gave them a way to show they were capable of fresh ideas, and it did so in a relatively low-risk setting. The Manifest, in bringing together a bunch of builders, created a forum to talk about custom bike making and utility. It was a marketing bonanza for a bunch of people much better at the torch than the keyboard.
And so it went for a couple of years. In 2011, I was serving as one of the judges for the North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Sacramento. Many of the bikes from that year’s Manifest made their way into the City/Utility bike category. I was unaware at the time that the bikes had been built for the Manifest, not NAHBS, and I struggled to fathom the wealth of entries. It proved to be one of the toughest categories to judge.
There was just one problem. Those bikes were all custom, one-off creations. And while they were fantastic bikes that would easily become family heirlooms for the purchaser, they were effectively only prototypes that were wildly unaffordable for most of the population. They were perfect for NAHBS, but they weren’t going to solve any of the world’s problems.
If we are to address the needs of the many, that massive population spread from Maine to Mojave, then at some point, new bike ideas will need to collide with reality. By that I mean making frames in a mass-production environment, banging out dozens of frames per day in a factory setting so that the production costs can be more easily managed. Sorry folks, but making the donuts ain’t sexy.
At some point I’d hoped the Manifest would do more to encourage practicality over cool. Don’t get me wrong, I’d maim, if not kill, to have Inglis’ Retrotec he showed at the ’11 Manifest, but unless we find a way to produce 100,000 of those per year, we really haven’t done anything but engage in a self-congratulatory build-off.
And so when I saw a post on Facebook about this year’s entrants in the Oregon Manifest, I realized that whoever is now running the show there must be more interested in partnerships and synergies than really addressing a transportation problem.
They’re hooked in with Levi’s and Fast Company. Fine. But all those one-man bike builders that made the 2011 edition an overdose of amazing? That’s been overthrown in favor of what was a small feature of the ’11 Manifest: design teams paired with a single builder. Now it’s five teams each representing a different city—Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and, yes, Portland. Why just five teams? And why does what city they are in matter? They claimed they were “bike heavy cities.” Do tell, how is Chicago a more bike-heavy city than, say, Los Angeles or Philadelphia?
It’s easy to conclude from the fact that the designers outnumber the builders by more than five to one that this competition is long on style and short on substance.
There are ways to address this. Hosting a contest in which design teams who have never worked in the bike industry before design bikes is the wrong way to go. Why couldn’t they have approached design teams at actual bike companies? I’m sorry, but dressing like a hipster and posing for a black and white photo and listing Google as a previous client does nothing to establish your bona fides within the bike world.
Problems I saw with the entries were numerous. Some used difficult-to-replicate curved tubing. The Pensa/Horse Cycles entry employed a size-limiting seat mast. The HUGE/4130 Cycle Works bike had a 90-degree seat tube angle, which meant the bike would fit a narrow range of people—same problem as the Pensa/Horse Cycles bike. The Minimal/Method Bicycle entry had some fillet brazing, which is arguably the slowest possible means of building a bicycle frame—now there’s a way to run up production costs.
The HUGE/4130 Cycles Works bike featured a front rack mounted to the frame, rather than the fork; this is an old idea that every experienced builder has abandoned because it shares in common with Justin Bieber’s ego the fact that when loaded both are virtually unmanageable. Only one of the entries—the Denny—embraced electric-assist technology. Maybe these design teams haven’t seen the obesity stats for this place called America.
More insidious is how the HUGE/4130 Cycle Works entry looks rather like the Faraday created by Ideo/Rock Lobster that won the People’s Choice Award in ’11. It also recalls the Dutch city bike by Vanmoof, a point driven home in a recent post by the Bike Snob Aren’t design teams supposed to be overflowing with original ideas? It suggests the Manifest is maybe nothing more than an echo chamber; at minimum they should give a shout out to their influences.
There are real problems to be solved if you hope to “create the ultimate modern utility bike.” I’ve been writing about cycling for more than 20 years and have worked for manufacturers in the past, so permit me to make a list of some of the priorities, based on my experience.
The rider’s needs:
- The bike needs to be practical. It needs to be able to carry loads appropriate to your life. For some, that’s groceries, for others that may include kids.
- The bike must be efficient. It needs to have sufficient gearing to allow you to arrive at a destination without looking like you just walked out of a gym. An electric assist isn’t a bad idea.
- The bike must fit. It needs to be comfortable to pedal around and your weight must be distributed adequately so that it handles well in turns.
- The bike must be relatively light. It needs to be light enough that you can ride it up a hill with a load.
So that’s one set of priorities. But to meet those and really solve some problems, there’s another set of priorities and needs that ought to be addressed.
The production needs:
- The bike must be easy to produce.
- It needs to be quick to weld together in a factory setting. To keep costs low, the frame design should require a minimum of new tooling for production. Wild curves and bends can be difficult to reproduce consistently and increase production costs, so most of the tubing should remain straight.
- The bike must be reliable. It needs parts that will last through daily usage, but that’s not all. The parts should be widely available so that if one breaks, you don’t have to wait two weeks for a new one to arrive.
- The bike must use no more tubing than is necessary. It needs to be light (see #4 under rider needs) so that it is easy to pedal. More tubing means more weight and more welds and more to align and more time spent in production, and more cost.
- The bike must be no more expensive than is necessary. Look, a great utility bike that can carry kids and groceries, and has gearing enough to get a rider home will never be cheap, but getting millions of people on utility bikes means making sure they are as affordable as possible, and right now that means overseas production, not some dude in an industrial space in Brooklyn.
- The bike must fit as many people as possible. While it’s possible that multiple family members might use a single bike, the greater reality is that the more one-size-fits-all a bike can be, the easier production is and the easier stock control and planning are for the retailer.
The economic pressures we face from the future are significant. Rising fuel costs and the impact of pumping more exhaust into our atmosphere will make producing goods overseas increasingly unattractive. We would do well to undertake an examination of how to mass-produce utility bikes here in the United States. Unfortunately, labor is the single biggest cost in producing a bike, and welding a frame and assembling a bike are considerably more difficult skills to impart than how to put toilet paper on the shelf at Wal-Mart.
If I haven’t been blunt enough, I apologize. I will rectify that now. These design teams wouldn’t have lasted a month at Apple. They would have been personally fired by Steve Jobs. When we think of great design, no one will argue that the iPhone is a rare achievement. It’s Brazilian-model attractive. It’s more versatile than a Swiss Army. No, the whole damn army, not just the knife. It’s more affordable than a college education and has taught an entire generation how to text and chew gum at the same time. Not one of these bikes approaches that level of utility and affordability. The ultimate utility bike should fit more people, handle better, carry more, be easier to produce and cost less than any of these bikes. And it should still be beautiful. They said, “ultimate,” remember?
What we need is a coalition within the bike industry to seriously take on the goal of producing several different models of utility bike domestically. Solving this problem will require people who have worked in production. By that, I mean people who have had to build things over and over on a daily basis, logistics people who have figured out how to source needs as locally as possible and purchase only enough to last for the next 60-90 days, and product managers who have spec’d bikes to simultaneously manage performance and price so that they can include a disc brake on a bike without causing the retail price to rise by $50. Finally, they will need to be backed by a sales team that knows the market, understands the principles of bicycle retailing and can work with retailers to make sure that once built, you can actually find the damn thing for an affordable price in a bike shop in your town.
Of course, without talented PR people behind such an effort, there’s no chance that Fast Company will report on it. That’s okay; if you solve a real problem, you don’t need a PR agency for the world to take note.