Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The New Business Cycle

Update: Nancy Keates responded to me via email. She confirmed that her tongue was, in fact, deeply embedded in her cheek in the WSJ article that I quoted. I figured as much. Nevertheless, my closing statement in this post still stands!


I laughed out loud when my buddy Tom sent me this article from today's Wall Street Journal. The opening line: A radical idea is sweeping the world of American bicycle manufacturing: building bikes that people will use for actual transportation.

Certainly the author, Nancy Keates, must be speaking tongue-in-cheek. If not, well God Bless Her Ignorance.

Regardless, Keates goes on to say:
Europeans, of course, have been riding commuter bikes for decades. In Holland, there are twice as many bikes as cars, and nearly as many bicycles as people. Now, in the U.S., the industry is pitching the new models as gas prices remain high and concerns over obesity grow. They also come as cities and states move to become more bike-friendly.
As fatness and obesity continue to spread (ahem), and as gas prices continue to be uncomfortable, it will be interesting to see if real-world transportation bikes become more of a market force. I love the sound of that idea: as we progress technologically and "evolve" as a race, we may quite possibly rely more heavily on one of the most simple of inventions.

Even over the course of my daily summer bike commute I've noticed a significant increase in the number of cyclists on the roads in Silicon Valley. Granted, half of them are on uncomfortable race bikes with their asses above their heads, decked out in full Spiderman™ suits just to ride a couple miles to work, but it's a start. It's also fun to beat those guys between traffic lights on my loaded down single speed, donning jeans and Chuck Taylors...

I would most certainly like to see less race-centric crap at bike shops, and more real-world applications of gear. It is actually quite difficult to go into your average shop in the United States right now and buy practical things like saddle bags, fenders, or dynamo hubs for lighting the way. Only specialty shops carry real-world gear. Doesn't that strike you as odd?

Based on simple observation, my guess is that there may be a temporary spike in bicycle sales while people get used to the new price of gas; that said, people are fat and lazy, and they won't continue to ride their newly purchased bikes. I have a neighbor in Chico that drives his V8 truck less than two miles two work while his new Trek hybrid sits in his garage... I also have a German neighbor that rides his Trek hybrid a couple miles each way to work. He has put about 400 miles on it this year just doing that every day.

Keates, and other industry folks seem to agree:
Whether many Americans will trade their cars for bikes remains to be seen. Sales of commuter bikes rose 15% over the past two years, according to Boston-based Bicycle Market Research Institute. However, at an estimated $900,000 in annual sales, it is still a small niche. Less than 0.5% of Americans commute by bike, according to the 2000 U.S. Census report. "There's no way it will happen here," says Bicycle Market Research Institute President Ash Jaising, who projects the segment's rise in sales will slow to 5% to 10% over the next two years. "The roads are just too dangerous."
The roads are too dangerous. On top of that, suburban culture (where most people in the U.S. live) and infrastructure simply doesn't support bicycles as a viable mode of transport. Try getting around Silicon Valley safely on a bike. It is no easy task. I feel spoiled in Chico. It is a pleasure to ride here.

Keates lists out a few companies that are now offering commute bikes, and I think due to her intended reading audience, it is an anemic list. I'd add to her list Rivendell, ANT, Surly and SOMA as viable choices as well. They all offer production bikes for less than the Trek Portland, which did make her list. They're all made of steel too, which offers a far more comfortable ride, is easier to repair, and will last longer than its aluminum counterparts.

I'm not arguing for saving the world, or for everyone to go car-free. Neither are a real possibility. However, I am encouraging you to get off your arse more than you do now, and ride that bike that has been collecting dust in your garage for the past twenty years. My reason is three-fold. Firstly, you meet the nicest people when you ride a bike; you're simply more exposed to each other, and saying hi is a lot easier when you're not behind a windshield with the radio blasting your favorite Justin Timberlake songs. Secondly, riding a bike is quite a bit of fun if you approach it with the right attitude; don't go out to race, go out to get some fresh air and look at your neighbor's crappy landscaping work; arrive at work refreshed instead of tight in the throat from sitting in traffic. And thirdly, our race is turning into a gelatinous blorg of cheese curds, and frankly it makes me sick! And that thirdly point *is* one that we can change.

Whether Nancy Keates is a sarcastic writer or not, it is a sad state of affairs that any article in the Wall Street Journal would need to start with that opening line.


Anonymous said...

You forgot the current trend of people choosing to live in denser, urban neighborhoods instead of the predominant suburban developments. Compare all cities and places that have a predominant utility cycling culture and one thing you will most likely notice is that most buildings you will see are more than one story.

Gino Zahnd said...

Good point, although I'm not sure that I forgot to include it; that wasn't really the topic of my post.

Anonymous said...

I like how you mention the limited availability of practical gear.

I just got into road biking 6 months ago with my first purchase of a racing bike (the cheapest one, but still absurdly priced at 650). I have no trouble commuting places in the suburbs on my racing bike (and actually find it more comfortable than a commuter bike) but it bothers me that city/urban/commuter bikes seem unreachable. Most people who have one seem to have a DIY bike where they go new handlebars on an old racing bike.

I view the racing bike as an excercise more than a practicality, but I also cannot support the purhcase of a new bike just for commuting.