Saturday, July 18, 2015

Folding Bikes Part I: The Social Bicycle

Folding Bike on the Bay Bridge
Folding Bike on the Bay Bridge
To be truly bike-centric, in the still car-centric U.S., you need a bike that can work with the dominant infrastructure despite its limitations.

A Return to Cycling Hit Roadblocks

A few years back, I revived a huge passion for cycling and bike advocacy. My goal was to really use the bike as my primary, if not exclusive, mode of transportation. However, it quickly became apparent that this was impossible for the following reasons.

Bridge Bike Lane not yet even halfway.
First, in the bay area where I live, the two most centrally located bridges cater only to cars:
  • The San Mateo Bridge has no way for bikes to cross. 
  • The Bay Bridge has half a bike lane that sits half finishedBART has scarce space for bikes at crucial times. 
Second, meeting friends out somewhere meant the bike or I got left behind if they travel to a second location.

Bike lanes often stop at overpasses.
Third, inevitably, some trips were untenable for rigid schedules:
Finally, even off the bridges, car-centric infrastructure is pervasive. Many places are still designed for drivers and no one else. Technically, you can ride it but at your peril.

Limits to Bus, Train, Or Friend

Some of these issues were mitigated by heavy use of bus and train, and by inspiring a number of friends and family to create a network of bike racks on our cars.

Friends with bike racks are few.
Bus bike racks fill up quick. 
Folding Bike on BART at rush hour
Folding fits well with rush hour
Even then, having the bike all the time wasn't full-proof the way your primary transport needs to be:
  • Few friends had racks. Even then, bikes on them would get "racked" when we forgot and entered a garage
  • The few bike racks on buses were often full. So cyclists must wait up to an hour for another one which also might be full.
  • Train systems had varying restrictions:
    • BART, at the time, had outright bans on bikes during rush hour: when cyclists needed it. They've since revoked this. Nevertheless, it is a real challenge getting a full size bike on board.
    • CalTrain restricts bikes to two "bike cars" that are stuffed during rush hour. So cyclists are bumped to the next train like with the bus.

PlanBike 1.0 Failed

All in all, in using a regular bike for all transport just didn't work in a vast car-centric metropolis. I could not count on:
  • safe roads to the destination
  • enough time or speed for the hills and distance
  • enough rack space on a bus
  • enough "bike car" space on a train
  • enough friends with car racks

Folding Flexibility To The Rescue

What to do? The answer turned out to be getting a folding bicycle.

Overcoming Folding Perception

Bike Friday Tikit in Geeky Splendor
Though the latest folding bikes are quite fast and elegant, many cyclists still view folding bikes as oddly-shaped, slow, and flimsy, contraptions.

If even cyclists felt that way, it was a question how these could appeal to the non-cyclists I am still hoping to inspire. Nevertheless, they seemed to solve many of the issues I was facing so I gave one a try.

Barring a few missteps (more on that in future installments), the decision has been a great success. 

The Catalyst for All Transport Modes

Folding Bikes in luggage Cars.
Folding bikes fill any gap in bus, train, plane, ferry, or car schedule while giving you full confidence you can keep them while you use alternate transport.

With a folding bike, you always have a ride on the other side of the bridge, road, mountain, or ocean, that is too dangerous or impractical for bikes.

They are the perfect catalyst to link all transport modes into a working solution. The only other transport mode that comes close to being this flexible are legs but legs are not nearly as fast.

The Ultimate Social Bicycle

Folding Bikes easily fit in cars.
Folding Bikes easily fit in cars.

With a folding bike, neither you nor your friends are left behind when you travel together, even if you used different transport modes to meet.

No matter what mode of transport you take as a group, the folding bike can fit. You are never bumped or banished from using any transportation resource.

For this reason, folding bikes are the ultimate social bicycle. They collaborate nicely with whatever transport your friends choose or with whatever safe/effective transport mode is available.

Welcome Inside Buses, Trains, Planes, Cars

Folding Bikes fly in a regular suitcase.
Once folded, your bike is welcome inside:
  • a bus
  • a train's luggage car
  • an Über or a friend's trunk
  • a water taxi or ferry
  • checked airplane luggage (for no additional fee)

Welcome Inside Buildings

Folding Bikes are welcome in stores.
Folding Bikes are welcome in stores.
Since a folding bike, once folded, is not much bigger than a stroller, another advantage is that it is often welcome inside:
  • coat check rooms
  • restaurants
  • stores
  • workplaces
  • small home closets

Added Security

Folding Bikes fit in tiny closets.
This ability to fit inside means the bike is less vulnerable to theft or vandalism at typically inadequate external bike storage. That is a huge relief to many cyclists.

Stealthy Performance

If all that weren't enough, folding bikes have evolved way beyond a mere contraption. They are now vehicles of considerable performance. 

40+ miles on a good Folding Bike is great.
50km+ on a good Folding Bike is great.
Although I still get teased for riding on a "toy", I've kept up with relatively fast peloton's of road bikes on 50km rides with no problem. After that, the heckling stops and the questioning starts about what they weigh (8.6kg - 13.6kg) and what they cost ($500-$5000).

Folding Is My New Normal

Folding Bike down Lombard Street
Now, folding bikes are all I ever ride. The performance and convenience are too hard for a regular bicycle to match. They even look cool once you get used to the small wheels. If you've encountered the same commuter cycling challenges I have,  they are worth a serious look.

Next time, I'll talk about which ones I got and why. There is a lot to consider.