Saddle time: dropping in on design's urban bicycles

A visit with design firms IDEO, Ziba and Fuseproject as they work with West Coast bike builders to develop a new bicycle for urban transportation.
Written by Jay Greene, Contributor

PORTLAND, Ore. -- For years, the cycling industry has wrestled with creating a bike convenient enough for the masses.

A new effort from the Palo Alto, Calif., design consultancy IDEO and Santa Cruz, Calif., bike builder Rock Lobster Custom Cycles may have pushed the industry a step closer to achieving the goal. The team created a bike for the Oregon Manifest 2011 Constructor's Design Challenge, a bike building competition pitting three teams of designers and handcrafted bike builders.

Their goal: create the best utility bike for urban living.

This summer, I visited with the three teams -- including the pairing of Portland design firm Ziba with Portland bike builder Signal Cycles, and the tandem of San Francisco design consultancy Fuseproject with Santa Rosa SyCip Designs -- as they began their work. On Saturday, the teams, along with another 34 bike builders battling in a separate competition, put their final creations through a rigorous field test, riding 51 miles over pavement and gravel roads, climbing 3,371 feet over the course on bikes that weighed 35 pounds or more. Along the way, cyclists had to stop at checkpoints to pick up cargo and test their lighting systems.

Power Pedal

The IDEO-Rock Lobster bike no doubt had the most conventional look of the three bikes in the design collaboration category. But the bike may also have been the most daring. That's because it included a motor to help power the pedals when riders need a bit of help climbing hills.

To many cycling purists, electric bikes, which have been around for years, approach heresy. Cycling is supposed to be a human-powered endeavor. And worse, most e-bikes are hideous moped-like contraptions with unsightly brick-sized motors that ruin any aesthetic. Initially, Rock Lobster's Paul Sadoff wasn't keen to build the electric bike that IDEO's designers wanted.

"Paul was less enthusiastic than we were," IDEO's Adam Vollmer admitted.

But there's something dramatically different about this e-bike. First, it looks a lot like a classic upright bike. It features some charming design touches, such as steam-bent wood fenders and a classic leather saddle, that make it elegant. But perhaps most important, the pedal-assist doesn't overwhelm. It's not so powerful that riders can simply stop pedaling and go for cruise. That might be just enough to get non-cyclists in the saddle.

The bike, which cost about $5,000 in parts to make, features a 24-volt, 250-watt motor. Cyclists need to keep pedaling for the motor to work, but can nudge a thumb-controlled toggle on the left-handlebar grip to turn on the pedal-assist and throttle up for steeper climbs. Perhaps most clever are the twin top tubes on the bike that house the lithium-ion batteries, which also power a pair of staggeringly bright lights that use ambient light sensing to switch on as dusk settles in.

The IDEO team named the bike The Faraday, something Vollmer called a "super nerdy homage" to 19th century scientist Michael Faraday, whose inventions are the foundation of electric motors. In a clever graphic design flourish, the tail of the letter "y" in Faraday circles back up along one of the top tubes an ends in an electrical plug jack.

IDEO thought that using the twin top tubes to house the electronics was novel enough that the firm has filed a patent on the design. It's also filed patents on the controller that detects cadence, the throttle mechanism and the algorithm that translates that information into pedal boost. And it's also filed a patent on the Faraday's clever modular rack system, which lets cyclists interchange a cargo box for a child's bike seat or any other accessory they think up.

Bicycle + Sidecar

The Ziba-Signal Cycles team think they've come up with some patentable creations as well. They've filed for patents on the most striking feature of their bike, a sidecar that folds over the back wheel, origami-style, and becomes a standard bike rack. The group wanted to create a storage system that could handle different size loads.

"A real utility bike has to be flexible," said Paul Backett, Ziba's industrial design director.

When open, the sidecar's weatherproof, removable panniers expand to the size of a large grocery bag. That way, cyclists can pop them out for the run into the market to grab fixings for dinner, and breakfast too. And perhaps most cleverly, the bags themselves can be locked closed and locked onto the bike frame, freeing cyclists up to make several stops without worrying about someone swiping their purchases.

"You've got to be able to secure them," Backett said. "You don't want to have to take them them into each store."

Ziba has also filed a patent on that mechanism.

What's more, the Ziba-Signal team created a novel bike lock, and again filed for patent protection, that runs through the steering tube on the frame. The cable, with a stylish rope braid over it, then connects to nearby post or bike rack. So if a thief is able to cut through the cable, the lock in the steering tube isolates the front wheel, making the bike impossible to drive.

The team named the bike The Fremont, after John Fremont, a pioneer who led the expedition to build a railroad from St. Louis to San Francisco and after whom a Portland bridge is named. Backett said that Fremont, which cost between $5,000 and $6,000 in parts to make, embodies the urban explorer to whom the bike is intended to appeal.


Perhaps the most striking of the three design-bike builder collaborations is the three-wheeled orange and white fun machine from Fuseproject and SyCip Designs. From the beginning of the design process, the team wanted a whimsical approach. Jeremy SyCip had considered an urbanized version of a BMX Sidehack, a two-person bike used to race over dirt tracks where the passenger stands on a platform and hangs onto a handrail off the left rear wheel of the bike.

In the end, SyCip opted for a different kind of three-wheeler, one with two wheels in the front. With most of the weight in the front of the bike, it's more stable than a Sidehack with its two rear wheels, something SyCip figured out after riding one. And it simplified creating the drive train because the pedals only had to power the one rear wheel.

"I thought it'd be fun to have two wheels in the front," SyCip said.

That's not to say the creation was without challenge. SyCip had never built a three-wheeler before. So he turned to the Web to learn about Ackerman's Theory, engineering principles for designing its two-wheel steering system.

The Fuseproject-SyCip team, like all of the designer pairings, finished the bike in the hours before the competition. SyCip's first real ride on the bike came during the field test. Turns out, the steering isn't entirely intuitive. Rather than leaning into a turn as cyclists often do, the three wheeler required leaning away from the turn to counterbalance the bike and prevent the outside wheel from lifting off the ground.

"It's twitchier than I expected," SyCip said about 25 miles into the field test. "Maybe that's because there's not much load on front."

But later in the ride, SyCip found the bike's real calling. He flew down a tricky dirt and gravel descent in Portland's Forest Park, surfing down the pitch and drifting into each turn.

"This is the perfect downhill gravel bike," SyCip said, barely containing his glee.

Between the front wheels is a wide cargo platform, capable of carrying groceries, packages and more. For the first ten miles of the field test, Fuseproject's Noah Murphy-Reinhertz rode on the platform.

The team also integrated a beefy U-lock into the front of the cargo platform. That way, cyclists can roll the bike right up to a parking meter or bike rack and lock it in directly.

The bike, which cost about $3,000 in parts to make, got a bright white paint job with orange fenders. And it was outfitted with a white and front right rear tire. The Fuseproject designers placed a bright orange tire on the front left wheel, figuring that it would make the bike would be more visible to drivers passing on the road.

And this being Fuseproject, the design firm behind Jawbone's Jambox portable Bluetooth speaker system, they included a canvas sheet that hangs between the top tube and the down tube to attach the gadget.

Now, Fuseproject founder Yves Behar plans to commission a few more of the bikes for his office and pick up two for his personal use as beach cruisers as well. The bike, Behar said, fits a need.

"The reasons to do these projects is to stretch our own abilities and creativity, but also because we are clearly seeing certain lifestyle or technologies that are not addressed by existing companies out there," Behar said. "For me, it's been clear that a bike is a great transportation solution in younger single years, but later when life is more complicated, there is no good solution to carry the things and the kids around."

Indeed, that's how Oregon Manifest came about. The purpose of the competition is to inspire the bike industry to come up with new ways to get people to ride their bikes for the kinds of local trips when they now use cars. And while there were specific design criteria--such as including an antitheft system, a lighting system and some sort of load-carrying system--the approach was entirely up to each entrant.

"I didn't know what was going to roll into the door," said Oregon Manifest board director Shannon Holt, who organized the competition.

What she got, though, was a wide range of solutions, specific to different needs.

"Everyone looked through the design criteria though the lens of their own lives," Holt said.

On Saturday, a panel of judges selected the winner for the main competition of bike builders, tapping Pereira Cycles. The Portland bike builder created its own e-bike, complete with a speaker system embedded into a carbon-fiber storage box mounted over the front wheel.

Competition, though, is still open for the three design firm-bike builder teams. They're battling for a "People's Choice" award, voted for on the Oregon Manifest Web site, starting Sept. 29, after the organizers post independent reviews of the each bike. That winner will be announced October 7.

This story originally appeared on CNET's Gaming and Culture blog.


This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards