The “Portland Bicycle”

One of the pieces of news this week from the Federal Transportation Bill was funding to prototype local manufacture of streetcars, so that we might have a true “Portland Streetcar”.

Well, Portland Transport doesn’t have $4M for a project, but we do have a very creative audience. On several threads it has been remarked that bicycles on the market in the U.S. are optimized for racing or the open road, not for commuting. So today’s question is could we specify, design and manufacture a “Portland Bicycle” for the commuting market that would have a strong local market AND be an export product for our region?

I’m told we have local bike frame manufacturing (and certainly an active metals industry), so I don’t see any inherent obstacles.

Let’s start out with the specifications. I know several of the cycloscenti in Portland ride bikes from the Trek Lxxx series, manufactured in Europe as commuting bikes and imported on a limited basis to the U.S. But when I priced one, it was in the $700+ range, way beyond the means of the masses.

So what do we want in a commuting bike for our region? I’ll start with two requirements:

1) Usable in street clothes, which means fenders and a chain guard.

2) Fits the standard rack on a TriMet bus (why my recumbent is very dusty).

So what else does the “Portland Bike” require? Weight? Price point? Gearing? Lights? Bells? Whistles? What else?

Contributor Rick Browning is on his way to Japan on a research project (more on this later this week), so we’re charging him with bringing back ideas from the east!

22 responses to “The “Portland Bicycle””

  1. This is going to have me thinking all day at least, but on the top of my mind is price point: there’s no way that a locally manufactured, full-featured practical city bike is going to cost much less than $700. It will likely cost much more absent a heavy subsidy scheme (shifting the costs, not reducing). And $700 is really not a lot of money if you compare it to car operating costs, and you are serious about it being used to replace car trips.

    The Trek L300 may have its largest market in Europe, and use components from European companies, but the frame and its components are manufactured in Asia, and the MSRP is $989.99.

    Seattle has a locally-made city bike with a nice feature set (and odd appearance to my eyes): . Target retail price: $1.5-2K.

  2. My commuting bike is a Diamondback Della Cruz (mine is black and red) which I bought new from Northwest Bicycles (NW 21st Ave) for about $280 and added maybe another $100 in accessories.

    If I have a gripe, it’s that it is so heavy. It seems to me that if we optimized for a large commuting market, we could try to get under $300.

    To get there, what do we have to keep, what can we throw away? For example, do we need the sealed hub that the Treks have, but my Della Cruz does not?

  3. Great topic and it raises a number of issues. First is commuting vs general transportation.

    If the bike is going to be used for serious bike commuting to and from work over a relatively long distance then good fenders, lights, rack, and sealed bearings are important if it is to be an all weather all season bike. For serious commuting I’ll want clipless mountain bike pedals and cleated shoes.

    If the bike is going to be used for general transportation around the neighborhood then different critera are important. For a bike that I’m going to use to run errands around the neighborhood, to the grocery store, pub, that sort of thing. I’d want a kick stand, good system of baskets for hauling purchases, bell (for sidewalk use) and also lights and fenders. For a short-errand bike I’ll probably want platform pedals so I can use any shoes.

    Seems to me that the ideal approach would be to design a modular system with snap on baskets and that sort of thing for hauling but that could be easily stripped down for longer rides.

    Without having seen either one in person, I’d be intrigued by these two cannondale models that are only sold in europe:

    Street 800:

    Street Nexus:

    The Stree Nexus looks to be pretty much the top end for city bikes with the internal campagnolo gearing and the photosensitive lighting system that automatically engages to turn the lights on when it gets dark.

  4. Another commuting essential is a really good system to prevent or repair flats. Nothing sucks more than a flat on a rainy commute when you’re late for work. I’m not sure what others do but I usually just carry a spare tube to swap out if I flat. But that means the wheels need to be easily removable.

  5. Kent, I think we’re talking about the short-trip model (or bus+short trip).

    What kind of lights do you think are needed? The European Treks have integrated generators. I get by with front and back LED flashers on my cruiser and feel pretty safe on well-lighted streets.

    I like the basket, bell and kickstand specs.

  6. Chris, on well-lit city streets then maybe front flashers are adequate. But I’ve done a lot of bike commuting on bike paths that can be pretty dark. When I was growing up in Eugene I would ride those bike paths along the river at night to the UO and they can be pitch dark. I vaguely recall a fatal accident some years ago when two unlit cyclists hit head on. More recently I used to bike commute in Seattle from the U-Dist to the NOAA offices on Sand Point Way via the Burke Gillman Trail. It also gets really dark at night and a serious headlight is needed. I had the dual-beam nightrider lights on my bike and it wasn’t overkill.

    I haven’t ever seen the modern generator lights. Only the ancient ones from 30 years ago that rubbed on the tire. But I have to think that they can’t compete with modern high-end light systems, especially the new HID lights.

    For an all-around short-trip bike I think the generator light would be about right. For serious night commuting I want a dual-beam HID system or something similar. I want incoming cars to think I”m a motorcycle.

  7. I think that one of the hardest things to do with a bike is grocery shop for a family. I haven’t really found a decent way to haul groceries with my current touring racks and assortment of backpacks and panniers. I think the ultimate grocery bike would be one that worked like those grocery carts you see people use in inner cities to walk home from the store with. Sort of like folding luggage carts that will take several stacked grocery bags side-by-side? I used to see people use them in DC when I worked there.

    I’d like to see some sort of rack platform with removable open-top shopping bags that can attach to the side so when you get to the grocery you can grab your cloth shopping bags and fill them up at the checkout stand then just load them on the bike piled high with groceries.

  8. I ride a Trek 800 with fat smooth street tires, fenders… $250, a few years ago, with a few additions in the last few years.

    On the one hand, a “Portland Bike” is a great idea… but then you think of the diversity of commutes, the diversity of opinions about what a bike ought to be, do, look like, and I’m driven to ask whether a “spec” bike is really the answer.

    However computer geeks (I guess I qualify, sort of) are familiar with ArsTechnica’s three basic build it yourself computer guides. They call them
    1) Budget Box
    2) Hot Rod
    3) God Box

    I’ve built all my computers by starting with their recommendations and modifying from there.

    Every few months they spec out the features of a computer at each of these 3 price points, comparing features at a low level of detail.

    See here:

    Well you could develop a page that spec’ed out 3 levels of bikes, describing the features at each price point. Your $150 bike your $300 bike and your $800 bike… or whatever you think the sweet spots are.

    Then revise as fast as bike technology changed… maybe one a year.

    Such a page could actually become famous.

    When people build or buy a bike they want to know things like “if I spend a little more money, what additional value do I get?”

    Or “If I get the cheaper gear changer, will that be noticably worse, or really just fine?”

    The steps of value and price give you something to compare and define the relationship between cost and value, which is what you are doing when you are making a purchase of a machine like this.

  9. Miles, I like the breakdown into 3 levels. My focus is mainly on the ‘budget box’ equivalent, but the mid-tier might be interesting as well.

    I think the upper tier is probably already satisfied by the European imports.

    But part of the hypothesis here is that we are simply missing the model for the ‘budget commuter bike’ here in the U.S., although it may exist in other countries (see photo accompanying a post from Rick Browning coming up later this week).

    What I’m really trying to do hear is ask how we could create a ‘budget box’ commuting cycle for the Portland market (and then evangelize it to the U.S. market outside Portland).

  10. After thinking about this overnight, Here’s what I think. What you need to do is design a bike targeted at NEW cyclists and older cyclists who may have given up biking and need a prod to get back on a bike. People who are already bike junkies like most of us are already pretty fussy about our gear and specifications and you aren’t going to get a bunch of bike junkies to agree on anything. I’m the same way with my scuba gear. I fuss over every little detail and am always changing out components to make my rig slicker and more efficient.

    So I think the design objective should be geared towards what sort of bike will grab those who might otherwise not consider using a bike for around town transportation. If my wife is any indication, it would need to be clean, simple, and very un-techie and have a VERY comfortable seat.

    Another consideration is bike parking for urbanites, no just at places of business, but at homes and apartments. That’s always a big drawback. People get bikes and then don’t know where to put them when they live in apartments. It’s probably a subject for another thread, but I’d like to see the city start asking developers to include good bike parking. Perhaps let them off the hook on the number of car parking spaces if they provide clever dry safe bike parking as an alternative.

  11. Another comment. I have a cousin who owns a bike shop in Virgina. He’s been in the business for 20 years and has all but given up with traditional bike sales out of a storefront. He now makes the bulk of his income selling recumbant and folding bikes through an ebay storefront. His problem is that it is just absolutely impossible to compete with Wal-Mart, ToysRUs and Costco who import shiploads of cheap bikes from China.

    Seems to me that if you want to reach the masses the way to do it would be to get a product into those stores. Because that’s where most bikes are being bought today. I know Costco often carries quirky regional products that are of high quality. That’s where I’d want to sell a new bike.

  12. agree with kent that bike must appeal to “pre-specialized” bikers; i.e., be very accessible to novices, older people, etc., yet not be terribly inefficient or enabling of bad habits like extreme low cadence, dismounting at every stop or setting saddle too low. must be practical enough for, e.g., fetching groceries at 5 pm in the dark december rain.

    a. low bottom bracket for ease of mount, dismount, seated stop
    b. short (

  13. aargh! software parsed my > < symbols in above geeky post, obscuring content. here we go:

    a. low bottom bracket for ease of mount, dismount, seated stop
    b. short (<165mm) cranks to encourage aerobic spin, protect knees, improve clearances
    c. <70-degree seat tube angle to take weight off hands without requiring inefficient sit-up-and-beg posture
    d. long chainstays to improve comfort and heel clearance with shopping luggage
    e. quicker steering geometry (e.g., <55mm trail) to offset ensluggening effects of c and d, make low-speed maneuvering light and precise
    f. sloping top tube for “unisex” style, few-sizes-fit-all
    g. balloon 559 slicks: ultra comfy, good wet grip, tolerant of lax inflation regimen
    h. diagonal rear dropouts with hanger for either gearhub, derailleur, or SS
    i. swept bars: billions of non-MTB fashionistas can’t be wrong
    j. full chaincase mount tabs
    k. redundant disc tabs and canti studs (tricky with diagonal dropouts…)
    l. fender, lighting, rack, integral lock accommodations

  14. Just on the original topic mentioned. Portland could build and probably should build it’s own trolleys/streetcars, if New Orleans Louisiana can do it (and they do – just do a search for New Orleans Streetcar and you’ll find info) then Portland can definately do it. The cars New Orleans have are beautiful and also a bit quiter and better construction than PDX’s “modern” streetcars. If anyone is interested they should check it out.

    …and on the bike topic, of course PDX can build commuter bikes.

  15. There are two major schools of thought regarding Streetcars in the U.S. New Orleans has pursued the ‘historic trolley’ approach. While I’m not knocking that, in the mid-90’s Portland made a very clear decision to go with the ‘modern transit vehicle’ approach, and that’s what we hope to manufacture here.

  16. I’m going to drop my $.02 here, for what it’s worth…

    Well, my wish-list anyways:

    Make it so I can cycle with pants on, so some kind of chain guard or internal gearing or something (I’m not really a bike expert).
    Gearing for normal people biking speeds, but don’t go overboard – 5-7 gears would probably be fine for most people.
    Foldable? Just an idea… maybe allow it to be partially collapsed for everyday storage in an apartment building (like a studio in NW Portland), where some apartments don’t even have bike storage rooms & you have to fit it behind your couch! (note: these are the kinds of people who would be riding more).
    Make it cool & snazzy! But not too snazzy… retro is in, right?
    Not too heavy – but it doesn’t need to be made out of the latest titanium & composite materials & only weigh 3.2 ounces.
    Bike lockable so nobody can steal your seat, handlebars, or wheels.
    Include the necessary legal lights (so they can’t be stolen!)
    Few bells & whistles, lots of upgrade possibilities – FENDER FRIENDLY!!!

    Okay now… the kicker: $300 or less for base model.

  17. Lights, lights, lights! They need to be bright enough and reliable, with batteries recharged by motion, like cars have had for, what, 100 years? They’re a necessity, not an accessory. The list above makes sense for most things.
    As to process, how about a design contest like that furniture thing, (Lamp, Table, Chair?) There should be talent to draw on, between Chunkers and veterans of that hpv contest at OSU.

  18. Someone in the Big Apple beat us to the punch; check out NYCBikes. Of course, I’m not sure he has them manufactured locally. Here’s what looks like a 3-speed priced at $599, and here’s a commuter model called “The Ultimate New York Bike” at $379 (better breakdown of features on that bike here). The web site isn’t very informative, unfortunately, but I’d be interested to hear what commenters think of the price/features breakdown on these bikes.

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