Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Cargo Bike Future Sucks

There was a palatable pause as the first place winner for the Ultimate Utilitarian Bike was announced at the the 2011 Oregon Manifest awards. The pause was long enough to register as a pause. A stop. It was uncomfortable. Clearly people everywhere in the crowd were saying, “What the hell?” I looked around and saw other people looking around. There was some confusion.

It went something like this … The winner of the Ultimate Utility Bike was announced; pause … the pause was stark ... and then people quickly started to clap realizing that it would be impolite to not respond. But the pause was there. It was heard and certainly felt. The claps were half hearted and ended quickly without boisterous cheers. It was not a celebration of Ultimate Utility Bike.

This is not to negate the creative power and building beauty of the first place winner, or anyone in the challenge. They are people and involved in a worthwhile adventure. I would buy any of them a beer. I could not build better. This is also not to negate the Oregon Manifest group. I could not organize better. I am not a promotion coordinator. I am not a builder. I am not a promoter.

What I am is a guy who loves cargo bikes.

At first, I thought that I had read the Oregon Manifest challenge wrong when it was first posted on their web site. Perhaps, “Ultimate Utility Bike” meant something specific, making the final pick obvious. In an effort to rectify this, and to find my error, I headed back to the challenge posting, reading again what they wrote. I did not locate my error.

“We’re looking for the ultimate modern utility bike: a bike designed as an integrated Tool For Living that is yet to be found on the retail floor.”

I saw a great deal of super utility bikes in the competition that I would not be able to find on a retail floor because of their innovation and attention to the focus of UTILITY. The final pick though--let’s be honest, is very much a bike I would find on a retail floor with an electric assist right off the shelf. The bike’s best feature, based on how much air time was given to the feature during the award speeches, was that the bike had a good stereo.

I do not equate stereos with Utility, big U or little u. Nor did I see stereos as part of the Challenge, and believe me, I just looked again. (It isn’t there.)

The Challenge goes on … “building a bike that is flexible, durable, able to carry reasonable loads with ease, and ready to accommodate the many small and large challenges of everyday riding. Transportation bikes must be sturdy and durable, yet nimble enough to provide all-around utility during a short trip or a longer haul.” Only one of the top three bikes did this with ease and with a capacity that shows that the building team realized that they were building a utility bike. This one bike, sadly, was not the top pick by the judges.

The problem is not the spirit of the Challenge so much as it is in the lack of focus. The above statement seems to want a bike to be able to do everything--to be nimble and durable; be able to take on small and large challenges; and be able to ride a short or long distance.

The problem with this is that you cannot make one bike to suit all needs especially if the goal is Ultimate Utility Bike. Utility is vague and the Challenge left it even more vague. Perhaps the organizers were thinking that they did not want to limit the inspiration of the teams. But in the end, it did limit the innovation of Utility because the end result was not an inspiration. There was very little unique or adventurous or forward-thinking in the bike design of the final pick.

As a school teacher, if I told my students to write a paragraph that was the Ultimate Paragraph and gave little more than that title and a convoluted passage about how the paragraph should be the most compelling, yet allow the reader to chose their commitment for fear of killing inspiration, what I would receive would be a stack of Ultimate Crap. What is my rubric? What is the goal or the standards by which the paragraph is assessed? I cannot expect my students to meet the challenge if I make the greatest part of the challenge figuring out the mystery of what the Ultimate Paragraph means.

So the problem last night was both an odd first place choice and the vague challenge that preceded it. The latter causing the former.

What was done was done. I cannot change that. However, I can hope that people will learn from this year's Oregon Manifest. I hope people will listen to the critiques that will come out in the next few days by various people and groups. Listen and learn. And if we do learn, then in the end, it will be worth the initial stumbles.

I have a recommendation. Alan Cooper, in his book, The Inmates are Running the Asylum, discusses the idea of Personas--Fictional characters to target a market or end user. The idea being, you cannot create one object or service for everyone. One object or service for everyone will fail, but if separate, smaller objects or services were created to target specific needs and specific users, then a company will have a greater success rate.

So Ruhiyyih and I created three personas on the way home from the awards ceremony. With these personas, Oregon Manifest could provide a clear communication of what the Ultimate Utility Bike is.

Meet Yolanda Werner. Yolanda is a stay-at-home mom. She and her husband, John, have a three-year-old daughter, Nicole, with a second child on the way in 8 months. Yolanda is a busy mom, taking Nicole to the neighborhood school, arriving at various play dates, doing the weekly grocery shopping, and trying to find time for herself as well. Yolanda used to carry little Nicole in a child seat on her bike, but Nicole has outgrown the seat and does not yet have the ability to bike herself around. Yolanda and her family need a bicycle that will fulfill all their current needs and change with their growing family. Yolanda is concerned with visibility and wants to be seen as well as see what is around her during her early morning travels when the sun may only just be rising. Yolanda will be the primary user of this Ultimate Utility Bike. However, John will use the bike on occasion to take Nicole, and the baby, places during the summer, or for adventures around the city so the bike needs to fit him as well.

Next up is Tim Cunning. Tim started work at a small, local delivery company, Portmanteau, which wants to include more bike deliveries in its offerings, hoping, at some point to create a whole segment of their company to bike delivery. Portmanteau hired Tim with the intent to start this segment. Tim will, indeed carry reasonable loads with ease. Most of his cargo will be in boxes, but there will be an occasional odd size or shape. Tim wants to carry 300 lbs of cargo on his Ultimate Utility Bike regardless of whether his route that day is a long or short haul. Tim is married and has one child. He lives 12 miles from his work and plans to use his Ultimate Utility Bike to get to and from work as well as use it for work. Tim wants to be visible to all forms of traffic when commuting to and from home as well as visible to others when biking through the streets, making deliveries. Since it is a work bike, Tim will not carry his child on the bike.

Finally, Bob Smarten. Bob does not have kids and is not likely to have kids (you never know). However, what he does know is that he needs a bike that is more utilitarian than his every day commuter that he used right now. Bob works for a public works department and travels around the city by car, carrying a variety of cases and tools for survey and data collection. Bob currently does this by car, but knows that he could easily do this by a bike and would like to do so especially since he already commutes into the city by bike. What better way to continue his bike usage than to have an Ultimate Utility Bike that could carry his varying supplies and travel to locations within the city? Bob’s typical supplies are 6-8 shoe box sized cases for instruments, a medium sized suitcase for tools, and various writing materials, including a computer. Bob would like to be able to use some part of his bike as a “desk.” Bob spends a good deal of his time down so the visibility of him on his bike is crucial with all of the traffic around. Bob lives in a city with a bus system, a mas transit light rail, automobile, foot traffic, and the occasional person on a skateboard. Bob wants to be able to easily lock his bike when he reaches his destination as any extra time spent locking up his bike is time added to his day. Additionally, given the gray days and early nights, Bob needs to be visible when biking home at the end of his day.

Personas allow for a focus that vague philosophical hopes cannot achieve.

Malcom Gladwell, author of Blink, writes about Howard Moskowitz. Howard Moskowitz was hired to find what the public wanted for spaghetti sauce, or in other words--what is the best spaghetti sauce? Moskowitz kept track of his data and found that people fell into 3 categories: plain, spicy, and extra-chunky. His understanding for the food industry was that you cannot create one style to fit all people. In the case of spaghetti sauce, to create one type of sauce would set up a company for failure. This is why you have the variety of sauces on the shelves today.

To achieve a goal, to meet a challenge, the focus needs to be clear, the criteria by which the final creation will be judged needs to be precise and communicated to the participants.

Steven Vance and I have spoke about how 2011 is going to be the year of the cargo bike. All I have to say is that it was been a let down. 2011 has sucked for cargo bikes. And Portland, is this the best that we have to offer the cargo bike world in America? After the cargo bike race this summer that did not involve any serious cargo, and the Ultimate Utility Bike that has barely any utility and is has a stance that is too aggressive for a daily urban utility commuter, I find myself at a loss.

Or maybe it is clear. What these two events have in common is a lack of what makes a cargo bike (or utility bike) a cargo bike. The cargo carrying capacity has been taken out of both competitions and the situation has been reduced to nothing more than a glorified, highly promoted, typical bike challenge.

The future of utility bikes in America is apparently one without much of a look to a future.


Ken & Tricia said...

So, I strongly agree with you on this: The Oregon Manifest objective was decidedly unclear. However, I think we can either choose to berate OM on their vaguely defined criteria, or we can look down upon them with consternation with regards to their final choice, but not both.

They picked a bike that fit their idea of "utility." It wasn't my idea of utility, nor did it measurably move forward the idea of utility bicycle in my mind, however, that's part of the issue, the definition of "utility" is only in my mind, it's not stated by OM.

I wish they just wouldn't give awards. There are plenty of other bikes in the Manifest that are somehow viewed "lesser" even though they are ones that better resonate with many cargo bike fanatics. I really wish OM would just do away with formal "best in show" type recognition. It's not fair to the other entrants who have done exceptional work.

Travis A. Wittwer said...

I choose to do both.

The two cannot be separated. I will argue that OM's vague want of Utility resulted in an upset, which is why I will argue that their final choice is not Utility.

Oregon Manifest's final choice, with which I will not even say "Ok, my idea of Utility is different but I can see where they are coming from," was not Utility.

The final result was not utility because the goal was vague. The vague goal led to a poor choice. Connected.

The judging panel needs some work as well.

I do agree that awards should not be given, but it is the way an industry pushes innovation (except in this case where it retarded it).

Ken & Tricia said...

For the sake of argument, say we have a forth sample user: Tim lives in the west hills, he needs to bring his lunch, coffee and book to work. He likes to move quickly, enjoys music, and sorta misses his car. Does the OM winner fit him? Yes. Does it fit you or me or your other sample users? No. But there is more utility there than a carbon fiber racer.

Again, I'm not a fan of the winning entry, and I wish that they sid more to recognize the heavier duty cargo bikes, but we are better off having the OM around then if it didn't exist.

Ken & Tricia said...

Sorry, smartphone typo. Should have said " they did more to recognize..."

Travis A. Wittwer said...

Ken & Tricia,

My argument is not with you so I do not want to make it so. Tim already exists. I used Tim as my second persona. But let's say that there is another Tim, a fourth persona.

OM did not create a fourth user. Tim does not exist. OM did not offer any personas and a vague want of utility.

In a case where there is a vague definition of "utility," and given the hype and push that OM did, doing the things that you could use a backpack for does not count as utility.

Sort of missing a car is an odd choice for a persona. I guess if a person who wishes to ride a bike but will miss his car exists, I still do not think the final choice would have been it. It is a bike. It does not cater to any need that would be fulfilled by a car-missing person on a bike.

You keep using some form of the phrase "it is not yours or my choice" as if that bonds our agreed sadness for the final choice. I maintain that the final choice does not have to be the one I chose, but it has to fall into the category for which the category was devised.

Had nearly half of the bikes that were there gotten the final pick, or any of the ones that I did not find appealing, I would have still said, "I can see why they chose that."

I cannot see why That was Chosen.

Yes, we are better off having OM around. However, we, the consumers, the viewers, the public, should voice our opinions so that future events and adventures can grow. I like what OM does, but that does not mean that I will give them a pity hug. OM means well, but they messed up and should he called on it.

Ring, ring ... I am calling.

(BTW, smart phones are funny. I do that all of the time. My email signature says to please excuse any text-typing errors as I do not have the nimble fingers of an adolescent.)

Cheers, and you and are and not at odds. We agree. I guess I am simply choosing to voice my frustration because I want the cargo/utility focus in my city and in bikes to be furthered. It is something in which I strongly believe.

Jonathan said...

Travis, I think you hit the nail on the head. When I heard about the manifest the first time, I thought that the course was kind of a sham, that basically anyone with a backpack and an old ten-speed could call that setup a utility bike.

Maybe, however, the judges had a different point of view of utility bike. There are bikes for racing, and bikes for recreation, and both are extensively covered in the press because bicycling is perceived by many as a mere pastime, like skiing. To have people like the magazine editor acknowledge--by taking part in the judging--that there is a utilitarian purpose for bicycles is somewhat of a step forward for nonrecreational biking in general.

I confess that I'm living under rather reduced circumstances these days, as I try to get my business rolling forward. For me, the magazine idea of a cycling vacation, where my spouse and I put the bikes on the back of a car or SUV and drive somewhere, then tootle around for a couple miles each day, while returning to home base each night, is not something that I can see happening right now or in the near future. In the meantime, I get real joy from using my cargo bicycle to run errands around the city. Since I presume that I'm pretty much just like everyone else, it seems to me that the cargo bike could be something that could make a lot of other people happy too, while we are all waiting for sunny economic times to come again so we can invest in the latest sprockets and suspension systems that are featured in the bicycle magazines.

If you're looking at bikes as products for people with discretionary income (money to burn), then yes! The Pereira bike is clearly the perfect choice, as it portrays the rider as the soul of discretion. "Kim" is someone who wants to ride a bike around town, but doesn't want to appear as if she is just making do with an older repurposed bike. Mounted on the Pereira, she is unimpeachably someone who has the means to make choices about her transportation without compromising in the slightest.

For the rest of us, we will have to make do with our cargo bikes and extracycles and hope for the day when we can afford to indulge ourselves without concern for our wallets or the environment.

Thanks for letting me rant!

Wade said...

Luckily for me, 2011 was the year of the cargo bike. I started building and riding long-john style cargo bikes this year and became friends with other who also ride them. I have specific issues with the OM but I have been in the bike industry long enough to know about "winning" and "awards" so that stuff rolls off my back like water off of a duck.
Here is an observation that made me smile and I hope you feel this as well. In 2009 there was only one cargo bike entered and obviously did not win. This year there were only a few bikes that resembled the winning 2009 bike and there were lots of cargo bikes. There were long tails and long-johns, cycle trucks and trikes. This years second place and honorable mentions were cargo bikes. Whether they know it or not, the OM has opened a door for a paradigm shift, and I know what bike I am going to ride to work today.

EthanPDX said...

Wade has a point. Cargo bikes, as a category, were still a blip at Interbike this year, but seeing fresh (not copycat) designs from Asian manufacturers (I have photos) was a real eye opener that people all over are beginning to see the potential to re-embrace bikes as a real, capable transportation solution.

That said, with such an amazing spectrum of designs/ideas presented, I too was disappointed to see a fairly pedestrian bike with a (somewhat poorly) integrated battery housing take the top honors.

Patrick Barber said...

Travis, I, too, was confused and disappointed by the OM judges' decision, but I disagree that this year was a bad year for cargo bikes. I think it's been a great year for cargo bikes! Putting Oregon Manifest aside for the moment, I've seen more and more cargo and family bikes in use on Portland's streets. I remember clearly the first day of school, because while on a routine errand that morning I wondered, Why are all these families riding around in groups? Because they were all riding their kids to school for the first day! I saw some great bikes, new and old, at the cargo bike roll call in June. And, yes, I saw some excellent (if unofficially honored) designs on the floor of the Manifest show, and just as many parked outside. Frankly, I think OM may have found a new niche for itself-- corporate sponsorship, reflective clothing, a judges panel that only includes one bike builder and who knows if any of the judges actually use a bike for transportation. They have their own goals, and so be it. Meanwhile, people in Portland are learning that you really can get around, and raise a family, and have a normal life, without depending entirely on a privately owned automobile.

sara said...

Read your post and the comments with interest. Way out of the loop here with the OM. We are likely some years behind what is going on in your bike scene. I can state though with pure optimism-- that this has been a great year for cargo bikes in these parts, mostly because people are learning about them and using them!

Gary Fisher said...

These bikes are too nice for most cities in the US and would be not park able in parts of town. None have en-closed chaincases, very few have full coverage fenders. One has a great kickstand. I buy all the food in this household by bike, rain or shine, I have two Dutch bikes, a longtail and a Grandpa bike. I have two ebikes. None are quite right. This is like Balloners, Klunkers, Bombers in the mid 1970's before I named them Mountain Bikes. Exciting to say the least.
I am not proud of most of our Utility bikes, they were designed by a "team", I had "input" but not much. I have been drawing and I promise I will try my best in the next few years to make some waves, as I live utility bikes every day.

Your friend,
Gary Fisher

surfimp said...

I take my my oldest boy to school on the back of my Xtracycle, then continue on to work. I shop with my X, go to the post office with my X, and go camping (with my kids) on my X.

None of these bikes would allow me to do any of those things with the comparative ease of my Xtracycle... unless of course they were converted to an Xtracycle. But I think that's missing the point.

Anyways it's fun to have a custom bike contest but there are already much more practical designs and options readily available in better (more utility-oriented) bike shops and online. They'll need to try a little harder next time I guess.


Wow! Thanks for the comment Gary. METROFIETS will be at NAHBS this year in Sacramento. I would love to chat with you - even collaborate on a build. We do have a workshop we could share with you.

End of fanboy post part. ;)

The most interesting thing to me about this post is that five years ago people didn't know what a utility bike was, let alone argue about the merits of one design or another. I do think that assist tech is huge and will get bigger, China is leading the way if domestic sales have anything to say about it.

I agree with Gary that these bikes (any bike really) wouldn't stand a chance locked up overnight day after day - eventually they would get stolen. But so do cars, street signs, etc.. My point pretty is good for a show, it helps win and flks don't want to see a rust bucket, but all this tech will filter into less expensive mass produced bikes that folks will WANT to ride. All of our bikes as of this post will have a USB charging system built into the bike that runs off the hub dyno option. We already have locking boxes, built in stereos, rain covers etc. It's simply the fact that they are BIG and cost more than what most folks can afford. The moment they hit the mainstream via a big MFG and cost about $1200; are are not made is such a way that they rust and fall apart after a year or two and have lights, assist and secure cargo locking included THEN we will see them take off in a BIG way.

On a side note - Tony's winning OM bike struck a nerve with an judging panel that represents pretty much the group of folks that we have sold ALL of our e-assist cargo bikes to. Over 55 ish, retired ish, and have a 7k - 12K to burn.


PARDON MY GRAMMER on the last post. Beer, an iphone and a liberal arts degree do not mix well, it seems.

Rob (Really said...

In the UK i can see more cargo bikes being thought about, 2011 has been a year of change for sure, mainly because there is a need for a practical bicycle that fits the riders lifestyle. a need that is slowly being met by emerging commercially available designs...bakfiets and the gazelle cabby are great, harry vs larry ticks different boxes and appeals to a whole new audience. Your home grown bikes and growing local bike industries are an inspiration to me and to others here.
We all live different lives so we need more variety and styles to cover real life challenges. Utility is not about racing, but about living...i love the glamour of the OM and we need that 'glamour' to bring more people to the brink of owning an extraordinary everyday bike. The racing task is a strange one but great to see them in use, great for the public...the three profile task is a good idea and certainly is more of a specific real life scenario.. but one 'odd' competition result does not slow the growth of the cargo bike, we should not dispair..the 'cargo' utility (non sport?) bike has a life of its own, the talk surrounding OM will still break down barriers and prejudices and that is always a good thing. The future for 'cargo' utility/everyday bikes is bright and all the good folks attending the OM are leading the way..

Jonathan Reed said...

I'm with Rob. I think the future of cargo bikes is bright in that we're seeing more folks on them in more locations with more designs on the way to suit a broad array of needs. One of the most interesting parts of Oregon Manifest is that the call for entries was left to interpretation by the builder. Some call that vague, I'd call it enticing. It forced many of us to try something new and there were a lot of interesting features on various entries that inevitably got passed over in Monday morning reviews. I'd love more time to look at them closely and learn the how and why of various features. In the end, judging is a subjective act and each of us has their own requirements and definitions. Which reminds me: there was some mention of an online voting a Peoples Choice award. I'll look into that.

My team rocked. My bike is unique and I was proud to participate.
I hope the event and critiques thereof are inspiring to builders, organizers, industry, potential sponsors and most importantly to would-be riders.

Thanks for the opportunity
Jonathan Reed
Quixote Cycles

Ken & Tricia said...

Absolutely love the support of OM from the builders of heavier duty cargo bikes. OM shoulda given y'all more props, but everyone is still civil and excited about what OM represents. That says a lot about the depth and integrity of the community (I say this as someone who mostly stands outside of it). Mad props.

Ash said...

Wonderful post, Travis. Thanks for nailing this debacle so effortlessly.

Most of what I had to say about this issue already got tackled here and at the BikePortland article.

I will say that when I received my Madsen in Chicago in August 2010 it was the first one that they had sold here. A couple locals already had De Fietsfabrieks from when Jon Lind first started his shop and Steve had had his Yuba for a little bit. That was our cargo bike "scene". In those first months of riding every day I got stopped frequently by drivers and other cyclists who smiled, asked questions, demanded to know where I got this thing. I let anyone test ride it that was interested and now there are nine Madsens in the city of Chicago. There would be a few more if it weren't for the pesky Chinese/Taiwanese frame shortage issue.

So, yeah, I'd agree with most people here that 2011 has been the best year for cargo cycling to date. I've seen great interest here and around the country where last year there was only a whisper. And I agree with Metrofiets, that innovation needs to be commodified and mass produced so that the prices can come down to a point where a cargo bike can be synonymous with a cruiser or mountain bike. People want these things now but the combination of their current pricing and the uncertainty about the economy (ugh, that phrase again) has kept a lot of eager riders from jumping in.

I ordered the last $1600 Joe Bike last week. I see on their site that they will be moving frame production to the US next year and their economy model, the Boxbike, will now be priced starting at $3,000. Madsen has also raised their prices by $400 since launching. Both are small companies and I understand the need to keep afloat but I see it as a disservice to eliminate affordably priced cargo options. Currently, only Xtras and Yubas are priced appropriately.

Ground Round Jim said...

Gary, meet Jonathan. That's how you pen a bike.