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 ⅔ 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.