July 23, 1993
Board of Directors
P. O. Box 1204
Dayton, Ohio 45401
Re: Promoting Bicycling
Only ten years ago, computers were accessible only to a few professional programmers. (I know, because I have been a programmer for 31 years.) They were locked up in special expensive, air-conditioned rooms. When I began programming, the only way you could use them was to tediously type out a program on punched cards, hand the cards through a window to an operator, and wait sometimes hours for the results (usually wrong, requiring you to debug and fix the program and resubmit it!).
Today, millions of people have computers in their home, and they are extremely powerful and easy to use (at least, compared to the past!). The guiding principle has been the simple phrase "user friendly". I would like to see the same thing happen with bicycles. I want this not only because I own stock in Huffy Corporation, nor because I am an environmental activist who hates the smog, noise, toxic emissions, CFCs, global warming, wildlife destruction, loss of farmland, accidents, etc. wrought by the automobile and its relatives. I also want it because bicycling is fun! I want to live in a world where people are happy, and where we don't have to pay a fortune and risk death (or worse) on the road, just to go to work or shop for groceries.
I would guess that you, also, would like to see more people buying and using bicycles. If so, I have a few suggestions. First, and most important, let's make bicycles user friendly! First the "user" part. When I go into most bike shops, I see only "racing" bikes and "mountain" bikes. These types of bike appeal only to young, athletic, "macho" riders. Where are the bikes for the elderly (perhaps with 3 wheels)? Where are the bikes for the disabled (perhaps with hand pedals)? Where are the bikes for ordinary people who just want to go shopping or enjoy a leisurely ride in the park or in the country? Where are the bikes for taking on a trip by train or bus? In other words, where are the practical bikes?
I would like you to do a thorough market survey, to find out what you need to do to reach every segment of society. Why don't people buy bicycles? Why do they buy them, but leave them to collect dust in the garage or even rust outdoors? Why do they ride them only on weekends (often after hauling them on the back of their car to a more bicycle-friendly spot!)? Why are they afraid to ride them in certain places or at certain times? Is it really safer to drive? Do they break down too often? Are they too hard to fix? Are they too expensive? Do certain groups of riders (women, the disabled, the elderly, various ethnic groups, etc.) have particular needs that you aren't meeting? You need to find out the facts! And then, you need to fix the problems! There are reasons why only a tiny percentage of people (at least in North America) bicycle.
You may find that some "activism" is required. You may find that the existence of millions of noisy, smelly cars and trucks on the roads is a large part of the problem. So be it. If we are to make bicycling more attractive, we may need to make it more difficult to drive motor vehicles: lobby to eliminate the auto/truck subsidy, to stop expanding roads and freeways, to stop supplying free parking, to stop synchronizing traffic signals to benefit only long-distance auto drivers -- in short, to stop all of the ways that we promote the use of the automobile and at the same time discriminate against pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users.
And now for the "friendly" part. Too many bicycles are designed to "project an image" ("racer", "rough rider", "tough guy", etc.), rather than to actually be useful, comfortable, and practical. I think that turned-down handlebars are an abomination. I would never have them on my bicycle. The same goes for the straight bars on "mountain" bikes. They require you to put too much weight on your hands, making your hands and arms tired and forcing you to continually change hand positions. Of course, the old-fashioned bent-back bars that allow you to sit up straight are far superior. I like to see where I am going, without having to bend my neck back into an unnatural, uncomfortable position.
The seat should be nice and wide and comfortable, not narrow and hard. "Pressure" is defined as weight per square inch. You feel less pressure, and get less tired, when your weight is distributed over a wider area. There should be only as many gears as you really need. Why would I want to pay for 18 gears, when I only need 3 (my yard-sale 3-speed serves 99% of my needs just fine)? Kick stands and fenders should be standard features. You should reconsider coaster (pedal-operated) brakes, because they leave your hands free. Remember that many people ride for pleasure, not speed, distance, or hill-climbing. Anything that can lessen the need to "drive" (operate) the bike, and free you to experience the joy of biking (listening to the sounds of nature, feeling a cool breeze, appreciating an unobstructed 360 degree view of the world, meeting new people and places, enjoying a pleasant time with your children, mate, or friends, or simply getting some refreshing exercise on the way to work) is good.
Another area of "friendliness" is providing bicycles and accessories for every conceivable need. Recumbent bikes. Trailers for carrying lumber and gardening supplies home for your weekend projects. Beepers and two-way radios for keeping in touch. Pedal-powered appliances such as mini-refrigerators. Self-locking police bikes. "Emergency" bikes that can get through when all cars have become mired in gridlock (I have seen ambulances stuck in traffic and unable to move!). "Garbage" bikes for picking up trash, after the oil has run out and cities have become more efficient and compact. Tandem bikes for taking your girlfriend to the "ride-in" movie. Bikes for all occasions!
I am sure you can come up with hundreds of good ideas, if you put your minds to it. Maybe some of the Japanese (Deming?) management tools could be helpful, such as Quality Circles, and Continual Improvement through employee suggestions. But you need to have a clear goal, such as getting everyone in North America who is physically able out of their car and onto a bicycle.
Here are a few other ways we can promote bicycling and improve life for non-motorists: Put street signs, with addresses, mini-maps, transit information, and other useful information at every street corner. (In Sacramento, on overcast days, I often have to go a full block, just to find out which direction is north!) A public telephone, bench, and drinking fountain, as well as directions to a nearby public toilet, grocery store, police station, library, post office, etc. should be within sight of every street corner. Pedestrian traffic signals should be eliminated. They simply restrict the amount of time given to pedestrians, and maximize vehicle throughput. Pedestrians should be able to cross as soon as the light turns green. Left-turn phases that give first priority to vehicles should be eliminated. Bicyclists can see and hear better than drivers, and so should only have to yield right of way (not stop) at stop signs. One-way streets, which are also designed to maximize motor vehicle speed and throughput, and which force bicyclists to travel farther to reach their destination, should be eliminated.
Finally, never forget that the oil will run out soon! Experts say in 30-40 years in the U.S., and 50 years in the rest of the world. Bicycle companies (and people who own their stock) are in the best position to weather this final "Oil Shock". Let's start planning for it!
Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.