The Business Opportunities Of America's New Bike Culture

As the economy tanked in the United States a few years ago, consumers began looking for ways to save some pennies in their household budgets. Facing simultaneously rising gas prices, many began eyeing that bike collecting dust in their garage as an alternative form of transportation. As that happened, these new riders began demanding that their home cities become more accommodating to the two-wheelers hitting the road. Cities like Portland, Oregon began pumping more money into their efforts to improve bicycle infrastructure; adding things like bike lanes, bike parking, and safety features to protect cyclists at busy intersections.

This isn’t necessarily news. Portland has been in the news for nearly a decade for its efforts to become more bike-friendly, even bike-centric. Other cities have too. Now, though, as the economy slowly recovers and gas prices have not moved above the dreaded $5 per gallon, there is evidence that the tide of bike awareness and usage is not going to ebb. Sure, worries about the impending doom of sky-high fuel prices still exist, but the edge has been taken off as they have stabilized somewhat.

What are left are people who have taken to the bike and found they like it. The frenzy may not be what it was when retirement accounts were dwindling, but the movement to pedal one’s self to work is still there. This is a healthy foundation for the economy of the bike as the years progress. It seems bike culture may be here to stay in the United Sates - after all, we all know fuel prices will continue to creep upwards, so we may as well be ready. Besides, bicycling is healthy, green, and a great reliever of stress.

While it is true that many cities were already home to a thriving bike culture full of full-time, two-wheel commuters, zippy bike messengers, and Tour de France imitating exercise enthusiasts; smaller cities were not able to respond as quickly to the spike in bike awareness a few years ago. There is plenty of evidence though, that they are now.

Furthermore, a look at bike design and the products being offered by accessory manufacturers suggest that there is a significant shift away from the Lycra-clad fitness scene that so dominated the U.S. bike industry. New bikes on offer from many manufacturers have taken on a more European and functional aesthetic. This suggests the bike is achieving its rightful place as an alternative to the car. Slowly is the view of the bike shifting from that of exercise or recreational equipment to that of grocery-getter, everyday commuting tool, or even child-hauler.

First let’s look at the cities. Inevitably every article (even this one) will mention Portland as the shining example of how to transform an urban area into a bike friendly environment. Quite rightly, the city was named “most bike friendly city” by Bicycling magazine in 2012. But other cities continue to inch toward bike friendliness as well. Memphis, for instance, turned some abandoned trolley tracks into bike lanes and trails thus creating a thoroughfare for riders to get to a once blighted area that rapidly became the city’s Historic Broad Avenue Arts District. Riders now can get to the area, park bikes and shop and drink coffee in an area with nice streets not choked with parked cars.

Moving south, and to prove the point the that bicycle culture is likely here to stay, the City of Jacksonville in historically bike-unfriendly Florida, also has a growing bicycling community. Activists and non-profits continue to lobby city lawmakers to make the city more bicycle-friendly. Slowly, they are gaining traction. The Jacksonville Bicycle Coalition even presented the mayor of the city with a free bike and he took to the streets with cyclists in a subsequent event. That bike is still used by city staffers for commuting around downtown.

Those are two bits of good news to be sure, but politicians are unlikely to dole out money, earmarked for other more “serious” infrastructure projects, to build bike lanes and bike racks if there is not sufficient voter demand or a projected commitment on the behalf of voters to utilize the things they are demanding. Lawmakers may still fear that this bike craze could be just a fad. It would be hard to blame them. After all, a recent article by Business Insider last year listed the top 20 bicycle friendly cities in the world and not one U.S. city made the list — not even beloved Portland.

Bike manufacturers, however, keep their ear a bit closer to the ground than politicians when projecting long-term trends in their business. When one looks at bike design in the U.S. it quickly becomes apparent that the manufacturers believe people are choosing to use their bikes for more than just working up a sweat.

Long dominated by the racing aesthetic, bikes produced for the U.S. market were designed after those beautiful machines one sees zipping through the Alps every July in the Tour de France. They force the rider into a hunched over, stretched out position suitable for riding a long distance at high speeds. Dressed in Lycra, with a heart rate monitor strapped to one’s chest, that is not so bad. But such bikes are not useful when one needs to get to the office and not have to perform an entire wardrobe switch upon arrival.

To answer demand for the new commuter, nearly every major bike manufacturer these days is offering commuter-inspired designs with geometries that allow for a more upright riding position and plenty of fittings to attach racks and baskets to carry the needed briefcase or laptop. Such bikes are often the centerpiece of new lines opening up a whole new demographic of rider to the manufacturers. Bike maker Raleigh still offers plenty of racy, carbon fiber bikes, but now offers highly chromed bikes for commuters and light tourers, as well as a line of city bikes for the urban commuter.

For those who need to haul a lot of gear, an even newer classification of utility bikes has cropped up. Bikes like Kona’s Ute or Surly’s Big Dummy are the pickup trucks of the bike world, capable of hauling a week’s worth of groceries or even a properly safety-attired child.

And attire is yet another indicator of the bike culture becoming more mainstream. It is well-established that no one wants to show up to the office sweaty and clad in Lycra. The trend toward upright geometry in bikes certainly makes it easier to wear street or work cloths during a bike commute, but many companies, including Levi’s, are now catering to the bike commuter.

The jean manufacturer created, last year, a commuter jean that is made from a stretchier and more water resistant fabric than the traditional denim. The pants also have reflective cuffs once they are rolled up a bit at the ankle, as well as a loop on the waist to hold the ubiquitous U-shaped bike lock.

While that is all well and good for the men, women also need to get to work without having to shed sweat pants. Manufacturers on both coasts have answered the calls of the female commuter as well. New York’s Vespertine offers stylish riding attire that is at home both off and on the bike with stylish, reflective accents. And for those who need to show up to work in a skirt, Iva Jean in Seattle offers a high-waisted skirt (so as not to expose the lower back while riding) with a hidden zipper to expose twelve inches of additional fabric for more mobility while pedaling.

Innovations like that coupled with a significant shift in bike design by manufacturers should alleviate any concerns the ever-worrying politician has that bike culture is a fad. These businesses stake their reputation and lots of cash on knowing what consumers want. And they are providing utility products for utility riders in a way never before seen in the United States.

Is it a chicken or the egg dilemma? Are manufacturers responding to increased willingness by municipalities to build bike friendly landscapes? Or are the municipalities taking a wait-and-see approach? Well, many municipalities are moving forward with bike friendliness at the same time that the manufacturers are answering the call of consumers. So it may be that no dilemma exists but rather a delightful synergy that suggests that bike culture is not catching on but has, in fact, caught on. And that creates new opportunities for cities to distinguish themselves, as well as new opportunities for businesses to innovate.

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