Virtuous Cycles: The Bike Design Project

A design competition with five teams, fives cities, and one urban utility bike for the masses.

As the current wave of city bike-sharing programs suggests, urban environments continue to drive cycling’s evolution. In a bid to spark the next great leap in two-wheeled transport, the Bike Design Project, organized by Oregon Manifest, has combined a bit of natural selection with a collaborative design approach. A competitive platform pitting city against city, it seeks to develop a radically new bike by August.

Five teams from five cities (New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle), each composed of a design studio and bike manufacturer, have been concepting, collaborating, and field-testing in their hometowns since the beginning of the year. They’re working off a brief that asks for a truly functional, all-terrain urban bike with a lighting and anti-theft system, among other features, with the winning design going into production with Fuji Bikes. By placing craftsmen and designers on one team, and focusing on city-specific research, the process is more hands-on and, according to the Chicago team, results in a more integrated and creative approach.

The Chicago team, representing a collaboration between the MNML design studio and Garry Alderman of Method Bicycle, immediately felt they’d be at a disadvantage, with sub-zero “Chiberia”-like temperatures inhibiting outdoor research in January. While MNML has a 15,000-square-foot studio with a 5,000-square-foot enclosed garage to play around in, project lead Chris Watson, an engineering and program manager, said they still found numerous bikers braving the snow and windchill. Capturing their experiences helped inform the team’s truly all-terrain design.

“We were surprised when we went out there,” he says. “ We deliberately did research when it was snowing badly, but still found people riding around the city when it was freezing, in horribly nasty conditions.”

MNML sought out to create an all-season ride that exemplified the idea of rugged refinement, as Watson puts it, which pairs with the studio’s standard philosophy of reduction and purity. The team tackled the problem by doing exhaustive field research and then building a story—a day in the life of a cyclist that would serve as the litmus test for whether the final design really worked. Chicago shaped the narrative—dealing with inclement weather, hauling your ride up to a walkup apartment, and navigating potholes. Watson said one of the most exciting and rewarding parts of the process was collaborating with Alderman, who builds cycles by hand, and getting on-the-fly feedback as the prototype comes together. (He says he can’t discuss final details until the big reveal on July 25.) Alderman’s deep knowledge of craft and the cycling community created a great flow of ideas between the builder and the design team, an aspect that suggests this competition may have the right formula to improve urban cycling.

“He provided a different perspective that was super grounded,” Watson says. “He’s part of the community in a way we’re not and can provide guidance. It would be great if life always worked this way, being able to prototype in real time in the factory.”

All five teams will be premiering their designs at reveal parties on July 25, and voting begins a few days later.

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