Greg Hum leads a bike-centric lifestyle in Boston, MA, going everywhere and carrying everything by bike. In college he co-founded a bike-advocacy group and still loves organizing people around bikes. He can sometimes be heard playing jazz rhythms on his handlebar-mounted percussion instruments while riding. His musings on biking and more can be found on: thehum.bostonbiker.org.
Last weekend the first ever New England Bicycle Expo was held in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Somerville and Boston are two bordering cities both recognized this month as bike-friendly cities by the League of American Bicyclists. Both cities and their surrounding neighborhoods have a long history of bike-advocacy and a healthy population of bike-commuters that’s only growing; it was only fitting that the expo was hosted in the metro-Boston area.
The schedule for the bike-expo included family-friendly bike rides touring local attractions, guest speakers talking about advocacy and education, and a host of local bicycling companies displaying exhibiting bikes and merchandise. I met a lot of wonderful local custom frame-builders, bicycling advocates, and local commuters who I talked to about bike-commuting. I even joined two scheduled rides around the neighborhood, one to local bike shops and paths led by Rob Hill, the organizer of the expo, and the other to the local Taza chocolate factory (where we learned that they actually deliver their chocolate to local businesses by bike)..
I posed the J.O.Y.B.A.G.™ concept to some framebuilders and local bike advocates, and soon found out, like Josh Lipton did at the NAHBS, that an ideal commuter bike really varies depending on the needs of different people.
In Boston, many bike-commuters are college-aged on a tight budget, and as it turns out, salty slush in the winter destroys geared drive-trains. So it’s no surprise that many people here opt to ride a single-speed/fixed gear bike for commuting.
Marty Walsh of Geekhouse Bikes called the fixed-gear bike a “gateway drug” into biking for many young people;they are fast, low-cost, low-maintenance and reliable, even in Boston’s slushy rain and snow. Reliability is what most urban commuters need, Marty says, and the fixed-gear does offer that. “Even a basic fixed-gear or single speed bike,” Marty pointed out “means a lot to some people for commuting.” But really, Marty says he’ll build anything, and notices a growing trend in customers wanting “rando” (short for “Randonneur”) bikes for the speed and versatility of a geared all-weather commuting bike.
Chris Igleheart of Igleheart Bikes also expressed a certain intimacy between the bikes he builds and the needs of his customer. “Aside from all the basics,” of fenders, upright bars, and puncture proof tires, Chris walked me through some nifty highlights of his own commuter rig, sporting an eight-speed rear internal hub and a front generator hub that powers his front light.
I especially liked the of Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires Chris chose for the one commuter bike he had on display. I’ve personally been running a pair of my own over urban glass-ridden streets on a daily basis without a single flat in almost three-years. Chris and I agreed, they are some of the most bombproof tires around.
Some bike-commuters like Janie Katz-Christy live completely car-free, not only commuting but transporting her entire family everywhere by bike. She gave a talk about her efforts as director of the Green-Streets Initiative, a monthly celebration encouraging alternative methods of transportation. Local businesses who participate give discounts to customers wearing anything green on the last Friday of the month.
While I didn’t get a chance to check out her setup, I did get a chance to check out another car-free bike-commuter and his bakfiet-style front-loading utility bike. In the front bucket is a car child-seat he uses to transport his toddlers.
Then there are folks like Mike Flanigan of A.N.T. Bikes (previously interviewed at NAHBS by CbB) whose philosophy of an ideal commuter bike involves (1) Lights and bells, (2) a way to carry things, and (3) kickstand with a chain guard and fenders. These essentials, Mike believes, are what’s important, so they are what he includes with all bikes he sells by default. Sadly, even with so many bike-commuters, utility bikes like Mike’s beauties and the white bakfiet I spotted are a rare sight in Boston.
As I admired his fully equipped utility-bike, Mike dropped his 30-pound messenger bag into the frame-mounted front basket and told me to “give it a go.” Unlike riding with a loaded handlebar-mounted basket, the frame-mounted basket was surprisingly smooth and stable.
Absent from the expo were any electric-powered bike vendors, so when I posed the possibility of electric-powered bikes as an ideal commuting bike to several frame-builders, they expressed concerns not of pedal-powered purism but of practicality; mainly, problems of battery life (though this is changing), lost benefits of warming up from exercise in the colder months, and how difficult it would be to carry an electric bike up to a third-floor apartment (because no way are you leaving that thing locked up outside overnight). All problems unique to any northeast urban environment.
Also great to see were some smaller bike businesses tackling smaller but practical problems of bike-commuting and recycling in general. For bike-commuters, the answer is obvious: make something useful for bike-commuting out of them!
Danielle of Belle Helmets thought helmets looked dorky and realized that people would be more willing to wear their helmets if they were pleasant to look at, so she’s set up an online shop where your idea turns into a hand-painted helmet masterpiece.
Tianna Meilinger spawned Vaya bags by hand-sewing messenger bags and saddle-bags out of recycled materials and bike-tubes.
And Silky Cycles makes custom wood fenders for road-bikes, complete with custom axle-mounts for bikes without fender-mounting eyelets.
Of course, commuting by bike isn’t just about owning the ideal commuter bike, but also about having the right infrastructure to support safe bicycling. Posing the J.O.Y.B.A.G.™ concept to local bike-advocates at the expo, it became pretty clear that they were less concerned about an ideal commuter bike than about building accessible bike-commuter-friendly infrastructure.
In celebration of bike month, Boston’s gearing up for “Boston Bike Week,” with a slew of biking events happening all over the city.
Boston Bikes was there promoting bike-week and Boston’s coming bike-share program slated to launch this summer. The hope is that bike-share will encourage many more people to “jump on their bikes and go.”
Boston Cyclists Union director Pete Stidman explained his goals of bringing together various bicycling communities and recent success in bringing back a bike lane that the city removed soon after installing it.
Massachusetts Bicycling Coalition director Dave Watson shared the coalition’s most recent victory in extending the hours bikes are allowed on Boston’s blue subway line to and from East Boston during rush hour, one part of town not particularly accessible by bike.
Peter Furth, Northeastern University professor of civil and environmental engineering, believes a network of off-street bike-paths in Boston is necessary for a concept like J.O.Y.B.A.G.™ to really take off, and devotes his career to using “safe, analytical thinking” to show that this is possible. For the urban bike-advocates, “Jump on your bike and go” is a complex issue.
As the sun set, the Expo came to an end, even the live folk musicians got ready to bike home and played their last piece wearing reflective safety vests.
On my commute home, I was glad to pass by two other pairs of commuters just happy to be on a bike.