User Friendly Interface

Now that it's winter, I find that strangers talk to me more than usual about cycling - typically when they see me locking up my bike. Over the past couple of weeks, several women have told me that they'd love to ride a bike, but find the logistics daunting: having to buy lights and figure out how to mount them; constantly getting flats (something they remember from previous cycling experiences); having to figure out how to carry their handbag, struggling to mount the bike in business attire, and other similar concerns. Their misgivings are fueled by the perception that cycling will complicate their lives - compared to walking, or taking public transportation, or driving.

What frustrates me about this, is that all of their concerns can be addressed with the right bike. As I explain about step-through frames, dynamo lighting, tires with puncture-protection, dress guards, chain cases, and panniers that attach to the bicycle's rack in seconds, I can see the ladies' faces light up as they eye these features hungrily.

One woman tried to step through my frame in her skirt-suit and squealed with delight when she was able to do it. She had never tried anything other than a mountainbike before. She said: "I knew you had a special type of bike! It's got this... user-friendly interface!" That phrase echoed in my mind for some time.

Even though I enjoy learning about bicycle design and own multiple bikes on which I constantly experiment, I am first and foremost a "transportation cyclist." My main priority is to have that one bike that is reliable, comfortable, and as low-maintenance as possible. The bicycle I use for transportation needs to make life easy for me. It needs to minimise the extent to which I think about it and tinker with it - so that I can focus on work and life itself, not on the bicycle.  Skirt suit? Heavy bag?  Dark outside? Raining like crazy? The "user friendly interface" on my machine accommodates all of these scenarios.

Many manufacturers are making what they are calling "transportation bicycles" nowadays, but not all of these bikes work for everyone. When a woman wearing a skirt suit walks into a bike store and says she would like to start cycling to work, my hope is that the salesperson will point to the section with the right kind of bicycle for her - rather than saying "Well, you won't be able to do it wearing that!" A user-friendly interface means that we should all be able to do it. Holiday wish: more elegant, practical, comfortable bicycle options for the women in skirt-suits who feel out of place in bike shops. It's getting better, but we aren't there yet.


  1. "Well, you won't be able to do it wearing that!" yea watch us go. Seems like Boston/MA would be pretty bike friendly terrain wise. Here in SF is all those questions plus hills. *..but there is (insert every other block) hill on this street"
    The other day I rod MUNI here with a friend and I can't take it. Like, how can people prefer this to the bike lane. argggh.
    Nevermind people that drive, they speak in ticketlanguage

  2. Excellent topic. My question, which I have been mulling over for weeks, is, how do I get local bike shops to upgrade the quality and variety of bikes they sell? Of course a small shop may say they carry lots of very "expensive" bikes. A bicycle that will allow you to ride to work in your work clothes or out to dinner are worth every penny if it means getting someone out from behind the wheel of a car to enjoy the freedom of riding a bicycle. Expensive is relative. In the end, a bicycle like that, will save money! How do I get shops to offer bikes with a "user friendly interface" to riders here?

  3. Yes, You can just hear the salesperson directing her to special shoes and special tights and special jacket, and of course a garment bag pannier to carry all the clothes she'll need to change into!

    It has gotten better, but mainly if you find the right shop. I was in REI last night for something else, and walked through their bike section and found absolutely nothing that I even remotely needed. They're in a big campus area, in the middle of the city and they had practically nothing for a citizen commuter.

    Fortunately, there are a lot more resources online that show people how with the right bike things can be so simple, and hopefully give them a starting point for a search for the right kind of shop.

  4. I love the change from beautiful to rusty, what's up?

  5. We are a long, long way off outside the big cities. In my area the closest bike shop that sells any bicycle with a "user friendly interface" is at least 150 miles away -- and those are Breezers and Dahons. [I love Breezers and Dahons.] There are a few "cruiser" style Treks and Giants and such. But the bike shops really cater to the wannabe racers. We have to order from afar and do our research online. I have never seen anyone else riding in a skirt here.

  6. the other one!December 15, 2010 at 12:22 PM

    How does that saying go "If wishes were bicycles!...... So many variables in what goes into the purchase of a bicycle. Perserverance!.....

  7. Jim - I think the only way bike shops will change, is if the market makes their demands known. If once a year a woman comes in and asks for a loop frame bike with dress guards, it's easy to laugh that off and ignore it. But if that happens at least once a week, it's not so easy. Also, once one bike shop in the area starts catering to that kind of market and word gets around that they are successful, others will follow suit. It is bound to be a slow process.

    Dave - new route : ) I live equal distances from the rusty area and the beautiful area.

  8. Usability and user-friendliness can't be underestimated. I hated/was scared of bicycling until I found step-through frames, and I found out about those from a fashion blog!
    People generally want the easiest option, the one that fits into their life and expectations with the least amount of trouble.

  9. roseread said...
    "People generally want the easiest option, the one that fits into their life and expectations with the least amount of trouble."

    Yes, that is exactly what I meant to say. I think that even in the world of "cycling activism" there is too much demand placed on the individual to make changes in their lives in order to ride a bike, to adapt their livestyles to the bike. And I don't think most "normal" (not already gung-ho on cycling) people find that appealing. In countries where cycling is popular, there is no such rhetoric. Cycling is easy, and a "cycling lifestyle" does not differ from a regular lifestyle in any way.

    After publishing this post, I noticed a similar topic being discussed on ecovelo. But in a way, what I wrote is in direct opposition to what Alan is saying: I do not think that a touring bike and a commuter bike can be one and the same for women.

  10. I am with Meligrosa on my strong preference for riding the bicycle compared to the bus despite all the hills in between-- one makes me happy and the other not so much. I am slowly figuring out which bike shops around here cater more to the transport crowd-- it is not many, and most of them don't have a very wide range of accessories, so I tend to do a lot of my shopping online. As cycler noted REI is one of the worst-- I have tried to spend money there in the bicycle section (due to having some gift certificates), and I could not find a single thing I wanted to buy (aside from chain lube).

    As an aside, I am still trying to figure out how to ride a bicycle with a narrow skirt on without attacting too much attention-- if you know what I mean. For now, I have decided that certain skirts I shall avoid for cycling attire until more of my world is also wearing short skirts on bikes.

  11. It's unfair to offer a European bike to someone in America since, on average, they are not sold in America.

    It goes without saying that the folk's in Europe have 'transportation cycling' down pat since that's how bicycles are used there. On the other hand, in America 99.9% of all bike sold here are either racer boy/dirt boy bikes or some derivative of those bikes with none being as able , nor as rider friendly, as the European bicycles.

    America is the poorer for the lack of true European transportation bicycles.

  12. Walt - On my "manufacturer profiles" page there are 11 European manufacturers who make the type of bike that works very nicely for "skirt-suit commuting". 10 of them are currently sold in the US and the 11th will be available in the Spring. Many major cities in North America - including New York, Boston, San Francisco, LA, Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland Oregon, Portland Maine, Toronto, etc., etc., now have shops with these bicycles readily available.

    But in the long run, I also think that it is a mistake to associate these types of bicycles with Europe, because essentially it is imitative and might create a backlash at some point. The US can make its own bicycles - It is just a matter of more manufacturers going out on a limb...

  13. Velouria - "there is too much demand placed on the individual to make changes in their lives in order to ride a bike"

    You misunderstand cycling activism. It's not about the bike. Many of the current crop of cycling activists . . . don't even ride much, if at all. S'true.

    Walt D - "America is the poorer for the lack of true European transportation bicycles."

    If you look at videos on YouTube you will find a fair number of the Dutch and Danes are now choosing American style transport bikes. I don't know where they buy them over there, but for the most part over here you don't buy them at bike shops. You buy them at "prole" shops. "Proles" know the shops don't cater to them, so they go to those who do.

    Not sure what an American Transport Bike is? Go watch some old Mexicans. They do.

    Amanda - "I am still trying to figure out how to ride a bicycle with a narrow skirt on without attacting too much attention"

    You don't. You dress for it, but yes, that is not something everyone is comfortable with.

  14. Velouria - "Many major cities in North America"

    Are not where many people live. They live out in Podunk and East Bumfuck. Some even live in Peoria.

    "The US can make its own bicycles"

    If only. Even Worksman imports their "everyday" bikes.

  15. Amanda - Re cycling in narrow skirts... The American option would be to either wear dark tights underneath, or choose A-line skirts (and I do realise that this too involves adapting to the bicycle - but less so than changing your style of dress entirely). The European option would be to simply not care : )

    kfg - Many of the distributors will ship a bike directly if you can't get to a dealer, so even the East Bumcuffers have some options. Of course they don't have the opportunity to test ride the bike, but at least it's something.

  16. "East Bumcuffers" :)

    Are WASPs. Do you know what WASP means? It means "We Adore Sears and Penney's."

  17. In my area of the country European bike are just not known about except by a few hard core cyclist. The average person where I live still think they can by a "good" bike at Wal-mart or Target so they look no further. Our LBS all struggle to sell bikes but they still focus on racer boy/dirt boy bikes.

    For myself, I ride a new Worksman 7sp Cruiser because it is the only bike I could find that was all American made with a fully lugged frame that would hold my weight.

    One thing is sure......the bikes shown on this blog are the cream of the crop for transport when the public is still buying hot dogs.

  18. Love the term "interface" for this.

    For years I've thought that showing people a bike you can just hop on and start doing errands and trips would do more to get more people bicycling than infrastructure and other expensive ideas.

    I'd love to take a bicycle like yours around to work centers to show people how easy it is to start with the right bike.

    But flats - I do all the flat prevention tricks but I still get a couple of flats a year. No biggy, I like to fix the ocasional flat. But someone in a business suit never wants to fix a flat. In Amsterdamn you'd just roll your bike a few blocks to the nearest shop and let the technician do it. What's the solution here?

  19. I'm commenting as a commuter from the South East of England. I know very few cyclists who commute in everyday clothes. Mostly it's men in suits and/or Lycra, catered for by standard bike shops selling standard Specialized/Trek/Giant moutain bike derivitives. Uprights are becoming more poular but unless you're into hi-viz, it's difficult.

    I wear a skirt or a dress all year round and layer under and over according to the temperature and I ride both a carbon-framed road bike and a step through. My skirts are gradually getting more A-line so I am adjusting to the bike, but not much. The tighter the skirt, the more stretchy the material and the higher
    the split and I ride the step-through. The more material in the skirt, the more likely it is that I can ride the road bike.

    But things they are a changin'. The blogosphere is making certain of that and the louder and more persistent our voice, the more Dutch bikes we'll have to choose from. Fenders and back racks on the bike, companies with innovative products like the rack tote from Po Campo, lights from Knog and helmets from Bern Yakkay to name but a few are all adding to the available mix. Thank goodess for the Internet!

    Great Blog Velouria.

  20. Nicole - I lived in England (Cambs) 2001-2004. Funny thing was, that it seemed like almost everyone except for me rode bikes - in their regular clothing. They rode Raleighs, older Pashleys, and God knows what else, usually ancient and bought at the 2nd hand bike shops. I understand that the area is unique in that sense, as far as the UK goes. But even in London last summer I saw quite a few traditional bikes in the area I was staying - so perhaps things are getting better indeed!

  21. I'm . . . from the South East of England . . .the more Dutch bikes we'll have to choose from."

    Even the English are calling English roadsters "Dutch" bikes now? Indeed the times they are a changin'.

  22. "It goes without saying that the folk's in Europe have 'transportation cycling' down pat since that's how bicycles are used there."

    I don't know if this is entirely true across the board. Certainly it is true in many parts of Europe, but I don't think that ALL Europeans consider bicycles to be transportation vehicles. During my years in the UK, and with the exception of the larger cities, I noticed that people treated bicycles a lot like they treat them in the suburban US, as recreational accessories. Oftentimes, a bike is seen as something fun to do on a sunny, Saturday afternoon and people will buy a cheap, Halfords bike or something and only dust it off on the weekends. I never once saw a "Dutch" bike outside of London, only a handful of vintage Raleighs and the rest were Specialized mountain bikes and the like. The closest I saw to transportation was one or two Bromptons in the city centre. Hardly an overwhelming wave of cyclists.

    In the larger European cities, you certainly see the transportation mentality a bit most clearly portrayed, but I'd say that this is also true of larger US cities as well. I think we give too much credit to the Europeans in a sort of broad, sweeping generalisation, often forgetting that Europe has been attempting to re-introduce cycling in many the same ways as they are in the US (e.g. cycle hire and cycle to work schemes).

  23. "I don't think that ALL Europeans . . . in the UK . . ."

    I warned people this would happen if they built that damned tunnel, but they listen? Noooooooo!

  24. I like "user friendly interface" as a description of a bicycle. It reminds me of when I first got my Gold Rush. I would let my friends try it, and they would say things like "WOW! It practically drives itself!" The user friendly interface is a huge turn on when it comes to choosing a bicycle. Sadly, it is not as common as we might wish. Here in San Diego, the situation is a little better with the ubiquity of beach cruisers. Here, beach cruisers, rather than mountain bikes or road bikes, are what I see most often. Of course, beach cruisers are more likely to have a step-through design, and they invariably allow for a nice, upright riding position.

  25. kfg said...
    "Even the English are calling English roadsters "Dutch" bikes now? Indeed the times they are a changin'."

    Don't know whether this is what Nicole meant, but I have seen plenty of actual Dutch bikes in the UK as well - Gazelle, Batavus, as well as a couple of makes I did not recognise, but with Dutch stickers on them. But yeah, it bothers me as well when people think "Dutch bikes" are the original concept rather than English Roadsters.

  26. The DL-1 is the Metallurgical Eve of the species. The Mother of All. In the case of Gazelle by direct descent.

    England doesn't need to import foreign domestic product; all it needs to do is look in its mews, barns and potting sheds and haul out the very bikes that once conquered the world.

    Now if you'll excuse me I have to go read some Kipling. Do you like Kipling?

  27. Not really a Kipling fan. When I get nostalgic, I turn to Graham Greene, or even the Mitford sisters...

  28. "Not really a Kipling fan."

    The correct answer is: "I don't know. I've never Kippled."

  29. In the US, we shouldn't overlook the native tradition of the beach cruiser. No, they're not nearly as good as European city bikes. But they've got chainguards, fenders, wide tires, and coaster brakes -- and they're super cheap. In the flat parts of Southeast, they're fully normal and integrated into the culture (I can't speak for elsewhere). And lately some are sold with three-speed hubs and lighter frames. In my college town, the LBS sells lots of them. I'm pretty sure that, not European design, is the way to get normal people on bikes around here.

    (That said, I'm not myself normal and I ride old Raleighs.)

  30. "they're not nearly as good as European city bikes."

    I think I could reasonably challenge that assertion. What they are not typically, these days, is "fully dressed," but they used to be made that way and could be again (for more money, of course).

  31. kfg - Which beach cruiser would you recommend? I have tried a few modern ones and found them fairly unridable outside of a small beach-town environment where you're puttering around the Maine st.

  32. The problem, ironically enough, is that the good ones aren't being sold in America. They're being sold in Europe. Go figure.

    Americans want their cruisers cheap more than they want them good.

    But think about that. If you poke around CCC and Amsterdamize you'll see more and more Dutch and Danes riding "American" cruisers. They seem to be making a move in Paris as well. And Tokyo. They are being chosen by people who know their city bikes and use them for daily transport.

    I'll reiterate (for the peanut gallery) that I don't like these bikes through any sense of nostalgia or patriotism, that I had to overcome my own bias against them before appreciating them.

    So, my caveat is that what is generally available here will need a bit of "curating," the need for which is what your article is a response to. That's why my claim t'other day was that *I* could supply a good, cheap bike, rather than recommending one for purchase.

    They will also need a bit of groking as well. They are different from the Euro bikes, say in the way an épée is different from a foil or a viola is different from a violin. If you just jump from one to the other it'll feel clunky. That doesn't mean an épée is a clumsy weapon (a viola, on the other hand . . .

    But of what's readily available the Wal-Mart/Target Schwinns are the best platform to start with. Really. Single speed coaster on sale now for a hunert bucks. With rack. The coaster hubs suck monkey balls though, which is why I said my supplied bike would need another fifty bucks into it at some point. Seven speed derailer models are also available, but I've been a bit leery of those so haven't fooled around with them yet. Looking to snag a cheap used one for informational messing about.

    As for vintage stuff, if you see one of these on a porch for twenty bucks, grab it:

    The quality isn't Schwinn (nothing in the period is), but the handling is suburb. Very road bikey.

  33. Hey Velouria,

    You mentioned Minneapolis as one place with bike shops that sell this kind of bike. I live in Minneapolis and have looked often and in vain for a decent European-style transport bike here. Any information you could provide would be great -- I must not have happened on the right shop!

  34. I know that cycling isn’t always easy in the US, but this distinctiveness of cycling is something I’m a bit jealous of sometimes. Being seen as something special just because you ride a bike and being talked to by strangers doesn’t happen very often in Germany. Somehow cycling is depressingly normal here. :)


  35. folks in Europe have 'transportation cycling' down pat

    Hm well there's a lot of room for improvement, take ignoring the bull for example.

    I have a simpler problem. I need a bike that can be left outside 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In my experience, that means dynamo lights front and rear, but the stores here in Sweden only carry bikes with battery lights at the rear and a dynamo light in the front. And the bike needs to be easily available and not too pricey in case it gets stolen and I need a new one.

    The battery switch dies after one season and the batteries themselves die pretty quick if it's cold. So far I get by with Reelights, they just work and never fail. But they are not as powerful or unblinky as a real rear dynamo light.


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