From A to B-rompton: Is This the Finest Hour for the Bicycle?
Bicycles and cycling have always been a prominent feature in my life. I remember my grandfather running alongside me as I took those first pedals with no stabilizers. His arm stretched out gently letting go of the saddle, with me feeling the sense of freedom that comes with cycling. I remember my father racing in time trials from a young age. Then as an adult, I joined my father and brother on a cycle from London to Paris to fundraise for our local hospice.
More recently since relocating to New York City, bikes for me have become synonymous with quality family time. My husband cycles our son on a rather large and cumbersome, but safe-looking e-bike, the ‘Rad Wagon’ from Seattle, or as he calls it the ‘Dad Wagon.’ Whilst I enjoy the freedom of riding alongside them on a ‘fixie,’ marveling at the city skyline and most recently the baby geese who have made Dumbo their home.
COVID-19 has afforded me the time for many reflections and realizations. My eventual commute back to the office could be far more enjoyable; New York City is smaller than you think. A bicycle could actually serve as a useful mode of transport in the city’s day-to-day living with all of the obvious added health benefits. But the thought of chaining up a bike in midtown is anxiety inducing. How often do you see mangled frames that have been stripped of all their parts? The thought of renting a Citi Bike right now is even more anxiety inducing given the germaphobes we have understandably become.
So, when Brompton asked if I’d like to try one of their new electric bikes, I was intrigued. Being a former Londoner, I was familiar with their unfamiliar-looking frame. You see a lot of commuters whizzing past you on their tiny wheels in London (it is estimated that at peak commuting times in London, 15 to 20 percent of the bikes being ridden are Brompton). You see them often in the UK nestled under the table of busy boozers waiting to take their owners home. But I had never seen one in NYC. And electric? How would that feel on a Brompton?
I caught up with Will Butler-Adams, CEO of Brompton Bikes, and he told me that Andrew Ritchie, inventor of the Brompton folding bicycle, back in 1975, conceived the bike as a tool. “He didn’t design it for anyone else but himself; he designed it for his own use, and it turned out other people found it useful too.” And I can see why.
My first cycle on the Brompton electric bike was over the Manhattan Bridge and up the West Side cycle pathway. It was 16 liberating miles. And I passed many others who also shared in that sense of liberation during a time in which the city has become the epicenter of the virus.
The bike really can go fast if you want it to, and as the electric throttle kicks, an instantaneous and broad smile forms; you can see the quizzical look on people’s faces as this small wheeled invention speeds past. As I pedaled, I realized that in the highest setting you really don’t have to try too hard and this would allow me to wear formal clothes and not break a sweat. The battery is built into a bag so I could carry my laptop and things without the need for a backpack. When folded, it is small and can easily be put onto a train or carried upstairs and stored in any nook of an apartment.
As New York City and other U.S. cities reopen across the country and are thinking about how to do so safely, we would be remiss to not plan for the longer term. If other city dwellers and commuters, like me, are wondering how to stay safe and healthy upon reopening, and cities and civic leaders are thinking about how to keep their communities safe, we must adjust policies and pledge investment that goes toward cycling infrastructure. According to Deloitte Insights, 130 million e-bikes are expected to be sold globally between 2020 and 2023, yet between 2006 and 2012, e-bikes represented less than one percent of all annual bicycle sales (standard and electric) in the United States.
So overlay those predictions with the current context of a global pandemic, and surely now is the time for cities to proactively think about policies, partnerships and products that promote cycling as a way of life and e-bikes as a tool for life. As Deloitte’s Technology, Media and Telecommunications Predictions 2020 state, “Electrifying a bike is not a new idea: The first patent for an electrically powered bicycle dates from 1895.” So, what’s new? “Now, thanks largely to recent improvements in lithium-ion battery (LIB) technology, pricing and power, the e-bike market is seeing a surge in interest, particularly for high-end models… in 2023 [alone], e-bike sales are expected to top 40 million units worldwide, generating about US$20 billion in revenue.”
And while the sharing economy was booming, certainly in the short- to medium-term, it will take a knock given the fear of transmission. Brompton has spent nine years on its Brompton Bike Hire scheme. Currently only available in the UK, hire bikes are accessed through solar-powered docks and members use an app to book a bike, so they know it’s there waiting for them at their preferred location. There are 50+ docks across the UK. Pre-COVID-19, the average Brompton Bike Hire in London was 4.2 days at $4.30 a day.
So, is COVID-19 the driving force that Brompton, e-bikes and cities alike have needed? Is this the finest hour for the bicycle? Whether it is ownership or bike sharing, for Butler-Adams, it’s a no brainer. “It’s so simple, it’s a bicycle and it’s that thing that’s been looked down upon, shoved to the side, that has been dismissed as not being tech,” he explained. “And yet, simplicity is often so overlooked, but it delivers such a deep sense of happiness, mentally, and you feel better. And the lovely thing about one that folds is, if you can’t be arsed, you don’t need to, but it’s amazing how often it is appropriate and it does fit in, and it works, and that’s all we are trying to do really.”
Which is why Brompton’s move to strategically bring its product into other countries (and the cities that it’s perfect for), whilst being detrimental to profits, is not only timely but a genius move. Bikesharing is evolving, technology for e-bikes has improved, the health benefits are clear and you can’t beat that sense of above-ground freedom. Taking the Brompton will remind you of how much cities have to offer, and how easy it is to find it. In this next normal, New York City needs Brompton. U.S. cities could reopen, more sustainably and safely, if they had access to bikes and more Bromptons in their community.