Back to school: What's the best kind of bike for riding in the city?

Bunch of bikes
CC BY 2.0 A bunch of our family's bikes/ Lloyd Alter

Every kind has its advantages and disadvantages, and every rider's needs are different too.

It's that time of year when people are buying stuff for going back to school and, for many, a bike is on the list. But there are so many kinds of bikes; what's the best, particularly if one is riding in the city? In our family, we have had just about every kind of bike, so this review is going to show a fair bit of personal bias; your needs might be different.

Road bike

Norco Road BikeNorco Road Bike/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

This is where it all started for many people, with bikes modelled after racing bikes. I rode this Norco for close to 25 years after buying it for fifty bucks at a police auction and it rarely let me down.

PRO: Light and fast. The riding position keeps the low profile against the wind, so there is less resistance. You get the most out of your riding effort.

CON: Not very good for carrying stuff; you really feel the weight if you put stuff in the carrier. The riding position can get painful, and the pressure on the narrow seats can cause, um, problems. The riding position can limit visibility. The narrow tires can get stuck in all kinds of things, from sewers to streetcar tracks. Clipping into pedals can be dangerous in the city; I once had a pedestrian walk right in front of me, I slammed on the brakes and fell over on my side, unable to unclip in time. Terrible in winter on snow and ice. Lots of flat tires.

Also, as I moved from travelling in the road with cars to being in bike lanes, I discovered that you really don't want to go so fast. it is more important to go with the flow. I became less and less comfortable riding the road bike in the city.

Mountain Bike

Trek Mountain Bike© Trek Mountain Bike

I cannot find a photo of my Iron Mountain bike that I sold a few years ago, so I substitute this Trek full suspension mountain bike.

PRO: In today's urban jungle of potholes and debris, a mountain bike absorbs a lot of the teeth-rattling shocks. They are good in snow, and the wider tires are less likely to get you stuck in streetcar tracks. The upright riding position is more comfortable. More versatile if you want to have some fun and go off-road. Gear ratios designed for climbing make them great in cities like Seattle with lots of hills.

CON: Wider, softer tires have significantly greater rolling resistance and the bike is a lot heavier. If you are just riding in town, skip the rear suspension; it adds a lot of weight. I found that the extra effort did me in; Toronto, where I live, is built on a tilt and the ride home after being downtown was just hard slow work.

Dutch Style Bike

Dutch BikeEmma's Dutch Bike/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

These are sometimes called City Bikes or Urban Bikes, but I think that is confusing. They are modeled after the bikes used by many in the Netherlands.

PRO: Very solid and sensible, with a comfortable, upright riding position and lots of carrying capacity. I am resistant to their charms, so I asked my daughter, whose bike this is, why she likes it:

I love that I can wear a dress or heels in it if I need to. I love that it doesn’t go super fast so I never end up pushing myself too hard and ending up sweaty. It’s cute and has a basket so I can put my purse in it or buy groceries. I can go anywhere on it at a reasonable pace.

UPDATE: A reader notes that my daughter's Electra is not really a Dutch bike, which would have fenders, a rear carrier, skirt guard and lights. "Very few Dutch people would buy the bike shown in this article." He points out that real Dutch bikes from Azor, Batavus or Royal Dutch Gazelle have these as standard features.

CON: Weight.

Folding Bike

Folding StridaStrida folding bike/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

This is my second Strida folding bike, a newer three-speed model. I also have an older one-speed version.

PRO: The biggest pro of a folding bike is that it folds. Bike theft is such a big deal these days, and with a folding bike you can just take it with you; I used to check it in cloak rooms and bring it into my classroom. The smaller diameter wheels give it tremendous agility and control in tight urban environments. Mark Sanders' Strida design takes some getting used to but is great fun and quite affordable; Bromptons are fabulous and have a more conventional ride feel. You can go Multi-Modal and easily carry it on transit, switching to bike for the last mile.

CON: Like with the mountain bike, it was the increased effort needed with the smaller wheels for that long shallow slog up from downtown. But if you live in a flat city this could be a great solution, about the only way to really solve the bike theft issue.

Hybrid Bike

Hybrid bikeMy current hybrid bike/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

This is my current ride, a Trek hybrid bike. They are a little bit of road bike (light frame) and mountain bike (good gears, upright position).

PRO: A comfortable, almost vertical riding position. Plenty of gears, comfortable shifting. Lots of room to accessorize with carriers, lights, mirrors and fenders. It goes anywhere and does everything kind of well. When the tires are properly inflated to 80 pounds it seems to almost roll uphill.

CON: Sitting position is not quite certain what it wants to be. It is not as comfortable as a Dutch bike where you are totally upright, but I am still loving it.

Urban Bike or City Bike or "Just a Bike"

Chris and Melissa BruntlettChris and Melissa Bruntlett on just bikes/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0
That's Chris and Melissa Bruntlett of Modacity, and authors of the brand new book Building the Cycling City. In their book they promote "a far more accessible, casual, and inclusive style of urban cycling—walking with wheels." The bikes they ride in Vancouver reflect this attitude: they are simple, comfortable, affordable, just "get on your bike and ride" bikes. They know more about bikes than I ever will, so are probably better role models. It's not this or that, it is just a bike that you can ride around comfortably and easily, as they say, like walking with wheels.

CON: What, I don't get to spend a lot of money on a fancy bike? What's the fun in that?

Shared Bike

CitibikesCitibikes in New York/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Given the problem with bike theft and storage, another option that many might consider is not owning a bike at all. If you live in a city with a bike share system it is worth considering.

PRO: A good solid bike that you don't have to worry about, it is their responsibility to maintain and you don't need to worry about theft.

CON: There might be lots of bike share stations around your school, but they might not be as close where you live. They are heavy and slowish. There is no guarantee that you will always find a bike, or a place to return it. You are usually limited to a half hour commute.

Yes, there's more...

There are a few other options; we haven't included electric bikes, utility bikes or cargo bikes because they are a whole world of choices on their own. I am curious: What do our readers ride?


Back to school: What's the best kind of bike for riding in the city?
Every kind has its advantages and disadvantages, and every rider's needs are different too.

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