What Would The 'Best' Utility Bike Look Like?

Oregon Manifest, a bicycle design competition culminating this week in Portland, Oregon, is, according to co-organizer Shannon Holt:

"not only a great experiment at marrying design firms with bicycle craftspeople, it is also a conversation about the ultimate utility bike. What is clear is that there is a need for better products for everyday bicycle riders."

Holt said the bikes we'll see debuted this Friday from 31 designers/teams won't change the fact that custom bicycles are a specialized market. However, these new bikes will show off innovation you can expect to see incorporated (if history is any guide) in mainstream manufactured bikes in the not-too-far-away future. So, what have off-the-rack utility bikes been lacking?

Integrated LED Lighting photo

LED lights integrated into a prototype front rack courtesy IDEO/Rock Lobster design team.

1. Reliable Integrated (and LED) Lighting Systems.

Of course there are bikes with integrated lighting - Joe Breeze (he's a judge at Oregon Manifest this year) was one of the first in the U.S. market to put dynamo-driven lights as standard equipment on his commuter-ready Breezer bikes. Yet it is still surprising how few cyclists get a lighting system included on their bicycle with dependable, long-lasting front (white) and rear (red) lights. Here's how the Ziba/Signal design team describes their lighting system:

"We're trying to spot that point where you feel comfortable knowing that when you leave your bike locked up nobody is going to help themselves to your lights, but you also can reasonably remove them when you need to."

Integrated Cargo Bay on Bike graphic

2. Cargo and Carrying For All . Joseph Ahearne helped bust open the cargo bike category when his Cycle Truck made a name for itself at the last Oregon Manifest. The cycle truck is a cargo bike that doesn't look like one, and that idea is being refined in this year's crop of utility-oriented bikes. Expect everything from sidecars and front cargo cars to integrated front rack-and-bag combos.

"There are lots of popular designs out there that are cargo-centric, but our design is more so you can take the bike on a long ride with a few things you need to carry - not a whole family or a pile of firewood." - Chris King (Cielo)

Utility Bicycle graphic.jpg
Utility bicycle mind map of desired features by Peter McDonald from the IDEO/Rock Lobster collaborative team.

3.On-board Locking.

At the last, 2009 Oregon Manifest, winner Tony Perreira
had an integrated frame-based u-lock that triggered a spurt of innovation in bicycle lock systems. Not much has yet appeared for the mainstream market - where we're still all depending on our u-locks and our Abus chain locks to keep our babies safe. Yet due to the fact that locking is part of the criteria for a good utility bike, the 2011 crop of bikes is sure to have some new approaches to locking.

Frame With a Battery On Its Underside photo
Photo of an IDEO/Rock Lobster prototype.

4. Electric Assist - In Prettier Form Factor.

Electric bikes are a favorite ride in traffic-clogged Chinese cities and even getting popular on the flat, windy roads of the Netherlands. Why hasn't that success lead to a boom of e-bikes in America? Form factor might be the answer - most e-bikes are heavy, clunky, and while fun to ride, fairly awful to look at with their bulky battery packs. Yet the ability to have electric assist can make a good utility bike a great utility bike. Thus electricity will make an appearance in this year's entries, hopefully all dressed up and read to ride.

For the schedule of Oregon Manifest events (winners announced Saturday, September 24), click here.

More on bicycle innovation:
5 Cool Cargo Bikes and the Return of the Long John
Five Fab Kid and Cargo Combinations
Maker Faire Cool Solar And Electric Bicycles

What Would The 'Best' Utility Bike Look Like?
"not only a great experiment at marrying design firms with bicycle craftspeople, it is also a conversation about the

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