This spring, bike sharing came to South by Southwest for the first time in the festival's history—something of a late arrival, given the crowd that assembles in Austin every year. When I stopped by to check it out, I was surprised to find not the usual cruisers-for-rent but instead a collection of foldable bikes.
Folding bikes are the black sheep of the bike community, neither respected by hard-core cyclists nor frequently used by the average citizen. But a new global company called Tern Bikes is out to change that perception—and, in the process, change transit.
“We just said, look, a folding bike doesn’t have to look and ride like a contraption,” says Steve Boyd, the company’s general manager in North America. Tern Bikes launched publicly last year after several employees of Dahon bicycles, including the founder’s son, departed to form a new company to create high-quality folding bikes.
The most reliable market for folding bikes is people with “acute needs”—they’ve got an RV or a boat and want to keep a bike on it, they live in small walk-up apartments or face other space constraints. These people will find Tern bikes on their own. Boyd and his colleagues, though, want to expand the market.
“We’re broadening it by calling it urban transportation,” Boyd says. “More and more people are moving into these re-urbanization movements in places like downtown L.A. where no one lived five years ago.”
Tern’s pitch is the first-mile, last-mile argument: Bikes can effectively extend the useful range of public transit by providing an easy way to get to and from stops. Folding bikes are even more effective in this role because of their compact size; they also encourage bike commuting in the event of inclement weather, since they can be easily carried not just on public transit, but in any car.
Sixty four percent of trips in the U.S. are two miles or less, Boyd says, and if people would bike just ten or twenty percent, it would have an incredibly beneficial effect.
“A bike, in general, can fix everything,” Boyd says. “The world’s problems, much of them revolve around congestion, pollution and obesity, and the bicycle is the perfect solution to all those problems, and our [folding] bikes are the most useful of all bicycles.”
The company didn't want to compromise on aesthetics or ride. Tern’s bikes have won several design awards; its engineers designed special forged hinges for the bike’s two folding joints that keep the frame stable while riding but open smoothly when you fold it. Pedaling around Austin, the bike rides just like a Giant or a Trek; Boyd says you couldn’t tell the difference between his bikes and a regular bike if you were riding blindfolded—not that he recommends it.
Boyd says Tern is on pace to sell 100,000 bikes each year, ranging from its best seller, the utilitarian Link D8, at $600, to “the Ultimate” Eclipse S11i at $2,300. Most are sold in Germany and the Netherlands, where public transit and bike enthusiasm create a perfect synergy for Tern. Each year, Boyd says, Germans purchase as many specialty bikes as Americans.
While the bikes are made in Taiwan, the company’s 80 employees are scattered around the globe. In Austin, Smith talks happily about the city’s robust cycling culture and community, Boyd, the vice president of the board of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, says that it will take a while for Los Angeles and other American cities to catch up to Austin and Portland, much less Amsterdam or Berlin.
The big challenge is the distance of commute; in Los Angeles, Boyd says, the average commute is nearly 42 miles, far above the national average of 12. The answer is a more expansive transportation system, and “any infrastructure takes time.” Still, Boyd points to commitments from L.A.’s city government and others across the country as evidence that both transit and cycling infrastructure are beginning to advance hand-in-hand.
“People are riding their bikes a whole heck of a lot more for everyday transportation,” Boyd says. It's a chance to sell some bikes—and to solve some problems.
Get out of your car and ride your bike in the 2 Mile Challenge. CLIF Bar will donate $1 for every trip you log to bike nonprofits, up to $100,000.
Photo courtesy Tern Bikes.