Confession: I have long coveted a Bike Friday. What cyclist wouldn’t? A folding bike that fits in a suitcase — and the suitcase becomes a bike trailer! Pedal to the airport or train station, take your luggage out of your trailer, fold your bike into the trailer, check your luggage (including your bike), and at trip’s end, reverse the process. Ingenious!
So I danced a jig when a founder of the Eugene, Ore.-based company offered to let me try the new Tikit model this summer, to use on my public speaking trips around the Northwest. The question that interested me was whether a folding bike can meet the challenges of urban business travel.
The answer is a provisional yes, but the real revelation is the Bicycle Neglect at airports.
First, to get it out of the way, my product review: The Tikit is not a performance bicycle. Compared with a well-fitted road bike, it’s, um, foldable: it’s slow, handles indifferently, and flexes in worrisome ways. But that’s the wrong comparison. The question is whether, when a regular bike is impossible, a folding one is a viable substitute, and the Tikit passes that test. It’s a sweet ride for something that collapses in seconds and fits in your Samsonite:
Oh, and another thing to get out of the way, a caveat about the whole topic of cycle-assisted business travel: Overnight work trips are unlikely candidates for cycling, for several reasons. You’re carrying a bunch of luggage — dress clothes, a laptop, maybe product samples. You probably need to look your best, so why add a grease-shedding perspiration inducer to your kit? You’re going somewhere unfamiliar, where you won’t know your way around. Besides, odds are, you’re spending your employer or your host’s money, so taxis — or a rental car — don’t seem expensive.
Call me headstrong, but these reasons are exactly why I’ve been so eager to try a Bike Friday for work. If bicycles can overcome such formidable obstacles, their ultimate potential is only that much larger. My conclusion, three months into the Bike Friday trial? Business travel with a folding bike will never be a huge phenomenon. But, for me — and probably for many people who cycle regularly — folding bikes with trailers rise to the challenge of many business trips.
For example, the locking, large-capacity, solid-case trailer can carry a surprising amount of clothing and hardware, while protecting it from road grit and theft throughout the trip. Similarly, the threat of grease stains is no larger than the threat of spilled coffee in a taxi, and the solution is the same: be careful. Besides, with a folding bike, you can still use taxis, transit, or almost any other mode. Most Cascadian transit buses — especially in the region’s large cities — are now equipped with racks for bikes. Here’s a complete list of bike-welcoming transit systems (hat tip to Victoria Transport Policy Institute). So you could bus or taxi to your meeting, with your bike folded up, then pedal to the hotel. As for appearances, I’ve learned that most Cascadians are so fascinated by the Bike Friday they don’t even notice my “helmet hair.” Navigation is no tougher than in a rental car (and parking is easier). Folding bikes with trailers aren’t cheap, but thoughtful employers ought to be willing to reimburse you for some of the travel expenses you avoid — a biking per diem.
Bike Friday has created a tool that does what it can do well. What Bike Friday cannot do is build bikeways to airports. Our communities have to do that part, and they’re sorely lacking. By far the worst trip I’ve taken on the Bike Friday was the six-mile ride from downtown Spokane to the Spokane Airport. For long stretches of it, I was consigned to the shoulder or curb lane of 50-mph highways. The closer I got to the terminal, the worse the biking got; for the final mile, I was on an access road that looked like an interstate. And I was following the county’s recommended bike route!
An aside: Luckily, I didn’t have the experience that Stephan Orsak had on a similar road in Minneapolis. Orsak, a classical violinist and folding-bike aficionado, was pedaling away from the Minneapolis airport when a police officer stopped him, ordered him off the road, then — when he questioned the order — threw him to the ground and shocked him with a taser. (Hat tip to Daily Score reader Andrew deValpine.)
Because I’m trying to stay out of the air, I can’t speak from personal experience about folds-mobiling my way to other Cascadian airports. But the research I’ve done isn’t encouraging. If you look up ground transportation on the official websites of the Portland or Seattle airports, you’ll find no mention whatsoever of biking. The City of Seattle has mapped a bike route to the terminal, though it’s really the least-bad route, not a good one.
The situation at the Portland International Airport is slightly better: there’s an official bicycle infrastructure plan, some of which is built.
The Vancouver, B.C., airport offers several marked, if rudimentary, bikeways. Its website lists cycling as a way to get there, along with the usual modes, and it offers a web page on how to get there by bike. (This private citizen’s guidance, however, seems more helpful.)
The underlying problem, at least at U.S. airports, may be the policies of the Federal Aviation Administration. The Portland Airport summarizes those policies in its bicycle plan (on page 8): “The FAA generally does not encourage the expenditure of aviation funds for bicycle and pedestrian improvements at airports. Such improvements are not eligible for federal airport improvement grants nor are they usually eligible for the expenditure of airport-generated Passenger Facility Charges.” PDX has paid for its starter bike path with parking charges.
Bike access to bus and train stations is better. These terminals are mostly in downtowns, so folding bikers can get there easily. In fact, to Amtrak’s credit, the Cascades line that runs from Eugene to Vancouver, B.C., welcomes bikes in the baggage car. But rail and bus travel are bit players in Cascadian business travel; flying accounts for far more business trips. So airports constitute the weakest link in the folds-mobile infrastructure; extending bikeways to airports is also the biggest opportunity for unleashing business travel on two wheels.
A final aside: Arriving by folding bike is a sure-fire way to stand out in a crowd. Bike Fridays may be even better conversation starters than vehicles. Everywhere I go with mine, people stop me to talk. One midnight in June, three Hispanic teens at the Spokane train station hung around the full 15 minutes it took me to unpack and assemble the rig, just so they could see what I was putting together. The Tikit is particularly fascinating to fellow cyclists. After I got off the train in Portland one summer day, I discovered the loss of the one wrench I need for reassembly. Fortunately, a cyclist who stopped to admire the rig volunteered a wrench from his nearby office, and, after he’d retrieved it, stayed for a test ride. If you’re anxious about a meeting or presentation, arriving by folding bike is a great way to break the ice.
Even close to home, even in countries that treat it with respect, bicycling isn’t for everyone. Traveling with a folding bike is likely to remain a small niche in Cascadia. Still, I’ve learned it’s possible, indeed exhilarating to get off a train and pedal through town, towing your suit bag and laptop to meetings, while you take in the sights and sounds. It turns a business trip into an adventure, the kind of outing from which you return with pictures to show your friends.
Like, for example, these two shots of the Tikit, one by Spokane Falls and one by the Willamette River. You wouldn’t have moments like these in a taxi.