The Next Great Technology Platform: The Bicycle

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Bicycles have already become an essential part of our culture, but now they're shaping our urban and social spaces too.

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Reuters

New York City isn't known as a biker's paradise, with its overcrowded subways, pedestrian-packed sidewalks, yellow taxis snarled in traffic, and noisy buses. Yet even New York City is heading in the direction of places like Portland, Paris, and Copenhagen, which have embraced and promoted bike culture and bike sharing in the urban environment. Over the past four years, the Bloomberg administration has rolled out more than 250 miles of bike lanes. And this summer NYC will introduce its own bike-share program with 10,000 bikes and 600 docking stations around the city.

While New Yorkers pride themselves on always being first, the city is just catching up when it comes to bikes. In fact, the bicycle is the most commonly used mode of transportation around the world. Think of a bike as a tool, a toy, a connector and a mode of expression with a low barrier to entry. It's probably the most hackable (and hacked) simple machine on the planet. Bikes not only get us from place to place, they are the focus of a number of conversations about how we organize communities and define and share social boundaries, and how we can harness human power to recycle energy back to the grid. Most importantly though, bicycles are an intrinsic part of how we imagine and design the city of the future. They will play a significant role in shaping identity and communities and influencing social dynamics in urban areas, because they are the next great technology platform.

Mode of Self-Expression

Most people remember their first bike. Mine was a BMX, which immediately gave me a shared identity with the coolest guys I knew. It also made me more adventurous. I felt I could go anywhere and do anything because my BMX gave me freedom not only to roam, but also for self-expression. I customized my bike to look like my favorite BMXer bikes. But it wasn't just about the look; the changing features and functionality I made were my first steps toward creativity and experimentation. I tweaked the bolts on the front axel so they accommodated foot pegs I had fashioned to do certain tricks. I designed and built my own ramps to help me jump higher. Bikes were already inspiring me to add things to my environment. I was becoming a designer.

Here in New York we're seeing that search for self-expression on a much larger scale in the form of subcultures like the Black Label Bicycle Club, a so-called "outlaw bike club" whose members custom-make "mutant" cycles known as tall bikes (two conventional bike frames soldered one atop the other). This community of bikers go dumpster diving for spare parts. They also find vegetables to share at vegan meals, an activity directly tied to ideas about reusing resources wasted by others.

Black Label and similar groups can also be seen as a form of anarchic and anti-consumerist expression, as symbols of freedom. Bicycle culture is their inspiration to live off the grid. My brother has traveled to New York from Nashville several times to participate in Black Label's annual "Bike Kill" tall bike jousting event. He often travels here via a tight network of tall bikers that can be likened to an underground railroad, a community that connects cities.

Community

Go to a bike shop in your neighborhood and you're likely to find a social space where you can not only buy a new saddle, but also get in touch with like-minded members of the biking community. People swap ride stories and repair tips. Bike shops are community hubs, where groups and new friendships are forged and social activism takes root.

You see this in the emerging movement to open nonprofit bicycle shops in large urban areas to engage troubled youth and redefine the behaviors of communities. One organization called Red, Bike and Green, a community-building collective of black urban cyclists founded in 2007 in Oakland, California, wants to create a "sustainable Black bike culture" that will improve the physical and mental health of African-Americans and improve their neighborhoods. RGB is a direct response to a number of health and environmental problems that are the result of misguided city policies.

Bicycles help create cohesion in communities and aid social services, especially in developing countries. In many African countries -- Zambia, for example, where frog has worked on projects -- bicycles are converted (or hacked) into makeshift ambulances that help voluntary health workers transport women in labor to far away birthing centers. Bicycles are also used to stay in touch with mothers after the birth to ensure adherence to HIV testing programs for the infant, as well to deliver critical services.

Shared Social Space

These community hubs and organizations reflect how bikes help create new shared social spaces. That's because the bike is an inherently social machine. It has no walls; it's human powered and we can all (some more than others) try our hand at hacking and repairing them. In turn, bike-share programs like Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C., raise questions about ownership and social spaces. As a mode of transportation in crowded cities, bikes take space from cars, which can be seen as a form of environmental protest. Critical Mass, a cycling event held monthly in over 300 cities around the world, is a good example of biking as a mass movement that many regard as a form of political protest. Not surprisingly, a backlash is brewing against pro-bike policies: In New York, opponents of bike lanes accuse the city of favoring bikers over car drivers.

Technology Platform

Bikes help you get around cities and can also tell you about your city and your interaction with it. The Copenhagen Wheel project, in that Danish city, transforms ordinary bikes into hybrid e-bikes (an electric bike that harvests the energy you input while braking and cycling and stores it for when you need a boost). They are also mobile sensing units that can map pollution levels, traffic congestion and road conditions -- all in real time and of course controlled from your smartphone. In this way the bike becomes a sensing platform that captures data about people, behavior, neighborhoods, and health.

Bikes have already changed our relationships to each other and the urban environment, but consider the potential for so much more.

Imagine a future where cities go beyond bike lanes and build the urban environment around bikes. What would a bike highway look like? What would city life be like without cars? Imagine a healthier city -- no more kids in the Bronx with asthma -- and reduced automobile fatalities.

The biggest opportunity here is that given what we know about how bikes change our social dynamics, how would this play out on a mass scale? Amplify that with sensing and tracking technologies on board the human battery-powered bike platform and the possibilities are endless. Handgrips that monitor your pulse and heart rate multiplied by millions will help us better understand the people who live in entire neighborhoods, and the pace of life from a global perspective. Such data will inspire exciting design solutions.

In many of the most crowded, densely packed cities around the world a bicycle is the most convenient (if not always the safest) way to move around. Now even cities with more well developed transportation infrastructure are catching up and adding bicycles to the mix. That's because bicycles are an essential part of our culture and our lives. They stir memories and self-expression. They encourage social interaction in urban environments that can be lonely and isolating. They are a mechanism for political and social organizing and activism. And with new technologies, bikes are a way to gather information about how we live and relate to one another in the shared space that is the city.

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Jason Severs is a creative director at frog.

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