08 December 2014

Sustainable design - changing gear

Recently, I wrote about the wristwatch being a source of sustainable design inspiration. In this blog, you'll see some further inspiration from a very different product - the bicycle.  Are there sustainable features of bikes which can be borne in mind when designing other products?

Felt Z85
Felt Z85

Low-carbon, healthy transport

First, the obvious one - a bicycle is a form of transport which emits no carbon when it's used.  And of course it provides the rider with a form of exercise, so it's inherently a thumbs-up!  And if you think they can only carry one person, check out London Green Cycles who offer a range of styles to accommodate all sorts of loads.

Christiania Classic Light, from London Green Cycles


In most cases, bicycles are built to last.  'Planned obsolescence', where products are designed to fail after a certain time (to increase sales) and first seen in light bulbs, does not apply to this sector.  A bicycle's inherently modular design (i.e. comprised of many separate parts) means where aspects do break, it's not the end for the whole bicycle.  A similar concept is being considered in smart phones, with Phonebloks (and now Project Ara, by Google).

Repairs and servicing

If a bicycle does have a problem, the chances are it can be repaired, either by the individual, or in a cycle repair shop.  This might be anything from a new tyre, to a brake cable, wheel, or chain.  Many shops offer servicing, where bicycles are brought back to as close to their original condition as possible.

Shimano 105 brake caliper

Shimano 105 cassette sprocket

Secondary Markets

Bicycles rarely find their way to landfill, and there is an active second-hand market.  On eBay, when this blog was written, there were nearly 90,000 bicycles listed in the UK. Various local charities will happily take unwanted bikes, refurbish them and sell-on.

Emotional connection

People have an emotional connection with their bike. Much like a watch, a special relationship with bicycles may have started as a child, as it might have been a 'grown-up present' which was cherished far more than some toys.  And of course, at any age, a bike can bring adventure and exploration.

Social cycling

Although cycling is a solo effort (unless on a tandem), people are rarely cycling alone. Here's an extract from the 'Greater London Authority':

In the morning peak (7-10am), up to 64 per cent of vehicles on some main roads are now bicycles. Cycles make up almost half of all northbound traffic crossing Waterloo, Blackfriars and London Bridges, and 62 per cent of all northbound traffic crossing Southwark bridge in the morning peak are cyclists. They are the largest single type of vehicle on each of these bridges, outnumbering cars in each case."

In fact, cycling in London is gaining such momentum, that Transport for London (TfL) have recently been consulting on further segregation between cars and cycles, as part of a East-West Cycle Superhigway:

Visualisation of proposed segregated two-way cycle track on Victoria Embankment (TfL)
And for those who use cycling to improve their fitness, there are lots of platforms to support them, like Strava, which adds an element of competition to their pursuit.

Strava - a social platform for fitness

In the UK, there are over 1800 cycling clubs affiliated to British Cycling.  There are also many mass-participatory events organised throughout the year, like Sky-ride, and the Prudential Ride London.

Sky Ride logo

And we're starting to see a mini proliferation of 'cycling cafés' which not only offer a coffee and slice of cake, but also repair service for bikes.

Cycle Hire

In many cities now, there are options to hire cycles:

Cycle Hire in Guatemala

'Hubway' cycle hire in Boston, US

Foldable Brompton bikes for hire with South West Trains, UK
'Boris Bikes', London, UK

Cycle hire is great for sustainability - the positive benefits of healthy and low-carbon transport can be shared amongst many people, without each person needing to own their own bike.  This is a great example of 'collaborative consumption' or 'sharing economy', which is gaining real momentum across various sectors (e.g. Uber for taxis, AirBnB for homestays, etc.).

UPDATE: Spinlister is a peer-to-peer platform allowing users to share their underused bikes with others.
Bike Libraries

I've recently come across a great concept supported by Yorkshire Bank - help for people to setup bike libraries in one of England's counties, Yorkshire.  

The Bike Libraries originated when Yorkshire hosted the opening stage of the Tour de France in 2013, the Grand Départ.  In association with Cycle Yorkshire, its legacy aim is to give the local community access to a bike.  An enterprise fund (no longer available) supported not-for-profit entities to set themselves up and now 10 libraries support bike provision, alongside associated participatory activities like road safety and bike maintenance courses.

Cycle Racing

Cycling provides a source of inspiration, with professional teams, drawing large live crowds, and TV audiences:

Team GB Cycling during London 2012
A cyclist completing the Tour of Britain Stage 7, Guildford, UK, in 2013


There's nothing above that's a huge surprise about bicycles and cycling, but it's only when you consider all of these aspects, is it clear that it could be a source of inspiration in sustainability design.  So, when thinking about design of other products and services, consider:
  • Can the physical design of a product be easily repaired and serviced?
  • Is the physical product inherently durable?
  • Can the product be made available to others, either through some form of sharing, and/or via a secondary market when the user has finished using it?
  • Can the product be designed in such a way that it can substitute the purpose of another product which uses energy?
  • Can the product or service provide an emotional connection and/or an experience?

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