Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Columbia College Chicago’s Urban Bike Project

Repair kit design by Team Cognition

By John Greenfield

For the past three years Carl Boyd has taught an innovative class at Columbia College Chicago in which industrial design students brainstorm products to promote bicycling and help launch bike-powered businesses.

They have partnered with organizations and businesses like Active Transportation Alliance, West Town Bikes, Time Out Chicago, Metropolis Coffee, De Fietsfabriek and Po Campo and have come up with fresh designs for items like bike trailers, panniers, clothing and accessories.

Last January I caught up with Cal at New Wave Café to talk about the history of the program, the projects that particularly excited him, and his plans for this year’s class. You can view the projects online at All images here are taken from the website.

Carl, tell me how you got the idea to do the Urban Bike Project class.

Kevin Henry, who was the sole director of the program at Columbia at the time, had spent some time really researching bike culture. He went and interviewed and videotaped [Working Bikes founder] Lee Ravenscroft, [West Town Bikes director] Alex Wilson, and a couple people who were part of Critical Mass. They were interested in being involved with a class like this.

This is a class that is offered every year for product design students at Columbia. It’s their last big studio project where they work in teams. In 2006 they worked with a fitness equipment company designing stationary bikes and did some excellent work with that. But they really wanted to get into bike culture and designing for low-income people, designing for people who have to ride a bike, rather than people who can afford to drive a car.

Spats by Team Omni

So in 2007 I agreed to teach a class with Kent Solberg and we decided to design it around the theme of bicycles. There’s a very well-entrenched bicycle culture in Chicago, primarily the advocacy groups like West Town, and the messengers, and the really diehard cyclists. I knew a few of the people. I’d heard of [CDOT Bike Program Coordinator] and I contacted him, and I knew Alex Wilson from Critical Mass and I knew I wanted to tie in West Town Bikes to the project.

Ben Gomberg really wanted us to do something to promote the Bike 2015 Plan which the bike federation had just helped them write. So they invited us to the Mayor’s Bike Advisory Council meetings. We went to MBAC meetings and eventually presented at one. We had students read the 2015 Plan and do research about bicycling culture.

Kent used to be the design director at SRAM, so he knew a lot about bike technology. The first year we just let the students find there way to a problem that they wanted to solve. It started with them meeting with Lee Ravenscroft and Working Bikes. I saw the videos they did with him and I found it really inspiring.

One team was very interested in the idea of bike sharing. Bike sharing has its advantages but it’s got its problems. There’s been a huge problem with vandalism and theft of bikes from the Velib system in Paris, where upwards of 80 percent of the bikes have been stolen or vandalized to unusability. And that’s out of 20,000 bikes. And ironically that’s because of culture differences between the suburbs and the city.

Anyway, there’s multiple bike sharing systems in existence and this one team came up with a bike sharing system for Columbia and pitched it to the university but they didn’t nibble because they don’t have enough real estate to dedicate to indoor parking.

In conjunction with that one group designed a new kind of lock that would be attached to the bike. And they came up with a commuter kit, which I thought was great. When you buy a bike you can just say you want to upgrade to the commuter kit, which would include fenders, rack, blinky lights and skewers to reduce the theft-ability of your wheels.

Commuter kit concept

The next team I had taken on a tour of the Millennium Park Bike Station and they really wanted to go back and interview the police, because they had the police station in there. The police said, “You should really talk to the guys who ride bikes as paramedics.”

We talked to the paramedics and they had been using the plain old police bags that just sit on top of the back rack. And they’re trying to carry oxygen, defibulators, all these drugs and bandages and equipment and it wasn’t working with the bags. So this team designed a bag with a fold-out work surface, with separate areas for the drugs, the oxygen, the defibulators, and their personal items. They even color coded the areas so that when you pull out this bag it’s the blue bag, the green bag, the red bag for different equipment.

The next year I taught the class by myself. I had had a conversation with Jim Gregory who runs Bikes at Work and he’s the inventor of the Fresh Air Trailer and he wrote this book about how to make a living through cycling.

I was really excited about how to start more bike businesses in the city. You’d see the messengers, you’d occasionally see one or two promotion bikes, a handful of pedicabs, mostly down in the Loop. But I know in other cities in America, certainly in other parts of the world, bikes carry a lot more of the workload. And I wanted to see what we could do to make this work in Chicago. So this was our mission: to use design to empower businesses to conduct daily operations via bike.

In Brooklyn there’s a delivery service that uses a Long John [Dutch-style front-loaded cargo bike] and front-loaded trikes. And this is the Puppet Bike [Boyd shows a picture of the bike that doubles as a theater for guerrilla puppet shows on Chicago street corners]. That’s a working bike – people borrow the bike from the owner and they spend the day with it making money for tips. One guy got it for three days in a row because he wanted money for his wedding. He made enough money to pay for their honeymoon as well.

I went out and found four clients, because the previous year the students spent way too much time in ideation mode so I wanted to hand them a real design problem. When you work as a product designer, a client is going to come to you and say, “We need this, this, this and this, it’s got to fit in this size box, it’s got to sell at this price point, it’s gotta be made here.” I went and found real Chicago clients and we sorted out what we were going to make for them.

So for Christy Webber Landscaping, they have these huge rigs that they take everywhere and it’s typically a four-man crew and they’re doing 15 to 20 sites a day with that one crew. But there’s a lot of neighborhoods where this is a problem. When they pull the truck down a narrow, residential street in Lincoln Park , that street is unusable for the duration of that job.

And they had explored the idea of how they could send out lighter crews in lighter vehicles. And I had heard about people doing lawn work with bike trailers. So I wanted the team to take inspiration for this from Gregory’s Fresh Air trailers. He was able to link up three trailers in a row and carry half a ton of cargo.

Of course I’m not sure how he managed to stop. Because T.C. O’Rourke [who formerly managed newsstand distribution for Time Out Chicago magazine and now has his own bike-powered magazine distribution business] said once you get over 400 pounds on a trailer and the trailer doesn’t have breaks, the trailer’s just going to push you through an intersection.

The students interviewed the landscape workers, they interviewed one of the supervisors and Christy Webber, they photographed and videotaped what goes into the truck when they go to a job site, what are they doing. And they figured out that they could get away with one lawnmower, one rake, one leaf blower, and one edge trimmer. All these things are these little gas-powered machines. And then they just needed to have a tank of gas and then bags to fill up with trimmings, and this could all fit on one trailer.

The students made their own trailer based on Alex Wilson’s method of building trailers. They figured out a way of locking everything in place so that it wouldn’t be theft-able and it wouldn’t be falling off. We had all the teams make CAD [Computer Aided Design] renderings of what a mass-produced product might look like and they field-tested all of them to show that the devices would work.

Landscaping trailer prototype

Another team was working with Time Out Chicago magazine. T.C. O’Rourke took this picture of what it looks like when they loaded up their trailers to deliver the magazines on a Wednesday morning [back when Time Out had three cyclists with trailers and four cars delivering the magazine to newsstands. Currently O'Rourke does most of these deliveries by bike trailer himself, so despite having fewer delivery riders, the magazine has actually expanded the number of deliveries done by bicycle.] I think they were all actually Alex Wilson’s trailers. The typically loaded up two or three hundred pounds on their bikes and were out delivering all over downtown.

And the thing that I saw that was missing was nobody knew they were doing this. And I had seen a lot of the covered pedicabs that they use in Europe and they actually brand those. They’re wrapped up just like a car to sell advertising, which would help support the cost of hiring someone to deliver the magazines. Because look at the truck behind them – it’s got advertising all over it.

They students wanted to provide the delivery bikers with some rain coverage and provide surface area for advertising, but not get in the way of access to the cargo and not make it any wider than necessary. Because sometimes the bikers have to take the trailers into buildings. The only thing is the students put these bars in the design without telling me about it, and the bars might get in the way.

The students built these trailers and shot videos of the trailers being used to haul boxes around town in the rain.

How well did the trailers work out?

They worked great because Alex Wilson built them a special trailer and then they built all the housing on top of it. These trailers worked as well as any other bike trailers and they’re made to take several hundred pounds of weight.

Time Out never took these and tried these out because they had a lot of shifts in how they were doing their deliveries. I’m waiting for one of these projects to actually be put into effect. It’s hard because I don’t have enough of my own personal time to push these into being adapted by a business. I encourage my students to do this but they often don’t have the time.

Time Out Chicago trailer design

One team was working with Metropolis Coffee to create a sample sale cart serving hot coffee, with bags of coffee stored in the back. They built a prototype and tested it out. Metropolis liked the idea, and the students designed the cart to make sure it would fit in Metropolis’ building. But Metropolis didn’t have enough time to follow through and the team didn’t have enough energy to keep pressuring them to follow through. I want to find a way to get clients to follow through.

That year [2008] I thought that some of the projects were a little too ambitious, mostly cargo bikes, and one team did a series of bags for maids. So this year I tried to slim down the assignment to something more reasonable. I met Jon Lind from De Fietsfabriek and I wanted to bring them in. And I had heard about Po Campo, which is two women who started a company whose first product offerings were handbags made to go on bikes.

And the whole logic of it was sort of the Dutch/Danish model of fashionable women who will wear their pumps on their bikes. They won’t wear any special gear because the culture there is really about: how you want down the street, is how you ride your bike, is how go to a party, is how you go to work. It’s all the same.

Po Campo is marketing their bags as fashion accessories, which has gotten them a lot of media coverage and sold a lot of bags for them. Their bags are actually priced in the range of Gucci or Prada bags. And they’re made in Oak Park. I really like that idea – trying to manufacture locally.

We had students go out and photograph and interview people on the street, asking, “How’s your bag working? What could we do better for you? What kind of tasks do you wish you could do by your bike but you really can’t do by your bike?” The students all gravitated towards bags and said, this about getting Po Campo to expand into a new product realm. And with De Fietsfabriek, to get them to explore doing things they hadn’t done yet.

One team started looking at clothing people were wearing for dealing with weather. Team Cazann! started dealing with being visible at night. A couple teams did work with carrying things like lunch or a space pare of shoes. As for De Fietsfabriek we had two different people working on a concept for a retail bike that Jon could sell to companies that would want to use them, either as a promotional bike or as a farmers market or exhibition type of retail bike.

Team HoHo came up with a duster coat for Po Campo with really big buttons and Po campo really liked the buttons. Po Campo was a great client because they’re both designers so they understand the design process and they were really looking for new products to release. They were very communicative – they really e-mailed and talked on the phone with students a lot. The students got to take a tour of the factory where the bags are made. They got lots of input.

Duster coat by Team HoHo

Team HoHo also came up with these gloves with two layers. You get the summer layer with finger-less gloves and then pullovers for winter weather. And then their coat has sleeves that roll down and underneath there’s reflective material, because when wear normal coat and you stretch out on your bike the sleeves pull up. So this actually folds down to make it longer and give you reflective strips.

And it has the duster concept. You know, cowboys riding horses wear dusters they will strap on either side of their legs so that the duster stays wrapped around them while they’re riding. And I told them they should totally play up the idea of riding horses, riding bikes. It’s kind of the same geometry of riding.

And Team Honey & Vinegar did a really great job of doing a lot of excellent drawings of a lunch bags. They did their research and their bag was very much in Po Campo’s aesthetic with these rings and they even got to use some of the same exact hardware Po Campo used.

Tyler Avery from Team Cognition is a hardcore bike dude. He works at a bike store in Wicker Park. He came up with the idea of a repair kit. A lot of repair kits are made to go in a bag under the seat. But he had an idea for a kit would carry around like a cosmetics set. Women often have a little cosmetics bag, so this would be a second little bag that carries your emergency kit. His teammate Chris Beaudoin came up with the idea of this little wallet you could carry around with you if you like. If there’s a day when it summer and you’re going to a party and you don’t really want to carry your purse, you could attach this to your bike while you’re riding and then carry it with you so you don’t have to have a long strap.

Team Cazann! Came up with a ring and a bracelet that all had reflective materials and the ring and the bracelet actually had blinky lights built into them. And it turns out that Po Campo was most interested in making those, because the technology already exists, you can buy the LED technology very inexpensively, for pennies.

Team Honey and Vinegar did interesting things with carrying you pumps special racks on your bike while you’re riding. And a lot of people said, why not just put them in your bag? And they said, well, they could get scuffed up or they could get crushed. And they liked the idea, and Po Campo really liked the idea, of broadcasting your femininity while you’re riding the bike.

It was part of the whole theme of being unabashedly feminine and not being afraid of doing something that seems highly impractical as far as bike culture goes. Because bike culture is usually about being practical and using the most practical accessories.

Did you draw any new conclusions from this year’s class?

I learned that I need to define the problem that they’re going to solve very quickly. The sooner they do, the better their projects will be.

What’s next year going to be like?

Good question. I keep saying I want to get into helping entrepreneurs start bike businesses. There was a woman who came to me last year who said she wanted to start delivering produce by bike. She needed a special trailer or cargo bike but she wasn’t sure how to get one because she couldn’t afford one of the Dutch bikes. But in 2008 when everyone in the class was making trailers that was too ambitious because it was hard for them to do and we don’t have welding facilities at Columbia so they were going to West Town or to someone’s job to get the welding done.

This year was an excellent balance and the result was the projects looked great and they had time to do nice presentations.


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