Making Workbikes for the Neighborhood

by Greg Bryant

RAIN 14-2 - Winter/Spring 1992
(reprinted in the Permaculture Activist #37, Sept. 1997)

Each day, the average bike is pressed into service carrying groceries, boxes and bags far beyond its designer’s original intentions. At best we hang panniers, baskets, pods and trailers off of it: sometimes frustrating attachments to use and maintain.

Better bike designs for hauling loads were first available nearly a century ago, then fell into disuse with the advent of the combustion engine. But today a tiny international network of ecology-minded bicycle engineers is leading a renaissance for workbikes. The old bikes are being brilliantly redesigned with lessons of the past century in mind, including the experience of being overrun by the automobile industry.

Today’s mammoth bicycle corporations concentrate their marketing power on recreational and commuting bikes, perhaps unconsciously avoiding the transport territory of motor-driven trucks and vans. The primary exception in the US is New York’s Worksman’s Cycles (see Rain 14:1, p.44), a company making workbikes since the 19th century. The US market for human powered machines shrank as gasoline power caught on, and as a result Worksman’s has been conservative when investing in new bicycle design. They mostly build massive, heavy-duty bikes for use in industry, made to withstand the disrespectful treatment they receive on the factory floor.

Now, Jan VanderTuin of Human Powered Machines has brought more workbike models to the US from Europe, updating their design and broadening the social program for bicycle engineers. His designs are based upon classic European transport cycles, such as the “Long John” (or “Long Emma” as it’s known to the British), and the Baker’s Bike, with basket attached to the frame rather than the handlebars (see photo left). Contrary to current practice, however, good bike design isn’t just a matter of engineering: it must take the rider’s community into account.

For example, in Italy and Switzerland many bicycles are built, frame and all, at your corner bicycle shop. Every day a variation on some classic model is built to meet local or personal needs, and the bike is typically repaired and adjusted in the same shop for its lifetime. In fact, it is difficult to get any other bike repaired there. The bike shop is part of your neighborhood, and the relationship between you and your bike builder strengthens over the years. This relationship is now being hurt by mass-produced bikes, designed for the least common denominator among consumers, built by robots, or people forced to act like them, who never get to know the riders.

In Italy and Switzerland many bicycles are built, frame and all, at your local bicycle shop.

Local economies benefit from decentralizing and personalizing bike production. Custom Italian bicycle frames are famous throughout the world because each Italian neighborhood has bike designers and builders. Northern Italy’s modern economic success owes much to a tight fabric of diverse skills in quick, custom, small-scale manufacturing. Italy has become something like the product idea shop of Europe.

In Switzerland a century of molding bicycles to local needs produced a national school for bicycle design and manufacture, a bicycle unit in the Swiss Army, and a fleet of thousands of baker’s bikes for the post office. In their neighborhood bike shops the Swiss learn that this technology is adaptable, so bikes find their way into a broad range of activities. VanderTuin would like to see communities in the US develop this kind of technical understanding and appreciation of transport diversity.

Large-scale bike manufacturers have failed to understand workbike technology, perhaps because a bike’s design must relate to some specific social role, a situation which defies easy national marketing. VanderTuin designs and prototypes with community-sized intermediate scale production in mind. For small-businesses the key is to facilitate low capital start-up of local bike construction. For example, a big expense in building bicycles is the almost immobile flat steel table “jig” (the frame used for holding the bicycle tubing in one plane for welding, see top two photos). Instead of using these, VanderTuin makes jigs out of readily available rectangular steel tubes. When a given design is called for, a small manufacturer could pull out the appropriate jig from a stored collection.

If it’s hard to imagine a transition to small scale manufacturing in the US, VanderTuin points to the experience of the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) in Britain. The OxTrike project designed a load-carrying tricycle from scratch, specifically so it could be built inexpensively with tools and materials available in any developing country. For example, the brakes are constricting bands, and the brake lever is a pedal on the frame. Most significantly, ITDG taught a detailed, intelligent, shop-worn manufacturing process to the potential builders. They’ve since set up dozens of OxTrike community workshops around the world.

The situation in the US is similar: few are now involved in community-level bike production, and setting up the appropriate scale for a new type of bike here is very much like doing a third world development project. So like a development worker, in addition to making the bikes, VanderTuin teaches workbike design and manufacture to the community, in conjunction with the University of Oregon.

Sometimes you have to start a third world project to bring appropriate technology to first world neighborhoods. VanderTuin visited such a group at the Universität Oldenburg in Germany: their international development group produced and broadcast a television show detailing the construction of a bicycle trailer. They also taught community workshops in which people built trailers — now tailing bikes and mopeds throughout Germany.

Of course communities benefit by more directly supporting their own appropriate technology research. An experimental bicycle group VanderTuin knew in Frankfurt, established as a state vocational school, created unusual, useful designs such as rainproof bikes and trikes for the handicapped. A group of ex-students from this school founded a co-op whose bicycles are now well-known in Germany.

In Hamburg another group has established a neighborhood center in which they live, work and do community service. They run a bicycle workshop cooperatively with the community where, for a subsistence fee, people come to get help creating bikes for unusual needs. In the US local inventors are unable to support themselves doing appropriate technology work like this, and no one helps since the prevailing ideology pressures them to make a business success of it, alone.

Community supported organizations can incubate endless applications of appropriate technology. Workbikes are used in local delivery of mail, pizzas, groceries, laundry and other goods. They transport the elderly, children and anyone else who needs to get anywhere. Ideally service operations are owned and run by the neighborhood, allowing them to determine in open assembly if the appropriate services are being provided.

Greenpeace Europe’s EcoBike campaign highlighted what happens when a community does not control its own bike technology. Greenpeace listed torrents of wastes and toxins associated with normal bike production; they constructed an alternative bike using the cleanest methods they could find, given their limited research funds. Most current bike production is not only environmentally unsound: bicycle factories, and affiliated mining operations, wield sufficient clout to displace people in developing countries, and to overwork unionless assemblers in politically oppressive states like Taiwan. Both the technology and economics of manufacturing have to change if they are to be truly ecological.

In the impersonal world-market the creativity of bicycle makers is stifled and the needs of bicycle riders are not addressed. VanderTuin and his colleagues are giving us a set of solutions. But until deep problems are tackled more directly, by more people, the original vehicle of personal liberation, and the modern symbol of ecological awareness, will not fulfill its potential.


Above: Jan VanderTuin fetches the mail with his utility bike, whose load is on the frame rather than the handlebars. It has a waterproof container designed for the weather in Eugene, Oregon. The model is used to deliver pizzas to students at the University of Oregon.

Below: Jan delivers packages on Manhattan's tough streets using a Long John, designed for easy manipulation of heavy loads (up to 180 pounds) in tight traffic. (NY Photo: Peter Britton). Both the narrow maneuverability of the Long John and the waterproofing of the utility bike suggest the depth of modification local workbike design could undergo with more support for alternative transport.

Below: Brad Evans rides a Long John with waterproof container on Oregon back country roads: this lightweight workbike is built like a mountain bike to handle rough terrain.

Series below: With the collapse of machine tool industries in the US during the 1980's, special purpose machines such as the horizontal mill below, shown cutting a curved miter joint, became less readily available (except from factory closing auctions). These kinds of machines are essential for quick prototyping of bikes to fulfill evolving community needs. The disappearance of such hardware burdens local small-scale workbike builders, but their primary burden is the general high cost of bicycle-building tools. Custom-made bikes are usually made for the reasonably well-funded, and so the tools are priced for recreation cycling, not for more practical vehicles. One solution is to create new tooling arrangements. VanderTuin has spent years researching inexpensive tube bending, cutting and welding.

Below: Dick Ryan of Ryan Recumbents demonstrates how a standard industry jig (a design frame that holds tubes in place for welding) is used. A jig's plate is cut with expensive equipment out of solid steel, putting it almost out of range of producers for a small local market.

Below: Instead, VanderTuin builds his own jigs by cutting rectangular steel tubes and welding them together. He then places it on any flat surface, such as this door, to do a preliminary, or tack, weld. Not only are these light, cheap, and just as good as the solid plates: they allow one bench to produce any model with a simple change of jig.

Below: In either case, bicycles are then made true with various inexpensive straightening devices, such as this one used for forks.