Utility style bicycles vs recreational style bikes in urban environments

Why urban-appropriate styles of bicycles and their associated technologies are a prerequisite to enabling the uptake of utility style cycling by a  broader demographic than that to which it is currently limited in New Zealand.

 Reproduced from https://sites.google.com/site/urbanbicycles/technologies/utility-style-bicycles/urbanappropriate with kind permission.

Imagine how few people would feel inclined to drive cars in New Zealand if we were limited to driving  Formula 1 racing cars, go-carts, rally cars and stock cars.

Maybe as few as currently ride bicycles here… with bicycles designed for recreational use being presented as virtually the only option for use on flat city roads while would-be cyclists are deprived of the  more appropriate ‘alternatives’ that have made cycling practical , comfortable, convenient and reliable for the vast masses of cyclists in the countries where cycling is  prevalent.

There is a disappointingly restrictive lack of variety in the choice of appropriate cycling technologies being offered by all but a small handful of cycle retailers in New Zealand. Consequently mountain bikes prevail in our cities  which are for the most part dead flat.


Carrying capacity

Imagine not being able to carry anything with you in your car – like  mountain bikes and road racers which are rarely set up to carry anything. Having your bicycle fitted with baskets and other carrying devices will enable you to use it for things you now use your car for. You can even get a trailer for your bike.

The utility style bicycles which are the choice of the vast majority of cyclists in Europe and Japan are frequently fitted with baskets and other carrying devices (to carry kids, tools, shopping etc). Check out this little video on shopping by bicycle from Assen in the Netherlands.


Seeing and being seen

Imagine having to attach battery powered lights to your car whenever you wanted to drive at night, -and then having the batteries run out out in the middle of your journey! The bikes currently being sold in  New Zealand are [mostly – Ed.] not fitted with internal hub dynamos to power bright halogen or LED lights and cyclists here have to endure battery powered lights which are often designed more to be seen than to actually see with.

Having permanently fixed internal hub-dynamo-powered halogen or LED lights with a capacitor to keep them going at intersections helps to make cycling much more convenient ( no worries about  forgetting or fitting lights), reliable ( no flat batteries)  practicable (see in the dark) , and safe (be seen).

By de:User:Ralf Roletschek Fahrradmonteur.de (Own work) [GFDL 1.2], via Wikimedia Commons

Internal hub-dynamo technologies have been perfected over the years to provide reliable, silent battery-free electricity without causing drag and they are a key feature in making cycling at night much more convenient , reliable , safe and practicable.

Reelights from Denmark generate their own electricity from magnets placed in the spokes. [Check Trade Me, they do sometimes come up]. The old tyre-burner style dynamos that cyclists used to use in New Zealand have been long been superceded by more efficient technologies.


Manual or Automatic Gearing?

Internal hub gearing systems

Internal 3, 4, 7 or 8 speed gearing systems manufactured by companies such as Sturmey-Archer and  Shimano are the prevalent choice of cyclists in Europe and Japan as opposed to the dérailleur systems which are the only choice being offered by 99.9% of cycle retailers in New Zealand.

[Note: Internal hub gears have a greater range than the numbers suggest. A 7-speed is equivalent to a 12-speed derailleur, and an 8-speed is equivalent to a 21-speed. There is also a 14-gear hub available, the Rohloff Speedhub, which is equivalent to a 27-speed derailleur – Ed.]

Low maintenance internal hub gearing systems are more appropriate for riding in urban environments especially because gears can be changed very quickly to respond to the stop/go situations that cyclists often find themselves in on city streets.

Gears can also be changed while stationary whereas the dérailleur system used on mountain bikes necessitates that riders change gear while moving before entering a situation,-which can be a bit tricky when riding in the midst of motor vehicles. Losing your chain when trying to get out of the way of a car could be fatal.


Staying clean and dry

Imagine being sprayed with water and mud because your car didn’t have mudguards… Well,  mountain bikes and road racers don’t come fitted with mudguards either.

By Frank C. Müller (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Having mudguards, chain-guards and skirt/coat-guards make cycling much more practicable  as you won’t have to worry about getting wet, dirty or having the leg of your trousers or your frock [or your rain coat/trench coat/whatever] caught up and ripped by the chain or the back wheel.

By Spitebrown (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The bikes used by the vast majority of cyclists wherever cycling is prevalent are fitted with mudguards, chain-guards and in many places with skirt/coat-guards.

By http://www.flickr.com/photos/ubrayj02/ [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Warning devices

Imagine not having a horn in your car! But we hardly ever see bicycle bells on bicycles in New Zealand, and it seems that  pedestrians are so unfamiliar with the sound of a bicycle bell that they don’t know how they should react when they hear one. I’ve even heard that bicycle importers remove the bells from bicycles when they arrive in New Zealand… go figure!

Having a bell ( or other warning device) fitted to your bicycle is an absolute essential  for sharing space with pedestrians. Bicycles in countries where cycling are prevalent are usually fitted with at least a bell – and they are used frequently.

Bring back the bicycle bell!



Imagine having to get a chain out to lock your car up every time you got out of it. Cyclists in New Zealand have to endure many inconveniences with relation to securing their bikes,-even when stopping for a short time to pop into a shop etc…

In Europe and Japan  bicycle wheels can be locked with either a snap lock that closes around the wheel or one that is attached to the frame and pokes in through the spokes to stop the wheel from turning. Of course these don’t prevent the bike from getting carried away by your more determined bicycle theif but they’re a lot less inconvenient for short stops than having to use wire locks.

Another recent innovation: cell-phone-activated frame locks.


Bicycle Stands

The bicycle stands that are attached to bicycles in New Zealand are often of the type that leave the bike teetering precariously. In Europe and Japan many bikes are fitted with centrally balanced kick-back stands that ensure that the bike stays standing.

If you’d prefer to be using any of these , be sure to let your local cycle retailer know.


For a list of suppliers of European style urban appropriate bicycles in New Zealand, click here.


Other obstacles impeding the uptake of cycling in New Zealand


Imagine having to wear a helmet whenever you get into a car. (Actually there are studies which show that there is more of a case for the compulsory wearing of helmets for occupants of cars than there is for cyclists). Cyclists in New Zealand are forced to wear a helmet at all times.

While 100 million cyclists in the Europe Union, 86 million in Japan and all other countries in the world where cycling is prevalent are not subject to laws forcing them to wear helmets because their governments know that the imposition of such laws results in fewer people cycling. [Israel and Mexico City have recently revoked their compulsory helmet laws on the grounds that helmet compulsion was incompatible with stated goals of increasing transport cycling].


Segregated Facilities

Imagine being compelled  by the law to drive your car on a truck racing circuit while being prohibited from driving in the quiet back streets. A terrifying prospect perhaps – but on a different scale, this is the kind of environment that the law compels cyclists to ride in on many of New Zealands busy urban roads,- while denying us the choice of using the existing network of segregated facilities ( i.e. those currently designated as ‘footpaths’).

Having access to segregated cycling facilities is a prerequisite to many people getting on their bikes. In Europe it is understood that segregated cycle lanes are a prerequisite for getting the general population cycling. (See Making Cycling Irresistable )

In Japan cyclists are free to share footpaths with pedestrians- even in areas of high density pedestrian traffic.

If you can see the sense in getting segregated cycling facilities installed in your area, be sure to make a submission to your Local, Territorial and Regional Council’s Annual, LTCCP and Sustainable Transport Plans.

It will never happen if you don’t.


Alan Preston

13 thoughts on “Utility style bicycles vs recreational style bikes in urban environments

  1. I ended up getting Velo Ideale to build me a Linus with an 8 speed hub, mud guards, a stand and a decent carrier. I feel like I’ve got just about the perfect Wellington commuting bike now.

    Totally agree that almost all local bike shops are dominated by sport and recreation bikes. Only the dedicated (like me) are going to get their utility bike needs met properly.


    1. I love ding-dong bells! They’re somehow friendly – and recognisable as a bike bell in a way that many bike bells aren’t. That one has a particularly nice tone, too.


  2. I basically disagree with the first half of this article, and thoroughly agree with the second half.

    I think the issue of the types of bikes available is a red herring. The availability of utility bikes is a chicken and egg problem: people don’t demand them, so retailers don’t stock them, so people don’t realise they can demand them. I will say that in my experience, most bike shops will have one or two utility bikes somewhere, so if you want a utility bike it is possible (but perhaps not easy) to get one. We certainly aren’t limited to only “recreational-style” bikes; why, in one of the comments on another post on this site, one of the admins mentions a very nice utility bike that Burkes have in stock right at this moment. Go past iRide on Thorndon Quay – they have utility bikes, complete with front basket, right out the front to attract attention. Literally, while I’m writing this, I’ve seen Burkes Cycles tweet that they’ve got new stock of the Giant folding bikes in.

    I agree with many of your points about ideal features for a practical bike: dynamo lights, hub gears for low maintenance reliability, mudguards as standard and so on. I’d point out that most of these can be retrofitted without many problems: I have mudguards on all my bikes, and a rack on my mountainbike. I think the position on locks is a bit naive: I’ve used bikes with the kind of through-spoke locks described here. I always carried a secondary lock, so I could lock the bike up safely. In the overseas cycling meccas of which you speak, gangs go around in vans and pick up any bike not firmly attached to an immovable object, and take them off somewhere else to cut the lock off. Having ridden a traditional Dutch-style bike, complete with full chaincase, mudguards and the like, I’d have to say that I usually find them to be much heavier than even a fairly cheap mountain bike – and going up a hill in Wellington, that’s quite a consideration.

    That said, I don’t think it’s about the bike.

    I’ve lived in various places (Tokyo, Beijing, Cambridge) that are extremely cycle-friendly. I can assure you that the bike shops in Cambridge are full of high performance bikes, with a small rack of utility bikes as well. Yup, some people are riding the sit-up-and-beg bikes; some people are riding dirt-cheap department store bikes, complete with grotesquely out of true wheels, brakes removed, and the like; some people are riding sit-up-and-beg bikes that are 30 years old and have half the bits fallen off; people ride what they have. One of the biggest growth areas on cycling recently has been the fixed-gear. Let’s be honest: fixies are basically unsuited to any environment where you might have to turn right (that is, anywhere other than a velodrome). But they’re extremely popular; I’d bet that every bike shop in Wellington has at least one fixie in stock right now. People are buying them and riding the heck out of them. I’ve even seen people going up the Ngauranga Gorge on them; if you go to Tokyo, and hang around in Harajuku or Shibuya, you’ll see a lot of people going past without coasting. These are manifestly unsuitable bikes for most uses, but people are riding them anyway. At my current job, I often see one of my coworkers riding to work on an MTB with the tyres nearly flat. Sure, he’d probably have a better ride if he had a proper utility bike. But he’d probably have a better ride if he just pumped his tyres up a bit more, and that’s not stopping him from riding. The bike is how he gets around, and the fact that his bike isn’t ideal doesn’t matter.

    If there is a culture where cycling is regarded as a default way of getting from A to B, people ride whatever bikes they have. In our car-centric culture, where most people really only need a 1.2ltr Toyota Corolla to get around, people drive SUVs, sports cars, and clapped out 30-year old Holdens. Where there’s an expectation that, say, the tube is the way you get around a city, people default to that – you moan about the dirty carriages and funny smells, but the fact that the trains you have available aren’t as good as some others on the continent doesn’t mean that you don’t use them. What we need to do is to set that cultural expectation that cycling is a valid, easy, and fun way to go. And that’s not as easy as trying to persuade bike shops to fit kickstands to more bikes.

    And this is where I fully agree with you. To make cycling in NZ more common, we need better cycling infrastructure, with segregated cycling lanes a priority. Many cyclists don’t feel safe on the road, so segregated paths are good for that. Cycle paths and pedestrianised areas can also make it faster to get around – shortcuts that would be impractical for volumes of car traffic. The helmet law, too, is a problem: it helps foster the perception that cycling is dangerous. For the kind of day-to-day cycling people need to be doing, the option to go helmetless is necessary. The UK doesn’t have a helmet law, and it doesn’t seem to have a significant problem with cycling-related brain damage. Similarly, something to encourage people back onto bikes is a good idea – personally, I think that events like the BikeWise Challenge are great, as they leverage people’s natural competitiveness to get people back onto their bikes (don’t underestimate the power of a workplace challenge where everyone’s expected to chip in and do a couple of laps of the carpark!). And, as cyclists, each and every one of us needs to represent; to demonstrate that day-to-day cycling is not a huge deal, it’s just a simple, convenient way to get on with your busy life.

    My beacons of hope for cycle use are Boris Johnson and Frocks on Bikes. Both demonstrating, in their own way, that cycling can be simple, fun and convenient, and you don’t have to rearrange your lifestyle to do it. Every time I see someone doing a relaxed 20kph around the waterfront in business attire, I think we’re going the right way.


    1. George D

      Jack, I think you’re wrong. Almost entirely. I agree with the author, and think that retailers are a huge part of the problem – due in part to trends that have dominated for decades. If you read Deborah’s comment over on Stephen’s blog, you’ll get a feel for the kind of experience that most people have (in my experience of conversation with non-cyclists).

      Asking bicycle enthusiasts about cycling is like asking runners about walking. They’re in completely different headspaces, almost all of the time. Unfortunately, bike shops tend to be run by enthusiasts.


      1. Oh, I’m not necessarily denying that bike retail *can be* part of the problem (I myself have had similar interactions in bike shops) – I just don’t think it’s the biggest thing that’s stopping people using a bike for their day to day business.
        To put it another way: no matter what kind of bike you put her on, my mother is never, ever going to cycle to work unless there’s a separated path alongside the main road. it makes no difference whether she’s on an upright urban bike or a full-suspension MTB: she simply won’t feel safe riding on the road with cars. In contrast, she felt safe enough to cycle when we lived in China, where physical separation is more of a thing.
        Plus, you buy a bike once. You ride it every day. An unpleasant purchase experience is one thing: being too intimidated to take it out onto the roads is quite another.

        That said, the actions to resolve the two possible problems aren’t mutually exclusive. Lobby for better cycling infrastructure, and spend your money at the bike shops that give good service and don’t patronise you. 😉


      2. Or to put it another way – I was mainly taking issue with the idea expressed in the heading, that “urban-appropriate styles of bicycles and their associated technologies *are a prerequisite* to enabling the uptake of utility style cycling”. I think they’re definitely a nice to have – it’s always good to have the right tool for the right job – but I don’t think they’re a prerequisite.


      3. Whereas for me, and for other women I know, a pretty bike being ridden by someone I could relate myself to was the deciding factor. Cycle infrastructure wasn’t even on the radar, didn’t know there was any. It was all about a relatable bike.

        Don’t discount culture, Jack, it’s the foundation of marketing. Without the cultural element of cycle chic, cyclists were people with whom I had nothing in common.


      4. I’m not discounting culture – that’s why I namechecked Frocks on Bikes and explicitly mentioned the influence of fixies in getting people to ride. 😉


    2. Simon Kennett

      I pretty much agree with everything in your post, Jack, except…almost nobody commuted by bike in Wellington 20 years ago. That all changed about the time the mountain bike came on the scene. The wide range of gears and beefy brakes offered by the MTB helped generate a new wave of enthusiasm for cycling and cycle commuting. Some of that technology was already available on custom touring bikes, but it was hard to find and expensive, so didn’t filter down to the everyday cycling scene. The same can be said for some of the advances available in the modern utility bikes (although I don’t see them as offering quite as radical a transformation to the cycling scene as the MTB did for Wellington).

      Most of the bigger bike shops have utility bikes available, but you do need to look around and ask for a different staff member if you happen to strike a one-dimensional enthusiast.

      The beauty of cycling is that it can be used to express such a wide range of cultural perspectives, from the punk fixie crew to Euro-pro wannabe roadies to the grunge MTB commuter to the cycle chic Frockers. There is no more an ‘appropriate’ bicycle style than there is an appropriate shoe style. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. We should embrace all styles because they all add to the collective.

      That said, utility is important, too. Riding a fixie up Ngauranga is kinda silly. When Alan writes: “mountain bikes prevail in our cities which are for the most part dead flat” as an example of the crazy world in which we live, I think: “Mountain bikes prevail in our city which is for the most party hilly.” Makes perfect sense. And as Jack points out, lights, carriers and mud guards can all be retro-fitted.

      Like many Wellingtonians, I have a big hill to tackle on my way home, so I like to commute on light bikes. You can save a lot of weight by foregoing the kick stand, the front rack, the dynamo lights, the bell, the chain guard, the built-in lock, the internal hub gears and the mud guards. And you’ll save yourself some money and maintenance hassles. I’m not saying this is the ‘appropriate’ approach, but it’s an option as valid as any. And, BTW, I commute in my office clothes…just ‘cos that’s convenient.


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