Monday, November 12, 2012

Buying a Commuter

The Breezer Uptown 8, a dedicated commuting bicycle with an amazing collection of features.
My wife started commuting to work by bike last April.  The social, financial, and personal benefits of this change have proven to be substantial.  The social benefits of bicycle commuting are widely known. Besides the reduction in fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas production, my wife's bicycle commuting have saved us from buying a second car with all the environmental impact that would entail.  The financial benefits of avoiding the purchase price, taxes, and repairs of a second car are similarly obvious.  However, a big source of additional savings comes from not having to pay for parking.  Texas Medical Center (TMC) where my wife works is the largest medical center in the world, and as such, is very large, very busy and very crowded.  As a result, parking in TMC is expensive indeed, and canceling my wife's monthly parking contract had a significant impact on our budget. The personal benefits of bicycle commuting were the a surprise.  It takes less time and is less stressful for my wife to bicycle to work than to drive to and park in the busy TMC. In addition, although the ride is only 3.5 miles long, the 7 miles a day makes a noticeable difference in her fitness. The point of all of this is that we are highly motivated to remove even the slightest impediment to her bicycle commuting and can justify a significant investment to do so.

Aerial view of Texas Medical Center.  If you look at it on Google Maps, Texas Medical Center is almost as large as all of downtown Houston. (Image from Wikipedia by permission.)
Commuting by bicycle worked great until the days started growing shorter and daylight savings time ended.  Before that, there was plenty of daylight for the ride home even though my wife left work late to avoid the peak of rush hour traffic.  However, between the shortening of the day and the fall back of an hour, she now has the difficult decision of riding home in the dark or contending with rush hour traffic.  She has been commuting on her Surly Cross Check equipped with a Catseye Opticube HL-EL300, an inexpensive, battery-powered headlight, but has found that this provides too little light for a comfortable ride home after dark.  In addition, worrying about the batteries, although objectively a small issue, is one she finds distracting.  Thus, the temptation to revert to car commuting was growing. To stave this off, we have been in search of a perfect commuter bicycle.

The obvious question is why not just put a better light on the bike she has? In thinking about the "perfect light", we decided that one powered by a front wheel generator hub had the most appeal, and my wife didn't want to encumber her "fun" bike with such a hub. Similarly, although commuting with her existing bike has been working OK, the switching of bags back and forth each week to accommodate commuting during the week and fun riding on the weekends is a hassle that we would enjoy getting rid of. Once we contemplated a dedicated commuting bike, features like fenders and a full chain cover offered themselves as desirable upgrades. Finally, although my wife loves her Surly, stepping over its diamond frame is a challenge she loves less each year, so we were interested in looking at step-through frames.  Houston is very, very flat so a single speed bicycle would seem to be in order. Getting rid of the derailleur would both improve reliability of the bike and allow the use of the desirable chain cover.  That said, my wife finds starting from a traffic light or other stopped situation stressful and appreciates a lower gear to facilitate such starts. The obvious solution is an internally geared hub. A three speed hub would probably be more than adequate, but given the reasonable price of seven and eight speed hubs, they are in the running as well.

Trek Cocoa.  Full chain cover, dress guard (a plus), internal gears, and fenders.  Add a front generator and light and a rack, and it is perfect.  This bike is definitely in the running. My wife is not, however, in love with its appearance.

An invaluable resource in exploring the options available to us has been the "Lovely Bicycle" blog.  Its author is a fan of commuting bicycles and has reviewed an amazing number them.  Ironically, the first bicycle I came up with in a Web search that seemed to meet our needs perfectly, the Breezer Uptown, was panned on Lovely Bicycle.  This did not eliminate this bike from our consideration, but it did cause us to look harder at other options.  Most of the commuting bicycles favorably reviewed on Lovely Bicycle are unobtainable in Houston, but from those suggestions we were able to add the KHS Green to our list, and searching the web added a few more.

Last Sunday, after having done our Internet homework, we set out to a few of Houston's many fine local bike shops to look at our choices.  We had tentatively identified the KHS Green 8, The Specialized Daily 3, the Trek Cocoa, and the Breezer uptown 8 as bicycles we wanted to see.  We identified shops that carried each of these bikes from their manufacturers' websites. However, in no case did these shops have in stock the exact model in which we were interested.  In addition, we ran out of time before we made it to the shop that carries KHS bikes, and the shop that reportedly carried Breezer bikes in fact does not.  Despite these setbacks, we learned a lot from the test riding my wife was able to do.

The first shop we visited was listed as a Trek distributer, and we went there to see if they had a Trek Cocoa.  They did not, but my wife was able to test ride a comfort bicycle with 26 inch wheels and a more conventional hybrid with 700c wheels, the closest thing they had on the floor to the bike we came to see.  The first of these had a very low step through frame (like the Breezer, shown above) and the second a more moderate step-through (like the Specialized Work, shown below).  To my great surprise, my wife significantly preferred the handling of the second bike to the first. Was this because of the difference in the wheel size, the difference in the step through, other differences in frame geometry, or something else?  This is important because the Trek Cocoa, which we had gone to the shop to try, has 26 inch wheels, similar to the bike which my wife did not like. The bike shop staff opined that the frame geometry of the Cocoa made it likely that my wife would like it, and they offered to get one in for us with the understanding that if she didn't, we would owe them nothing. On this basis, the Trek Cocoa is definitely an option. What we learned is not an option is purchasing a bike without trying it first, which also lets out a custom bike. Because there is apparently no distributer of Breezer Bikes in Houston, the Breezer Uptown 8 is eliminated by our inability to test ride one. Finally, we learned that my wife has no problem with a frame with a higher step-through, expanding our range of options.

The second shop, where we went to look at the Specialized Daily 3, is the shop where we purchased our Surlys and with whom we are very happy.  From our experience with the Surlys, we know that they are willing and able to customize bikes for the difference in cost between what the bike comes with and what we want, a very good deal.  Although this shop did not have a Specialized Daily 3 with a step through frame, they did have similar models to try, and also pointed us towards a model of the Specialized Work that we had not previously noticed that also came close to what we were looking for.

Specialized Daily 3 (upper) and Work 3 (lower) bikes.  Two similar bikes feature 700c wheels, 7 speed hubs, fenders, and chain guards (but not full chain covers.)  Both would require addition of a generator hub and light in front and a rack in back.  The Daily features an extraneous front basket.  Because these bikes come from a local bike shop we know and trust, these bikes are high among our choices.
My wife has not decided on a bike yet. When she does, I will post on what she picked and why.  However, we have learned a lot about what is available. More generally, we learned that the combination of searching the web to learn what's available and to get detailed specifications combined with in person visits to the local bike shops is an invaluable combination, much more useful than either by themselves. Finally, it seems to me that the bicycle market changes rapidly, and that fashion as much as technology dictates what is available.  A few years ago, internal geared hubs were all the rage. This year, we saw hardly any in the bike shops, and the selection of practical, commuter bikes in general seems to be reduced. A few years ago my love for the Bianchi brand and their local distributor would have definitely put a Bianchi commuter on our list, but Bianchi is offering no internally geared commuters this year. We have become true believers in the real practicality of bicycle commuting and look forward to the day when every serious bike shop will routinely offer a selection of no-nonsense commuter bikes with excellent lights, fenders, and a full chain cover along with the latest offerings of fashionable road and mountain bikes.


  1. What did your wife end up buying?

    1. Sadly, we are still looking. We are slow buyers. Also, this won't become a big issue again until this fall when the days get shorter. I promise a post when we make a purchase.