Published: Thursday, November 1, 2007

During a recent visit to Eugene, Bobbi Kamil, of California’s Monterey Bay area, attracted a small audience at the Starbucks near the University of Oregon campus.

The 64-year-old retired educator wheeled up to the coffee house on her bike, and — in about 15 seconds — folded it into a compact, 25-pound package that could be stowed easily beside one of the tables.

She’s a proud and happy owner of a “tikit,” the latest creation of Bike Friday, a manufacturer in west Eugene that says it has designed the fastest-folding bike in the world. The company says it can be folded in five seconds.

Bike Friday unveiled its newest model in February, and has since made 500 of them, said marketing manager Hanna Scholz. She is the daughter of Alan Scholz, who founded the company 16 years ago with his brother, Hanz.

To launch the new bike, the company raised about $250,000 — including an $80,000 jobs-creation loan from the city of Eugene — and boosted employment by roughly 40 percent, Hanna Scholz said.

Bike Friday built an international reputation making high-end single and tandem bikes with smaller-than-usual wheels that could fold into a hard-sided suitcase, be shipped anywhere in the world and enable their owners to do some serious touring when they reached their destination. Bike Friday will continue to make those bikes, which are custom built for their owners. The bikes, which can cost up to $5,000, tend to appeal to high-income retirees, including private pilots, boaters and RV enthusiasts, Scholz said.

But sensing that the broader market is finally ready to accept fold-up bicycles as one antidote to global warming and rising obesity rates, Bike Friday hopes that its tikit, which retails for $1,195 — compared with an average cost of about $400 for folding bikes — will turn more people into bike commuters.

The company says its bike is better designed, lighter and more durable than cheaper competitors.

The tikit “solves the last-mile problem: how to get from the house to the train or bus,” Scholz said.

“We want to be part of the solution for global warming, climate change and peak oil,” she said. “We want to make it easier for people to ride bikes where they want to go, instead of driving cars.”

That’s Kamil’s goal. She said that for the past 1½years, she has tried to ride her bike as much as possible, leaving her Volvo at home in the garage.

“I’m trying to see if we can become a one-car family,” she said.

Kamil and her husband, John Ittelson, use their van when they drive long distances, or load up on groceries. But in the past four months, Kamil’s Volvo sports coupe has seen daylight just once, she said. Kamil bought her tikit in April. She also owns a Bike Friday, which has accompanied her all over the world.

The tikit, which uses a different frame geometry and folding technology than the Bike Friday, collapses quickly into a tidy bundle, Scholz said. An optional black, rip-stop nylon cover attached to the bike frame unrolls to envelop the bike, which can be carried by the cover’s handle or wheeled like a hand cart.

The bike is so light and so easy to fold “that you can just be on your way and gone,” Kamil said.

“You can walk onto the bus or train carrying it, and no one knows it’s a bike,” she said.

She speaks from personal experience, having taken her tikit aboard the New York City subway system and BART trains in San Francisco.

Kamil, who has had one hip replacement and will soon get a second, said she bikes to keep fit, but also to do her part to reduce air pollution and consumption of foreign oil.

“I just think our dependence on foreign oil is an unhealthy, unsafe situation, and that we have to do something about it,” she said.

A growing number of people in pockets throughout the country share that opinion.

Here in Eugene, 6.2 percent of residents said they commuted to work by bike, according to the 2000 Census, the latest data available.

Every day, demand exceeds supply for the bike racks on Lane Transit District’s buses, said spokesman Andy Vobora.

“We’re just such a bike-friendly community … that it’s really caught on that the bus works well for a lot of folks,” he said.

The district has tried to address the shortage by putting larger racks that can hold three bikes on the buses and building secure cages at some outlying stations, so cyclists feel comfortable leaving their bikes before they board the bus.

Folding bikes also could help, Vobora said.

“Clearly it would be an awesome thing if more people used those,” he said. “People can bring those on and have them near the seat, like people who bring on grocery (hand) carts.”

In Portland, 5.4 percent of residents surveyed last year by the city auditor’s office said they used their bike as a primary means to get to work.; 9.1 percent said they commuted to work by bike at least occasionally.

Greater awareness of safe places to ride, a burgeoning bike culture, environmental concerns and the high cost of gas all contribute to increased bicycle commuting, said Roger Geller, bike coordinator for the city of Portland.

The rising popularity of biking also occasionally creates conflicts over the limited space for bikes on light rail and buses, said Eric Hesse, a strategic policy analyst with TriMet, the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon in the Portland area.

“We’re one of the only systems of our kind that allows bikes on board at all times,” he said, noting that many systems have rush-hour restrictions.

“For us, folding bikes are an attractive alternative,” Hesse said. “We are looking at tikit and other models to evaluate how well they would fit under the seats,” he said.

Ecology Action of Santa Cruz, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, goes a step further by offering a $200 incentive to Santa Cruz county residents who buy folding bikes to ride around town, instead of driving their cars. The program also offers a 70 percent discount on Santa Cruz metro bus passes for two months to encourage people to take their bikes on the bus.

About 100 people have signed up, said Piet Canin, program director of Ecology Action’s transportation division.

Like other communities, Santa Cruz sometimes has a shortage of bike racks on its most popular bus routes, he said.

“If you ride your bike, and all the bike racks are full, then you’re kind of stranded,” Canin said. “The fold-up bike addresses that problem.”

So far this year, about a third of the bikes shipped by Bike Friday were tikits, Hanna Scholz said.

The largest orders have come from Asia and Europe, where folding bikes are more common than in the United States, she said.

“European and Asian dealers started buying large quantities right away,” Scholz said. “They bought three months’ worth of our capacity.”

Bike Friday hasn’t done much yet to market the tikit, other than letting dealers and past customers know about it, Scholz said. Now the company will begin a marketing push to have the tikit tested and reviewed by the bicycle trade press, she said.

To support the company’s growth, Bike Friday hired 14 people earlier this year — 12 to manufacture the tikit and two customer service representatives — boosting the company’s head count to 42 employees, Scholz said. Employees manufacture the bike frames in Eugene — a rarity, now that most frames are made in Asia. Then, they assemble the bikes using imported components, Scholz said. Bike Friday is making about five to six tikits a day, she said.

The company plans to increase production to 10 per day by spring 2008 and to 20 per day by the end of next year, Scholz said.

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