Folding Bicycles: Green Transportation for Tough Times?

Last Updated Sep 2, 2009 5:36 PM EDT

One of the realities of our current transportation picture is that, despite the momentary lift from Cash for Clunkers (which sent sales up one percent in August compared to the year before, and up 26 percent from last July), people are deferring new car purchases. And they may defer them longer now without the program as a temptation. They're making do with their older vehicles, taking the train and, increasingly, trying out two wheels instead of four.

Montague Corp., based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, makes folding bicycles designed to fit into a commuter's lifestyle, integrate with other forms of transportation, and become less car-dependent. Some rail services (such as New York's Metro North) prohibit bicycles on rush-hour trains, but it's no problem if your bicycle folds up into something resembling a briefcase. Folding bicycles can get cars off our congested highways by allowing people to drive halfway to work, then pull the bike out of the trunk. They can also be converted to electrics, and turned into quasi-scooters. Here's how they fold, on video: According to David Montague, the bike company is a family business, launched in 1987 when Montague was a student at MIT's Sloan School. "I had to write a business plan, so I took my father's design for a folding bike and started the business right out of Sloan." He laughs. "For at least the first couple of years we tried to stick with the plan."

But business opportunities arise they don't teach in school. For instance, in 1992 Montague said he got a call from his German distributor with the news that BMW wanted to brand some of his bikes and incentivize them for customers. A similar deal was made some years later between Volkswagen and Trek--VW put a Trek bicycle in the trunk of a Jetta and created a separate Trek-branded model.

"We don't get it in this country, but there's a great opportunity for bimodal transportation," Montague said. "You park at a halfway point and ride the rest of the way. It's a tremendous way to save gas, and it's also convenient, especially in European city centers that are closed to cars. When you don't need the bike, it's safe and dry in the trunk."

Holland has more bicycles than people, and the Dutch take more bike rides than car rides. In Copenhagen, Denmark, 30 to 40 percent of commuters travel by bike. The U.S., by contrast, has one of the highest rates of bicycle ownership and one of the lowest rates of actual bicycle usage.

Montague's biggest market is Europe, followed with the U.S. (less than 40 percent) and then Asia. The bikes do well in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore.

Montague is privately held, with 20 employees in Cambridge and manufacturing under contract in Taiwan and China. It sells approximately 40,000 bicycles a year, not all of them folding. Montague, which has also sold electric bicycles, does not disclose sales figures. But it was launched, says Montague, with the target of nothing less than 50 percent of global bicycle sales. "We haven't quite hit that," he admits. Montague has a deal with the car-sharing service Zipcar that will equip network members with Montague bikes as part of a summer "Low-Car Diet" program (launched in Boston in July).

"Zipcar is a very progressive company, and this shows people that there is another way of getting around besides a big gas-guzzling car," Montague said. A second partnership is with the MIT Media Lab as part of the Green Wheel livable cities project. Bicycles will be equipped with hub motors and integrated with cars into an inter-modal transportation program that includes riding bikes to shareable electric car recharging stations.

I borrowed a 21-speed Montague SwissBike TX Commuter ($699), which differs from some other folding bikes in being full-sized. On the road, it's a very competent bike, although slightly heavier than normal. It was easy to fold without tools, though I had some minor trouble removing the front wheel. It weighs 30 pounds, so requires a good heft to get it into your trunk. But it you make it part of your morning commute it will soon become routine.