Utility bicycle

Batavus Contemporary utility bicycles

A utility bicycle is a bicycle designed for practical transportation, as opposed to bicycles which are primarily designed for recreation and competition, such as touring bicycles, racing bicycles, sport/training bicycles, and mountain bicycles. The vast majority of bicycles can be found in the developing world,[1] and are utility bikes. As such utility bikes are the most common form of bicycle globally.



A traditional Dutch roadster

Bicycles have been promoted for their utilitarian strengths since before they were technically known as bicycles. The draisine and the boneshaker, were hoped to become an inexpensive utilitarian alternative to horses by their makers.[2] However the inherent danger, cost, discomfort, and restrictive gender roles of the day, kept it popular mainly with wealthy adventurous young men, and mainly for recreation and sport. The development of penny-farthing moved away from the utilitarian goal of earlier forms, with its less stable ride, and difficulty carrying much baggage. It furthered the trend of bicycles to be used by young men, willing to take risks, for sport and recreation. Despite this, we find the earliest mention of working bikes in 1874, in Paris, as couriers, for a newspaper and the stock market riding penny-farthings.[3]

It was the introduction of the safety bicycle that was successful for the first time to build a bicycle that worked well for utilitarian purposes, "a poor man's nag".[4] It was this development that was the cause of the bicycle boom of the 1890s. The main use of bicycles during the boom was still sport and recreation, but additionally they were adopted by many professions: police, postal workers, delivery men, municipal workers and for basic transportation of people of all classes, races, and genders.[5] In the USA, after the boom, use changed dramatically from sport and recreation to basic transportation. By 1902, as the boom was coming to an end, nearly all cyclists were cycling for practical purposes.[6] The price of bicycles dropped dramatically, due to increased competition between makers and more price conscious consumers; profits dried up and many of the cycling manufactures went out of business. The history is similar in the UK, but there some of the manufactures were better able to handle the transition to transportation based cycling, even to the point of talking of a second boom due to so many working class people taking up cycling.[7] Additionally the British makers were able to tap into the developing markets overseas, primarily India, China, and Japan. In countries like the USA, the use of utility bicycles all but disappeared until after the Second World War, when a few British and Italian roadster-type bicycles saw a brief upsurge in popularity. Since the Second World War, utility bicycles have remained popular in countries like the Netherlands, China, and much of the developing world.

Technological Improvements

Since the 1890s only incremental mechanical advances have taken place for the majority of the world's utility bicycles. In fact many bicycles in Asia still employ rod brakes.

One exception to this was the continued development of substitute propulsion systems for utility bicycles in the form of add-on gasoline engines and transmissions. Developed shortly after 1900 in Europe and the United States, motorized utility bicycles surged in popularity in Western Europe after the Second World War. Typically, a small one or two-horsepower, two-cycle engine was fitted with a tire roller-drive mechanism that would convert any standard utility roadster into a motorised bicycle. As they could still be propelled by human power, they were considered as bicycles under most national registration schemes. The motorised utility bicycle or cyclemotor offered greater range, faster commutes, and increased versatility to a large sector of the postwar European consumer market that could not afford expensive automobiles or motorcycles.[8]

In 1962, the advent of the Moulton bicycle brought a fresh outlook to the traditional utility concept. Utilizing small, easily transportable frames and wheels as well as suspension, the Moulton was designed to accommodate the increasing public usage of bicycles in concert with other forms of mass transportation.

During the 1990s, several bicycle designs were introduced in an attempts to improve on the traditional utility bike. Most of these centered around the use of lightweight frame alloys, new brake and gearing systems, and electronic navigation and monitoring assistance.

Present day use

Utility bicycles are now becoming "fashionable" once again

Utility bicycles are principally used for short-distance commuting, running errands, shopping, leisure or for transporting goods or merchandise. Utility bikes may also be seen in postal service, in war, and for employee transportation inside large workplaces (factories, warehouses, airports, movie studio lots, etc.). In some countries, entire fleets of utility bicycles may be operated or administered by local or national government agencies as part of a public bike sharing programme.

Utility bicycles often feature a step-through frame so they can be easily mounted, single speed, or with internal hub gearing, and drum brakes to reduce the need for maintenance, mudguards to keep the rider's clothing clean, a chain guard to prevent skirts or loose trousers from being caught in the chain, a skirt guard to prevent a long skirt catching in the rear brakes, a center stand kickstand so it can be parked easily, and a basket or pannier rack to carry personal possessions or shopping bags.

In Singapore, and sometimes Malaysia, old utility bicycles are often seen with the windshields and engine covers of 125cc motorbikes and painted in highly attractive colors. Although virtually none have a real engine attached for them, most of them are used for decoration only. Many choose this type of bicycle due to the low price (relatively) and availability.[citation needed]


A traditional type of utility bicycle, the English roadster may weigh as much as 35 to 50 pounds (16 – 23 kg). Parts such as frames, wheels/rims, and tires are chosen for strength, safety, and durability rather than high performance. Additionally, utility bikes tend to incorporate fewer technological advances in material design and engineering in comparison to sport bicycles, though there are exceptions. In particular, the small-tired Moulton portable utility cycles incorporate advanced engineering with relatively light weight.

A freight bicycle fitted with a large capacity wicker basket and advertisement plate

Most utility bikes feature an upright riding position. The handlebars are almost always curved back and positioned higher than the saddle so that the rider can operate controls without changing his or her riding posture. Some people add a child seat or a trailer. The utility bike's combination of parts, design, and features provide functionality and comfort at the expense of weight, an adequate compromise when used as originally intended (local commuting and short rides).[9]

Types of utility bicycles

Designed for commuting, errands, delivery and general urban transport.


Deutsche Post delivery bike in Cologne.

The utility bicycle, usually seen in the form of the English roadster, is the most widely used form of bicycle in many undeveloped parts of the world. While motor vehicles have displaced bicycles for personal transportation in many industrialized and post-industrial nations, rising fuel costs and concerns over the environment have led many people to once again turn to utility bicycles for a variety of daily tasks. In countries where purpose-built utility bikes are unavailable or unsuited to local conditions, many cyclists have acquired hybrid bicycles, road bicycles, mountain bikes, or touring bicycles for commuting and general utility use, often refurbishing older or secondhand models. A few countries, notably China, India, Netherlands, Denmark and the Flemish Region of Belgium, continue to produce versions of the utility bike. In addition, the Deutsche Post uses a version of a utility bike in most German cities for delivering mail.

See also


  1. ^ Herlihy, David V (2004). Bicycle: the History. Yale University Press. pp. 2. ISBN 0-300-10418-9. http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300104189. "Millions of people around the world still rely on their trusty clunkers for cheap and efficient transportation. In fact, the global fleet aproaches a billion, with the vast majority circulating in developing countries like Cuba and China where automobiles remain a luxury." 
  2. ^ Herlihy, David V (2004). Bicycle: the History. Yale University Press. pp. 169–170. ISBN 0-300-10418-9. http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300104189. 
  3. ^ Herlihy, David V (2004). Bicycle: the History. Yale University Press. pp. 177. ISBN 0-300-10418-9. http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300104189. 
  4. ^ Herlihy, David V (2004). Bicycle: the History. Yale University Press. pp. 309. ISBN 0-300-10418-9. http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300104189. 
  5. ^ Herlihy, David V (2004). Bicycle: the History. Yale University Press. pp. 264. ISBN 0-300-10418-9. http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300104189. 
  6. ^ Herlihy, David V (2004). Bicycle: the History. Yale University Press. pp. 294. ISBN 0-300-10418-9. http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300104189. 
  7. ^ Herlihy, David V (2004). Bicycle: the History. Yale University Press. pp. 315. ISBN 0-300-10418-9. http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300104189. 
  8. ^ Beare, David, Pattle, Andrew, and Wheeler, Philippa, The Stinkwheel Saga: Episode 1 Upper Cefn-y-Pwll, Montgomershire: Stinkwheel Publishing, ISBN: 0954736303, 978-0954736309 (2004)
  9. ^ Richard Ballentine, Richard's 21st Century Bicycle Book – The Overlook Press, New York, www.overlookoress.com / (2001). pp. 27-29. ISBN 978-1585671120

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