What is it about the bicycle that seduces us? Bicycles are everywhere — not just speeding along city streets and parked on sidewalks, but also offered up as accessories to a hip urban lifestyle in retail displays, advertising, editorial layouts and TV commercials.

While pedaling for transportation in cities is more popular than ever, driven by wider trends in eco- and health-consciousness and thrift, the bicycle as an object has long captured the imagination of designers, both as a blank canvas and as a tool to navigate the world. This was the focus of the Core77 Conference Cult of Bike panel, which I attended last week in Brooklyn.

Panelists, from left: Michel Dallaire, Ethan Frier, Edward Albert and Raymond Hu (moderator).

Moderator Raymond Hu, managing editor of the industrial design website Core77, noted that if the bicycle has represented the near-perfect intersection of form and function, then the growing popularity of bike share systems also places this machine at a “junction between product and service.”

The urban bicycling boom invites design innovation – not only in manipulation and customization of the form, but also in creation of new products that support safety, deter theft, aid in storage, and add comfort to the ride. Not surprisingly, bicycle-related projects were also among winners of Core77′s annual design innovation awards.

At the conference, three experts from different corners of the bicycling world joined Hu in reflecting on the past, present and future of urban bicycling. From their presentations, and my conversation with them afterward, here are five takeaways to inspire your own thinking:

Products Aren’t Enough: Particularly where cycling safety is concerned, the panelists agree that products themselves can only do so much to protect people on the roads. Design advances, they noted, must be accompanied by shifts in culture that recognize cycling as a mainstream transportation alternative. Calling the United States an “outlier” compared with Europe, Edward Albert, professor emeritus of sociology at Hofstra University, and a collector of classic road bikes, pointed to Amsterdam as one example of a city which, through policy decisions about limiting congestion and pollution that stretch back decades, has woven the bicycle into the fabric of urban living.

Fashion versus Function: Nowhere is fascination with bicycling more keenly reflected than in fashion. While some laud this as a means of popularizing and mainstreaming bicycling for transportation, Albert, who has studied and written about bicycling in New York City, expressed doubt. For example, do portrayals of men riding bicycles in Brooks Brothers suits or hipsters pedaling fixed gear bikes that are in reality hard to ride invite disappointment that leads to relegation of bicycles to storage rooms?

Albert also was critical of what he considers to be modern over-emphasis on form at the expense of function.

“Commercial culture has to respond to the actual needs of people,” Albert said.

What About Helmets? Safety was a common thread — with strong sentiments expressed in favor of protective head gear, with a call for innovation to provide more choices. Particularly with bike share systems, helmet use is a hot button. Michel Dallaire, president of MichelDallaireIndustriel, Inc., award-winning designer of the bicycle and docking station at the heart of Citi Bike and other major bike share systems around the world, described a new helmet dispenser. It is capable of use either to buy or rent helmets (in which case they need to be cleaned in between uses) in conjunction with the mobile street furniture of bike share systems. The machines are scheduled for deployment in Vancouver, where tussling over an adult helmet law has delayed the much-anticipated launch of that city’s bike share system, further focusing attention on the head protection debate. (A different helmet vending system has been in limited testing with Boston’s Hubway bike share system.)

“If you can make safety cool and beautiful, it can be accepted.”- Ethan Frier, co-founder, Project Aura

Designing Connected Safety: Ethan Frier, co-founder of Project Aura, a bicycle lighting system for night riding (top photo), sees safety equipment as a communications platform. He says outlining the wheels in light to define the bicycle’s form and also indicating the cyclist’s speed and intent through change in color, helps “bridge the mental divide between drivers and bicyclists” enabling them to share the road more safely. And there’s room for more: The combination of wireless technology, GPS mapping and open-source urban data might enable bicycles to communicate with their riders, warning, for example, of documented dangers along a route.

What’s Coming in the Next Generation of Bike Share: Because bike share continues to hold the public’s attention, more makers will enter the marketplace, Dallaire observed in an interview after the presentation. Among innovations that users will see in the next generation of bike share: Rechargeable, electric-motor-assist bikes, with a range of 37.3 miles (60 kilometers)  on a one-hour charge, supporting use by seniors or less able citizens, as well as tricycles, two- wheeled in the front for a steadier base and more generous cargo-carrying capacity.

Still, with all the promise that human imagination combined with technological innovation holds for improvement of aesthetics, materials, utility and safety, one hopes that some things will never change: the simple, classic form of the machine and its power to invoke memories of childhood freedom and joy.

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Top photo: Project Aura. Conference photos: velojoy

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