Of all the ways to navigate cities, I find I get to know them best on a bicycle: not too slow, not too fast, just high up enough to observe, and quasi-meditatively conducive to thought. In the past three years, I’ve got around Los Angeles primarily by bike, not just as a means of running errands, but of meeting up with interviewees for my podcast (Notebook on Cities and Culture), discovering new elements of the city to write about, and of simply exploring. In that same span of time, I’ve also visited and tried my best to understand other cities around the world, from Osaka to Mexico City to London to Copenhagen to Seoul, and I always, without exception, understand them more fully with a bike handy.
Urban cycling does have its downside. The ever-present threat of bike theft, for example, never recedes from my mind. Still, even that downside has an upside: the afternoon I returned to the subway station where I’d parked my old Schwinn Traveler that morning to find it gone without a trace, I seized the opportunity to order a folding bike. The advantages had already mounted: not only could I take a folding bike on my regular trips to foreign cities, but I could more easily take one on the train and even into the coffee shops in which I usually spend hours at a stretch.
You can spend as little as $150 on a folding bike, or as much as… well, as much as you like, if you go custom-made, but prices for the high-profile British make Brompton get up toward $2,000. Having heard that Dahon offers “Brompton quality without the Brompton price tag,” I browsed their models and landed on the Dahon Speed D7, so named for its seven gears (or “speeds”), which seemed to have the durability I needed while only costing about $500. It also promised a fifteen-second folding/unfolding time which, even if quadrupled in reality, sounded pretty convenient to me.
A few months in, I’ve got my best personal folding/unfolding time down to about thirty seconds, and I doubt I’ll need it any faster. Ironically, I don’t fold the thing up quite so often as I though I might — part of me just likes to know that I could — though the bike’s generally small size does make the riding life a bit easier. When folded, the Speed D7 gets just small enough to wedge into the empty back seat of a compact automobile. I wouldn’t want to carry it folded very far, since it weighs about thirty pounds and takes a somewhat unwieldy shape — I get the sense that spending an extra thousand dollars shaves off a few pounds and jabby edges — but I don’t see the necessity arising often except at the airport.
The dedicated traveler will want to invest in a bike bag, without which you’ll have a hard time bringing one of these onto a plane. And even then things might get tricky; beware, to name one threat, the potential $100+ “sports equipment charge” with which certain airlines try to stick you. And wherever you ride it, beware also the Speed D7′s tendency to get its chain stuck in the gears when you shift too fast. (True, the bike comes with a sticker on its handlebar warning you not to do that, but I wouldn’t consider it a solution.)
I sometimes miss my old Traveler, a classic road bike, but I don’t miss its tendency to get flat tires. The thicker-wheeled Speed D7 has so far proven somewhat less vulnerable to the shards of glass strewn across the streets of Los Angeles, though its rear tire did once get taken out by a mere thorn. But it has demonstrated a reasonable hardiness overall, along with a reasonable compactness and, most of all, a reasonable price — a reasonability trifecta, you might say. And for those simultaneously addicted, like myself, to urban travel and urban cycling, nothing feels quite so enabling (in whichever sense of the word you please) as knowing you can, theoretically, get rolling as soon as you hit the ground. Pack light.