Rob Forbes definitely knows a thing or two about fashion-meets-function. After founding the cult-followed home emporium Design Within Reach in 1999, he’s now turning the biking industry on its head with the introduction of his new company, Public Bikes. Headquartered next to S.F.’s beautiful South Park, the much buzzed-about brand combines stunning European-inspired design—most notably marked by a jaw-dropping array of playful hues—with comfort and performance. To find out more about Public Bikes, the rise of bike-riding in the Bay, and Forbes' favorite local bike routes, we went one-on-one with the man behind the brand.
How did the idea of Public Bikes come about?
“I've always been a bike and scooter person over a car person. For a long time I have carefully observed and been fascinated with cities across the globe. What makes a well-designed city? What do they have in common? What design affects the largest number of people in public spaces? I found that bikes make cities more livable and our daily lives more fun. Seeing people having a good time on bikes in cities led to my belief that more bikes, and less cars, will improve our civic life. In the last five years or so, cool fixies and more women riding bikes have altered the feel and look of S.F. and NYC. And right now biking is the most prominent, visible youth movement in the U.S. Public is here with a mission to educate and enjoy everyday public life more and get more of this civic mindedness across generations."
How long have you been riding?
“I’ve been riding all my life, in every city I’ve lived in, but mostly for fun. Around the world, through numerous cities, the bike has been my preferred mode of transportation and since the mid-'80s I’ve been riding in San Francisco. Most days I ride to work and I've probably been over the Golden Gate Bridge 1000 times. When it rains I ride my scooter and I walk when I need to think. Over the last five years, my love for public spaces has led me to ride for everyday transportation.”
What are your favorite rides here in the city?
“I like to ride anywhere where other people are riding and there are few buses. In general, I like riding in with the locals, so one of my favorite rides is from Russian Hill, down Polk Street to SoMa, and across town on Folsom Street and to the Public studio on South Park. I also love the "Wiggle" from Market to Golden Gate Park, since, again, I like riding with other peeps. And over the Golden Gate Bridge, up and over the Headlands, and back on non-tourist days is great. But the jerks closed the road recently."
How would you convince someone to start biking?
“Here are 17 great reasons to get on a bike: Health, convenience, independence, sex appeal, economy, exhilaration, stress reduction, making friends, community connection, visual stimulation, access to cool places, wind in your hair, rising gas prices, efficiency, helping the environment, sensual pleasure, and silence. I think the most underrated reason is that last one, that bikes are essentially silent. In streets bombarded with exhausting noises from motor vehicles, bikes remind us of the inherent pleasure of quiet. Are there any other machines so kind to our ears? Maybe gliders.”
What trends are you seeing in the biking industry today?
“I think the biggest trend is that more people, especially women, are reclaiming the bicycle for everyday transportation. The prominent role that women play in the industry may not always be immediately obvious. If you judged by the percentage of guys working in bike stores, managing bike companies, or attending bike shows it would appear that the biking industry is like the auto industry: Largely a man’s world. But dig a little deeper and you’ll see that women are driving many of the major changes in the industry and advocacy, especially in the realm of how bikes fit into our communities with social purpose. This tradition of modern urban advocacy begins with Jane Jacobs, who is something like the Mother Theresa of the Livable Cities movement. Her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a classic read for all students of urban design and a textbook on why grassroots efforts are needed to keep our communities intact.”
You talk a lot about the place of bikes in public spaces. Why is that relationship so crucial?
“We think the bicycle is an excellent transportation option in cities because it’s faster and more convenient—and more fun—than driving a car. We think the most livable cities will create the infrastructure to make bicycling the de facto, faster, convenient, and safer option for getting around. And we think the healthiest and most vibrant cities will be the ones moving away from the car-centric land-use policies of the past several decades. Research indicates that 40% of all trips are less than two miles from home and 82% of trips, five miles or less, are made by car. Imagine if more people who are now driving to their neighborhood store, school, or to work switched over to bicycles!”
What can we expect from Public in the near future?
“We’re hosting our one-year anniversary party on July 9th in South Park. As for products, we are always tweaking our bike design, adding new colors, and designing new gear for our bikes. Next year we may open up another store. And a Dutch group wants to open a Public store in Amsterdam and that feels good. As we grow we’d like to sell more independent, community stuff like the Creative Growth artwork we’ve featured. I’m also working on a side project—an exhibition at the Frank Lloyd Gallery in Santa Monica. I’m having fun designing a book for it, too.”