Providing durable transportation to impoverished people in communities around the world has long been the goal of One Street’s Social Bike Business program, but since it was started in 2007, Sue Knaup knew the goal would eventually lead to helping local partners manufacture their own frames, forks and racks. What the group’s executive director didn’t expect was that the smaller components, and basic parts, would push the idea to reality.
What Knaup found was that older friction shifters of the type commonly used throughout the developing world are no longer produced in the United States. “It isn’t so much that they aren’t being made, but they aren’t even available,” Knaup tells BikeRadar. "I was able to find cheaply made thumb shifters in Uganda, but nothing like this is made in the United States.”
While the locally made shifters were available in Africa, they weren’t desirable for One Street’s needs as they were prone to breaking and included plastic parts that quickly degrade in the sun. Worse, they are virtually impossible to repair when they do break.
This latter issue is what Knaup says is all too common with many of the off-the-shelf components readily available in the United States. “What the bike industry is making now are very complicated components with lots of little parts made of plastic,” she said.
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For the Social Bike Business this is a step in the wrong direction, and what is available in under-bar shifters such as those from Shimano are too expensive. The cheaper made shifters from China, which Knaup calls “knockoffs” are also too cheaply made for One Street’s needs. But even if the shifters were affordable and durable enough, there is another issue. While the world of cycle racing and high-end bikes moves to larger cassettes and more gears, those in the developing world have older components and typically fewer gears. Thus most indexed shifters won’t work.
“Most of the shifters available on the market are indexed,” says Knaup, “as opposed to friction, and the spacing doesn’t work with the bikes that are available in Africa, which typically have five to eight gears at most.”
Here is where One Street reached the decision that if you couldn’t find it, you better make it yourself. To this end the Social Bike Business turned to the Ecosa Institute in Prescott, Arizona to design what promises to be the first, top priority component. The Ecosa Institute’s design students, including those at the Masters level are scheduled to begin working on this project this fall. Criteria call for the shifters to be durable, repairable, recyclable and most importantly affordable. Each needs to use very few parts and replaced with common items, with one idea being that a cap could be replaced with a bottle cap or an aluminum lever that could be swapped out with carved bone or wood.
Additionally, Knaup says unlike major component makers the end of life for the product would be considered as well. “The shifters need to be recyclable,” says Knaup, “so they can be disassembled and aluminum and steel parts can be recycled.
Once the shifters are designed and in production, One Street will need look at other components, with the rear derailleur as the next basic part in mind. But Knaup says this is merely the beginning, and One Street Components will be ready to step up. “When the bike industry drops more basic bike parts we’re ready to react.”