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LOOK: Bamboo Bikes for Africa

Getting around rural Africa is not easy. Because cars are a luxury few can afford, bicycling is a more...

Getting around rural Africa is not easy. Because cars are a luxury few can afford, bicycling is a more attractive option. But quality imported bicycles are not particularly cheap themselves, and local bikes are often so shoddily built-out of steel so cheap you can bend it by hand-that they can't stand up to unpaved and pothole-filled roads.

However, bamboo, a new trend in bicycle design, might be a solution. With a tensile strength greater than steel, bamboo makes an excellent substitute for bicycle frames. More importantly, the plant grows quickly, cheaply, and abundantly in climates all over the world, making it both widely available and very renewable. That's why Columbia University's Earth Institute's Bamboo Bike Project thinks introducing bicycles built out of African-grown bamboo could solve many of the region's transportation problems.Through an offshoot of the BBP, you can be part of that solution: For $1,250, you can get a new, custom-made bamboo bicycle from the Bamboo Bike Studio, which you assemble under their tutelage over a weekend. They provide the components, the bamboo, and the design; you provide the labor. Sourcing the bamboo-which is taken from plots they find by driving around Staten Island and New Jersey-has made it clear what a potential resource it could be as a building material. "We don't even need to look," says Marty Odlin of the Bamboo Bike Studio, "we just drive down the road and we see it. And it grows so fast. It's funny, places that we went in September, you can hardly tell we were there."
At the end of a weekend at the studio, you have a custom bicycle that you've made with your own two hands. The BBS gets another chance to fine-tune their bike design and bamboo treatment methods-plus half of the profit goes toward the goal of getting a cheap version of these bikes built in Africa. A design for a model bike that can be mass produced is complete, and the next step is to take it to communities in Ghana and Kenya, where new factories will use local bamboo to build a cheap, reliable alternative (for a fraction of the cost you pay for your custom model) to existing transportation options. "We want to beat [the existing steel-frame bikes] on price, which we can do, and we want to beat them on durability, which is kind of a no-brainer," says Odlin. "Our value proposition is a slam dunk."While it's probably not fair to compare the travails of biking in New York City to those of cyclists in Africa, the city's streets are not known for their upkeep; they have proven an excellent testing ground for the bikes. Odlin has put 2,000 miles on his, riding from Red Hook to Columbia University daily, and the smooth ride is what's most notable: "You ride over cobblestones, and it feels like nothing. People get on the bikes and say: ‘Oh my God, this is insane.'"
Interested in having your own custom bamboo bike? Email the Bamboo Bike Studio at bikes [at] to check for availability.Photos: Marty Odlin (top), Jesse HuffmanCORRECTION: The piece originally stated that all of the profits that the Bamboo Bike Studio makes from their custom bikes toward the goal of getting a cheap version of these bikes built in Africa. It has been corrected to note that only half of the profit is for that purpose.

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