For the past six years, Chiang Chao-liang (江招良) traveled to work, like most Taipei area commuters, in a gas-guzzling vehicle. But three months ago he started leaving his car in the garage for something much smaller - a folding bicycle. The commute to his interior design firm takes longer, but Chiang likes the exercise and says his ride - which collapses to the size of a suitcase and is light enough to carry up a flight of stairs - is more convenient and more fun. He also saves NT$6,000 a month on gasoline bills.
"This has worked out well for several reasons," says Chiang, 48, who spent NT$38,000 for a top-of-the-line Birdy, a German-designed bike. "I started my own company so I have more time to play with. I like riding bicycles anyway. And commuting on a bicycle is cheaper and better for the environment."
With their small wheels, low-slung frames and long seatposts, folding bicycles are easy to recognize. They might look like wimped-out versions of conventional bikes, but the latest folders deliver better performance in urban areas. Thanks to their smaller wheels, folders are more maneuverable, accelerate faster and require less pedaling energy on city streets. The gyroscopic effects of larger wheels - in other words the bigger the wheel, the more ground covered by a single turn - only make conventional bikes more efficient at Tour de France speeds.
Folding bikes are popular in Taipei because they take up less space in the city's cramped apartments. Their small size also makes them ideal to use on public transportation. You can fold one up, put it in a bag and take it on to any bus or into any stop in the city's MRT system. Passengers with conventional bicycles, on the other hand, are charged extra and can only enter and exit at certain MRT stations, mostly outside of Taipei's urban core.
Morris Liang (梁隆儀), a manager at the new Giant outlet across Nanjing East Road from the Brother Hotel, said folders account for "20 percent to 30 percent" of his store's sales.
"Sales are shooting forward, especially given the density of this city, the expanding MRT system, the river paths, and continuing - if a bit slowly - government efforts to promote bike riding," says Thomas Walk, sales representative at Dahon, a US folding bike company that was founded by a Chinese-American scientist.
Aside from Giant, Birdy and Dahon, other major folding bike brands are Brompton, Breezer, Xootr, Bike Friday and Moulton. Factors to consider when choosing among brands and models include size and weight, especially if you live in a building without an elevator. Some advantages come with tradeoffs. A suspension system, for example, gives a smoother ride but absorbs more pedaling energy. Smaller wheels give a rougher ride but make the bike lighter and easier to store. It's a good idea to see which companies are supplying components like the brakes. Shimano, for example, makes brakes for several brands, including Birdy.
A review in last month's issue of US magazine Wired gave the US$1,000 Dahon Mu SL its highest overall score, praising the design but noting the bike has "no shocks, so you'll feel every bump." The slightly cheaper Brompton M6L came in second and was cited for its smaller size, faster folding and mudguards. In third place was the US$1,250 Birdy Silver. It scored lower because of its "strange aesthetics" and "frustrating" folding. Wired liked the Silver's "decidedly unbumpy ride" and its "powerful" and "precise" brakes.