Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
Isla Rowntree started a company to give children the best ride possible. Now she’s working to make the bikes sustainable.
More than a decade ago, British cyclist Isla Rowntree noticed that kids’ bikes were poorly designed. Most were incredibly heavy—sometimes even heavier than adult bikes—and their brake levers were difficult for small hands to reach and operate. Rowntree also felt that the decorative stuff—tassels, Little Mermaid paraphernalia—took away from the object itself. “I mean, a bike is a fantastic gift—there is no need to pretend it is something else,” she told Forbes.
Rowntree decided she could do better, and founded Islabikes—the first company dedicated exclusively to children’s bikes—in 2006. While its headquarters are in the U.K., the outfit has a U.S. office in Portland, Oregon. It offers bikes for all ages—from toddlers to teens—starting with balance bikes, which lack pedals or chains. These allow small children to learn how to balance so they’re better prepared when they graduate to pedals. (Training wheels just hinder the process.)
The company designs each bike ergonomically, providing, for instance, smaller, lighter brake levers and slimmer handlebars to suit a child’s grip. “Our riders are tiny so these details make a big difference,” Rowntree told Forbes. “All this work adds up to something very simple—our bikes are much easier, lighter, and safer to ride.” Rowntree says that while her bikes give all kids a better ride, the children who really benefit are those who are cautious or fearful. Children who might not otherwise learn to ride find Islabikes easier and less intimidating to handle.
Yet Islabikes are expensive. A balance bike costs $250, and some of the models for older kids run over $1,000. While the company’s devotees note that the resale value is high—up to two-thirds of the initial cost—it’s still a lot to shell out for a bike that a child is just going to outgrow.
Rowntree has a plan for this. Islabikes is producing a series that it will rent, so that when a child has outgrown their bike, the family sends it back to the company to refurbish and rent again. Though Islabikes isn’t yet able to cite a comparative cost for owning versus renting, the new series will ostensibly help keep Islabikes less pricey than they would be otherwise. Rowntree told The Guardian that the cost of the raw materials needed for her bikes will rise steeply in the next few years due to scarcity, such that a bike that costs around $400 today will soon go for the astronomical amount of $1,300 or more.
The sorry state of the environment helped spur Rowntree to make this change. She told Cyclist that later this century, “governments will begin mining our landfill sites…to recover what was thrown away in the last.” Rowntree doesn’t want Islabikes to be clogging up those dumps, but instead to serve as a model for how to use materials again and again. The bikes will be designed for longevity—the aim is a 50-year lifespan—but also for separability. When parts inevitably wear out during the life of the bike, its raw materials can be separated out and given to other industries for continued use.
“Our aspiration is to become the cycle industry experts in the sustainable supply of bicycles,” she said.