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The Fixie Bike Index

Where are the fixed-gear bike riders?

Rohin Dhar explains:

At Priceonomics, in order to build our bicycle price guide, we measure what kind of used bikes people are trying to sell and the quantity sold in any city. By mining our database of 1.3 million bicycle listings, we can tell what are the largest markets for used bicycles, how the prices vary by region, and where people who prize fixed gear bikes live.

Fixies (fixed gear bikes) are considered to be a strong indicator of hipsterness. For those unfamiliar, a fixed gear bike requires riding in a single gear and the only way to stop the bike is to pedal backwards to help skid the bike to a halt. You can’t “coast” on a fixie; when you are biking downhill, your pedals will keep moving so you better keep pedaling too. Because of the minimalism of this fixed gear system, the bikes tend to be aesthetically pleasing but somewhat challenging to ride. . . .

In short, fixed gear bikes = hipsters, and New York boroughs that have more fixies per capita should have more hipsters per capita. We sampled our data to see the number of used bikes for sale per capita in each borough with the term “fixie” or “fixed gear” in the product title to create the Fixie Index.

To our surprise, fixies are nearly twice as popular in Manhattan than Brooklyn! Moreover, Manhattan is almost 20x more hipsters than the Bronx, and infinitely more so than Staten Island. One might argue that maybe bikes in general are just more popular in Manhattan than Brooklyn, and that’s why there are more fixies per capita there. In fact, the opposite is true. There are more bikes offered for sale in Brooklyn than Manhattan, but only 8.3% of them are fixies versus 9.5% in Manhattan. Of course, if you drilled down by neighborhood you could get a more nuanced picture, but sweeping generalizations are more fun!

Next, we apply this methodology on a national scale. Which cities are most hipster based on their affinity for fixed gear bikes?

Before we ran the numbers, we were pretty sure the answer would be Portland. San Franciscans (which we are) take a particular delight in being weird, but not being quite as weird as the people from Portland. This seemed like a great opportunity to point out “hey we like these impractical but cool bikes in San Francisco, but we haven’t taken it too far like those misguided folks out in Portland.”

Unfortunately the data did not comply with our desire to tease the people of Portland. . . .

Good stuff. Data! I just have one comment. I’ve never actually ridden a fixed-gear bike (the closest to it was a bike I rode as a kid that had no rachet, so it was sort of like a fixie but when you pedaled backward it would engage a brake. But it was fixie-lke in that you couldn’t just coast on it), but it’s my understanding that fixed-gear bikes can have hand brakes.

28 Comments

  1. CB says:

    Doesn’t it largely depend on the terrain? At least, that’s my guess why e.g. Seattle isn’t on there. Hipsters aren’t know for their muscle strength.

  2. zbicyclist says:

    “the only way to stop the bike is to pedal backwards to help skid the bike to a halt”

    That’s only true if, in true hipster fashion, you refuse to have front brakes on the bike.

    For more than most of you want to know about this, see the late, great Sheldon Brown: http://www.sheldonbrown.com/fixed.html

    Brakes, good. Not being able to stop in time, bad.

  3. “Fixies (fixed gear bikes) are considered to be a strong indicator of hipsterness.”

    Really? I’ve always associated fixies with bike messengers.

    ps—Yes, those who aren’t stupid or suicidal have hand brakes on their fixies.

  4. Abby says:

    I think in order to get a true hipster-ness score, you need to correct for local topography. Fixed-gear bikes are way more challenging in hilly cities than in flat ones, and so it takes more dedication to hipster-ness to ride a fixed-gear bike in San Francisco, or Boston, than it might in, say, Chicago.

  5. Thomas says:

    That description isn’t quite accurate. You don’t pedal backwards to stop, in fact pedaling backwards would make you go in reverse; you slow down enough that the bike is moving slowly, then you just get off. While some have hand brakes, most do not; if there’s a brake, it’s usually just on the front. Fixed gears were actually quite common in the early 20th century.

  6. Madeleine says:

    Fixed-gear bicycles have only one gear, so they’re most appropriate for traveling short distances. Even if the populations of Manhattan and Brooklyn had the same proportion of hipsters, there would be more fixies in Manhattan.

  7. Sharpend says:

    Fixed gear bikes will go backwards (awkwardly) if peddled backward–there is no brake engaged. To stop or slowdown, a rider must apply fair amount of strength to slow down the crank. These bikes are legitimately used for track races where a brake is not permitted–outside a track, it is common to put a front brake on a fixed gear bike. It makes me sad that these are hipster toys, but I have seen some really good looking ones one tumblr that I would be happy to have.

  8. mat roberts says:

    Fixed gear bikes can have hand breaks – they just show you’re wuss.
    It’s also important to have very narrow handlebars, e.g.
    http://sethholloway.com/blog/2009/10/16/fixie-the-black-sheep-of-bikes/

  9. elissa says:

    Fixed gear bikes can have hand brakes, technically, but it greatly decreases hipster cred. It also takes away from the pleasing look of the bike.

  10. K says:

    It would be interesting to control for the “hilliness” of the city, given that riding a fixie is tougher when there is a a lot of up and down.

  11. Julyan says:

    Fixies with hand breaks… it’s cheating! Well I have one on mine, but I’m no hipster.
    I find it weird to use an index normalized between 0-1 to say that one borough is infinitly more hip than another, isn’t it?

  12. Using number of fixies FOR SALE per capita as an index of fixie riders seems a bit backwards. When I think of fixies for sale on Craigslist, I think of posers who buy a fixie as an accessory, ride it for a week, and decide it’s not for them.

  13. Letta says:

    how is Minneapolis not on this list of data?? as i recall, we’ve currently got the highest # of bike commuters per capita in the U.S. surely our moustache and bicycle ratios alone qualify us to get in on the data party.

  14. Wayne says:

    I have to agree with Dave Kleinschmidt: the current study’s use of SALES is like judging the overall fitness level of a city based on the (used) sales of the latest expensive fitness gadget. (Brooklyn is way cooler than Manhattan, in my humble opinion, so that in itself would cause me to question this index.)

  15. Phil says:

    I, too, would have bet on Portland. By the way, readers of this thread who are not named Gelman might enjoy Bike Snob New York, who, among other things, frequently comments on (by which I mean makes fun of) the fixie-riding hipsters in New York City, Portland, and San Francisco, with special disdain for those who eschew front brakes.

    Andrew, almost all coaster-brake bikes can coast: the brake only engages if you put backwards pressure on the pedals. I have never seen an exception, although I can’t be absolutely sure about yours.

    • Andrew says:

      Phil:

      You might have seen that bike: it was red with 26-inch wheels, it was a hand-me-down from my brother. I had it before I had the bike I had before I got the Austro-Daimler that I had for over a decade. I don’t remember everything about it, but I do remember—or, at least, I think I remember—that it had no ratchet.

  16. Craig says:

    The problem here is that there are several very different classes of people who ride fixies. As a very active ride leader in the largest recreational cycling club in the US, I can immediately identify 4 groups (there are probably more):

    1) Track-racers – largely a function of the presence/absence of facilities (which is hopelessly endogenous)
    2) Bike messengers – a function of business district density, and to a lesser extent terrain
    3) Hipsters – a function of hipster population,terrain in the hipster area, and climate –
    4) Hard-core recreational cyclist show-offs – a function of overall cycling popularity, terrain, and climate

    Terrain matters – Portland’s eastside and downtown is flat, so casual riders can handle a fixie. Most Seattle hip neighborhoods are on hills, so fixie riders have to be both dedicated and experienced. SF Bay area and SoCal are in between, probably closer to Portland.

    Climate matters – if there is snow or ice, or even rain to make manhole covers slippery, a fixie is much trickier. If slowing down your pedaling throws you into a skid rather than slowing you down, a fixie is trickier.

    Local cycling enthusiasm intensity matters. Here in Seattle, a fixie rider on a brisk, hilly ride hears a lot of “you’re crazy” comments, but gets a lot of respect.

    There is no way a simple analysis like this can hope to explain hipsterness.

  17. John says:

    Fixed-gear was an hornery old-man thing and an off-season training thing way before it was messenger thing. Removed from the sociology, they are just fun to ride and a change of pace from freewheel bikes. There hasn’t ever been a real stigma about a front hand brake, that was just a few guys trying to stake their claim to being more skilled or being there first.

  18. ASC says:

    Good thing no one read the article in the WashPo:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/arts-post/post/portlandia-your-15-minutes-are-up-long-live-pittsburgh/2012/01/03/gIQAMUlSYP_blog.html

    or they’d have been measuring the fixie index of PIttsburgh as well as pondering the ability of the local hipsters to mash those pedals in that terrain while continuing to fit their thighs into those skinny hipster trousers.

  19. doug peterson says:

    Someone is having a bit of fun with statistics here. The author lives in San Francisco; presumably he’s visited Orange County. I’ve lived for several decades in Orange County and ride my bike 5-6 days per week. While there may be a few isolated pockets of hipness in Orange County, for the most part it’s hardly considered hip. Fixie sitings are rare and tend to occur near college campuses. And the data conclude that my home turf has a higher hipster factor / rating / level than L.A. AND San Francisco? Whoo-hoo! Take that, hip’n’cool’n’groovy San Francisco!

  20. fixies = hipster (= poseur (map into 1980’s)) high density in central London
    fixies – serious cyclists wanting ‘souplesse’… not too many in central London

  21. Anonymous says:

    the fixie index is a great example of the importance of local knowledge and expectations (or subjective priors, if you will) in assessing the likely validity of a measure. the fact that manhattan is higher than brooklyn and that NYC doesn’t EVEN appear on the national list makes this method highly suspect. it’s probably measuring something like the prevalence of ‘late adopters’ (as opposed to early adopters).

  22. Elsa says:

    Two things missing: 1) Many bikes in Portland are advertised by paper flyer, and likely not in your database. 2) Many more non-hipsters commute by bike in Portland than in other locations, thus flooding your sample with multi-speed bikes, whereas in some areas very few non-hipsters may bike.

  23. Cristine says:

    Fixies and hipsters are all i see in this. Im far from a hipster and just bought on from http://www.2wheelbikes.com . does me attaching breaks make me not a hipster any more? ridiculous.

  24. Ben D says:

    In a lot of places, it’s illegal to have a fixie without at least a front brake, an obvious point of contention since it’s a blow to street cred.

  25. […] post was recently brought to my attention via a Facebook post’s link to this nerd-famous blog. Reproduced here (stolen? though attributed) is the list of ranking by city of popularity of the […]

  26. […] post last week when one of my heroes, Bayesian extraordinaire Andrew Gelman, linked to it on his blog. Reply With Quote   + Reply to Thread « Previous Thread | […]

  27. Fun with SF cyclists/hipsters (warning – salty language):

    http://youtu.be/hgCqz3l33kU