What is your idea of a "city bike"?
Some--including Grant Petersen of Rivendell--think that an old mountain bike with a good rack is, if not ideal, then at least the best possible.
Others, such as hipsters and some messengers would tell you that a fixed-gear bike is the only thing you should ride in the concrete canyons. They would argue for the sheer simplicity of it. A few would even go for a pure track bike with no brakes and a tight wheelbase, which makes them maneuverable.
Then there are those who want a plush bike to ride over sewer grates, potholes and all of the other hazards of the urban landscape. Such riders--particularly those who do no other riding but their commutes--might opt for a hybrid or mountain bike with suspension in the front fork, and even in the rear. Or they might ride cruisers or other fat-tired bikes.
There's also the English three-speed camp. They are probably the most immune to fads: Such riders will clatter along on their vintage Raleighs, Dunelts, Rudges and other machines from Albion. Because they're immune to fads (at least in bikes), they never think of their mounts as "vintage," even if they those bikes were made before they were born.
Cousins, if you will, to the English three-speed crowd are the ones who like Dutch-style city bikes. Some might also argue that these cyclists are variants of the comfort-bike crowd. The difference is that, not only are the Dutch bikes built for comfort and durability, they also come with features that you may have never thought of having on your bike but "might come in handy", such as built-in locks and lighting.
And then there are those who like the speed and nimbleness of the road bike, but want a more upright riding position and a bit more style. They're the ones who ride French-style city bikes and porteurs, which are based wholly or in part by the elegant machines made by constructeurs such as Rene Herse and Alex Singer.
Finally, there are the rat-rodders. In other words, any bike that looks like it's been to hell and back is the right bike for the city. Lots of cyclists here in New York follow that credo, which makes a lot of sense when you have to park your bike in high-theft areas. The rat-rod can be just about any kind of bike; these days, the majority (at least here in New York) seem to be ten- or twelve-speeds from the '70's or '80's, or mountain bikes from the '90's. Think of the guy (Yes, he's almost always a guy.) who delivers your supper from the Chinese restaurant or diner: He probably brought your meal on a "rat-rod."
A variant on the rat-rodder is the urban cyclist who rides a Frankenbike. You've seen them: the Specialized Rockhoppers with Schwinn Varsity rear wheels; the Peugeot ten-speeds with high-rise bars and forks in a color (and style) that clashes with everything else on the bike.
In the nearly three decades in which I've been riding in New York, and through the years I biked the boulevards of Paris---and while biking on trips to other large cities like London, Prague, Amsterdam and San Francisco, I have seen my notions of the "ideal" city bike evolve and change. Sometimes I want comfort; other times, I want a bike that I can leave in urban combat zones as well as those areas--like the neighborhood around St. Mark's Place--to which thieves gravitate. At times, I've craved speed and the ability to slice between parked cars and belching buses; at other times, I've worried about preserving dental work. But I've always thought about what's practical for my errands, commutes and other ride-and-park activities like shopping. And, of course, I've changed, and so has the city in which I live.
What's your ideal city bike? Has your idea of it changed? If so, how?