In status terms they became trendy maybe ten years ago when hipsters started adopting them as a fashion statement (one definition of a hipster might be, “A person (or group) who does something deliberately inefficient and old-fashioned to make a statement”). In some ways single-speed bikes are less practical than gear bikes, since they obviously only one speed, and in that sense they may be like having a record collection instead of ten thousand songs on a computer. But in other ways they’re actually better adapted to some environments: they’re lighter (none of those heavy, metal gears); at a given price point one gets better components; they require much less maintenance (there is no need for “crisp shifting”); if a cheap bike is stolen the pain is lower than an expensive bike. Much of New York is very flat, so, depending on the circumstances, single speeds can be as functional as geared bikes. It’s not surprising that the fixie bike trend got started in New York.
I spent entirely too much money shipping a Novara Big Buzz bike from Seattle to Tucson and then Tucson to New York. Packing was like ~$70, shipping like ~$150, and re-assembly another ~$50, but Tucson is totally flat (at least the part I occupied) and so is NYC. So I stupidly carted around a big, heavy bike that I finally sold for ~$400 last fall. Now I have a new bike for $450 that is way lighter. When I move again I’ll just sell the damn thing and buy whatever is appropriate at the next place.
The more I think about my moving habits, the more I see the virtue of selling most stuff on one end, moving, and re-buying it on the other. A couple months ago I wrote about how IKEA enables mobility. Moving is really expensive and unpleasant. Cities may be becoming gravity wells for heavy stuff. Low-value, replaceable stuff that can be ditched may be better than having high-value stuff that crushes the person hauling it around. Call this an urban ethic.
Maybe that’s more than you wanted to know about my philosophy of bikes. But, to summarize, single-speed bikes are popular in NYC because the city is (mostly) flat, they’re cheaper, they’re easier to carry up stairs, and theft is less traumatic. Some issues, like weight, can be ameliorated with enough cash. A friend has a folding bike about the weight of my State bike, but it cost $2,700 and mine cost $450.
Still, as things become cheap, one also gets interesting knock-on effects. Really cheap bikes mean that more people ride, which creates more political support for riding infrastructure, which means riding is safer, which means more people do it. Cheaper is not free—brakes still need to be aligned and their pads replaced, and the chain still needs to be cleaned, but adjusting derailleurs and the like doesn’t need to happen.
There’s a temptation to “over spec” for one’s needs—that is, buy the complicated, more expensive thing that a simpler thing can do. One sees this in bikes and cars in particular, but the same thing often happens in computers and other domains. Sometimes the complicated expensive thing is better but sometimes, as in here, it isn’t, even if anxiety makes us ask, “What about the hypothetical, .01% of situations in which the complicated more expensive thing is better?” The real question should always be, “Will this thing make my life better and enable me to become the person I want to be?”
See also “Why I keep fixing my bike.”
The State bike is good, by the way. There are at least half a dozen companies making bikes in this general price range. As far as I can tell most of them are fine.