When Ikea launched a bicycle in 2016, it had lofty goals about solving problems in urban transportation. “We started off actually designing a new transport system,” the company’s head of design told Fast Company at the time. That “new transport system” became a commuter-friendly bike with a set of easy-to-remove attachments for hauling groceries or, say, Ikea furniture. The company wanted to help its customers drive less. “Just attach the trailer to the connection point, and you have a solution that replaces the need for a car,” the catalog said.
The bike, called the Sladda, was cheap, starting at $399–like Ikea bookcases, it came in flat-packed boxes and required self-assembly to help keep the cost low–but solidly made, with a 25-year warranty on the frame. The design won an international award. In a video, Ikea’s sustainability director talked about visions of cities “full of happy biking” rather than full of cars. In Europe, the company even opened some stores without parking lots (though in the U.S., Ikea locations are largely very car-dependent). But a little more than a year after the bikes were first sold in the U.S., the company is no longer going to sell them. Every bike sold is being recalled.
The flaw came in the bike’s belt drive, a toothed device that replaces a traditional chain. Ironically, the feature was included to reduce maintenance for riders–unlike a typical chain, it doesn’t need to be oiled or lubricated and can’t rust. It was one way that the bike tried to appeal to commuters who might not otherwise have chosen to ride. In theory, belt drives should also last twice as long as chains. Ikea’s belt drive came with a 10-year warranty. But the company had a handful of reports of the belt drive snapping. In two cases, riders had minor injuries. Ikea is giving customers full refunds rather than attempting to repair the problem, and strongly urging people to turn the bikes in even if they are working well (they’ll also give refunds for any of its accessories, and you don’t even need proof of purchase).
Ikea tells Fast Company that it hasn’t been able to find a feasible way to repair the bikes, and that the belt drive can’t be replaced with a normal chain because of the way the bike was designed–although when we took one of the bikes to a local bike shop, a technician said that there was no reason why a chain couldn’t be added to the bike. The company didn’t respond to requests for more information, but it’s possible that the cost of a potential repair was an issue if Ikea thinks that a new belt drive would be necessary. Belt drives are typically expensive.
“My guess is that they couldn’t replace the belt with anything they could be confident in without spending a whole lot more money, and instead decided this little bike experiment was not where they should be spending their time,” says Simon Dunne, a brand and design strategist who has worked in the bike industry.
Still, even with a steep cost of repair, other companies might not have made the same decision. In the case of a recall, “Our main focus is how do we keep people riding the bike that they picked out and bought from us,” says Jon Goulet, direct of quality for the bike company Specialized. If a problem cost more to fix than refund the entire bike, “We would probably still just choose to make it right, because it’s part of our brand proposition to be rider-centric.”
It’s not clear what will happen to the recalled bikes, but it’s possible that they can’t be adapted for reuse since they couldn’t be salvaged for customers–a wasteful end for a product that was premised on sustainability. “It is a special bike, and I still think it’s a great bike–it’s just the belt that seems to be underachieving,” says Oskar Juhlin, design director at Veryday, who worked on the design of the bike. Though Ikea may have different reasoning, it seems like replacing the belt would be the most sustainable option.
The bike had positive reviews. Kevin Watkins, a cyclist who runs a YouTube channel with a Sladda video that has more views than Ikea’s, says that it’s one of his favorite bikes (he currently has 19 different bicycles). “It’s really well made,” he says. “It’s beautiful. It’s one of the few bikes that I keep in my living room, just like a piece of furniture…anytime there’s a bike meetup, I can ride up on the Sladda and everyone wants to see it: ‘Ikea made a bike? What is this?’ It’s an attention-getter.”
Ikea no longer plans to sell the bike at all. It’s possible that this decision might have also been driven by relatively slow sales; since the bikes were introduced in the U.S. in early 2017, the company sold only around 4,900 units in America, a fraction of a percent of the millions of bikes sold nationally. Ikea shoppers who might have been tempted to change their transportation habits will no longer have the reminder of seeing bikes as they browse for furniture. And some of the thousands of Sladda customers who will now be left without bikes might just start driving more.