IT'S NOT JUST the money she saves on gas that makes her folding bike appealing to Ellen Babcock on her BART ride to work in Oakland.

"I like it because it packs up into a little package. I like it because I can ride on BART any time," said Babcock, who rides her bike to a San Francisco BART station.

After getting off at the Rockridge station, Babcock pedals to her job of teaching sculpture at the Oakland campus of the California College of the Arts. "It's just so much more pleasant than being in a car," she said.

Before she started commuting earlier this summer via BART and bike, Babcock drove a pickup truck to work. "Now I'm filling up the truck once a month instead of once a week," she said.

Taking a folding bike on BART does invite curious inquiries from fellow passengers, she said.

That's no surprise given their unique look. Their smaller wheels and high seat and handlebars set them apart from regular, full-sized bikes. While regular bikes have wheels with a diameter of 26 inches, most folding bikes have 16- to 20-inch wheels.

"Folding bikes are not the most chic thing. They are more practical," said BART spokesman Linton Johnson. "They are very good for commuters who want to save on gas and are just going from Point A to Point B. We are seeing a lot more people turning to bikes to save on a gallon of gas, and folding bikes are the way to go."

While folding bikes can be taken on any BART train at any time, that is not the case with regular bikes, which are subject to restrictions at certain stations during commute hours. Check out BART brochures or go to www.bart.gov for details.

As with bicycles in general, folding bikes come in a wide variety of styles and prices, ranging from less than a couple hundred dollars for an entry-level model to several thousand dollars for high-end, top-of-the line models. Ease and speed of folding, along with the bike's weight, is a big factor when it comes to pricing.

Depending on the make and model, a folding bike can weigh between 20 and 30 pounds. Once the technique of folding a bike is mastered, most can be folded or unfolded in 30 seconds or less. Once folded, it can be easily stored, whether on a BART train or a bus, on a ferry that crosses San Francisco Bay — or inside a closet or an office.

When selecting a folding bike, the three most important things to consider are the price, weight and durability of the bike.

"It's a three-legged comparison between the durability of the bike, how much it's going to cost and how much it's going to weigh. If you want something that's very light and very durable, you're going to pay for it. If it's going to be durable and reasonably priced, it's going to be heavier," said David Fiedler, bicycling guide at bicycling.about.com.

Although folding bikes have been growing in popularity, they still account for only a very small segment of bike sales in the United States. Of the estimated 18 million new bikes sold in 2007, only about 100,000 were folding bikes, according to Jay Townley of Gluskin Townley Group, a bicycle marketing and research firm.

"The folding bike business is growing. We are looking at a major uptick this year," he said.

Townley said part of the increase is linked to rising gas prices — but another factor is the impact of the "new urbanism," which has led to more people choosing to live in denser urban areas that have transit-oriented developments and housing.

Some local bike shops carry folding bikes whereas others can place an order for a folding bike. Some manufacturers, including Bike Friday, Citizen and Dahon also sell folding bikes online in addition to offering them through bike stores.

The smaller wheels of a folding bike result in a different ride than a regular bike. More peddling is involved and the ride is slower and not as smooth, said Clay Wagers, owner of Oakland-based Bay Area Bikes, a dealer for folding bikes made by Dahon, the world's largest manufacturer of folding bikes. "A folding bike is what it is. It is kind of intended for short-distance travel," he said.

Dublin Cyclery in Livermore sells bicycles made by Dahon and Bike Friday.

"The best thing for a customer is to come in and test drive two or three bikes," said Chuck Tyler, owner of Dublin Cyclery. "Bike Friday is going to be a little more expensive than Dahon. The Bike Friday is (generally) going to be a smaller bike and will fold up more tightly than a Dahon."

A folding bike's weight and wheel size is going to determine how easy it is to carry it up some stairs or stow it inside the trunk of a vehicle, Tyler said.

"The convenience of getting it in and out of a vehicle is typically a big part of the decision," he said.

As is the commute itself.

Riding a folding bike doesn't necessarily mean riding on smaller wheels. Dahon makes a folding model with 26 inch wheels. And folding bikes with 26 inch wheels are the only size made by another manufacturer, Montague.

A folding bike with a 26-inch wheel might be the solution for someone who has a longer bicycle trek as part of their commute. "The average commute distance on a folding bike is going to range somewhere from one to seven or eight miles. The actual commute distance does have some bearing on the decision," said Wagers.

Eve Mitchell covers personal finance and real estate. Reach her at 925-952-2690 or emitchell@bayareanewsgroup.com.

BEST BIKES
A 2008 review of the best folding bikes can be found at:
www.optimalride.com/