Thankfully the news media is keeping quiet about this or I could be in big trouble: I flooded the Mississippi earlier this month. I’m also responsible in some small part for the Arkansas killer tornados last month. I may even be implicated in the Japanese earthquakes earlier this year, though the evidence for that is not so clear. But certainly without a doubt (as I confessed in a previous post) I share with BP responsibility for the gulf oil spill last year. How did I manage to cause such massive death and destruction? Simply by living my life as usual, getting around by car. I feel a little bit guilty about it actually. But what can I do?
In Part I of this post I extolled the virtues of running, which in my opinion is the next best form of personal transportation after bicycling. I described how I experimentally determined the best running style for me, which I call the front-landing style, or what is coming to be known as the barefoot running style. I describe the advantages of landing on the front of my foot rather than my heel: it’s easier to run uphill, run downhill, vary my speed, run on rough terrain, breath more deeply, and most importantly it helps me avoid repetitive stress injuries. Advocates portray the barefoot running style as more natural. That’s not particularly important to me. Speed is also not important to me. With a barefoot running style I can run marathon distances at a moderate speed. I can do it in any shoes or even barefoot. And I can do it gracefully and enjoyably. Like riding a bicycle.
No doubt you are reading this because you saw the title and you are wondering “What is the next best thing to bicycling?” No I’m not talking about sex. After bicycling, the next best form of transportation is running, pure and simple. When I’m not biking I like to run or walk briskly to my destination, and I also like to run just for fun.
Like bicycling, running has fallen out of favor as a valid means of utilitarian transportation and is nowadays considered exclusively an athletic pursuit. Runners these days also suffer from an unexpected handicap: the shoe. That’s right the shoe. And in particular the running shoe.
No doubt you are now thinking “How could the very item designed to facilitate running be bad for runners?” Don’t take my word for it. Just ask the growing number of runners who are eschewing traditional running shoes for “barefoot running shoes” or even actually running barefoot.
I’m planning to start an electric bike club with some friends in Ithaca and we don’t yet have a name. Can you help us think of one? Finding a name is an important first step for any organization. It will force us to think about the goals of our group. This grueling process may release our hidden differences, but the fires of our disagreement will forge in us a new a sense of unity! Right. We invite you to participate.
Ithaca is especially suitable for ebikes. The largest part of our community is students. A very visible part of our community is environmentalists. Both of these groups would benefit from biking: students need an inexpensive mode of transportation and environmentalists want transportation that better fits with their values. But both groups are held back by (among other things) the incredibly hilly terrain here. An ebike erases that impediment. For a variety of reasons the bike stores here are unable to step up to the plate to promote ebikes. That’s where a club comes in. Our club is all ready to go except for one thing: we lack a name. Here’s some thoughts that may guide your club naming.
I recently increased the power of my Stoked Big Dummy by setting it up to use two 36v batteries in series rather than only the one 36v battery. (“Stoked Big Dummy” means a Surly Big Dummy extra long bike with a Stokemonkey electric motor.) The change required purchasing a more robust motor controller from the fine folks at ebikes.ca. I also had to open up the controller and solder some beefier resistors in there and make some other modifications. But the result has been amazing. My bike is now very responsive and can easily accelerate to 20mph in a few seconds, and go up hills at 15mph without pedaling. Normally in this blog I rail against speed, but I am discovering that this moderate increase in speed increases the utility and safety of my beloved car replacement vehicle. I can now go on single-afternoon 100-mile trips by bike without it being a big deal “tour”. And I can more easily maneuver in traffic and join the flow. True, I’m now using 20 watt-hours/mile rather than my usual 10 watt-hours/mile, but still nowhere near the 1200 watt-hours/mile that a car uses.
I won’t deny it, speed can also be fun. I recently put together an ebike for my daughter. In the photo above you can see that the bike has a big black front hub. That’s the motor. The batteries are in the bag on the bike rack. Her first ride produced in her the legendary “electric vehicle grin”. She said that her bike was “like a car disguised as a kid’s bike”. She instantly recognized that her new ebike would give her a basic freedom that is denied to kids in our society: the ability to use roads for transportation. Kids in our society are taught from the moment they can walk to stay out of the road. No wonder then that kids must rely on parents and school buses for transportation. No wonder we have an obesity epidemic in this country. The ebike, and the EV grin it causes, may change this sad state of affairs.
I thought this recent post to the Endless Sphere ebike forum by icecube 57 captured the “EV grin” phenomena that is currently only shared by hobbyists but may soon be experienced by the general public as ebikes take off. You can read the original post (along with video) here.
“In other news Im very suprised at the power of this motor. My neighor just moved in her bf. I came home to find them socializing with my wife in the garage. The conversation shifted to my bike. He was like ill try it later. I said you are going to try it now. He gave in. I started him off in Grandma mode. (20mph legal restricted) He was excited about that. The controller still dumps 3500-4000w off the line but it tapers off quickly and he proceeded to take my bike up the huge as hill on my street that I will stall on in grandma mode and it took him up the hill without stalling un assisted maintaing about 15mph. Which I cant even do unless I have a running start. He is about 120lbs lighter than me so I can understand it being easier on the motor and controller. He went around the block and came back. He said take this out of grandma mode. He had a grin from ear to ear…Its one thing to ride your own bike but to see someone else riding it with EV grin hauling ass at top speed in traffic like its a motorcycle”
For the record I only have a temporary interest in riding an electric motorcycle, until the grin wears off. My ultimate goal is to build a lightweight (200 lbs.) narrow (42″) slow (20mph) passenger-carrying “car” that falls within the legal definition of an ebike. I couldn’t see myself succeeding with 36v. I can definitely see it happening with a 72v machine.
Last week once again a left-turning motorist almost ran me down in the crosswalk at the intersection of State and Aurora near my house. And once again rather than apologize this person yelled something inaudible but probably not nice at me, shook their fist at me, and sped off after passing inches from where I was standing. Why was this person so incredibly angry with me? What had I done? And then it hit me: motorists are not concerned with safety, they are concerned with fairness. This person was upset because I had stepped into an area he felt was his. His light was green, so from his perspective it was unfair of me to enter the crosswalk. (He neglected to account for the fact that left-turning vehicles don’t have the right-of-way.) He was willing to risk my life to show me that I was being unfair. What can we make of an otherwise rational person giving more importance to the temporary ownership of a patch of asphalt than to the safety of a fellow citizen? How did we come to this motorist mentality infecting our population, and what can we do to reverse it?
The typical motorist wants to go as fast as they can at all times and they don’t like it when someone or something prevents them from doing that. Do you have the motorist mentality? Ask yourself how many of the following statements apply to you:
- I am usually in a hurry when I drive.
- When I drive in the city I have a constant feeling that I’m not going fast enough.
- I don’t like having to wait for pedestrians and bicyclists.
- If the vehicle in front of me is going slower than I am I tailgate them, flash my lights at them, and honk my horn at them.
- I regularly pass other cars in no-passing zones.
- I regularly travel faster than the speed limit.
- I often get upset by other vehicles when I drive in the city.
- I feel safe in my car so I rarely think about safety.
Or do you have the bicyclist mentality:
- I am not in a hurry most of the time.
- I feel vulnerable so I think about safety a lot.
- If a vehicle is in my way I go around them.
- I don’t mind going slowly because other vehicles can pass me.
- I like to say “hi” to other bicyclists.
The motorist mentality is one result of the space constraints caused by the introduction of massive numbers of wide fast vehicles onto our streets. Here’s an analogy. Picture a train station of the future with thousands of people getting their tickets and boarding their trains. Imagine now that all of those people are given rocket-powered roller skates. As a consequence, everyone must wear big hoop skirts for protection, and the hoop skirts cause each person to take up nine times as much area as before. Furthermore, suppose everyone must also wear ear protection which makes it impossible for them to hear each other. (Hollywood take note: this would make a great scene in your next science fiction movie.)
Everyone finds it difficult to get through the doors. They can no longer negotiate with each other who goes first. Lines form. Everyone must wait in line. Everyone must follow the rules. Everyone wants to go as fast as they can (“We’re wearing rocket skates for crying out loud!”). Some people get impatient and don’t follow the rules. Tempers flare. And the motorist mentality sets in. This is what happened to our streets 100 years ago when people started driving cars instead of walking. Now imagine the rocket skates becoming smaller and less powerful. The hoops skirts shrink and people slow down. The rocket skates are quieter now too, so that people can once again talk with each other. There is more room for everyone. People greet each other. Everyone is happy. No one has the motorist mentality any more.
This is certainly a pretty picture: all we need to do to return to our blissful origins is to make our vehicles slower and smaller. And I believe it could happen if enough of us want to make it happen. However, in the meantime, we must deal with what we’ve got. What does this motorist mentality, this “get out of my way” thinking, mean to bicyclists and motorists? How does knowing about it affect our behavior? First some tips for bicyclists:
- Don’t follow the rules (you can read more about this idea in a previous post). The motorist mentality means traffic laws were not designed with your welfare in mind. They were designed to make traffic fair for motorists. Following all of the laws is likely to get you killed. (There are certain laws you should follow in order to ensure that motorists are fair to you, as described below.) For example the typical traffic light can be considered a device mainly intended to make intersections fair for motorists. Motorists are willing to wait at traffic lights because they know that they will get their turn. But traffic lights also make intersections dangerous for bicyclists. This is because a traffic light causes a large number of cars to congregate around the bicyclist. When the light changes those cars will explode from the starting line and jockey for position as they speed to the next light, without regard for your safety. (Right-turning cars are particularly dangerous.) You as a bicyclist will be safer if you run the red light. First check for cross traffic, and then cross if it’s clear. And it’s fine for you as a bicyclist to turn right on red, in spite of what the signs may say, because your vehicle is narrow. Nearby motorists sometimes howl with rage when they see me make these “illegal” maneuvers. They think I am doing something unfair, because they are not allowed to run the red light or turn right on red. I wish there were some way to tell them that I am merely giving my own safety a higher priority than being fair within a system meant for them.
- Be courteous. Motorists are a generally crabby lot, and your good cheer will help them. This tip may appear to contradict the previous paragraph; the difference is that “don’t follow the rules” is about your relationship with an oblivious transportation system while “be courteous” is about your relationship with people. Since motorists can’t hear you, you must communicate with them by hand gestures. As a bicyclist there are certain hand gestures you will be tempted to use after a motorist has unthinkingly threatened your life, but you must refrain. Instead, wave hello to people. Politely signal for them to go around you if you are taking the lane. Say thank you with a smile when they give you your right of way.
- Assert yourself. The motorist mentality makes motorists very careful to be fair to their fellow motorists. But ironically motorists think nothing of being unfair to bicyclists, so much so that many bicyclists are intimidated into riding long distances on the sidewalk and riding the wrong way down the street. Both of these behaviors are extremely dangerous. Ride in the street. It belongs to you and don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t. Take up the full lane if necessary. Get in the left lane to turn left. These are all rules you do need to follow if you want to gain the respect of motorists and ensure that they treat you fairly.
How can you motorists overcome the motorist mentality? Here are my tips:
- Relax. You made a transportation choice that has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that you have a nice big cozy box to sit in. The disadvantage is that so many other people have also chosen to ride in big cozy boxes that you all must wait in line to get across town. If someone cuts in front of you don’t blame that person, blame your collective choice of vehicle. Accept the trade-off you made. Better than that, enjoy the trade-off you made. Bring a book or some knitting to work on while you wait in line in your big cozy box.
- Make the journey as important as the destination. Budget enough time to go slowly on purpose. Listen to the radio. Look out the window. (But put down the cell phone.) Enjoy.
- Get your priorities straight. Your car easily weighs enough to crush a person to death. It goes fast enough to kill a person on impact. It is wide enough that it leaves little room for error on city streets. That is a big responsibility. Consider how unimportant it is to be concerned about “that person is in my way” when there is the larger concern of “am I being safe with this large machine entrusted to me?”
I hold out hope that the motorist mentality can be eradicated in my children’s lifetime. Today I read about an electric vehicle for sale in my town that has a top speed of 25mph. I think most people’s reaction will be that that speed is too big a sacrifice, that we need to make a better electric car. I think the car is fine, and that we need to change our assumptions about speed. For me driving a low-speed car would be a step up from my electric cargo bike (especially in winter!). And driving it around at a paltry 25mph would be an opportunity to cure myself of my motorist mentality.
This summer was one of the hottest summers on record. Several people have asked me how I managed to survive. My response: I didn’t notice. I didn’t notice it was unusually hot in spite of spending much of my time outdoors training for a marathon and doing my errands by bike. I didn’t notice precisely because, counter-intuitively, these activities caused me to sweat and my sweat kept me cool. How could this be?
For some reason our culture has an aversion to sweat. Our media keeps up a constant barrage of messages about how we must avoid sweating and that if we do somehow err by sweating we must hide it at all costs. Of course there is a place for personal hygiene and we must take care not to impose our old smelly sweat on our fellow citizens. But we sweat for a reason–to keep ourselves cool–and furthermore we are very good at sweating.
A recent Scientific American article described how one of the most basic ways our human ancestors gained an advantage over other predators is by our ability to sweat. No other animal sweats as well as we do. This ability enabled our ancestors to track large game until it fell over from heat exhaustion, a technique known as persistence hunting. Many other animals can outrun us for short distances. But we are the masters of long distance running on this planet. A human can run a marathon faster than a horse, because the horse will keel over from heat exhaustion before it gets to the finish line. And so how do we make use of this great ability of ours in modern times? Do we augment our ability to keep cool in some way as we have done with so many of our other abilities? No, instead we vilify anyone who sweats in public. It is outrageous to me that we subvert this great advantage we have for dealing with hot weather, then complain about the weather, then build big machines to make ourselves cooler, and finally watch complacently as these machines contribute to the very climate warming we were complaining about.
I propose that instead of looking at sweat as the enemy we learn to harness it for its intended purpose: to cool us down. It is much more energy efficient to cool ourselves individually (perhaps with motion or fans) than to use big energy-intensive machines to cool down entire rooms and buildings. And it is the height of hypocrisy and inefficiency that our cars are designed to be basically greenhouses on wheels. As a result they must carry massive air conditioning equipment to keep their occupants cool. Instead, cars could make use of our natural abilities to cool ourselves by sweating and combine that with the built-in breeze of their forward motion.
Air conditioning will be one of the first superfluous accessories jettisoned by our lightweight/narrow/slow cars of the future. What will replace it? Think about the vents cars have now and how they could be improved. It seems that no one in our bone-headed auto industry has taken the time to reconsider the simple air vent. What are some ways it can better put a breeze where it’s needed? For that matter, where is the breeze needed? Sweating effectively requires having airflow over one’s back. Current cars place your back squarely in a cushy seat with no possibility of air flow. What if for starters cars had mesh seats? What if we had the vents blow directly from the seat onto our backs? Or better yet, what if we had ventilated clothing that clipped directly into the car’s cooling system? And we won’t need any kind of sophisticated automatic temperature control. Just provide a steady air flow and your body will sweat or not as necessary to keep itself comfortable.
You are probably wondering “What if I don’t have one of those lightweight/narrow/slow cars of the future? How can I keep cool by sweating while traveling?” If such is the case I propose that you make do with an electric cargo bike, which is the next best thing to a lightweight/narrow/slow car of the future. Here are my tips for sweating more effectively in hot weather:
- Use an electric bike. Moving on an electric bike is especially nice since it can provide a breeze without so much exertion. And if you are on foot, my experience is that someone can actually stay cooler by running slowly and efficiently rather than walking. The faster airflow from running combined with sweating kept me cooler than the slower airflow (but less exertion) of walking. However, running efficiently takes practice. It probably also helps to be thin.
- Don’t wear a backpack while biking. Backpacks block air flow. Get a cargo bike so you can carry your stuff off your body.
- Wear sunscreen.
- Go shirtless. Don’t be a prude dude. Let the sweat out. But carry a jacket for when you stop.
- Carry twice as much water as you think you’ll need. You’ll need it.
- Only stay in the sun if you are moving. The airflow will keep you from overheating.
- Cool down in front of a fan after biking. You will notice a surge in body temperature after you stop biking, with a corresponding surge in sweat output. Don’t waste that sweat! Cool down with whatever breeze and fan and shade you can find. Only after the sweat has completely evaporated should you take a shower if circumstances require.
So this summer by following these simple tips I actually looked forward to biking and running as an opportunity to go outside and cool down. I did not let the weather reports dictate whether or not I could go outside. Don’t believe me? Try befriending your sweat!
Yesterday I rode the whole day without electricity: my electric assist battery ran down and I couldn’t recharge it because I was camped out at one of the dozens of hiker/biker campsites that line the canal. And I paid for it: after biking sixty miles unplugged it was excruciating difficult to continue. So last night I swallowed my pride and instead stayed at the overtly commercial Jellystone campground, complete with life size Yogi Bear at the entrance, so that I could charge my batteries there.
This experience has lead me to wonder “How important is physical exertion to the bicycling experience?” If it were possible to bike without getting tired would more people do it? Would it still be fun? I think it would, and this trip I’m on proves it. I think it’s not the exercise aspect that most people are after, but the humaneness that only lightweight slow narrow vehicles can provide.
I am on a bike trip to Washington DC.–I am hoping to do more and more of my long-distance travel by electric cargo bike. I’m getting pretty good at it. Many of you are probably wondering “How can I too make such journeys?”
The hardest part is justifying taking the time. Expect a bike trip to take four times as long as driving. Use whatever rationale works for you: you’re saving the environment, you like to experience nature firsthand, you want to get in shape, whatever. I’m driven to bike out of a sense that it’s the way things should be, a way to make our transportation system humane (see a previous post about my vision).
The next hardest part is responding to the objections and warnings of your family and friends. They will say things like “Why don’t you just drive like a normal person?” They will imagine that biking on a lonely bike trail at 15 mph is somehow more dangerous than driving in dense traffic at highway speeds. Furthermore, there is an insidious bias in our culture that bikes are for recreation and cars are for utilitarian purposes. Therefore, the thinking goes, if you are on a long bike trip you must be on vacation. And you shouldn’t be on vacation if you have to do the serious business of getting to somewhere. This thinking makes it impossible to consider the bike as a valid long-distance transportation tool.
I went on several long bike tours in my college days. Those trips were basically fun ordeals. Long-distance bike trips don’t have to be ordeals any more. What has changed? The two big innovations are smart phones and electric assist for bikes.
When I bike I have my smart phone in one hand to tell me where I am and a printout from Google maps in my other hand to tell me where to go. I would be lost (literally) without them. Here’s how it works. Before I go on my trip I visit Google Maps and enter my starting and ending points. I then click Google Maps’ “bike button” to choose a bike-friendly route. I then print out selected portions of the route. The print outs are good insurance that I can find my way even if I can’t get a mobile phone signal. When I’m actually on my trip I stop periodically and use my phone to make sure that my current location corresponds to a spot on my printout. The phone has another use: finding hotels and campgrounds. I don’t reserve hotels in advance since it’s hard to know where I’ll end up. So when I get near my destination I simply search on hotels or campgrounds within a five mile radius, pick one, and dial. I wish I had had that feature in 1988!
The last step to going on a bike trip is the easiest: physically moving the pedals around. Plan on going 80 to 100 miles a day. I know that sounds like a lot to those of you who are experienced bike tourists. But electric assist changes the bike touring game: you can go a little bit faster and farther, carry a bit more, and work less hard. I remember that when I went bike touring 20 years ago I could expect to go 50 miles a day at 10 miles an hour. I carried about 50 pounds of stuff. Hills just about killed me. Now I plan to go 80 to 100 miles a day at 15 miles an hour. I can carry 100 pounds. And with electric assist, hills don’t require much more effort than flats.
The main drawback to traveling on an electric cargo bike is that you have to find an outlet to plug into at the end of every day. For that reason I mostly stay in motels. Motels are cheaper than hotels with the added advantage that since the rooms are at ground level you can wheel your bike into your room. I also carry camping equipment so I can camp out if necessary.
I am hoping that by next year I will be able to recharge my batteries completely with solar power on long trips. On a previous trip I was able to gather about one eighth to one fourth of my power from the sun using bike-mounted solar panels.
What does the future hold? More bike paths? Better batteries and motors? Really smart smart phones? And a kinder gentler transportation system? Let’s not just wait and see, let’s make it happen.
I found paradise. I am on my way to Washington DC by bike, and I chose a route that passes through the Pine Creek Rail Trail in Pennsylvania. This trail is awesome. Sure the scenery is nice and the weather is nice, but what really struck me is that this trail is The Way Highways Should Be. My fellow travelers were pedestrians, bicyclists, and horseback riders. We greeted each other as we passed. The pace was slow. The mood was happy. Old folks tottered along on their bikes and and in their electric wheel chairs. Lycra-clad young guys zipped by on their road bikes. Little kids played in the dirt in the middle of the path. Residents waved from their porches. It was humanity at its finest. It was idyllic. And it was my highway.
Anyone who is willing to give up a vehicle that is wide, fast, and heavy can have this too. What does a vehicle’s width have to do with it? There are many hidden consequences when a cultures embraces wide vehicles. Traffic jams, parking structures, massive concrete structures dotting the landscape. Heavy vehicles also lead to an imposing and expensive infrastructure that could easily be replaced by lighter vehicles on crushed gravel paths. Fast vehicles make it necessary to have a bewildering amount of traffic control–stoplights and signage. And high speeds make it difficult to greet the people you pass.
The Pine Creek Trail epitomizes the humanity in transportation that we as a culture have given up. Can we get it back again? I am hopeful. Over half of my 470-mile route to Washington D.C. will be on bike trails: 65 miles on the Pine Creek Trail, 16 miles on Pennsylvania’s Lower Trail, 180 miles on the C&O Canal Towpath, and lastly a few miles on the Crescent Trail that circumnavigates Washington DC. That’s 265 miles of trail! I look forward to the day I can do the entire trip on humane highways of crushed gravel.