Car Lite

Sep 2010
by larry

Biking Reconsidered

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.

Sep 2010
by larry

How to Bike Long Distances on Your Electric Cargo Bike

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.

Sep 2010
by larry

The Way Highways Should Be

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.

Jun 2010
by larry

Tension, Integrity, and the Design of Lightweight Vehicles

The ElectraFlyer ultralight. Note the guy wires. Its electric motor weighs twice as much as my Stokemonkey motor (26 vs. 13 pounds) but it has 18 times the horsepower. The battery weighs 6.5 times my 36v 10ah Prismatic LiFePo4 (78 pounds vs. 12 pounds) but produces about 10 times the power. An Xtracycle with this monster motor and battery would add 104 pounds to the bike but would increase the range to 250 miles. Add that wing, throw in a propeller and my Xtracycle could fly!

Thomas Morse Scout showing guy wires. Incidentally this plane was manufactured in Ithaca the small town where I live.

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around guy wires. No that doesn’t mean wires made by guys. It means a tensioned cable used to brace parts of a structure or vehicle. For example have you ever noticed the cables forming Xs between an old biplanes’ wings? Those cables prevented the two wings from moving relative to each other. They also made it possible for a biplane to be lightweight. As biplanes’ motors became more powerful weight has not been so much of  a factor and you don’t see as many or any cables on a modern biplane. However you do see cables on ultralight aircraft as shown. More and more you see cables used in architecture. I argue that we need to use more cables—and parts under tension in general—in the design of our cars.

Guy wires to stabilize my solar canopy.

I recently needed to add guy wires to my Bike Wagon canopy design because when I put my solar panels on top of the canopy, the added weight made the canopy wobbly. A few cable Xs solved the problem. It got me thinking about how the design of ultralight airplanes and bicycles and lightweight vehicles in general requires using tensegrity. Say what? “Tensegrity” is a word that American architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller made up by combining the word “tension” with the word “integrity” to describe a new building technique. The basic idea is that you can make way cool lightweight structures by combining something with structural integrity (such as a hunting bow) with something that is under tension (such as the bow string).Tensegrity structures can have the unnerving property that the beams of the structure don’t actually touch each other (see the Tensegritoy below). Our bodies themselves use tensegrity: our bones provide the structural integrity and our ligaments and muscles provide the tension.

A wonderful way to get hands-on experience with tensegrity is to order a Tensegritoy kit.

The bicycle wheel is another good example of tensegrity. Back in the day wheels were constructed using wooden spokes. The spokes needed to be thick and heavy. The bicycle wheel, in contrast, uses tensegrity. The rim provides the structural integrity and the spokes provide the tension. This design creates a very strong lightweight wheel. A car wheel (excepting the occasional MG) does not use tensegrity; it is solid metal. A car’s large powerful internal combustion engine overwhelms any need for weight savings. Incidentally there are commercially successful bike frames that use tensegrity.

The Millenium Dome in London is constructed out of steel towers and tensioned fabric.

Tensegrity is a revelation in architecture. The first large buildings relied on gravity and the compression strength of stone to hold themselves up. Then with the invention of the steel I-beam, buildings could use the structural integrity of the I-beams to hold themselves up. More and more architects are experimenting with tension components such as steel cables and fabric. Some of these structures are what the layman would call a tent. However, we’re talking tents that are very large permanent structures such as the 1,200 ft. wide (365 m) Millennium Dome. Two related ideas are tensile structures (elements carrying only tension and no compression or bending) and tensairity structures (pneumatic structures that use inflated airbeams and attached stiffeners or cables).

Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Car. It was about 6 feet tall, seated the driver and 10 passengers, weighed less than 1000 lbs., went 120 miles/hr on a 90 horsepower engine, and got between 30-50 miles to the gallon of gas!

I believe road vehicles need to undergo a similar transition—from compression to tension components in their construction—so that they can become light enough to be powered by humans and by sunlight. Contemporary cars have structural integrity mainly by virtue of the strength of steel. I envision lightweight slow small vehicles that use aluminum poles, cables, and fabric to give them shape. Is this possible? It can’t hurt to dream big. In 1930 Buckminster Fuller’s own car invention, the Dymaxion Car, weighed less than 1000 pounds and could carry 10 passengers.

May 2010
by larry

The Once and Future Microcar

The 1965 Peel P50 microcar.

I’ve been sharing with people my ambition to turn my Xtracycle “cargo bike” into a microcar. This has led me to ask what exactly is a microcar? And what would it take to give an Xtracycle the functionality of a microcar?

Microcar 101

It turns out microcars are not a new idea—they’ve been around since the dawn of the twentieth century. They are basically very small cars, usually between 150 and 1,000 pounds, powered by a 49cc to 500cc motorcycle-like engine or an electric motor, and often they are three-wheeled. They tend to be very cute and have become the objects of desire for many collectors and clubs. Various forces have caused microcars to wax and wane in popularity. For example they flourished after both World War I and World War II, perhaps as a way for people to economize. They also tend to flourish in places where their small size gives them tax, insurance, or drivers’ licensing advantages. Because of these economic forces, microcars are more popular in Europe and Japan than the U.S. For example in Austria and France they have a reputation for being the vehicle of last resort for people who lost their driver’s license for drunk driving. In some European countries, they became popular because taxes and insurance used to depend on engine displacement or  power. Modern Japanese microcars, called Kei cars, are designed to exploit local tax and insurance regulations, and in more rural areas are exempted from the requirement to certify that adequate parking is available for the vehicle.

I believe (and others believe) the time is right for the microcar to rise again, and I believe the bicycling community will have a hand in that transformation. There is a vacuum forming in our transportation system for a slow narrow vehicle that weighs between 100 and 1000 pounds. The car manufacturers don’t seem interested in coming down from their planet-wrenching upper end of the weight scale. It’s left up to the bike manufacturers to come up from the low end, to produce an intermediate-sized vehicle. My electric-assist “stoked” Xtracycle already has some of the specs of the smallest microcar, the Peel P50. The P50 weighed 130 pounds; my stoked Xtracycle with a canopy enclosure and other amenities will weigh about the same. The P50 has a 4.2 horsepower (3,131 watts) motor; my electric motor can put out 750 watts, which, along with some human power thrown in, might sometimes reach half that power on a good day. We’ve got the beginnings of a microcar here.

Furthermore, bicyclists can give birth to a new kind of vehicle because we are  unhindered by the constraints that the auto industry has. For example the side impact laws—necessary for vehicles that go highway speeds—make it technically impossible for the auto manufacturers to make a car that weighs less than 1000 pounds. Also the car industry is constrained by the limitations of mass production. Before the car industry can roll a microcar through it massive factories it must first ensure that there is a very large market for it. Bike shops, in contrast, only have to convince a few hundred people to buy one of their hand-crafted microcars which they can build from off-the-shelf parts. This situation is similar to the pre-mass production era when many small shops produced only a few hundred of their often eccentric cyclecars, the original microcars. Cyclecars were small inexpensive cars manufactured mainly between 1910 and the late 1920s. They were called cyclecars because they often incorporated motorcycle parts. They were very inexpensive for cars; the Buckboard cyclecar cost as low as $200 ($2,800 in 2010 dollars).

The auto industry must also overcome peoples’ expectations that all cars must be able to drive at highway speeds and highway distances. There is a movement among environmentally-minded manufacturers to create a new class of cars called Neighborhood Electric Vehicles, which weigh less than 3,000 pounds, typically have a range of 30 miles and have a top speed of 25 mph. But given what I know about American culture I don’t think this movement will succeed. People balk at the idea of a car that only goes 25mph, but a bike that goes that speed is cool.

So what is stopping a bike shop from making a microcar? Two things: the legal definition of a bicycle, and technical constraints. For an electric-assist bicycle to be legally considered a bicycle (rather than a motorcycle or car) it’s motor must be less than 750 watts, it must have functional pedals, it’s maximum speed must be less than 20mph, and it must have two or three wheels. This last constraint is important: if you give a vehicle four wheels it seems the full weight of automotive regulations falls upon it. There is some hope that these legal constraints will rise. For example I read recently that the motor limit in New York has been raised to 1,000 watts.

So is it technically possible to build a vehicle within those legal constraints that achieves the same functionality as a microcar? I believe it is. My Xtracycle cargo bike is almost there. Why hasn’t anyone done it before? Maybe because electric motor and battery technology wasn’t so well developed until now. Maybe the consumer base wasn’t there. Maybe the gas price, tax, insurance, and licensing forces weren’t in alignment. I sense that they are coming into alignment now.

What would it take to turn a cargo bike into a microcar?

What can a microcar do that a cargo bike can’t do? One big difference is speed. We can make a cargo bike faster by adding an electric motor, but we still have the 20mph legal limit. For me this is not a problem. Carrying capacity is more important than speed for me, and electric motors have an advantage over internal-combustion engines in this regard. For a given horsepower, electric vehicles such as my bike tend to be slow but with great carrying capacity, whereas internal-combustion-powered vehicles tend to be faster but unable to carry as great a load. For example my bike has a 400-pound carrying capacity and a maximum speed of 20mph, whereas the P50 described above probably can’t carry much more than one 200-pound person but it can carry them at 38mph. I would much prefer a microcar that can carry a lot rather than a microcar that is fast.

The next biggest functionality a microcar has that a cargo bike doesn’t have is a canopy. I’ve outlined my design criteria for an Xtracycle canopy in a previous post. Bicycles have a long history of incorporating canopies; bikes with a canopy are called velomobiles. However, again, velomobiles seem to be built for speed rather than cargo capacity. Another design direction that incorporates a canopy with a bike is the bicycle car, which typically means a pedal-powered vehicle with four wheels. A pedicab is a similar idea.

Other advantages of a microcar have to do with comfort and ease of use. Bicycling manufacturers are used to asking the bicyclist to conform to the bike.  Our microcar must instead incorporate some of the same human-centered design that makes Apple products such big hits. Bicycle manufacturers haven’t yet begun to explore the design opportunities that come from having an electric motor and a big honking battery on a bike. An obvious opportunity is to power the bike lights from the central battery rather than have separate batteries and switches for each light. Now that we have a canopy we can begin to think about how to keep passengers warm. Another  set of design opportunities comes from the cyclist no longer having to be thrifty with power. For example I took the toe clips off of my Xtracycle since any minor advantage they offer is overwhelmed by what the motor can do. And it now becomes possible to consider a shaft drive instead of a chain drive, since its minor inefficiency pales in comparison with the advantage of not having a greasy chain.

Here are some general microcar design criteria with some ideas about how they might be satisfied. Got ideas of your own? Please comment and I’ll add them to this post.

My microcar can carry the driver and one passenger comfortably. The biggest design choice here seems to be having people sit side-by-side or front-back. I like front-back so that the vehicle is narrow. This is important so that the vehicle can ride on the shoulder since it is slow. But a side-to-side design, particularly a recumbent trike, could be explored.

My microcar protects the occupants from rain, wind and cold. The traditional microcar uses sheet metal or plastic. I think cloth is the best material since it is lightweight. A cloth cover can be changed to fit the season. The winter cover could be insulated. And it may be possible to integrate electronics into the cloth, such as tail lights and headlights.

My microcar is easy to maintain.

My microcar weighs between 100 and 1000 pounds.

My microcar is powered by a 500 to 1,000 watt motor. Now that New York will have a 1,000-watt maximum motor size, I am imagining an Xtra-cycle microcar that has a tricycle attachment replacing its rear wheels. And each wheel of this trike attachment has a 500-watt electric motor hub. Now we’re talking.

My microcar has a top speed of 20mph.

My microcar costs less than $5000.

My microcar has a 400 pound total cargo and occupant capacity.

May 2010
by larry

Don’t Blame BP. Blame me.

I haven’t yet heard anyone say what needs to be said about the gulf oil spill: I drive a petroleum-powered vehicle  so I am to blame. There I said it. Let me say it again: I drive a petroleum-powered vehicle so I am to blame for the gulf oil spill. You must spank me.

I cannot blame BP. BP is just one more corporate scape goat diverting my attention from my own failings. There will be many more BPs attracted to environmental risk-taking as the price of oil raises the stakes, like a rising jackpot attracts gamblers.

I am addicted to oil. How then can I blame BP? Can the drug addict blame the pusher for the social woes of illicit drug use? BP is simply a tool that society has manifested in order to fulfill my desires. I shouldn’t question BP, I should question my desires.

I ask myself if I really need to run my errands at speeds above 20mph. I ask myself if I really need to live farther than ten miles from my workplace or school. I ask myself if I really need to drive thousands of miles a year. My answers to these questions lead me to conclude, sadly, that I must take the green bumper stickers off my car.

This may seem like a harsh analysis. I hope you can understand the epic denial I have about the true source of blame for the gulf oil spill. And yet there is an even more epic denial I admit to: the spill has only damaged one ocean; global climate change, caused by me personally, is damaging the entire planet. It’s hard for me to face guilt that large. I try not to despair. I look into my heart and imagine a better place. And I try to make it happen.

Mar 2010
by larry

Does Driving Cause Cancer?

Internationally acclaimed environmental activist Sandra Steingraber spoke with my First Day School class this morning. (“First Day School” is Quakerese for Sunday School; I teach the 6th to 8th graders.) Sandra’s specialty is researching and writing about the links between the environment and cancer. It’s truly sobering stuff, which you can read about in her books or see about in the movie Living Downstream to be released next month. I invited Sandra to speak with us because I admire her as an activist, and I hope to emulate her approach in my work as a bicycling activist. She describes herself as a “shy activist” who would rather do the science side of things and support brasher activists rather than be a brash activist herself. And maybe people would rather listen to the science than the rhetoric any maybe people would rather hear it from a shy person than a brash person.

Because of my quest to Blame the Cars for All Badness I was pleased to find the following paragraphs in Sandra’s book Living Downstream:

The even better news [better because environmental causes of cancer are fixable whereas genetic causes are not] is that the synthetic chemicals linked to cancer largely derive from the same two sources as those responsible for climate change: petroleum and coal. Finding substitutes for these two substances is already on the collective to-do list. The U.S. petroleum industry alone accounts for one-quarter of toxic pollutants released each year in North America. This does not include the air pollutants generated from cars and trucks burning the products that the petroleum industry makes…vehicle emissions are linked to lung, breast, and bladder cancers…Investments in green energy are therefore also investments in cancer prevention. In this, it feels to me that we are standing at a historic confluence, a place where two rivers meet: a stream of emerging knowledge about what the combustion of fossil fuels is doing to our planet is joining a stream of emerging knowledge about what synthetic chemicals derived from fossil fuels are doing to our bodies.

…By-products from the burning of fossil fuels are under particular suspicion. Breast cancer, as we have seen, was first linked to potential sources of air pollution in Long Island. Subsequently, associations have been found between exposure to traffic exhaust during puberty and risk of early-onset breast cancer. Perhaps not coincidentally, a growing body of evidence suggests that tailpipe emissions have estrogenic activity. Air pollutants may alter breast density in ways that raise the risk for breast cancer. A 2007 review of the literature concluded that the risk of breast cancer associated with exposure to engine exhaust and other aromatic hydrocarbons is roughly equivalent in magnitude to some of the well-established risks for breast cancer, such as late age at first childbirth and sedentary lifestyle. Corroborating evidence comes from the laboratory: members of a family of combustion by-products called aromatic hydrocarbons—of which benzo[a]pyrene is one—cause breast cancer in animals. According to researchers at Albert Einstein College in New York, aromatic hydrocarbons inhaled by the lungs can become stored, concentrated, and metabolized in the breast, where the ductal cells become targets for carcinogens.

Bladder cancer, too, has been linked in several studies to air pollution. The strongest evidence comes from Taiwan, where researchers found positive associations between air pollution, especially from petrochemical plants, and the risk of dying from bladder cancer. An investigation of bladder cancer deaths among children and adolescents in Taiwan found that almost all those afflicted lived within a few miles of three large petroleum and petrochemical plants.

That caught my attention.

Dec 2009
by larry

Motorists Are Homicidal Maniacs

Cars are comfortable. Cars are practical. But this comes at a cost. Worldwide it was estimated in 2004 that 1.2 million people were killed (2.2% of all deaths) and 50 million more were injured by motorists. That’s a lot of carnage. Why does this happen?

A lot of accidents are caused by frustrated people in a hurry who forget that they are operating heavy machinery. People who would use the utmost caution operating a table saw will think nothing of flinging their massive tools of transportation at babies in strollers crossing the street. And they generally add insult to injury by honking at the parents.

The other day I was studying how people interact at the grocery store. The store was pretty crowded and some people were growing frustrated with their ability to get their shopping done on schedule. Occasionally I would see one of them tailgate a slower-moving patron and then zoom ahead in a huff. At first I thought it was funny seeing their little dramas, but then I realized that this is the same behavior I’ve seen on the streets, and it’s behavior that has seriously threatened my life. It’s one thing to bump into someone with your 30 pound grocery cart. You can apologize and move on. But it’s a different matter to roll over them with your 3000 pound grocery cart. And yet people approach these two situations with the same inconsiderate behavior. Scary.

You motorists might argue “Well I’ve never killed or maimed anyone personally. Don’t get all in a snit about it!” Even if you haven’t killed anyone with your car lately, you are perpetuating a system that is continuously threatening to kill. And this threat of death keeps people off the streets and diminishes our communities. Before cars you could walk around pretty much anywhere and stand around pretty much wherever you pleased. Now we have what I like to call Zones of Terror. You may have seen these zones—they are paved areas that surround our houses. Whoever lingers too long in one of these zones is facing severe consequences from their fellow citizens. Pets and children must be fenced in to prevent them from wandering into one of these zones. Is that how we want to live?

When you enter your metal box, you lose some of your humanity. You can no longer fully interact with me. I can barely hear you. I can barely see you. To me you look like a big hulking menacing robot. I invite you to exit the box to join me and the other humans.

Dec 2009
by larry

The Highway of the Future Is a Pleasant Path through the Woods

Let’s assume that over the next hundred years everybody does the sensible thing and lets their cars (including electric cars) fall into ruin. Bye bye Passat and Accord. Bye bye Hummer and Prius. In their place people will only use pedal power and electric bikes. Furthermore assume that these vehicles weigh between 15 and 100 pounds, they  are no more than four feet wide, their top speed is 20mph, and their range is about 50 miles. This is a pretty short range, so in order to go cross-country people will ride trains. In this future, train stations will be 1 to 25 miles apart all over the country. How will these changes affect our landscape? What will this future look like?

Roads, overpasses, bridges, etc. will only have to bear loads two orders of magnitude less than they did during the loathsome auto era. That is, they need only support 30 pound vehicles rather than 3000 pound vehicles. All this infrastructure will be correspondingly less thick, less expensive and even unnecessary. Goodbye clover leaf and other concrete monstrosities. Hello covered bridges.

In this future, snow will be white. No more snow gray from auto exhaust. And no more snow plowing. We may want a big machine to compact the snow, but our vehicles will be light enough that they can ride on top of the snow instead of having to rely on snow plows to laboriously push the snow aside.

Under this scenario, pavement for suburban and country roads pretty much becomes unnecessary. Heck, you may even be able to grow grass on your “road” if there isn’t too much bike traffic. Roads closer to the cities may require crushed stone. Only the very center of cities will require pavement. Our highways will be scenic paths through the fields and woods.

Roads can be much narrower. One-way streets will be unnecessary. Multi-lane highways will be unnecessary. We will have to come up with some use for the exorbitant number of lanes previously deemed necessary. Hotels? Roadside taverns?

A vehicle going less than 20mph and weighing less than 100 pounds can stop very quickly, can swerve around obstacles, and won’t necessarily harm something or someone it does run into. Flattened possums, raccoons, and squirrels on the roadside will become unknown. And in this future you will be able to let your kids and pets wander freely throughout the neighborhood (like people used to do a century ago). And kids will be empowered in other ways: since these vehicles of the future are not so dangerous as cars, kids will be able to drive them at an early age. Teenagers won’t have to wait until they are 16 to get their wheels. Kids can drive themselves to the soccer game—soccer moms are no longer necessary.

Parking lots will be minimal. The malls of our present era will look ridiculous. Think of all the former parking lots that will be opened up for parks and playgrounds. Get out your jackhammer, we can start now.

City centers of the future will be walkable. Traffic jams will be a thing of the past. People of the future looking at photographs of our traffic jams will either laugh or scowl. Why don’t pedestrians and bikes form traffic jams? A mass of slow moving thin vehicles can perform a very human dance to get through a bottleneck. Think about all the people moving past each other in Grand Central Station, sub-consciously negotiating with each other to get where they are going without stopping. Now think about the same amount of people sitting in their cars staying in their lane on a highway stretched out for miles and miles waiting to go forward. The future will be more like Grand Central Station: happy chaos rather than ordered misery. People will discover what bike couriers in big cities have known for a long time: it is faster to get across town going 10 mph continuously on a bike than going stop and go at 30 mph in a car.

In the future, traffic signage can be minimal. First of all, it can be much smaller. Have you ever looked at a billboard close up? They are enormous! But that’s what it takes to get someone’s attention who is whizzing by at 65 mph. What size does the same sign need to be to be seen by a bicyclist going by at 20mph? Smaller. Secondly, the navigation technology of the future will make it very difficult to get lost. If you can see on an electronic map where you are and where you want to be, why do you even need signs, except maybe street signs? Thirdly, slow-moving thin bikes make many signs unnecessary. We won’t need one-way signs since bicycles are thin enough to go both ways on almost all streets. If we’re all going less than 20mph we can yield instead of stop, so we won’t need stop signs or stop lights on almost all streets. And we won’t need speed limits since they are built into our electric bikes’ electronics. Think about what that will look like—a city without signs.

You might say “What about delivery trucks? What about garbage trucks? What about fire engines, police cars, and ambulances? What about tractors, fork lifts, backhoes and dump trucks? Surely you are not so naive as to think we can do without these things?” We’ve grown so used to internal combustion engines that doing without them has become inconceivable. Consider the alternatives. Do we need delivery trucks? One possibility is that we’ll just need less things in our future slower-paced lifestyle. We certainly won’t need mail. And we can certainly bike to the post office (which will be near the train station) to get medium-sized and even large packages. You would be surprised what it is possible to carry on a bike. I have seen photos of people carrying refrigerators on their cargo bikes. Do we need garbage trucks? If you know there is no garbage truck coming, you quickly learn to compost, repair, reduce, reuse and recycle. And you may suddenly feel like petitioning manufacturers to quit with the over-packaging. In the past what often happened is that if you didn’t want to repair something yourself the local tinker would take it off your hands. If there is any trash left you can take it to the transfer station near the train station. Do we need fire engines, police cars, and ambulances? Here is the only instance where I say yes we do. They can even be gasoline powered. All the bicyclists will get out of their way when necessary. Do we need heavy machinery? In the future agriculture and architecture will be much smarter and much smaller in scale. Today we harvest crops with big machines, transport them to a factory, package them and then transport them to a grocery. In the future people will simply bike out to the fields and pick the crops. Duh. Today we bring bulldozers, cranes, trucks, etc. to prepare a home for occupation. In the future we will simply carry enough steel tubing on our bikes out to the site to erect a modest geodesic home. A few more trips and we can trick it out with insulation, furniture, and solar power. How much space do we really need for living? How much stuff do we really need? If you don’t have a car to carry all that crap do you still want it? The future will be a time of reckoning. Like “I reckon I don’t need all these back issues of National Geographic. I reckon I don’t need my CD collection.”

It goes without saying that energy use for transportation in the future will be extremely low, maybe even entirely human power and renewable resources. Batteries for electric bikes will be charged using one blanket-sized solar panel per person. A day’s worth of sun would be enough to power several 10-mile trips. And a person can use the same batteries to power all the lighting, personal heating units, and electronics they need. People will be completely off the grid and out from under the thumb of OPEC. We’re already losing the telephone poles. There go those unsightly utility poles too, except maybe for the trains.  The trains of the future will require centralized power. However, the power can likely be generated from solar, wind, and hydroelectric sources.

Sound impossible? Believe it or not, the technology for this futuristic scenario already exists. It simply requires the will of the people to make it a reality. I gave up driving this summer. Instead I bought a “cargo” bike that I use for errands less than 10 miles away. My bike can carry 400 pounds up steep hills, which equates to two adults or my 9-year-old daughter and four bags of groceries. My bike has a top speed of 20mph (as required by law to be considered a bike) and a range of 20 to 40 miles depending on load and hills. My bike battery can be charged entirely from a solar panel in about a day. My bike was rather expensive (several thousand dollars) but if it were mass-produced it could easily cost less than a thousand dollars. But it won’t be mass-produced unless there is a demand for it—I encourage everyone to go out and buy an electric cargo bike.

When we became an auto-centric culture a hundred years ago we gave up more than we realized. We gave up the outdoors. We gave up clean air. We gave up quiet streets. We gave up safety. We gave up simplicity. What did we get in return? We got convenience. We got speed. We got unprecedented comfort. Do we really need these things? I for one want to get back what was lost.

Nov 2009
by larry

embracing the bicycle: checking in


Thea drew this Big Dummy

It’s been four months since my life-changing post Don’t Ask Me to Drive in which I explain how I have rejected driving (or more positively, embraced bicycling) as my primary mode of transportation. How is it going you ask? Very well thanks! I have only driven three times since my embracing: driving my Dad to the bus station, driving Joyful to the airport, and driving Rini to the airport. And I plan to drive 26 miles to Ovid  next weekend to teach a class there. But other than that I have kept to my commitment. It wasn’t too hard actually.

A big help was my discovery of the Surly Big Dummy “cargo bike” and the Stokemonkey electric motor. We have two Surly Big Dummies now, and the smaller one has a Stokemonkey. We use them a lot. Jasper has taken to biking to school every morning (to the east a mile and a half and then uphill). I usually join him, then bike back to the Commons for work. I’ve used my bike several times to take Thea to the dentist which is four miles uphill to the north. (Everything is uphill in Ithaca.) On Thursdays I help Amanda carry Indie’s baritone from South Hill School. We’ve made several trips to Family Math events at Ithaca College which is straight up South Hill a mile and a half. Often we have passengers and we are toting some major educational materials such as this 6-foot-long physiognotrace. (Google it dude!)


I have to admit that I am sometimes exhausted by the end of the day. Partly this is due to the fact that I am training for a marathon. Sometimes I like the workout the bike provides. But other times I just want to get an errand done. So I’ve ordered a second Stokemonkey for my bike. Beginning in December, I’ll need to bike south (uphill) four miles every week to the Three Swallows Farm pick up our winter CSA. Wish me luck.