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.

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.

don’t ask me to drive

I recently made the decision not to drive. Surprisingly, the reactions of my friends and family (a predominantly open-minded bunch) have ranged from mild concern to outrage. “Supportive” is not in that range. This puzzled me at first. I understand that this decision will put a burden on others, in particular my wife. But the fact is she already does 90% of the driving so this isn’t a big change for us. This will also put a slight burden on my children. Again, our lives are already set up to minimize driving. My kids both walk to school and my wife and I walk to our offices, so this doesn’t affect our regular schedule. And lastly this will put a slight burden on my friends for the few times a year that I drive them somewhere. What can I say? I’m sorry. But I have to do what I have to do. (Note that I’m still willing to ride in a car—I’m a hypocrite I know. And certainly I’ll drive in emergencies.)

Why do I have to do this? Is it to save the planet? Global warming and all that, right? That’s a nice idea but actually I’m kind of afraid of people who want to save the planet. I’m not one of them and I try to avoid them. Is it because I want everyone else to stop driving too? Setting a good example and all that, right? I won’t stop anyone from joining me, but actually I am doing this for very personal reasons that most other people don’t share. I’m doing this because I am a bicyclist. If you are not a bicyclist then you won’t understand my feelings about cars. Over the last 35 years I have been honked at, cussed at, crowded out, and physically assaulted by motorists. I have endured a transportation system that makes very little accommodation for my needs, where the norm is a smug assumption by motorists that I am a nuisance rather than a fellow traveler. Why should I continue to be a part of a system that is so biased against me? I refuse to cooperate with our transportation system as it is.

I can completely understand if others don’t share my feelings. Few people have my history as a bicyclist or have spent the time that I have mulling these things over. Do what you have to do. But don’t ask me to drive.

My feelings about biking were recently brought to the surface after we visited Portland Oregon. There I was overjoyed to see a thriving bike community. At the Portland airport I picked up a book called Pedaling Revolution about the successes of Portland and other cities. I read it cover to cover on the flight home. I suddenly just knew that I had to stop driving. It wasn’t a decision so much as a realization about what was expected of me, perhaps what Quakers call a leading. I have a strange mix of reluctance and insistence about taking this on.

We are fortunate to live in a city (Ithaca New York) where we live three blocks from a thriving downtown with dozens of excellent restaurants and several theaters. We live two blocks from a three-mile trail through the woods. And there is a cool farmer’s market, a science museum, an art museum, a mighty fine college and a world-class university all within a two-mile radius. Except for the hills and the snow, it’s a biker’s heaven. And if you encounter either of those impediments, it’s no big deal to walk (or to use our electric bike).

I foresee a time in the near future when my family can live without owning a car. When a car is absolutely necessary we can use the local carshare cars. We only make three or four driving trips a week already. One of the few remaining reasons we drive is for grocery shopping. It’s less expensive (and more fun) to go to the big grocery store out on the strip and buy six bags of groceries than it is to bring home groceries from the tiny store downtown. But going to the big store would be impossible to do by bike. Or would it? In order to answer that question I recently purchased a bicycle trailer and I plan to start shopping with it this week. Wish me luck!

My two lovely assistants help test drive my new trailer.
Two lovely assistants helped me test drive my new trailer.

Why I traded in my car for a bike

bakfiets, car seat, stoller and Model T

This is the story of why I traded in my car for a bicycle.

It’s not that many people have asked about this. Rather I have sensed that people wonder about this unusual lifestyle choice and do not ask.

My story isn’t going to be about lifestyle comparison or counting karma points. I want to convey the emotional parts of this transition.
I had some selfish reasons for wanting to get rid of my car. I don’t particularly like driving them or riding in them. I don’t know how to fix them if they break, and I’m not interested to learn. I didn’t like car down payments, car insurance payments, car gas payments, car breakdown payments and car break-in payments.
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