The Faltering Introduction of E-bikes Part 1 – The Problem

English: An electric bicycle chained on West 3...

An electric bicycle chained on West 34th St. Manhattan. (Wikipedia)

Have you noticed them? They can be easy to miss since they look like your average bicycle or motor scooter, but they’re neither. They’re e-bikes; low-powered electrically driven bicycles, whose popularity is soaring all around the world and is only expected to accelerate.

In concept, e-bikes should be nothing more than bicycles with a limited amount of electrical drive to expand their appeal to a broader segment of the public. In principle this would provide most of the benefits of cycling over driving – reduced fuel dependency, congestion, pollution and costs – without forcing people to work up a sweat on the way to work. This seems like a laudable goal but in Toronto, and presumably in other similar markets, this surge in popularity is beginning to cause friction between e-bikers and other road users, who were beginning to give e-bikers the stink-eye for their speed and/or recklessness. This left officials with no choice but to intervene before things started to seriously degrade into outright stare downs! This article in the Toronto Sun illustrates quite nicely the frustrations from different perspectives.

So what’s going wrong?

Consider that our transportation infrastructure has been designed for generations mainly around just two modes of transportation; driving and walking. So we have streets, and sometimes we have sidewalks. The way we’ve always thought about mobility makes it very difficult for new transportation modes to be easily added to existing traffic. Road users in many developing countries have grown accustomed to sharing the road with a broad variety of vehicles, whether they be horse carts, tuk-tuks, cars, trucks, bicycles, or farm vehicles. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the conflict with e-bikes doesn’t seem to exist there.

In recent decades, there has been a trend to attempt just that (more options to get around is a very good thing) by adding finer and finer levels of segregation to our roadways for each vehicle type. These are seen in the form of dedicated streetcar lanes, exclusive bus ways, HOV lanes and bike lanes, all of which carve up the landscape alongside regular roadways and sidewalks.

This variety can be liberating in that it offers choice, but the approach has limiting side effects as it can lead to confusion about the rules, and it forces us to choose only amongst options that have been anticipated and accommodated for by urban planners. With their highly structured approach, they have the impossible task of trying to provide just the right type of road that suits each neighbourhood’s preferred travel modes, looking ahead several decades as best they can.

In effect, the transportation network is locked down, unsuited to anything new like the e-bike. City councillors have been trying to accommodate them with, of course, nothing other than their own specifically disjointed set of rules and limitations. For example, e-bikes present similar risks to road users as scooters due to their speed and weight, but they aren’t required to have licenses or insurance. Similarly, riders are supposed to follow the same rules as cyclists, but they are banned from cycling lanes. Where’s the rationale?

In a nutshell, there are three components to this transportation problem. We have first of all a fixed infrastructure, which is at odds with the second; ever changing technology, mediated by the third; layers of administration in the form of imperfect new road rules.

What matters though, is a solution. What might it be? This question will be the subject of our next post, so stay tuned!


HPV Helicopter – The Final Frontier?

Pilot pedals helicopter above the ground crew at indoor soccer field.

Atlas helicopter in flight (Martin Turner

We did it!

Well, not me. It was the AeroVelo team from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering that designed and flew the world’s first human-powered helicopter on June 13, but since I live in the area I feel that they are my team anyways.

Their pedal-copter (named Atlas) managed to remain aloft for over 60 seconds, reaching over 3 meters altitude while the pilot maintained directional control. These were the requirements put forward by the American Helicopter Society to teams from around the world seeking to win the $250,000 Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Challenge. Though 3 meters height and 60 seconds duration may not seem like a lot, the Wright brothers achieved exactly the same results in their first recorded flights at Kitty Hawk. So yes, this is a significant feat that will go down in history.

In practical terms, the only use for Atlas might be to pedal yourself over a fast-moving train if you happen to find yourself blocked in on either side of the track. Of course, that’s not the point. The point is to push our boundaries, to advance the human race.

But with this latest achievement, have we done it all now? Is there another frontier in the human powered vehicle story? We’ve already done human powered boats, bikes, pedal cars, HPV planes, even HPV submarines (the speed record for which is held by another Canadian university; the École de Technologie Supérieure of the Université du Québec). What’s left, an HPV spacecraft? Mars, here we come! Of course we can always push further, higher, faster, longer, as Daft Punk might sing. But none of that will ever be worthy of an entry in the historical records.

Thanks to the AeroVelo team, it seems as though human powered mobility is now unlimited. Human power forever!