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, both of which are mediated by the third; the rules of the road.

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

The Whee! List – Solowheel

Welcome to the first edition of the Whee! List, a compilation of all the weird and wonderful transportation devices being devised by clever people around the world. There seems to be an endless variety of amazing, innovative devices to get us around these days, and I think everyone needs to know about them!

Motorized self balancing unicycle

Motorized self balancing unicycle (Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious)


The vehicle that’s blowing my mind right now is the Solowheel, an electric unicycle you stand on that can fit in a handbag (a heavy-duty handbag, given its 24 lb. weight).

This would have to be the simplest form of powered transportation in existence; one person, one wheel, one motor. The rider stands a few inches taller than normal but takes up no more floor space as the device fits between his legs. According to the manufacturer, it can run on slopes and uneven surfaces, up to 16km/h, and has a range of 16 km. Recharging takes two hours from a regular wall outlet, and it will also recharge itself when braking or descending a slope.

It sure looks like a blast, but a more interesting topic is its potential practical applications. When and where would it be likely to be useful, or not? The most obvious answer is that it fills the role of a so-called “last mile” solution quite nicely. This is the name given to a device that helps people bridge the distance between a transportation hub and their final destination. For example, taking them from a subway station to the office, or zipping around a shopping mall. As such, the handle on top of the Solowheel may be its most significant design element!

As a powered vehicle, the Solowheel may be the premier device for its purpose, given that it can carry you anywhere that you can walk, except for stairs, where it can easily be carried. However, if you line it up against some unpowered options like rollerblades or skateboards, it gets a good run for its money. Reason being, the Solowheel is listed for a healthy $1800 despite being such a minimalist concept. Of course that price will buy you exclusivity, attention, effortless mobility, and probably a ton of fun once you get past the learning curve.

Inventor Thor from the comic strip B.C. performs stunts on his stone wheel

Solowheel: Life imitating art? (JohnHartStudios.com)

As I haven’t been able to try one, some questions remain unanswered such as whether it could handle riding on an escalator, or the eternal question for all vehicles; where can I race it! I also question its battery management and behaviour during extreme manoeuvers. Is there a reader out there who has one who can comment on these issues, or better yet – lend it to me!

HPV Helicopter – The Final Frontier?

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

Atlas helicopter in flight (Martin Turner Visibilize.com)

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!