Re-Inventing the Bicycle

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Re-Inventing the Bicycle






Learning to ride a bike is often any child’s first rite of passage. As you slowly begin to pedal, the bicycle wobbles and fear paralyzes you. “Don’t be scared — just keep pedaling,” your parent says, so you give it another try. Faster and faster your feet move in circular revolutions. As the spokes begin to blur, you start to gain balance. Then, before you know it, your parent lets go, panting as you take flight.

Then, a certain excitement takes hold of you. That’s because learning to ride a two-wheeler isn’t just a learned skill; it’s a sense of independence — a thrill that hits you like a blast of wind to the face.

And then, it hits you. How do you stop?

In our teenage years, though, we jump on the highway of adulthood and trade our bikes in for driver’s licenses and cars. That trusty, two-wheeler that took us to the farthest ends of our childhood world then becomes relegated to storage. Maybe we’d bring it out for the occasional recreational activity, but more likely, it was left out of sight and forgotten until a garage sale.

But that’s changing.

Unlike generations past, according to Time, Millennials, along with older generations, are forgoing cars to go back to bikes. As cities add bicycling lanes to transportation planning, the trusty bicycle from your childhood is gaining new relevance. But if you think today’s bikes are the rides you remember, think again. Technology is breathing new life into your humble, childhood two-wheeler.

Rise of the E-Bikes

We hear a lot about Tesla Motors, but e-bikes are the number one electric vehicle in the world. In fact, nine-in-ten electric bicycles are sold in China. Ranging from $2,000 to $6,000 and weighing around 50 pounds apiece, they’re heavier versions of traditional bikes, but with a small motor, which can shift between manual to electric modes, kicking it up to 50 miles on a single charge.

In the U.S., e-bike sales are surging, as well, as improved design and battery performance transforms bicycling from a recreational activity into a real commuting alternative to cars.

Despite federal laws that poorly define the line between bikes and motorcycles, making it hard to sell higher-performance vehicles, last year, over 150,000 e-bikes were sold in the U.S., double from a year ago. In fact, by 2020, global sales are expected to reach 40 million units, according to Navigant Research, fueled in part by their affordable price, compared to rising automobile and fuel costs, and metropolitan trends to support greener, more sustainable lifestyles.

“The electric bike is designed to offer the health and environmental advantages of a bicycle with an electric motor,” Dean Heyek-Franssen, owner of Pete’s Electric Bikes, told the Denver Post. “It helps the 65-year-old up a hill, but increasingly it is also seen as transportation alternative, a commuting option.”

The patent for the first electric bicycle dates back to the 1890s. Dubbed the “Golden Age” of the bicycle, that period was characterized by a surge of cycling innovation — like the rear freewheel that let you coast without pedaling — to feed an insatiable American appetite before the automobile boom. Back then, everyone rode a bike and that widespread use fueled the idea and excitement for a motorized engine. But limitations due to the large size and weak power of batteries of the day eventually morphed the electric bicycle into the gas-powered motorcycle.

In the nearly 100 years since, we still have largely the same two choices: traditional, unpowered bicycles and fuel-powered motorcycles. But then, in the late-80s, a resurgence of interest and advancements — specifically in lead-acid batteries and in-hub wheel motors — formed the backbone to commercially viable e-bikes. Then, in the late-90s, even-lighter power packs, coupled with soaring fuel prices, spread demand for the e-bike around the world.

Embracing Biking

E-bikes come in handy as big cities, especially ones with dated zoning laws, rethink traffic planning and congestion. In New York City, for example, Mayor Michael Bloomberg added over 450 miles of bike lanes, often by carving out congested roadways. And according to the New York Times, while his plan for “congestive pricing” was defeated by legislation in 2008, he doubled down with a popular European-style bike-sharing program, dubbed “Citi Bike,” which critics and supporters agree will likely define his 12-year legacy at the helm.

If you want to bike without making a major investment, try one of a growing number of “bike-sharing” programs taking off in cities around the world. Bike-shares, which lets you rent units from kiosks placed throughout a city, are one of the fastest-growing transportation options in the U.S. The first bike-share system launched in 2008, and in just four years, 30 more cities joined in, with others looking at the hassle-free way to get around.

“It is the free market, if you think about it,” Bloomberg said on his weekly radio show. “If people want to use them, they’ll use them. If people don’t, they don’t.”

New York’s sharing program launched in May with 6,000 bikes stationed across sections of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Annual memberships cost nearly $100, while a 24-hour pass is priced at $10. Early statistics show that over 50 percent of riders traveled less than two miles, underscoring the cheap, efficient alternative to cabs and public transportation.

Chicago, meanwhile, is set on getting residents to bike to work, school, stores and to mass transit stops, cobbling together a 500-mile network of designated routes, according to the Chicago Tribune. Building from earlier ideas to add nearly 100 miles of on-street bike lanes and 50 miles of off-street trails, the “Bike 2015 Plan,” as it’s called, will also install 10,000 bike racks around the city, as well as 2,000 more on its fleet buses.

Its budding bicycle-sharing program, dubbed “Divvy,” is catching on with not just tourists, but commuters and drivers, too.

“In the high season of tourism, especially when you have events like Lollapalooza downtown, that’s where we are going to see high ridership numbers,” Scott Kubly, deputy commissioner at the Chicago Department of Transportation told the Chicago Tribune. “But we are seeing high ridership numbers all over the city.”

That enthusiasm extends to residents and commuters like my brother, who lives in the suburbs. He bikes to the train station to take it into the city, which is nothing new. But when he gets to the Metra, he either parks his bicycle at one of the spots designated for bikes, or simply carries it on his ride downtown. He tells me the city’s bike-friendly attitudes have not only increased his physical fitness and reduced his family’s demand on a second car, but they’ve also expanded his transport options during lunch breaks and after work.

Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C., meanwhile, is one of the oldest, best-known bike-sharing systems in the U.S. Its 18,000 members can choose among over 1,670 bikes at 175 stations. In 2011, an internal survey found that more than 40 percent of members reduced their number of car trips, driving an average of 500 fewer miles a year.

In bigger cities like New York, Denver and Boston, smaller towns like Chattanooga, Tenn., and Spartanburg, S.C., and even college campuses, bike-share programs are taking off. Some services even feature bikes with metal baskets for personal items and a “repair” button to alert maintenance of any problem, like flat tires.

Bike-sharing isn’t a new idea, but technology is improving prior free or coin-operated systems, which suffered from theft, lax regulation and difficult maintenance. Today’s programs, which have roots in European cities, make bikes easy to check-out using codes that reset once they’re returned.

Schools are also trying to boost biking’s appeal to children and their parents. Not only can biking help reverse some of the adverse effects of a sedentary lifestyle, often caused by a lack of exercise from driving in communities designed around cars, it can have a beneficial effect on mental health, as well. A Danish study, for example, found that kids that biked or walked to school increased their ability to concentrate in the classroom over those that were driven or took public transportation.

“The exercise one uses to transport oneself to school is reflected in the level of concentration one has circa four hours later,” Niels Egelund, co-author of the report, told the AFP. “The results showed that having breakfast and lunch has an impact, but not very much compared to having exercised.”

I live in a bike-friendly neighborhood, and my daughters’ school encourages students to ride the two-mile route to school. But nationally, only about 15 percent of kids bike or walk to school, according to Safe Routes to School National Partnership, down from about half since 1969.

Both cities and schools are determined to make bicycling as a part of mainstream transportation. And why not? Biking helps to cut air pollution, fight obesity and setup a more people-friendly living environment.

Despite that push, though, the biggest drawback is theft. A look at Chicago’s Stolen Bike Registry, for example, shows the thousands every day that discover their bikes are missing. But technology can come to the rescue.

After having five bikes stolen, entrepreneur and cyclist Clay Neigher teamed up with designers to develop “BikeSpike,” a black-box tracking unit that contains a GPS unit, modem and accelerometer. Once the device is attached with two easy to install, but tough to remove, non-standard torque screws, use its proprietary software to simply mark an unattended bike as “parked.” Then, if it’s moved or tampered with, you’ll get a notification letting you know.

It can also detect if you’re in a crash and then send a message with your location to a predefined list of contacts. For everyday use, it can connect to Facebook and Twitter to share real-time biking rides with friends.

Neigher, which secured $150,000 in funding from Kickstarter last spring, hopes to begin selling it in October for a pre-order price of $130.

Of course, another plague to the cyclist is the chain that refuses to stay on the sprocket. That’s where chainless bicycles help. Using a special shaft drive to transfers power from the pedals to the rear wheel, and gears neatly tucked into internal hubs, the next-generation of bicycles are smoother to ride and easier to maintenance and over traditional units.

But advances in bike technology don’t mitigate the dangers of the road. Without clearly defined lines to separate bikes from automobile lanes, biking can be hazardous, especially at night. Aimed at making the street safer, LightLane creates a personal bike lane, in the form of a light that projects two laser beams — ahead and behind you — as you pedal. Of course, it doesn’t work in the day, but it’s an effective tool for nocturnal biking.

The growing popularity of cycling is fueling speculation about its bright future, and pair of British flight enthusiasts even dream of a day when we may take to the skies. It seems we never run out of ideas for that basic, yet compelling, personal transport option.

Sometimes technology threatens to erase our time-honored activities and pastimes, but in this case, innovation is actually saving, if not restoring, the humble bicycle to a higher prominence. As some would say, that’s because “it’s as easy as riding a bike.”


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