You, Me and a World of ELFs
A couple of years ago there was an event in the USA which hardly anybody knew was happening. This “Ride Across America” was sponsored by DHL, a German package express company with operations in every country in the world. Their presence here has been severely reduced over time, while Fedex and UPS continue to expand their fleets and businesses, so to boost their visibility, they chartered a plane and flew 50 people and their small vehicles to the West Coast of the USA. They surely expected to attract the attention of the media to their colorful little machines and their epic journey across the nation. They may not have calculated properly the enormous sums spent on advertising by their two American rivals and the disinterest on the part of these media outlets in another company, European no less, and their promotional programs.
It is instructive that some years ago there was a proposal before the Congress of the United States to provide economic support to a team training for a foreign athletic event, the Tour de France. This race across the French countryside had become enormously popular due to the dominant performances by somebody, who, everybody knows now, was dethroned and disgraced due to his fondness for performance-enhancing drugs. The reason for their reluctance to sponsor the US Postal team, regardless of its remarkable achievements in a sport which has not been one in which we have enjoyed a great deal of success over the decades, had nothing to do with this sad fact though. It was not suspicion of inglorious habits which compelled the august legislators to refuse their support. They did not want the US Post Office, a quasi-public organization, to give too much competition to the two major private companies which had, over the years, provided these elected officials with substantial campaign contributions, thus earning their undying loyalty. Unfortunately, a foreign company, like DHL, with a relatively small share of the industry, was as unimportant to our media, as a bicycle racing team was to our jingoistic government.
When Francis Faure set the speed record for a human-powered vehicle in 1933, traveling over 45 miles in one hour, these recumbent, low-profile and efficient machines were banned forever from bike racing by stubborn traditionalists, but “Velomobiles” have had a serious presence all over Europe for some time. These extremely aerodynamic fiberglass shells, with a regular person, a non-athlete, comfortably guiding the machine, protected from the weather, can be commonly found on the roads everywhere, except in the United States. While there is a strong community of builders, sellers and proponents in the State of Washington, the public in this country is pretty much totally unaware of the fact that “bikes” can be tiny “cars” also. This is welcome news to the makers of the multi-ton machines that we use to get around. Since automobiles weigh 100 times as much and cost 10 times as much, it seems that it is considered unfair competition to sport these speedy and easy to park marvels.
So 50 or so people, with pedal-powered bikes equipped with tiny electric-assist motors, began their journeys on one coast and finished them on the other, 30 days later. By traveling about 100 or so miles a day, this durable crew made their way across the Rocky Mountains, the great western desert, the Mississippi River and the State of New Jersey. Along the way another equal number of Americans who had discovered the virtues of these vehicles, joined the procession for a time. There were other bike riding groups who became aware of this event and chose to travel along with them for part of the ride too. Over 3000 miles they pedaled their way through rain and wind and sometimes blazing sun. No injuries or accidents worth recording were reported and the entire group made the journey unscathed, and virtually unmolested by the press.
So why didn't you hear about this? Was it because all the riders kept their clothes on? Surely, if they could have gotten Lady Gaga to ride along with them for a few miles, things might have been different. I'm sure that DHL, having spent a small fortune to bring all of these hardy souls here and keep them alive for a month while they trekked across the landscape, must have expected a much more robust welcome than they ultimately received. They could not have imagined that the natural curiosity which these unusual devices ordinarily provoke could have resulted in so little attention by the major media, always on the lookout for colorful human interest stories. The technology divisions of these news outlets must surely have marveled at the extraordinary accomplishments of these ordinary people and the amazing range of what amounted to a tricked-out bicycle. Yet this spectacle was too tame for an audience dazzled by hot rods and Formula One racers to make much of an impression. Or maybe it just didn't fit in right, in between the FEDEX and UPS, Toyota and GM commercials.
Although these vehicles tended to resemble pumpkin seeds or fat fish, minimal to the core, they are first cousins of a new generation of human-powered, electric-assisted vehicles, perhaps best exemplified by the new ELF out of North Carolina. Rob Cotter, the founder of the company and chief designer too, worked with me a few years ago at a concession in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, originally the site of the World's Fairs here in 1939 and 1964. We rented boats and bikes, including, recumbent tricycles, hand-powered vehicles and multi-passenger models as well. The 50th and 75th anniversaries coming up next year of these historic events would be a terrific occasion for de-constructing and analyzing the Futurama and other exhibits during these events that were calculated to make certain that every family had their sedan or station wagon or two and couldn't wait to get their tract home in a new, clean and neat suburban development.
There needs to be a serious effort to solve this problem and move on to the much more difficult to resolve issues like hunger and ill health. We have all of the necessary materials and techniques available. When Organic Transit mined Kickstarter [and eFox] to get some start-up funds, the $100,000 that they asked for was nearly tripled by the time their campaign ended. People understand that we have the ability to design and build our way out of this dilemma and there are a multitude of artists, craftspeople, mechanics etc. who have the skills and imagination needed to do the job. When it is in full swing, it will provide as many jobs as the auto industry, and better ones, more satisfying and well-paying too. Rob Cotter is opening his second assembly plant in Santa Rosa California. You can be certain that Governor Jerry Brown will do everything he can to attract the talent needed to launch this approach to environmentally and economically-relevant travel. High tech is more than what you can hold in your hand, it's where you put your butt too.
The process of reversing the urban sprawl and other disastrous consequences of this drive to drive has been going on for some time in a variety of ways. Improved public transit and the conversion of our auto fleet from petroleum-powered to electric-powered are the two major movements already in play, but the downscaling of vehicles is probably more important than either development. Since 20% of the pollution caused by an automobile is expended in its manufacture alone, before it ever hits the first filling station, unless we can devise machines that are on the human scale and as stingy in their use of materials as we are currently extravagant, real change will be hard to come by. It is not just the toxic mix of chemicals that go into the formulation of oil-based fuels that is the issue, though we have little idea of just how poisonous these substances are and their overall effect on our health and vitality, it is in the appreciation of craft and creativity that goes into getting us out of this luxurious trap alive.
Unfortunately, the measure of our success is usually cast in terms of the total amount of funds expended for this purpose. Economies need to grow, we are told, and we know that everybody needs to make a living. True, the profits from selling $50,000 cars can generate enough profit to send the kid to college or get the place in the country. The average independent bike store owner does a million dollars a year in business, but only makes that same amount in a full year of prodigious efforts. Anyway, this paradigm is being challenged continuously by the realities, the lack of a job after that stint at college is over, and the place in the country, hard to enjoy fully when you spend so much time working to pay for it.
I remember when the major yearly Bike Show was on a floor of the Toy Show, and bikes were for people not old enough to drive a “real” vehicle. Each year the companies competed fiercely for the young consumers' funds, which more often than not varied only by offerings like flashier paint jobs and spongier seats. Tricycles were for little kids or retirement homes and one year seemed very much like the one before. Schwinn and Huffy soaked up the mass market and the real money was in Italian racing bikes. The idea of connecting utility to human-powered machines was beyond exotic, it was invisible. Likewise the National Highway System was constructed without the ability to use it for non-motorized travel and it is still that way. Even slow-moving cars, like 35 MPH “Neighborhood Electric” vehicles, are not allowed on these roads. Unless you are in certain urban neighborhoods, you hardly see a bike on ordinary roads. They are for recreation or, if you are very athletic, commuting or going to the store. They are in a different dimension from the endless rows of cars stuck or moving slowly down the roadways. Sure, mountain bikes are fun, have strong tires and a comfortable ride, but they are for play, not for work, primarily for the young and not really the most serious vehicles.
Electric-assist has already begun to change all that but all we can see now is the nose, not the rest of the body. Regular bikes, improved through the use of little electric motors are a good beginning but they are hardly the whole story. They are the first chapter not the last. I've written about pedicabs, now in 48 States, as ripe for electric-assist. Women will be able to work in the profession much more widely, and four passengers can ride easily instead of the usual two today. Cargo bikes are also going through a transformation and there is no element more useless and despised in an urban environment than a truck spewing smoke and crowding out everything else. How many of these over-sized monstrosities could be supplanted by a skinny little cargo bike, carrying just enough to get the job done and without the congestion and wasted time and space. What about Mom or Dad, dropping the kids off to school or picking them up, without the need for a huge SUV? Would status-conscious children be proud or ashamed of their parents using their own motive power to safely and comfortably bring them back and forth each day? Granted, on days with horrible weather it might not be ideal or even usable, but how many days are there like that in an entire year?
Driving a car is like going out each day in a suit of armor. This Medieval getup makes a lot of sense if you expect to encounter another person, dressed the same, who might have an issue with you, which requires that you be prepared to defend yourself in this way. Absurd? Sure, and so is a two ton hunk of steel, glass, aluminum and plastic, unused 95% of the time and soaking up all the spare cash every day, just for the hell of it. Maybe car-sharing will slow our descent and we can begin to restore our sanity and natural balance. Or maybe like the heroines in the film “Thelma and Louise”, we will just say “screw it”, and go flying over the edge.
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