Bike share schemes such as Ofo and Mobike are well known for getting more people interested in cycling in the city, but they’re not the only innovators. Sarah Wray meets two companies aiming to make a positive impact on urban transportation
Cities around the world are looking to promote cycling over driving to cut congestion, reduce noise and air pollution and encourage healthier lifestyles. The Sustrans charity calculated that cycling has a net economic benefit to society of 67p per mile traveled compared to driving, and research suggests that those who commute by bike are more productive and take fewer sick days.
The City of Atlanta even appointed a Chief Bicycle Officer and many start-ups are working to help get more people cycling, with innovations including smart bike lights; solid, puncture-proof tyres; and cycle paths for high rises. We talk to two entrepreneurs with big, bike-based ambitions.
CitiPod eyes transport transformation
Peter Dawe, an entrepreneur and co-founder and chairman of Cambridge Electric Transport, is “convinced” that very light single-person vehicles could transform transportation in towns and cities. If you spot him out and about in Cambridge, you might see him in such a vehicle -- a three-wheeled electric-assisted, pedal-powered tricycle with a pod-type cover (see image). Dawe imported the Rotavelo vehicle from Australia and plans to develop and launch them much more widely as ‘CitiPods’.
The CitiPod weighs only 33.2kg and is just 80 cm wide. They can be driven on roads or cycle paths by anyone over the age of 14, in accordance with e-bike regulations, and no licence or insurance is required.
Dawe comments: “Every road in the town could become a four-lane dual carriage-way minimum because you can get at least two of these in the space of a car.”
CitiPods can be parked end to end and secured like bicycles, offering further space-saving potential. They use little electricity, with just 10p taking the rider around 100 miles, according to Dawe.
As Dawe says, “What’s not to like?”
And yet, the likelihood is you won’t have seen many of these vehicles around in your town or city. A key reason for this is likely the cost. If you were to buy one now, you’d pay around £6,000. However, manufactured at scale, this could fall to £2,000, at which point the mode of transport could be “transformational”, Dawe says.
Dawe is looking initially for a council to agree to deploy 20 to 50 CitiPods on a busy commuter route. He hopes such a demonstration will show council leaders that the vehicles can be deployed using existing infrastructure and could make a real difference to citizens and life in towns and cities.
Initially, councils wouldn’t have to change anything to adopt the vehicles, Dawe says: “Over time they [could] start marking out one-meter-wide lanes rather than three-meter-wide lanes in their roads so that you can run these three-abreast.”
He added: “It would be nice if the speed restrictions for motor vehicles and CitiPods were the same. I personally think that 20 miles an hour for everyone would be the appropriate speed because you talk to any safety engineer; it’s all about differential speeds. If everyone’s traveling at the same speed, everyone’s happy.”
Locations in and around Cambridge and Milton Keynes would be ideal for the pilot Dawe has in mind, although he has yet to strike a deal.
Alongside financial constraints faced by councils and local authorities in the UK and beyond, Dawe suggests another issue could be inflexible thinking about transportation modes.
He comments: “[Councils] are fixated on walk, cycle, bus. I think they tend to see the CitiPod as having the same problems as a car because it is personal.; it’s not communal transport. And they think that mass transport has to be communal.”
The CitiPods could offer an attractive alternative to bikes, though, because the rider can use the cover to protect them from the elements.
“When it rains now,” Dawe comments, “Cycle lanes are empty.”
Undeterred, Dawe says if he doesn’t get a pilot town/city in the UK or an investor, he will look abroad to places such as Amsterdam or Asia.
Cambridge Electric Transport is already looking ahead to improvements on the CitiPod too, working with a start-up called Robik to make them autonomous, meaning they will park themselves and could be offered on an ‘as a service’ basis. The company is also working with the University of Coventry to create a four-wheeled version of the CitiPod that is specifically designed for urban use.
“The only issue is how long it takes and whether the UK is first or last,” Dawe comments. “I’m totally convinced that once we [show the] value and we start selling them at £2,000, a lot of people will buy them.”
Blubel: Mapping the city
Once people are out and about cycling, the innovation doesn’t stop there. Following a successful Kickstarter, Blubel was launched in November and is aimed at helping people get around better on bikes.
Described as a “satnav in a smart bicycle bell”, the bell is linked via an app and uses LED gestures to guide cyclists “turn by turn” to their destination. It works anywhere in the world. The device is available in selected bricks-and-mortar shops as well as online, and the app can be downloaded via iOS and Android.
Sasha Afanasieva, founder and CEO of Blubel, explains how the idea came about: “It was a result of my own cycling experience in London. I started cycling and I realised that it’s actually very difficult if you don’t know the route so that was one of the difficulties I was trying to find a solution for.”
In addition to the navigation feature, cyclists can ‘ring’ the bell to report issues which need fixing, such as potholes in the road. They can fill in the details of the issue later.
Afanasieva says: "We realised that even if you look at apps like Google, that provide cycling navigation, they often direct you onto very busy roundabouts and very hazardous routes for cyclists, and so my thinking about that was: What if we could create some kind of mechanisms where users could share areas where they found things dangerous, for example, just by pressing a button or ringing the bell?”
She adds: “We want to use this data to find safer cycling routes for people, but we also want to improve infrastructure and tell local authorities about these potential issues.”
“Our objective is to really make it, make cycling as easy and safe as possible for people of all levels. So it’s about introducing features that will help people cycle every day,” Afanasieva concludes.
Blubel is in discussions to work with the UK’s Department for Transport to start using the feedback data to improve city maintenance.
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