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Bicycle lanes are without a doubt, the hot topic in cycling policy today. Advocates maintain that a separately paved network of cross-town routes is the only way to jump from average North American rates of bicycle-commuting (1%) to those in Northern Europe (15-25% or more). I’ve seen networks like this from Vancouver to rural stretches of highway between Amsterdam and The Hague. They work because they give cyclists a sense of security on otherwise very dangerous roads – something that’s important for people who want to get into it,

The problem is, at the best of times, governments aren’t big fans of the idea, and at the worst, they hate them outright, like many in Toronto’s upcoming mayoral race.

And so people have started taking matters into their own hands. groups like Toronto’s Urban Repair Squad have started painting their own bike lanes on routes which had long been promised by the city, but had yet to appear. This type of direct action is breaking out all over, and getting an amazing amount of good press. My favourite lately would have to be the anonymous stencil artist who painted up a bunch of Portland routes with symbols from Mario-Kart.

This isn’t a case of bicycles taking road space or funding from cars. Cars receive a kind of special treatment from our governments which could make the military jealous. Average highway construction costs run into tens of millions of dollars per kilometre, with even more in upkeep. The amount our government spends, from subsidizing the Tar Sands for fuel production to bailing out the failing auto industry, is staggering. A bicyclist pays for cars every single day, whether it’s through taxes, retail mark-ups for “free” parking lots, or just using the streets and breathing the air. And if our tax dollars won’t go to pay for bike lanes, they just might have to get some for free.

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I love bikes. Anyone who knows me knows that. And they probably also know how I feel about electric bikes. I’m really not a fan.

I ride a bike because the technology is so simple that it makes up for the shortcomings of not having a motor. The more I ride, the more I can ride, and the less effort it takes to climb uphill. Every electric bike I’ve seen in town just seems far clunkier than it needs to be, and don’t really tend to perform much better than a good road bike because of it – and that’s only until the battery dies. A motorized Canadian Tire mountain bike</a., to me, sounds a little like trying to "pimp out" a bulldozer for street racing.

A new design, the "Copenhagen Wheel“, is changing all that. Designed by a MIT student, it’s a back wheel that has a motor and battery mounted on the hub, which converts any bike it’s mounted on into a hybrid electric scooter. I came across it from a comment under a column I did for Raise the Hammer, and really like the elegance of the design.

The Copenhagen Wheel

This design is fundamentally better in a lot of ways. First off, it’ll mount on all sorts of bikes which were never designed for motors – looks about as easy as any fixed-gear or singlespeed conversion. Secondly, it’s very very simple – no more junk on your bike than the average old-school coaster brake, and no harder to use. And it’s designed for bikes (like the one pictured) which are efficient to begin with. Also, it doesn’t replace pedaling, it works with your pedal strokes, measuring your torque and powering up in turn. When you push backward, it engages the “regenerative breaks” which charge the battery while slowing you down (I can’t tell whether this works more like a coaster wheel or fixed-gear from your perspective).
This way you could still get your workout, but travel much further.

I must admit to a few safety concerns. There’s nothing about this bike that couldn’t reach 50-60kph on flat ground with a good rider, even without the motor. And though most riders aren’t that fast, they also aren’t that experienced either. Piloting a bike with 23mm tires at 50+kph, it isn’t like riding a car. Everything shakes, the slightest bumps hit you like a sack of doorknobs, and stopping is a serious issue, since even if you lock both wheels with disc breaks (and this is why most racers don’t use ’em), there’s no guarantee that the bike will stop moving. For most riders, developing the muscles to go this fast means getting the practice and experience to do it safely. Encouraging people to “get into cycling” by handing them a tool which gives them all the power of a professional racer or messenger with none of the experience is downright dangerous.

And while I don’t know that i’ll be buying one any time soon. I’d probably build it myself, anyway, and don’t much like the idea of my biking being radio-tracked. I am glad this kind of thing is getting “out there”, though, because it’s a huge improvement over what I’ve seen so far. Building hybrid bikes needs to start from an intimate knowledge of what an effective bike is and isn’t, not just trying to downsize a Vespa into the legal category of “bicycle”. The bike pictured in this article, if it simply had a normal, entry-level track or singlespeed wheel on the back, would still outperform nearly every electric bike I’ve seen. And that’s a very important factor in building a successful hybrid electric bike. The more efficient the bike, the smaller the motor that is needed, and the smaller the motor, the more efficiently it’ll move overall.

Bicycles are almost everything that cars are not. While cars burn gas, bikes require only human power. Cars have played a key role in producing an epidemic of obesity, and bikes are playing a key role in fighting it. Cars are large, heavy machines, almost all of which are devoted simply to safely moving the car itself. A car can easily weigh thousands of pounds, even if only to carry one 150lb person. A bike, on the other hand, weighs 20-30lbs, and can carry far more than its own weight. Cars require vast and expensive parking facilities which tend to compete in terms of cost and environmental impact with the entire rest of the industry combined (cars and roads). Bikes require a post or railing. Cars are unbelievably expensive – on par with regular, full-time university tuition, if not a fair bit more. A bike can be bought for $20 at a garage sale and maintained for about that annually, provided it’s in good shape. Bikes are repairable at home with simple tools and little skill. Cars are not. A bike can last decades, and many if not most do. Many of the bikes I ride on a regular basis (and have ridden full-time as a courier) are from the 1970s and 80s. Cars last a decade of “average” use at best, without serious and very expensive maintenance.

The key factor here is that bikes are so plentiful and long-lived. We don’t need to buy a new bike for everyone in Hamilton – we could put thousands more on the road instantly with a little maintenance and a bunch of cheap parts. The costs involved would be on par with a cab ride, or even a few trips on the HSR per person. Volunteer-based co-op bike shops are an amazing tool for introducing people both to cheap cycling (dropping the costs involved by a factor of ten at least) as well as teaching bike repair.

Here’s a good short piece from The Oil Drum about setting up a bike repair operation with a few people and a small budget.

And here are a few links to community-based bike shops in Hamilton:

MacCycle Co-Op at McMaster (under the Pheonix Pub)
Recycle Cycles In a Church Basement near Victoria Park.
New Hope Bike Co-Op on Main St. E, run by New Hope Church

Across Europe, public Bike Share Systems have been a massive success. Lyon would probably be the best example, but nearly every major city has them in one form or another. In Copenhagen they’re fairly simple, come with a basic cartoonish city map for tourists on the handlebars and simply join up with chains which release with a coin deposit, like shopping carts. In Berlin on the other hand, at least when I was last there (a few years ago now), they’re big high-tech beasts with a phone number on the side which you call on your cell phone, give them your account/credit card number and the bike’s number and it’s unlocked remotely. One way or another, bikes have been repeatedly shown to be the fastest way to move through urban centres, and are far cheaper than buses or LRTs.

The City of Hamilton is now running an online survey seeking input into a possible system like this for Hamilton. It’s decades ahead of the usual 1950’s freeway-happy development we’re used to from city hall, so it’s probably worth encouraging.

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