Tag: Technology

Do automakers really want to help save our cities from the car?

The recent dust-up between Tesla founder Elon Musk and humans who believe that urban transit isn’t a dystopian nightmare highlighted a broader question: Do automakers really care about our cities?

It’s not just Musk’s comments that have sparked this conversation. In recent years, leaders of the American automobile industry giants have been musing about how to better integrate their products into our cities. Check out Ford’s latest public statements and marketing efforts, such as this video:

See that? Yes, a bicycle. A real human-powered machine portrayed as a viable transportation option. It wasn’t long ago that automakers were actively mocking those who rode bikes with ads like this:

Things go even deeper than a couple of ads. Ford now operates a bike-sharing program in San Francisco. GM is pouring billions into the car-sharing program company Maven.

Driving this change is the new automobile futurism. Young urbanites are buying fewer automobiles and tech-driven companies such as Uber and Car2go are pushing a future in which driverless short-term rental cars get us around cities.

This is, of course, a danger to companies that have generated billions selling automobiles. So rather than pull a Blockbuster Video, they are talking about new ideas.

Which all begs the question: Do you believe them? Do you believe that an automobile company really wants to help build a future in which cycling, walking and transit are viable transportation options?

There are reasons to be skeptical. GM hasn’t been shy about revealing the reason it has been getting into the car-sharing game, and it’s not to improve our cities. “This is a business opportunity for us,” Peter Kosak, executive director of urban mobility for Maven, told NPR. “You’re in that perfect case, and maybe later you will want to own a car.” 

And some of the ideas coming from them are, plainly, bizarre.

Add to this Musk’s recent disparaging comments about transit and his latest idea of unlocking gridlock through a series of tunnels for single passenger vehicles, without any mention of how the vehicles will get to the tunnels, or what happens when they inevitable fill up.

Some automakers like Audi are even trying out things like loading an electric scooter into the trunk of their cars.

What’s bizarre, and what that video only touches on at the end, is that all of these automaker solutions are still being motivated by the thing that caused the problem in the first place: Selling more cars into cities that are already choking on an oversupply of them. Simply put: There are too many cars on our roads.

It’s a concept a toddler can understand — when roads are full, stop adding vehicles — yet automakers are twisting themselves into knots finding solutions to a problem they continue to perpetuate. The number of cars on the road is what’s made our transportation inefficient, expensive and slow. There’s only one way to fix it. Car reduction comes from enabling fast, affordable and efficient transit, cycling and walking, not changing the type of single-passenger vehicle we use, or building tunnels to accommodate more cars or selling more cars with build-in skateboards.

Perhaps what struck me most about that Ford ad above was the use of Nina Simone’s song I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free. The original coup of automakers was successfully selling the idea that owning a car was a type of freedom. Seeing such an achingly beautiful song about personal freedom used in an ad like this was an attempt to flip the script — somehow, this new system being peddled is true freedom: freedom from the burden of car ownership, freedom of choice, freedom of movement. But the reality is our current transportation system lacks all three, and it’s largely because we’ve built it almost exclusively around the single-passenger automobile. For our cities, true freedom includes other aspect: Freedom from the car.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

The sharing economy comes to bikes, but can it replace the government?

Spinlister is a cool little app that just feels right. It brings the so-called sharing economy to the world of bikes in a no-brainer, intuitive way.

But the company is aiming higher than its modest Airbnb-type success so far, and betting on an even bigger idea, if only it can get it off the ground: Can the convenient borrowing of somebody else’s bike replace the need for a government-operated bike-sharing?

Spinlister already offers an Airbnb-style app, but has bigger plans to make bike-sharing easier.

Company officials sure think so. Andrew Batey, Spinlister’s Chief Marketing Officer, told me the company didn’t set out to replace bike-sharing, rather they were simply trying to solve a customer need.

On its most basic level, Spinlister enables the sharing of personally owned bikes. If you have a bike with some downtime, you list it for rent on the app. People who need a bike log into the app, search for those on offer nearby, and go pick up the bike for the pre-designated rental time, with the app handling the financial transaction. It’s Airbnb for bikes, a slick and easy sharing app (that, not incidentally, also works for snowboards and skis) that makes a whole lot of sense.

But the company has bigger plans, and this is where things get really interesting. Traditional public bike sharing thrives on little, impromptu trips. Unplanned rides rides home from the pub. Commutes on sunny days when the bus is full. Last-mile commutes, from the train station to the front door of the office. Not the stuff Spinlister currently thrives on.

The company, however, has developed a so-called “smart” bike (I know, that term makes me roll my eyes too) that Batey says has the potential to do away with traditional bike-sharing systems and their taxpayer-funded costs.

Spinlister’s “smart bike” enables bike-sharing of privately owned machines.

Here’s how it would work (or skip this paragraph and watch the video below): In a nutshell, it’s Car2go for bikes. The bikes are equipped with GPS and nifty Bluetooth-enabled locks. Using a smartphone app, you locate a bike nearby, track it down, then unlock it. You go about your ride, then lock the bike anywhere you want, while the app takes care of the rental-fee transaction. Another tap on the app makes it available to the next rider. No need for docking stations like a traditional bike-sharing program.

Spinlister – The Global Bike Share: Challenges Traditional and Broken Bike Share Model Through Advanced Technology from Spinlister on Vimeo.

But there’s one more important aspect. Each bike, rather than being bought and paid for by program administrators (which, with traditional bike-sharing programs, tend to be government agencies) is privately owned. The rental fee is split by the owner of the bike and Spinlister.

Batey says this idea eliminates the need for taxpayer-funded programs and big, sometimes controversial, rollouts of docking stations.  

“To date, there has been no bike share (except ours) that is sustainable without government funding and private sponsorship,” Batey wrote to me in an email. “Through back channels, (politicians have) said their reasoning is self preservation. When bike share fails and needs more funding, it will be the problem of another administration. Until then, it’s seen as a win with popular support. That just seems like a significant waste and misuse of funds to me. Especially when a self sufficient option exists, costing the city absolutely nothing to implement.”

If that quote sounds perhaps a tad, well, conspiratorial, Batey might have good reason. Plans to launch the idea in Portland last year were scuttled by the city government, ostensibly over concerns that Spinlister’s plan would have negative impacts on the city, such as the city being forced to pick up the costs of dealing with bikes that are stolen, parked illegally, or left to rust in poor locations. There were other concerns as well, and Batey minces few words (even if others might disagree with his read of the situation): “The city there threatened to create a special tax just for us as they didn’t want us competing with their traditional bike share model they’ve been trying to launch for 10 years.”

Chicago's Divvy Bike Share System

Many traditional bike-share systems, such as Chicago’s Divvy, rely on docking stations that can be difficult to place in dense urban areas.

This kind of reaction seems to be what’s holding Spinlister back. Yes, there are some outstanding questions that even the company acknowledges need to be ironed out in the real world, but the company is largely ready to go. It just can’t find a city willing to give it a shot. Most cities these days have well-established bike-share programs and city governments aren’t interested in competition. Somehow, before it has even had a chance to test its business model, Spinlister has found itself to be the Uber of the bike world, at odds with city governments everywhere.

But there’s little doubt the idea is worth a try somewhere. So what will it take?

What the company really needs is a city that is big enough to sustain the business, with a decent bike culture, a populace that understands the sharing model of Car2go, lacks an established bike-share program, has a soft-spot for entrepreneurialism and a hard-spot for government spending.

Sound like a city you know? 

In fact, I already signed up to buy one of the smart bikes if the idea ever takes hold in my city of Calgary. Perhaps living in a bike-share-laggard city will pay off in the end.

 

The great hope of bike-friendly cities: Ikea

If you haven’t yet seen a photograph of the new bicycle that Ikea plans to sell — hell yes, we’re calling it the Bikea — close your eyes and imagine what a bike made by Ikea would look like. Yep, you got it.

The official photo of the Ikea bike, which will be sold in Europe later this year.

The news was greeted in the bike world by a weird mix of surprise and derision. Does it come with an allen wrench? Do you have to put it together yourself? How will they get it into a flat box? It’s easy to write off the idea as a dabbler’s attempt at entering the bike market. The company isn’t exactly known for producing high quality goods, as that sagging bookshelf in your home office can attest. And there’s little doubt the bike snobs among us will be quick to ostracize Ikea bike riders as triflers who wouldn’t know a real bike if it rolled over their toes.

But I won’t be among them. I think it’s fantastic that Ikea is producing a bike. Mostly.

Here’s why: For one thing, the bike looks pretty good. I’ve long been lamenting the lack of affordable, practical bikes in North America. Such machines are still (relatively) rarely spotted on the streets of many cities, and it drives me batty to see casual cyclists still buying what seems to be the default for North Americans: mountain bikes. Mountain bikes are great for, well, mountains, but too many people buy them thinking they’ll use them off-road, but then never take them beyond the paved paths of their city, leaving them saddled with what can be uncomfortable rides loaded with too many gears, useless suspension systems and finicky parts that require too much maintenance. In a word, they aren’t very practical, and in a world where we put convenience above pretty much everything, impracticality can be a killer to people adopting a more bike-friendly life.

IMG_3491

I haven’t tried a Bikea yet, but it appears to be nothing if not practical. It looks well designed in that default Dutch mode, built for comfort and stability, with a unisex aluminum step-through frame and adjustable handlebars. It has an internal hub for gearing (although I’d prefer three or six speeds, rather than the two that are on offer) and a belt-drive, both of which should reduce maintenance requirements and improve reliability. It is built to accommodate easy add-ons, including a cargo trailer and, presumably, some kind of minimalist glassware or vase.

At $800, it’s not exactly cheap, but I think that’s a good thing. The risk is producing a poor-quality bike that won’t last. This seems like a reasonable price, as long as it’s a decent quality ride.

I know what you are saying: There’s nothing new here. Such bikes are available now, being produced by smart, quality bike makers all over the world. Your local bike shop has them for sale right at this moment. I agree, and you should go buy one. Like right now. As an added bonus, you’ll be supporting your local bike shop, not some Euro-giant furniture retailer, and you’ll get quality service from someone who actually lives in your community.

All of that is true, and that’s why I buy my bikes at such places. If you’re reading this, you’re probably doing the same. But therein lies the problem that the Bikea can address.

Unlike your local bike shop, Ikea has reach and scale, and the ability to reach those kinds of people who don’t read long shoegazers on the Internet about Ikea bikes, and have thought so little about what kind of bike they should ride they’d just go for that impractical mountain-bike-that-never-sees-a-mountain from their local Wal-Mart. If the Bikea is successful, it holds the potential to change the way average consumers think about everyday bikes, in the same way Ikea changed the way North American consumers think about home design. Like it or not, Ikea is a consumer influencer, and if the company can shift the way North Americans perceive everyday bikes, that can’t be a bad thing.

Once that idea moves, perhaps it will be the gateway bike, leading people to a Linus, or a Detroit Bike, or a Surly or Devinci,, purchased from their local bike shop, or any of the other great brands currently making our cities better. Bring it on, Ikea.

Hmm, does that Ikea bike look familiar? Something like this model from Detroit Bikes?

Now, if only the company can make a kids’ model, so we can forever destroy the department store, faux full-suspension, unserviceable pieces of shit that litter our landfills. C’mon Ikea.

Edmontonbikes.ca

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