Future of bicycles

Recycled blog from http://nvireuk.com/

Bicycles occupy the peak of the moral high ground as far as environmentalism is concerned because once they are built and delivered, ongoing emissions come almost entirely from the human riding them. While they are certainly good for the environment overall, the picture isn’t quite as clear as is sometimes portrayed and there are some places where the use of bicycles may not be environmentally sensible.

On proper cycle paths, they are certainly a good solution from both a fitness and environmental point of view (hopefully even once the environmental costs of making the cycle paths and the bicycles are factored in). But when mixed with car traffic, they can be very dangerous, with bicycle riders suffering many times more casualties per mile than car drivers. They also force other vehicles to slow down to pass them, and then to accelerate again. On busy narrow roads, this can often cause significant traffic jams. The bicycle may not be directly the cause of the extra consequent emissions from the cars, but from a system wide view, the overall CO2 produced would likely have been less had the cyclist driven a car instead, so this must certainly be taken into account when calculating the impact. The carbon costs of the extra accidents, with the resultant traffic jams and so on, should also be factored in. Accidents have a very high carbon cost as well as a human one.

It won’t take long until almost all cars are driven by computer. By the mid 2020s, we will have a lot of automatically driven cars and substitution will accelerate quickly. These cars will be able to travel much closer together, freeing road space both length and width-wise. This means that more car lanes or wider cycle lanes could be provided. With computers driving the cars, far fewer bicycles would be hit, if any. It is therefore likely that bicycles could be much safer to ride in the future, and because they can be more readily separated from car flow, will be more environmentally friendly, although this advantage is greatly diminished for electric cars. Improving the technology for car transport therefore makes cycling even more environmentally friendly too.

A decent cyclist can ride at 7.5m/s on the flat, less uphill and a bit faster downhill. Suppose that on the tough sections, there was a conveyor belt moving at 7.5m’s. This would reduce overall journey time and the problem of arriving very sweaty at the other end. It would also reduce the speed differential between cyclist and passing traffic, making it safer to ride. With a conventional conveyor belt, this looks a ridiculous idea, because the first falling leaf would clog the system up, rain would cause havoc, cars encroaching onto the path would cause mechanical stress because of the speed differential between a conveyor and the road surface, and pedestrians would also try to step onto it and cause yet more havoc. The idea is a non-starter.

Linear induction motors though can propel metal without using moving parts (apart from the metal being propelled of course). Suppose we add a metal plate to the bike, close to the road surface, and put linear induction motors in the cycle lane.  With no moving parts in the conveyor, there would be no problem with clogging, rain, cars or pedestrians.

Many roads have good electrical supplies along them in ducting or even more accessibly in street lighting. If it can be developed cost effectively, this would be a good way of encouraging cycling as a viable transport solution, and reducing carbon production, with beneficial effects on health too.

The cycle lane itself could comprise a heavy duty rubber mat that could be simply rolled out overnight along a roadside and plugged in to the electric supply. This would be easier than having to paint a new path. It can be rolled out piecemeal according to demand. On the bike, there would be a cheap metal plate attached to the front forks so that the bike could be pulled along. It can easily be designed to deflect easily if it hits debris on the surface, so that the cyclist isn’t threatened.

The amount of extra force given to the cyclist could be variable. Bicycles could be given RFID chips to identify them and the personal tastes of that cyclist indulged alongside billing. Some people might want lots of assistance or to go very fast, other want less assistance or to go slower. Since induction plates can be individually controlled, and the bicycle plates can also be tweaked for height or inductance, it is easily customisable in real time.

Mechanical energy is very cheap, whereas the effort required to cycle long distances or up hills is a strong deterrent to many potential cyclists – they are not all super fit! Given the human body’s poor efficiency in converting food into mechanical energy, it is likely to be very competitive in emissions terms even for cycling, let alone compared to using cars.

11 responses to “Future of bicycles

  1. This really is quite stunningly silly. You offer no figures at all for the alleged carbon effect of vehicles’ slowing down and accelerating again to get round bikes. That’s probably because the effect is largely non-existent. I cycled to work today from Brooklyn to Manhattan over the Manhattan Bridge in the midst of one of the world’s most densely-packed cities. I averaged 10.9mph, according to my bike computer. I’d be surprised if a car could make it through the congestion at that speed. I certainly passed a few queues of motor vehicles that were delaying each other. I rode on a dedicated bike lane over the Manhattan Bridge, then on a segregated bike lane up 1st avenue. Some vehicles had to brake to avoid knocking me off as they tried to turn across my path. I don’t know whether you count that as a negative carbon effect. It remains the fact that cars often have to slow down to avoid hitting other road users. It has a carbon effect, no doubt. The accidents would have a bigger effect.

    You also say cycling is dangerous but give no figures. I looked (boringly, I know) at UK DfT figures on road accidents for this blogpost – http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2012/03/it-may-be-fun-but-is-cycling-part-of.html – a while ago. There are more deaths per billion miles walked than billion miles cycled. Where do pedestrians fit into your vision? How are you going to cope with the carbon effect of their slowing vehicles down? At the same time, exercise from cycling (which is nothing like as hard as you make out) significantly improves cyclists’ life expectancy (the figure I’ve seen is that the average UK cyclist can expect to lose 2 months’ life expectancy from accidents and gain 24 months through better health). I don’t know how that works out in carbon terms – but it doesn’t seem a bad deal to have people living longer, more active lives, depending less on motor vehicles and so on as they grow older. I wrote about how poorly people work out some such risks here: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2012/11/my-ride-to-work-and-why-cars-resemble.html

    Finally, you suggest that your “cycle assist’ plan would “likely” work out better in carbon terms than the food a cyclist takes on. Likely, first of all, is a cute word for “guess” and “heroic assumption” in this case. To make such a claim, you’d need to come up with some figures. People eat in any case, so you can’t count as part of the carbon impact any food a cyclist would have eaten were he not a cyclist. It’s also fair to point out that plenty of cyclists are slimmer and have better control of their appetites than non-cyclists, simply because they’re fitter. Most commuter cyclists eat fairly marginal extra food to fuel their cycling, I’d suggest. It may be that your strange, unwanted machine might produce less carbon than the small marginal extra amounts of food that cyclists eat to fuel their cycling. But, with the transmission losses from electricity, inefficiency of motors, carbon costs of generating the electricity and so on, I would be absolutely astonished if it were true.

    Invisible Visible Man


    • I don’t offer figures because it would require years of very complex simulation and the precise results would differ for every town in the world. It is obvious that in some traffic mixes it would make a significant improvement, less in some others. If it makes a difference in some roads, it is still worth looking at. In a large city, or any other heavily congested area, I wouldn’t use this, in fact even thinking of doing so might often be quite stunningly silly. It is applicable on the very many roads that are either hilly or that present a significant speed differential between bikes and other traffic.

      I don’t talk about pedestrians because this is only a blog entry about a new kind of cycle lane. I say cycling is dangerous because I see news article frequently about the numbers of cycling injuries and deaths. They may be less than for some other groups of road users but that isn’t the issue. If this system could help reduce deaths and injuries to cyclists, then that is a clear benefit.

      Yes, cyclists eat anyway, and lifestyles and food consumption patterns obviously vary enormously, but I don’t see why the extra consumption can’t be factored in as a carbon cost – you accept yourself that people who exercise a lot will generally eat more than they would otherwise to provide the energy. As for the efficiency of the cycle path v eating the extra food, it would again vary considerably from person to person, and on how the electricity is produced. You may be astonished if it were true. I’d be surprised if it weren’t, especially comparing normal food consumption with say nuclear energy.


  2. “But when mixed with car traffic, they can be very dangerous, with bicycle riders suffering many times more casualties per mile than car drivers.”

    What? the bicycles do not get more dangerous, the danger clearly comes from the motor vehicle and the driver behind the wheel.

    “They also force other vehicles to slow down to pass them, and then to accelerate again. On busy narrow roads, this can often cause significant traffic jams.”

    This is a distrotion of reality, any analysis shows that for nearly all motor vehicle trips the rate limiting factor is waiting behind other motor vehicles and not behind bicycles. Shifting transport mode from car to bicycle actually benefits all.


    • ‘the bicycles do not get more dangerous, the danger clearly comes from the motor vehicle and the driver behind the wheel.’

      Sorry, that’s like arguing that mountaineering without a rope isn’t dangerous, the danger comes from gravity. Blame is a distraction, the cyclist is the one that gets hurt, and if we can reduce that risk then great.

      The article makes it very clear that the speed differential between bicycles and cars is the main problem. Obviously this differential is reduced in congested traffic, but it certainly is large in many narrow country roads where I live and I often have to slow down from 50 or 60 to pass a 10mph cyclist. Each time that happens, it increases danger and increases pollution. Like any system, this solution will be more beneficial in some areas than others.

      You clearly enjoy cycling, as do I, and if we implemented a system as I suggest, many more people could enjoy it more often and we could all benefit without the danger often associated with doing so today. We might get many people shifting from car to bicycle.


  3. Honestly, I found the whole idea hugely over-complicated. But mostly, I think, because you’re starting from the unprovable contention that bicycles cause pollution, and that they’d somehow cause less pollution if the cyclists got in cars.
    Not even to go into the idea that our overall emissions would be somehow improved by over-engineering some bizarre rolling carpet, re-engineering the bicycle, then powering all of that. How much more complicated could you make cycling??


    • Actually, the bicycle just needs the simple plate attached to the front forks, and the mat just needs rolled out from the back of a truck and wired into an electricity supply that’s already there for lighting. I don’t see that as complicated. Other additions to the system, like payment systems and RFID might complicate it a bit, but not that much, it would still be a relatively simple system by normal everyday engineering standards. It should be a lot faster and easier than making a conventional cycle lane. I don’t argue that bicycles cause pollution, just that by mixing with other traffic when there is a significant speed difference, they increase the system-wide pollution. Whether you blame that on the cars or the bikes makes no difference to the environment.


  4. “The carbon costs of the extra accidents, with the resultant traffic jams and so on, should also be factored in. Accidents have a very high carbon cost as well as a human one.”

    In NYC, streets with separated bike lanes have seen a 40% reduction in the overall number of accidents and injuries to all users, including drivers. There is a similar reduction in accidents on streets with Class II, or painted bike lanes, though to less dramatic effect. So where are you getting the idea that bike lanes cause “extra” accidents when most cities have show that quite the opposite is true? But to follow your logic, even if the accidents are going down because cars are “jammed” and can’t slam into anyone, the increased carbon emissions from congestion would surely be offset by the reduction in so-called “extra” accidents, no?

    And wouldn’t producing rubber mats and running new electrical connections — even if you are attaching them to existing lines — cause more carbon emissions from increased electricity use? This seems like a very Rube-Goldberg-like “solution” that actually creates more problems.

    Also, how would designing a system that would require people to buy new bikes that are compatible with these electric bike lanes encourage more people to cycle? So I already have a bike, but now I have to buy a new one if I want to use a bike lane? How does that help?

    I’m tempted to believe this post is a Swiftian-style parody.


    • It’s a really good idea to read what someone is saying before objecting to their ideas. I made it very clear that my system is aimed at uncongested areas with a big difference in speed between cyclist and cars, I like cycling, I am in favour of bike lanes, and that you wouldn’t have to buy a new bike, just a five buck attachment that takes an ordinary person a few minutes to fit to any bike they already have. I have also factored in the carbon costs of accidents, (for those who care about such things, even though I don’t think CO2 emissions are a big problem). I and very many other people live in areas where roads are narrow but traffic is relatively uncongested and where a large difference in speed exists between cars and cyclists. New York is not the whole world. If you travel around you will see lots of places that aren’t traffic jams. Yes, if you use more electricity, you have to generate more, but not as much extra to propel bikes as you would save by not having to propel cars. It is necessary to plug the mats in, which might involve unscrewing a panel on a nearby lamp post and attaching a connector, maybe even some tape. I haven’t been to NYC for a while, but I recall seeing all manner of electrical stuff, and you have guys there who can do that sort of thing. Someone also has to make a factory to make the mats, and people will also have to drive the trucks with the mats on to the location of deployment, it might even need a few managers. Sorry, but I am really struggling to see why cyclists in NYC are so against using any form of new technology that might help cyclists and reduce deaths, and even help the environment. This is far from being a complex solution, it is extremely simple by comparison to many everyday systems out there. It doesn’t even have a single moving part other than the bike. It would save lives in many areas – not everyone lives in NYC -and increase bike use.


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  6. VERY interesting article! Thanks for sharing


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