With each passing auto show, we keep hearing about how cars are the new smartphones. Sure, cars have been becoming more and more like our computers for years and pretty soon they'll even drive themselves. But what about the car’s leaner and greener cousin, the bicycle?
Bicycles, with their gears and pedal power may seem like the Luddites of the transportation family, but the technology available to improve your ride is out there, it’s growing, and it’s helping more Americans consider bikes as a method of transportation than ever before.
If you're a cyclist, or have friends who prefer two wheels to four, you are aware of how passionate people can be about bicycles, and specifically their enthusiasm for bike evangelism.
Tyler Doornbos, of Bike Friendly Goods in Grand Rapids, Michigan, chatted with me about some of the "barriers to entry" for getting more people on bikes, and how new technologies are addressing some of those issues. I've taken his advice and put together this short guide to digitizing your bike commute.
Anyone who has biked down a busy city street (or had to drive around a cyclist) can understand how this might deter potential bikers. If you’re someone like me who can’t get anywhere without GPS or Google Maps directions, getting lost may also be a concern. You may have already heard about biking apps like MapMyRide and Strava, which can be used to find a bike route, track your progress, and even propose to your girlfriend.
San Francisco has taken this idea even further by asking cyclists to collect data while they ride using the smartphone app CycleTracks. The city can then use this information to make improvements for cyclists by looking at the collected data to compare various options. San Francisco also takes into consideration factors learned by the first phase of the program, such as how a route with a bike lane feels half as far as a route without one even if the routes are actually the same length. Gear heads and data heads who want to collect and use information for their own benefit can tap into Cyclemeter, which combined with sensors, captures data on bike speed, cadence, and power.
While apps can be useful for navigation, they require mounting your smartphone to your bicycle and distract your eyes from the road. The Hammerhead and Schwinn’s CycleNav are tools that attach to your bike’s handlebars and provide simple LED signals for directions. Hammerhead boasts a collaborative database of bike routes and lets you race against yourself to push yourself harder and faster. CycleNav includes spoken navigation so you can keep your eyes on the road 100% of the time.
Knowing where you’re going is essential, but what about when you arrive at your destination? Bike security is a major issue for many riders and bike thefts are a common occurrence in major cities. Four years ago when I was living in Arlington, Virginia and wanted to ride my bike, I was told that the only way to keep it secure was with a hefty U-lock. The lock was heavy and didn’t mount very well to my bike and kept hitting me in the leg while riding. The options for bike security now are much lighter and smarter. Take for instance, the TiGr lock, which Doornbos describes as "a giant pair of titanium tweezers for your bike" or the recently kickstarted Foldylock, which actually folds up so you can easily carry it with you.
But what if you want to know where your bike is and what it’s doing at all times, even when you’re not riding it? For that you’ll need a higher-tech solution, which is where BikeSpike and Bike+ come in. Coming in Spring 2014, BikeSpike is a little piece of equipment that acts like Big Brother for your bike by tracking it on GPS, notifying you if the bike jostles, falls, or moves, and even alerting emergency contacts if you and the bike get into an accident. Bike+ also includes ride tracking features, so you can measure your own progress and keep the thieves at bay at the same time. Just in case these systems fail, you can register your bike on the Bike Index and if any well-meaning cyclist comes across your bike they can cross-reference it with the index and let you know! Plus, unlike the aforementioned gadgets, the Bike Index is free.
This next section is the one your mom wants you to read: bike safety. If you were a kid like me, you probably wanted to ride your Huffy without a helmet, in the dark, with no lights or reflectors. It’s a good thing my parents didn’t go for that or I wouldn’t be here writing this article. Still, helmets aren’t the most attractive things ever, helmet hair is pretty gross, and helmets are almost as annoying to carry as U-locks, so innovators have been coming up with some alternatives. (Note that I do not advocate for or against these options, nor can I vouch for their safety and reliability compared to traditional bike helmets.) Closca is the collapsible helmet you can put in your bag. It has a trendy vintage look to it as well. Since even the Closca might ruin your lovely locks, inventors in Sweden have come up with one that looks like a giant collar—until you get into an accident, when the helmet pops out like an airbag. You can feel the wind in your hair! Or you can go Happy Endings style and wear a helmet sprouting perfectly coifed hair.
Visibility has really come a long way since those square reflectors. Perhaps the coolest looking are the Revolights, which boast 360-degree visibility. The See.Sense lights are super smart: They recognize what kind of environment you’re in, and adjust the light accordingly. It can tell if you’re in fog, on a cul-de-sac, in an urban area—it’s almost creepy, it knows so much. Also it’s hackable: It runs on a programmable microcontroller. Meeting over five times its goal for the recently successful Kickstarter is the Magnic Light iC which is powered by eddy current technology, which means you never have to put in batteries or charge it up. It just keeps shining, which means your mom won't have to worry about it going out.
According to Doornbos, getting up hills is one of the biggest obstacles preventing potential bikers from getting on two wheels. This may not be an issue for the physically fit set, but come on, we’re talking about Americans here. There are, of course, e-bikes, but it’s hard to justify the expense of one when you have a perfectly fine working bike at home already. Various kits exist to add extra e-bike-like power to your existing ride. The Rubbee boasts a super fast and easy installation process. This attachment uses a rotating drive roller at the back end of the system which touches the rear wheel of your bicycle to give you some help moving forward. For hipsters, I mean, people with fixies, there’s the FlyKy. It’s actually a wheel for your fixed-gear bike and includes anti-theft detection that works with your smartphone. The nerdiest option is the Copenhagen Wheel, developed at MIT. It saves energy when you don’t need it for when you do (those hills!) and the SDK enables developers to write their own apps. Whoever said "don’t reinvent the wheel" clearly wasn’t thinking straight.
Unfortunately you cannot yet ride your bike everywhere. For urbanites who want an electric bike but still want to easily take their bike on the metro, there’s the CMYK 3.0, the foldable electric bike. It weighs only 25 pounds; that sounds doable to me. However, I found the best solution to what to do with your bike when you can’t ride it to be very simple and low tech: a handle for your bike. It’s the kind of thing that makes you slap your forehead and think, "Why didn’t I think of that?" while your other hand is comfortably carrying your bicycle.
What isn’t comfortable is getting your pant leg stuck in the bike chain. People who aren’t regular cyclists often don’t know what to do with a bike chain either, and greasing and repairing chains can get messy. Belt drives (the same technology used on motorcycles) on bicycles aren’t necessarily new, but until the Trek Soho they were single-speed and often required a DIY installation. Besides kicking the chain annoyances to the curb, bikes without chains run more smoothly and quietly. Dynamic Bicycles’ Shaft Drive and Sonoma’s D-Drive system keep the components protected so they require much less maintenance. These new systems work by using a drive shaft which carries torque from the bike pedals to the back wheel.
Despite the numerous new technologies aimed at making biking better (look at the #bikes tag on Kickstarter if you don’t believe me) I think innovation in this area is just going to keep growing. Bike tools are going to get even more portable, like this itty bitty air pump successfully funded earlier this month. E-bike kits will help the heavy-but-incredibly-useful cargo bikes, popular in Europe, become even more viable in the U.S. People will be 3-D-printing their own bike parts, and even their own bikes. Now if only the snow would melt so I could get out on my bike.