There are few less appealing items in the universe than the ashtray. It’s literally a container for soot, carcinogens, and the occasional whiff of menthol. But in train stations across the Netherlands, the lanky, six-foot smoke poles are something of an architectural icon. So even as 300 of the poles were removed from stations last October when public smoking at railways became illegal, railroad owner ProRail has securely stored the poles, wanting them preserved for a new purpose.
So what could that purpose be? Charging e-bikes.
In a pilot project by the smart lighting company Lightwell, the smoke poles have had their center ashtray sections removed and replaced with plugs compatible for charging e-bikes. “We made a few designs and figured out we could refurbish almost the entire original product . . . keeping its iconic design,” says Florian Mesch, industrial designer at Lightwell.
Aesthetically, the pillars are mostly unchanged, with 90% to 95% of the original object retained. But functionally, the new pillars can charge two e-bikes at a time. Notably, there is no glowing screen or other giveaway of the technological retrofit. The poles are free to use, which is what makes that quieter approach possible: They don’t need to display information to sync with an app or accept a credit card, though Mesch doesn’t know if that could change in the future.
In some ways, this approach may not be entirely practical. E-bikes generally take anywhere from two to six hours to fully charge. And while you can technically lock your bike to the pole while you wait, since there’s no lid on top, someone could slide your bike up the pole to take it (with enough effort). That said, as a quick option to top off your bike’s charge, before a short commute from the train to work, it could be a godsend—especially because e-bikes are quite popular in the Netherlands, where, as of 2018, two out of every five bikes sold was electric.
As of now, ProRail has installed two of these updated charge pillars as part of a pilot test, and Mesch believes that ProRail plans to install many more down the line. From the looks of it, Lightwell has demonstrated how easily a dated, old piece of infrastructure can be refurbished with a new life. Besides, cycling was always more fun than smoking, anyway.