Highway planners still tend to view trend as destiny, i.e. the future is more of the same: traffic will continue to increase, so we should subsidize it by building more and bigger highways. Common sense, however, says that building lots of expensive roads is neither feasible, socially desirable, nor affordable. If we let go of the "trend is destiny" model with its emphasis on more and bigger roads, we can see a different future -- a future of efficiency, of "small is beautiful".
A look at the history of automobiles shows how we created cities designed for cars. Cars started as horseless carriages, designed for carrying family and cargo. Their expense limited family ownership to one, and the ubiquitous "large size fits all" became the standard. Cars made possible the suburban communities that, in turn, were designed for cars. Now, however, cars are (too) plentiful and our culture emphasizes individuals - going where they want, when they want. Most of the time that extra people and cargo capacity follows the driver around unused.
Emergence of a new transportation vehicle seems imminent due to developments in technology, congestion, environmental concerns, economics, and job/housing distributions. (In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, 50% of folks work within 10 miles of home.) Let's dub this new vehicle the Personal Electric Vehicle (PEV). Like a car, it provides the owner with the flexibility and convenience of point-to-point transportation. PEVs, however, are light and efficient units designed for one person. Their range, speed, and cost are moderate. For 10% of the price of a car, a PEV can provide 50% (or more) of the utility. And here in California, electric bikes with a top speed of 20 mph free their users from license and insurance requirements.
Bicycles, skateboards, and roller blades function as PEVs for a relatively few people. Widespread use, however, may depend on the combination of several required design features. I believe electric and electric-assisted bicycles incorporate the critical elements needed for popularization: inexpensive, familiar, simple, versatile, and powered. Perhaps the strongest competitor among the electric bicycle options is the ZAP Power Systems offering. It easily attaches to most bikes and comes with quality components including a deep discharge lead-acid battery, solid-state electronics, and high efficiency motors adapted from the auto industry.
Although the electric bike may popularize the concept of a PEV, I expect dramatic changes and improvements. Their nature as human-electric hybrids may give way to purely electric PEVs. Bicycle technologies, however, provide the foundation for future PEVs. Consider bicycle innovations of recent years: shocks, various braking and drive systems, advances in frame technologies, common usage of "space age" materials (titanium, carbon fiber, and Kevlar), and a plethora of add-ons that enhance and extend the bicycle's usefulness. Inclusion of microprocessors, battery advances, security devices, and protective shells surrounding the driver will bolster PEV popularity. Readily available, inexpensive, and modular batteries will allow people to adjust battery capacity to their specific needs.
As PEV usage becomes common, specific changes seem likely. Car usage may parallel the use of conventional stoves after the introduction of microwave ovens; the number of cars will remain roughly the same, but their percentage of trips and miles driven will shrink steadily as that of PEVs grows. Eventually, multi-car households may choose to live with one less car. Because more people can use the same road capacity, we'll likely see no growth in road miles. Parking patterns will shift - probably to provide preferential treatment for PEVs as now done for car pools.
As the number of such moderate speed vehicles on our roads expands, we may see other changes. For example, speed limits for the outside lanes of 4- and 6-lane roads may be set lower than the inside lanes. Or, that outside 12' car lane could be converted into three 4' lanes for bicycles, electric bikes, and PEVs just for the cost of striping. Thus, capacity could triple without taking up any more land. The trend of neighborhoods demanding traffic calming measures will likely accelerate as people become familiar with slower, quieter PEVs.
Transit systems are already adjusting. Many suburban buses are already adding bicycle racks so cyclists can take longer trips. Trains are providing on-board space for their cycling customers. A system of privately owned and operated, EV jitneys could develop.
Widespread use of smaller, lighter, slower vehicles will enhance the quality of life for all of us. But for those of you who question the utility of electric bicycles, I challenge you to test ride one. The response in your body and heart will tell you whether this is just a toy -- or a prototype for the future of short-range transportation.
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