Futurist Thomas Frey: The first time I rode on a Segway, I was confused. Even though I loved the experience, I couldn’t quite figure out how it would fit into my life. It wasn’t going to replace my car and it certainly wasn’t a substitute for my bicycle, so what exactly was it?
When it came down to pulling out my checkbook, I was left in a quandary, “How could I possibly justify spending money on it?”
I soon found out that I was not alone. Talking to local city officials I was told that virtually no one had a policy for alternative vehicles, such as electric scooters, hybrid skateboards, fuel-cell motorcycles, Segways, and Segway knockoffs. They opted to let the police department decide. When I asked the police department about it, their comment was that if it wasn’t a car or a bicycle, “we just ban everything else.”
From a public safety standpoint, “banning everything else” was an easy way of managing what has become an increasingly complex marketplace for alternative transportation. At the same time, the easiest approach is rarely the best one.
Today, literally thousands of alternative transportation vehicles are coming out of the woodwork and they nearly all have the same problem – no place to drive them. Most are banned from biking and hiking trails, and they are neither licensed, nor licensable, for use on the streets.
For these reasons, I’d like to discuss some new possible solutions and why Colorado is poised to take the lead in the alternative transportation marketplace.
Broomfield, Colorado biking trail
Colorado’s Lead on Alternative Transportation Infrastructure
According to Singletracks, Colorado now has over 5,138 miles of biking trails, far more than any other state in the U.S. This is due, primarily, to money from Great Outdoors Colorado, or GOCO, which receives a portion of state lottery revenues.
GOCO has already invested over $34 million in trails throughout the state with more to come. In addition, some local communities have added additional tax dollars to up the ante.
Depending on the terrain, trail surface and width, the cost of new trails ranges from $16,000 to $75,000 per mile.
With these trails as existing infrastructure, the stage has been set for a new range of opportunities that could open the doors for tomorrow’s alternative transportation industry.
Bicycling as Transportation vs. Fitness and Entertainment
The traditional bicycle is viewed quite differently around the world. While some use it strictly as a fitness device, others use it as their primary means of transportation.
As an example, during an average week 30% of Germany’s population uses a bicycle for primary transportation. The average German uses a bicycle three days a week for about 30% of their trips.
More than 85% of Amsterdam residents ride their bikes at least once a week.
According to a regular survey of Copenhagen residents, 84% have bicycles and 68% ride at least once a week. 96% of school children have a bicycle, and 55% use it to ride to school.
As the same time, the number of Americans who ride bicycles for sport and entertainment is greater than all those who ski, golf, and play tennis combined.
Why do people commute by bicycle? According to a survey of 2,400 cyclists:
- 95% ride for health and fitness
- 82% do it for the environment
- 52% bike to avoid congestion
- 46% ride to save money on gasoline
- 34% want to avoid car-parking costs and availability
The Growing Need for Solutions for the Mobility Impaired
Currently, 6.4 million people in the U.S. use a cane, crutches or a walker, and another 2.2 million use a wheelchair
Adding to the list of mobility impaired are people suffering from arthritis (30 million), polio (8 million), traumatic brain injury (5.3 million), stroke (4.7 million), and a wide variety of other suffering from the likes of epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, and many more.
Altogether, people with some level of mobility impairment account for 19.7% of the U.S. population. Most of these people have great difficulty with their daily transportation needs, such as driving a car or even riding in one, and a far higher percentage have difficulty riding any form of bicycle.
The need for alternative transportation solutions is greater now than ever in the past, and with our rapidly aging population, the demands for new options is growing on a daily basis.
The Need for New Vehicle Classifications
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is the U.S. government’s policy arm on surface transportation data. As a way of organizing the vehicular landscape, the FHWA has created a number of vehicle classifications:
- Motorcycles (Class 1) — All two or three-wheeled motorized vehicles with saddle seats and are steered by handlebars rather than steering wheels. This includes motorcycles, motor scooters, mopeds, motor-powered bicycles, and three-wheel motorcycles.
- Passenger Cars (Class 2) — All sedans, coupes, and station wagons manufactured primarily for the purpose of carrying passengers and including those passenger cars pulling recreational or other light trailers.
- Other Two-Axle, Four-Tire Single Unit Vehicles (Class 3) — All other two-axle, four-tire, vehicles including pickups, vans, campers, motor homes, ambulances, and minibuses.
- Buses (Class 4) — All passenger-carrying buses including school buses.
In addition to these four classifications are nine more for trucks and the trucking industry.
However, there are no classifications for alternative transportation vehicles such as Segways, hybrid bicycles, pedicabs, electric skateboards, powered unicycles, etc.
Defining a Classification of Vehicle to Co-exist with Bikes and People
Can bikers and joggers coexist with alternative transportation vehicles?
With countless decades of bicycling culture already in place, these alternative transportations vehicle may seem disruptive to the existing ecosystem. However, defining a new classification of vehicle with minimal intrusiveness, the stage can be quickly set for far less disruptive modes of transportation than today’s cars, vans, buses, and trucks.
Suggested starting point for a minimally intrusive new class of powered vehicle:
- Speeds under 12 mph
- Less than 3’ 8” wide (most trails are 8’ wide)
- Under 500 lbs. total weight
- Silent operation (no noisy gas powered vehicles)
- Added safety features to reduce most likely accidents
Please note that this criteria is just intended as a starting point. Many adjustments and details may be added over time.
Show at the end of this article are a number of possible vehicles that either currently fit or could be revised to fit in this class of vehicle.
The Suzuki Pixy
The State of Colorado has an unprecedented opportunity waiting to be unleashed. With an existing infrastructure of over 5,000 miles of biking trails and an existing revenue stream to add more miles in the future, much of what’s needed is already in place.
By defining one or more new classes of vehicles that could co-exist well with existing biking and hiking activities, the State could take the lead in reducing today’s focus on heavy vehicles (cars, vans, buses, and trucks) on the highway. At the same time, these vehicles could open the doors for the countless million of mobility impaired individual left stranded by today’s limited options.
Keep in mind that some trails in places like Boulder and Ft Collins are already quite crowded, so adding congestion to them is not reasonable. But most existing biking trails have very light traffic, so additional vehicles would have little impact.
Individual cities could declare themselves as official “Alternative Transportation Friendly Communities” and leverage this in their economic development material to attract key players from the mushrooming pool of vehicle manufacturers looking for a receptive audience.
The Honda UNI-CUB and U3-X
As an avid biker, I spend countless hours every year enjoying the seemingly endless trails that Colorado has to offer. I love the outdoors and use bicycling primarily for fitness and entertainment.
Only rarely do I see congestion or crowded conditions on these trails. But in my car, I’m dealing with traffic snarls on a daily basis.
Driverless cars offer hope for crowded highways in the future, but widespread use of driverless vehicles is still 20-30 years away.
Alternative transportation vehicles are part of an existing and rapidly growing industry, and this industry is anxiously waiting for a community to champion their cause. It certainly may not be Colorado, but the opportunity is poised and waiting to happen.
So is it possible to reduce today’s emphasis on our heavy transportation highway system with a new alternative transportation network? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything