By Bob Gelfand, September 18, 2014
GELFAND’S WORLD-You probably didn't expect to see an article about tricycles in CityWatch, but what if they were really cool, adult sized vehicles that are powered by electricity, and that they can potentially help solve our traffic problems? What if I were to tell you that I watched grownups -- wearing suits and ties -- zooming around on futuristic tricycles inside the harbor's old Warehouse 10 at the Port Tech expo?
In a world of diminishing gasoline supplies and increasingly crowded freeways, we have been offered a limited selection of transportation methods. You've got the automobile, the bus, and the commuter rail line. A few people use motorcycles. For the really hardy, there is the bicycle. I've known a few bicycle commuters, but the likelihood that this will become a majority transportation mode in a city this large seems fairly unlikely to me. When you've got a 20 mile commute each way, that's a lot of mileage to push your pedals through.
Still, there ought to be a place for something like the bicycle as we integrate mass rapid transit into the life of the Los Angeles community. Getting it right depends on solving the problem of getting people to and from their homes to those light rail commuter stations. It turns out to be a curiously difficult task. One way would have been to plan the city a little differently a century ago, and to save huge parking areas all over town. Park and ride could have been universal. We didn't figure that part out in time.
So we are building light rail commuter lines and imagining the new technology known as personal rapid transit, but we still have the problem of getting ourselves to the stations.
Professionals refer to the issue of getting you from your home to the train station as the "last mile" problem. Transportation planners are good at laying out maps for subways and light rail, but they haven't been very good at figuring out how to get you to the station. If you live 5 miles away, you either have to catch a ride or take a hike twice a day.
But suppose you could ride to the station on a 21st century device, and just take it with you on the train? Then, at the end of your train ride, you could go the rest of the way to your job using the same device.
I'd like to report on two attempts at that "last mile" solution that I saw at the Port Tech show.
The first device looked teensy at first glance. To me, it looked a little like something you would have put together out of an Erector Set in the old days. But it's a full-powered motor scooter which can be used in either a two wheeled configuration or in tricycle form. It weighs less than 30 pounds, and runs on rechargeable batteries. The Urb-e company has created a transportation device that will sell for roughly the same price as last generation's laptop computer -- figure a little under a thousand dollars.
What impressed me is that the device is being marketed as "The ultimate 'last mile' vehicle." Here I've been trying to solve that problem in my own head, and this company went and built a solution. It's not for everybody of course, but the idea is to whittle down the negatives on commuter rail and personal rapid transit, and make life easier for people who can take advantage of such futuristic devices.
Let me borrow a line from somebody who is involved in the design of light weight vehicles. As he explained, the cost of keeping a couple of cars in your garage is going to run you fifty dollars a day. And as I am forced to point out, gasoline isn't getting cheaper. So the more of us who can switch out of the gas guzzlers, the better our economy will be, and the easier our commutes will be.
The other company that was marketing a futuristic electric tricycle was Acton. Their version, referred to as the M Scooter, is bigger and feels more stable. It's designed to carry somebody in a business suit or wearing a kilt (or a dress). That's because you can move the seat out of the way and drive it standing up, or you can set the seat back, like on a bicycle.
The M Scooter is roughly a yard long, a yard high, and can be stored in an area only half a yard wide. That's because its rear wheels and its foot rests can be folded out of the way. In the folded configuration, the M Scooter is similar to a bicycle with two very closely spaced rear wheels.
This means that the M Scooter would be ideal for taking with you on a personal rapid transit passenger carrier. In its folded configuration, it's adequately small to fit into a storage space.
It's also potentially something that could be brought with you on a commuter rail line. It's clean because it's all electric. That means that it's not at all like trying to sneak a gasoline powered motorbike onto the subway. I've seen people take bicycles onto the BART trains in the bay area, and the system works just fine. The M Scooter is comparably sized and would work well as one element of a commuter system that is designed to work with light rail.
Just to mention in passing: The Port Tech organization and its Expo featured several other home grown innovations. One of the more interesting was a UCLA invention that uses semipermeable membranes to clean the salt out of water and make it drinkable. The design group has shot past the theoretical questions and has full sized units already producing thousands of gallons of clean water each day.