How I learned to Stop worrying and Love the Daily Commute

How I learned to Stop worrying and Love the Daily Commute

How I learned to Stop worrying and Love the Daily Commute

Every day for a year, I would cover my 7 mile commute to work at an architectural office in New Delhi like this, hanging onto the back of a bus until a few people got off so some of us could squeeze further in and stand in a resigned day-dream for the rest of the way. A soul-crushing routine of the daily commute I participated in along with the billions that continue to do so – as part of a reality seemingly out of control.

Given the Modernist underpinnings of my Architectural education and compounded by the fact that I grew up in Le Corbusier’s modernist city of Chandigarh, I grew ever more focused on the built architectural artifact and the flows between.
Six hours north of Delhi, Chandigarh had been a heroic experiment in bringing to reality some key principles of Post-war Urban-thinking. Cities imagined as complex machines built on clean ahistorical sites, their main purpose to create and maintain efficient storage and flow of its main fuel, the city’s inhabitants.
This imagination driven and catalyzed by the single-most influential carrier of its fuel in this past century, the automobile.

With this background when I joined the Smart Cities group at MIT’s Media Lab, partly funded by GM – I not unlike many others lacked the essential criticality towards the automobile. We still looked to solve the problems of the city from the lens of an automobile

And the Go to strategies to the problems of Urban mobility became quite simply.

  • How to move maximum people with the least amount of Ground and Carbon Footprint.
  • Taking for granted that maximum people will use cars to move in a city, the question turned into how we could compress the ground and carbon footprint of the car.

So we designed Folding cars, Stackable cars and many complex and intellectually exciting solutions until a few of us also revisited the question of the bicycle.

There was no debate on how great bicycles are. From a socio-economic perspective – bicycles have always been an instrument of empowerment – of socio-economically marginalized communities across the world.
As engineers , we marveled at how energy efficient the simple bicycle is. A human on a bicycle continues to be the most efficient example of locomotion compared to any other mode or species on this planet.

Granted, the automobile is the best personal mobility option for long distance InterCity travel. But the everyday 3-10 miles quotidian commute could surely be done in a much cleaner, healthier and efficient manner with bicycles and a lot more often by a lot more people. So, why is it then that the bicycle is not the go to answer for the majority of urban commutes?   

What happened to the culture of bicycles in the US when we had been one of the most enthusiastic early adopters of the bicycle right from the very start since John Kemp Starley introduced the first Safety Bicycle in 1890.  Sales of bicycles jumped within seven years from 340,000 in 1890 to 2M in the US alone.

Why is it then that despite such an early promising start, the United States lagged behind among all developed nations in bike usage and infrastructure?

The earliest push back to bicycle adoption at the turn of the century came quite predictably from the fledgling automobile industry of that time. We start to see aggressive lobbying for a shift towards the car in urban infrastructure and policy. Ironically, by shifting the blame regarding the negative effects of cars onto everyone else except the automobile owners. The newspaper coverage quite suddenly changes, so that in 1923 they’re all blaming the drivers, and by late 1924 they’re all blaming jaywalking.

A second significant pushback is seen from men in general who begin to see the bicycle as a revolutionary tool, disruptive to gender power dynamics in early 1900 society.  The bicycle becomes an integral tool in the Suffragist movement. “Bicycles promised freedom to women long accustomed to relying on men for transportation. Suddenly, the relatively inexpensive and readily accessible technological innovation gave women more control over where they went and when.”

So much so that late-19th-century doctors went so far as to make up a medical condition which warned that — especially for women — using the newfangled contraption could lead to a terrifying medical condition: bicycle face.

“The Unconscious effort to maintain one’s balance tends to produce a wearied and exhausted ‘Bicycle Face’

Such is the beginning of how street infrastructure in American cities get aggressively claimed by cars while pushing pedestrians and other modes of micro-mobility away and out of the margins.

The next big moment for a Bicycle Boom comes around the Oil crisis in the 70’s.  In 1972 bike sales hit 14 million, with 60 percent of them being bought for adults. 
This was again a seminal moment in American and European history for new conversations around Urban Infrastructure design and policy. The dominant urban planning paradigm during this time predictably continued to center around the car. The image below is an example of how the future of Amsterdam was imagined by the urban planners of the time. 

However, In a mere 50 years, by rejecting the car-centric model altogether the Dutch are able to sustain their cities as thriving bicycling economies whereas Americans continue to depend on the unsustainable car-centric paradigm and thus thwarting the second big bicycle boom in American history.

And it’s a tragic and stark contrast between the outcomes of the two directions these distinct cultures (American and Dutch) took. 

In Manhattan alone, If we added up all the space the city devotes to cars, we’d have an area nearly four times as large as Central Park.

We are now heading towards a world where two thirds of the global population will be living in dense Urban areas by 2050. This urban workforce will need cleaner and more nimble ways of navigating these cities and it can no longer continue to be just a large number of single occupancy cars; autonomous, electric or otherwise. The only sustainable and reasonable path forward is for low carbon and ground footprint micro-mobility options and the bicycle still remains the best of these options.

So in my personal journey of adopting the bicycle as the best option for a daily commute, I asked myself a naive question. What would make it easier for more people to switch to bicycles for the short 3-10 mile urban commute?

From my own experiences and research the three key barriers always stood out ; Weather, Safety and Effort.

To counter Weather, I adopted (and partly due to my half dutch wife) the Dutch credo of – “there is no bad weather – only bad clothing.”
Of course I bargained that even if we could limit our dependence on cars to extreme weather days, it’s still a huge win on our overall reduction of GHG emissions and Urban congestion.

As for Safety – it has always been in numbers. As a network effect that compounds with larger numbers. It’s a feedback loop so the more cyclists we can bring to our streets – the safer our streets will become.

Finally, the third problem of Effort was one I could apply my design/engineering/mobility mind to quite well. What if I could cancel the pain to ride my bike everyday over hills and bridges, without having to exchange the bike that I love for an expensive and heavy e-bike. I needed something that I could attach to my bike in seconds without requiring any tools. And when I arrived at my destination I could simply take that thing off carry with me in my backpack or recharge it on my desk. I would have the choice to continue to experience my bike as it originally is and also as an e-bike when i needed to.

Thus enters CLIP – A Portable and affordable propulsion device that is designed to upgrade any bicycle to an e-bike, instantly.

It is easy and fun to ride. Once CLIP is attached, you can ride your bike normally without powering CLIP. When you need a boost, you press the button on the Bluetooth module to activate CLIP’s ride-assist. It has enough range and power to get you up to 10-15 miles comfortably. 

There was a study on CLIP by the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute a few months ago that concluded – of the number of car-based trips in NYC, that could be converted into bike trips with CLIP – it has the potential to take out 40,000 cars and eliminate 13000 metric ton of CO2 every year.

This is a quite a massive dent we can help make to our overall GHG emissions and Urban Congestion

This past year we’ve seen a big jump in bicycling use and sales in the US. This is likely the start of the third big wave of bicycle adoption in the US. My mission now at CLIP is to be able to empower more people to choose the bicycle as their mode of commute by making their biking experience much easier. This may be the key that helps usher in the radical change in the experience of our streets as we reclaim them for pedestrians and bicyclists again.

I’ve Seen a Future Without Cars, and It’s Amazing – Farhad Manjoo | NYT
The forgotten history of how automakers invented the crime of “jaywalking”Joseph Stromberg – VOX
“Bicycle face”: a 19th-century health problem made up to scare women away from bikingJoseph Stromberg – VOX
The secret history of 19th century cyclistsWilliam Manners – The Guardian
Pedal-ins and car burials: what happened to America’s forgotten 1970s cycle boom?Carlton Reid – The Guardian
How Amsterdam Became a Bicycle ParadiseBloomberg Quicktake
Pedaling the Path to Freedom
The US wasn’t equipped for 2020’s cycling boom. Its failures stem from a century of leaving bikes behind. – Tim Levin – Business Insider
The Unexpected Resurgence of Cycling – Bike Boom – Carlton Reid

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