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A Bike To Fix Public Transit's Biggest Problem

A Bike To Fix Public Transit's Biggest Problem

One of the biggest problems in sustainable urban transport is what's known as the "first and last mile:" that awkward part of the journey between bus or rail stop and home or office. Many transit planners consider any distance beyond half a mile too far to walk, so without a practical solution to the first and last mile problem, cities run the risk that commuters will simply get into their cars and bypass a perfectly good transit system that's juuuust outside their reach.

That's where designer Gabriel Wartofsky's folding electric bicycle comes into play. Wartofsky has tried to make his e-bike attractive to all potential commuters. It has a gender-neutral look and a low step-over height. It's chainless and electric powered, with a battery hidden in the shaft, so it's grease-free and sweat-free. It folds up neatly and quickly, making it easy to carry on buses or trains, and weighs just 25 pounds — and, if that's not light enough for you, it's even cartable when folded.

Just about the only thing Wartofsky hasn't thought of yet for his folding e-bike is a name.

Wartofsky conceived the bike a few years back while a student at the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, California. The child of what he calls "biking hippies," Wartofsky actually grew up obsessed with cars — in part because his family didn't have one. At the Art Center, a feeder institute for the car industry, he found himself interested in making Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus service more attractive to choice riders. From there his interest evolved into the first and last mile problem.

"I love what cars mean as an icon in American society, and I'd like to translate that passion into something that's a little more realistic for our future," Wartofsky says. "The truth is, this is not a sustainable model, so how do you take the joy and pleasure out of the concept of the car and apply it to another mode of transportation?"
 

His answer to that question was the folding e-bike. Wartofsky eventually drew up plans for a full-fledged multi-modal transport system in London, with his bike at the critical first-and-final piece. In this ideal world, commuters would ride folding e-bikes to bus hubs, then dock the bikes — which would be part of a bike-share network — at modules there. The hubs would double as rechargeable docks, both for the bikes and the buses, and would provide commuters real-time transit information. Last, as passengers boarded, the buses would robotically scoop full modules to deliver to other hubs:

Of course that world is a long ways away. The bike, as it presently stands, remains in its prototype stage, but it's inching ever closer to production. Wartofsky successfully raised $25,000 on Kickstarter to spark the bike's development, and he also partnered with Portland-based entrepreneur Bob Vander Woude to launch the start-up company Conscious Commuter. Vander Woude believes electric bikes are about to explode in popularity — indeed, some market forecasters predict 130 million in sales by 2025 — and that the unique look at Wartofsky's model will distinguish theirs from the pack.

"I think the thing that sets us apart from any other e-bike company in the industry right now is the design," Vander Woude says. "The way we put the battery in there, and the way people are attracted to the unique folding and hinging, there's nothing like it."

Earlier this month a prototype of the folding e-bike was featured in the Green Zone at the SXSW festival for people to test ride. (The appearance is an encore to the SXSW Eco-Conference, last fall, where Wartofsky participated in a panel to discuss the first and last mile problem.) The response there was overwhelmingly positive, the partners say.

Conscious Commuter has approached manufacturers and hopes to complete the production process inside of a year. When the folding e-bike finally hits stores — the company plans to target the top 70 commuting cities in the United States — it will sell for about $2,500. Although that seems like a lot in the abstract, Wartofsky points out that it's actually on the low end of the scale for electric bikes, and that it's extremely low for those who plan to make the bike part of their daily commute.

"It's about shifting a mindset," he says. "Most people buying electric bikes are usually looking for a solution, an alternative to their car, not another bicycle."

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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