Would pedal-powered cars bring more cycling or conflict?
A Loudoun man created a small pedal-powered car with battery backup, according to an article in the Washington Post. Is this "car" a way to adapt bicycling for the masses in a low-density suburban area, or will it run into the same road rage attitudes cyclists have encountered?
The two-seat car, by Leesburg resident and mechanical engineering student Nick Turner, has pedals at both seats to drive the car under most circumstances, while batteries provide some electric assistance going up hills. Its top speed is 23 mph.
Other residents who encounter it seem enamored: they smile, honk (apparently in a positive way), and even line up to get rides.
Reporter Susan Svrluga says Turner "loves cars" but started to feel guilty about his carbon footprint from driving so much. Some people respond to this impulse by starting to bicycle. That's not far from what Turner did: ultimately, his car really is primarily a 2-seat car-shaped bicycle. With battery assistance.
Does being car-shaped and having batteries make it more appealing than a bicycle? In downtown DC, being car-shaped would just make this bicycle hard to park, but in a place like Loudoun, it could bridge the gap between cyclists and drivers. It's great that a number of people in Loudoun and other very spread-out suburbs bicycle everywhere. But it's not easy for the average person there to start riding regularly.
For urban dwellers in dense communities, driving already has substantial hassles, especially parking, and there's a lot to reach from just a short bike ride. As I noted in my Washington Post op-ed, Capital Bikeshare got me biking a lot more. That was easy because I can reach a great many destinations with a one-mile bike ride.
If I lived in Olney or Chantilly, there'd be some, but far fewer. Running everyday errands requires traversing longer distances. Roads are engineered to be even less friendly to biking, and almost every store requires navigating a parking lot where people aren't expecting a cyclist.
Maybe a vehicle that's in between the car and the bike would give someone who drives everywhere an alternative that's not as intimidating. Hills aren't quite so difficult, but the driver gets used to pedaling and improves physical fitness. It's larger and therefore more visible to other drivers.
Being larger, though, it's also harder to pass. If these vehicles became more than the very occasional curiosity, will they change drivers' view of the roadway, or will they just become yet another source of angry conflict?
Newspapers are already replete with angry letters to the editor about cyclists riding on roads like Macarthur Boulevard that force drivers to wait instead of achieving any desired speed. Then there's the occasional column by someone who admits to wanting to actually assault cyclists because they get in the way.
It's easy to imagine the same conflict between drivers of motor vehicles and users of these pedal-powered cars. Drivers get irate if 2 cyclists are riding abreast; this car is always at least as wide as 2 cyclists. It can go faster than a bike, but still far slower than a motor vehicle.
If enough people drive both an SUV and a bike-car, maybe everyone on the road will just develop an appreciation for each other's point of view. First, though, bike-cars would have to go through a period of being a niche product for early adopters. Then we'll see if Loudoun residents continue to find them entertaining and fascinating, or if they turn into a nuisance, a point of conflict, and a punching bag for politicians who can't envision any kind of freedom other than driving a really large, high-horsepower car.
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