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Heavenly Highways for Cyclists

November 1, 1997

Though bicycles are the most widely used vehicles in the world, as well as the most energy efficient, they still play a minor role in the U.S. transportation system. The problem, according to many observers, relates to infrastructure. “Technical advances are leading to faster and faster bikes, but we don’t have the facilities to accommodate them,” says Milnor Senior, head of Bicycle Transportation Systems, Inc. in Denver. Safety is a related concern. “In so many places, there’s too much hazard, or perceived hazard, for cyclists to get out into traffic without putting their lives at risk,” notes Gerry Hawkes, president of Bike Track, Inc. in Woodstock, Vt.

Both Senior and Hawkes hope to change this situation with their plans for new kinds of bike conveyances. Senior’s scheme, “TransGlide 2000,” consists of a four-lane “transportation corridor,” placed either on the ground or elevated above roadways. The system, he says, is intended to move people through an urban area with the “highest average speed and lowest cost.”

Senior proposes installing fans in the enclosed one-way tunnels to eliminate 90 percent of the air resistance cyclists normally face. He estimates that just 11 fans, each powered by a 150-horsepower electric motor-and costing $200 per hour, in all, to operate-could provide the requisite tailwind over a 10-mile stretch of weather-protected bikeway.

Enabling average speeds of about 25 miles per hour, the system would provide the same capacity as a light rail transit line at a fraction of the cost, Senior maintains-about $8 million per mile, he says, versus more than $80 million per mile. He has not yet secured the funding he needs to build a demonstration prototype, but is filing proposals with the National Park System in the hopes of testing the concept at a U.S. park.

Hawkes, meanwhile, is proposing a less elaborate system that could be implemented much more quickly-practically overnight, he contends. His EcoTrack transportation path consists of interlocking pre-fab sections-composed largely of recycled polyethylene plastic-that can be snapped together and laid down over fields, beaches, and other terrain. It’s so easy to install, Hawkes says, that one worker “could put down about 500 feet in an hour on level ground.” (Installation on uneven terrain is also manageable but more time consuming.) The cost per mile of track, depending on the width, would range from $100,000 to $250,000. The no-frills system could be upgraded, at additional cost, to include safety railings, wind and splash barriers, and canopies.

In contrast to paved paths, which require heavy equipment to lay down, EcoTrack could be installed with minimal damage to the soil and vegetation, says Hawkes, who also happens to be a forester. The track could also be removed almost instantly, if required.

EcoTrack has held up well under heavy use during the past two years on a 100-foot-long stretch of bike path along the Cape Cod National Seashore. Because of the success of the test track, Hawkes is developing plans for mass production capability.

Although it is possible-and some would say likely-that neither TransGlide 2000 nor EcoTrack will take the country by storm, both systems illustrate that creative approaches are needed, and indeed available, to elevate the status of the lowly bicycle in America’s transportation mix.

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