What if you could enjoy the benefits of a bike and the benefits of a car at the same time? Sojourn Labs, a Toronto-based startup, is prototyping a new kind of vehicle built to bridge the gap between bikes and cars, aiming for that happy medium of convenience and safety. The basic idea: A hybrid combining the exercise and eco-friendliness of a bike with the comfort, storage, and safety of a car. Fair enough. I had to test it out.
For people living in cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, biking is often a more logical commuting choice than driving, even in cold weather. Most North American cities remain firmly entrenched in car culture, though, which means streets are set up for sedans, not cycles. Most people who bike in urban areas have a close call story in their back pocket (mine involves a rainy Saturday, a streetcar track, and a BMW). And most of us keep our bikes locked up during the coldest months. This kind of vehicle looks a bit like a recumbent bike, but it is wider and more protected than a bike, and the windshield protects against biting cold (they're also planning to add other insulation on the next model). It's electric, and runs on a battery.
Their current model is classified as an e-bike, so it only reaches speeds around 20 mph (that's plenty fast for commuting on city streets). But with storage space, a proper block against the wind, and software that helps you determine how much effort you need to put into pedalling, their vision is more in line with a true hybrid between a compact car and an e-bike than your standard e-bike. There's also the possibility of going faster, but the team wanted to keep it classified as an e-bike so that people wouldn't need a license to ride it.
The Sojourn Labs bike is a prototype, and it had plenty of kinks to work out. I rode it on a day with a fierce cold snap and the battery died a few times (it was easy to restart, but still, it is supposed to be designed to survive cold weather). The brake was aluminum, and I hadn't worn gloves; my fingers were freezing.
They have a lot of work to do to take get their vehicle ready for commercial sale, but the idea is solid. We need more commuting options beyond cars, and this little thing is sturdier (and way more comfortable on your butt) than a road bike.
I had a great time on my test-drive, chilly hands and all:
Here's some GoPro footage I took as well, it actually was exactly as windy as it sounded that day:
Now, Sojourn Labs isn't the only group working on a car-bike hybrid. There's VeloMetro's VeloCar, and Organic Transit's ELF car is already on the market, and can go up to 30 mph on electricity alone, and 30 mph with electricity and pedalling combined (it also has solar panels for added power, something Sojourn is planning to add to their next prototype).
This hybrid bike-car idea that Sojourn Labs and other groups are pushing isn't new. In the 1930s and 1940s, velocars enjoyed a brief period of popularity in France, when petroleum was limited during wartime. The stripped-down rides got usurped by regular ole cars, but with gas prices still high, even though there's no ration, the concept is smart.
These companies are all angling towards the same idea because the current commuting system sucks, and adding a stopgap between a bike and car is something they think people will want. I was surprised by how much more comfortable the Sojourn prototype was than a bike, even with all the prototype evidence (wires, wires everywhere) sticking out; they have a good (albeit barebones) vehicle in the works.
The biggest problem with hybrids like these taking off is that our cities are still built for cars, and putting these in the flow of traffic (even though they can reach speeds approaching the limit) is likely to freak out car drivers, and even though they're sturdier than bikes, it'll still be difficult for riders to feel safe driving alongside SUVs. We need cities to plan for alternative modes of transit. This is already happening in Europe, but North America needs to step it up.
Image and video: Johnny Guatto/University of Toronto