MIT team peddles more power per pedal

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / December 16, 2009

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COPENHAGEN - Even in this city where bicycles outnumber cars on virtually every street, officials are hoping to persuade more people to give up four wheels for two.

A new invention, a motorized rear wheel created by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology lab, is here to help.

Dubbed the Copenhagen Wheel, it is nothing like the chunky, heavy motorized bikes exploding in popularity across Asia and other parts of the world or the oh-so-trendy scooters seen in US cities. The Wheel, with a small motor in its hub, will fit into any existing bike frame, giving riders extra horsepower for hills and longer distances.

The two-year project, unveiled yesterday during the international climate talks here, is designed to make biking more pleasant in cities everywhere - and fittingly for the venue, it’s emissions-free. The Wheel’s battery pack is recharged by pedal power and braking.

The device will also provide real-time information - on a handlebar-mounted smartphone - about smog conditions and traffic congestion and the rider’s exertion level and progress toward fitness goals. Equipped with GPS, it can even be used to find friends pedaling nearby and to transmit data that city planners and researchers could use to design greener cities.

“We thought about taking this machine, one of the most efficient machines ever made, and making it smarter,’’ said Assaf Biderman, the project’s associate director and the SENSEable City Lab at MIT. It’s part of a more general trend, he said: “that of inserting intelligence in our everyday objects and of creating a smart support infrastructure around ourselves for everyday life.’’

The wheel is traditional-looking, but with a snazzy, red bulging hub. Now in final prototype stages, it is far enough along to be in full production within a year. The MIT group now is talking to several companies about taking it commercial and estimates that its retail cost would hover around $500.

Boston-area bike shop workers were lukewarm about the concept. Gerry Garcia, who works at Ace Wheelworks in Somerville, said that the main hesitation he hears from people about biking are safety fears or a desire for more bike lanes - not concerns about whether they will be able to make it up a hill.

And Kate Bonner-Jackson, who works at Ferris Wheels Bike Shop in Jamaica Plain, said the wheel had a lot of cool features, but she didn’t think it was the kind of thing the average customer would necessarily want.

“Where it would be really excellent is research and sustainable city transportation. If you want to prove to a city, ‘Hey, this city’s too polluted for bikers,’ ’’ Bonner-Jackson said. “It isn’t going to help anyone get on a bike and ride it who isn’t already willing to do that.’’

The Wheel melds two technologies - sensors with personal electronics. With an iPhone or other personal mobile device nestled in the handlebar mount, the rider can control electronics in the wheel, telling it, for example, to help with the pedaling up to 100 percent, although he or she will have to keep pedaling.

The Wheel’s air quality sensors allow the rider to anonymously transmit air quality or noise level data to city officials who may want to know, for example, about pollutant levels near intersections. The iPhone can be programmed to ping when a friend riding another Copenhagen Wheel is near.

In many ways, said Christine Outram, project leader and a graduating MIT senior, “the Wheel becomes like a friend.’’

Copenhagen officials say they want to entice older people, or those who have to travel far, onto two wheels to increase the 37 percent of commuters who now ride bikes in the Danish capital. The Copenhagen Wheel, or something like it, may do that. The city is considering buying bikes and retrofitting them with the Copenhagen Wheel for some city workers.

“Our city’s ambition is that 50 percent of the citizens will take their bike to work or school every day,’’ said Ritt Bjerregaard, lord mayor of Copenhagen. “This project is part of the answer to how can we make using a bike even more attractive.’’

Already, Copenhagen is a bike enthusiast’s dream. Some traffic lights - once timed so cars could hit green lights all the way into downtown - have been synchronized to benefit bicyclists. Almost all main streets have bike lanes, and any pedestrian or car that ventures into them will face the wrath of bell-ringing cyclists.

Bicycling has long been popular in this relatively flat, compact city. But during the postwar economic boom, Copenhagen residents, as many people did around the world, fell in love with cars. While bikes were still popular, streets became clogged with autos and many bike lines were eliminated.

Then the energy crisis in the 1970s, coupled with increasing congestion, built a bike lobby like no other. Bike lanes were reintroduced, and by the 1990s, Denmark created the world’s first bike-share program and national bike route network.

“Something magical happened,’’ said Lasse Lindholm, communications head for Copenhagen’s bike division. As bicyclists grew in numbers, their political strength did too.

For the MIT team, the Copenhagen Wheel is a way to also help change behaviors. Individuals or communities of people may want to compete against each other to tally the most miles they ride - data the bike can track. Outram believes the Wheel could spark a program to cash in the miles much like frequent flier miles, but one that is “good for the environment,’’ she said.

Carolyn Y. Johnson of the Globe staff contributed to this report from Boston. Beth Daley can be reached at