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Shifting Gears

From MIT, a quantum leap in bike mechanics

Christine Outram, leader of the Smart Biking Project at MIT, and Michael Lin, a graduate student at MIT's Media Lab, with the hybrid GreenWheel. Christine Outram, leader of the Smart Biking Project at MIT, and Michael Lin, a graduate student at MIT's Media Lab, with the hybrid GreenWheel. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Susan Chaityn Lebovits
November 16, 2008
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Bicyclists in Copenhagen will soon be able to take part in a project that will allow them to track the roads they've traveled, get a boost up tough hills, and maybe even improve their social lives.

The Smart Biking Project is being developed by the SENSEable City Laboratory, an MIT research group focused on technology and cities, part of MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

Using a Facebook application called "I Crossed Your Path," cyclists will be able to make connections with each other by exchanging information - online or through a smartphone - about which routes they took that day. The program, which formally gets underway in 2009, will work through a smart tag that functions a lot like RFID (radio frequency identification) technology. The tag, which they expect to be the size of a USB flash drive, can be installed under a bike seat, inside the frame, or on a headlight.

"MIT's smart tags will have low power consumption, low bandwidth, and will be affordable at under $30 per tag," said Christine Outram, project leader and a graduate student in the Master of Science in Architecture Studies program.

"If I ride past a particular point, and a friend from Facebook or another social networking site rides past, I can get a little ping on my bike, or a text message on my cellphone, or a message that will appear on my social networking site," Outram said.

The application will also allow individuals or groups to monitor the distance they travel as part of a citywide green-mileage initiative, similar to a frequent-flyer program, where points are awarded and prizes earned for those reducing their carbon footprint through biking.

"You can interpolate the data for a variety of things, like monitor how well you do month-to-month, or challenge your friends," said Outram, who already holds degrees in both architecture and urban design.

With the information it collects, the project might also help urban planners make better decisions on things like where new bike paths should be built.

Professor Carlo Ratti, the lab's director, suggests that fine-grained monitoring of urban activities could allow cities such as Copenhagen to enter into carbon trading, in which cities could then get funding for sustainable city services in exchange for their efforts to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

"The impact could be considerable," said Ratti. "For the first time in history, cities now contain over 50 percent of the world population and are responsible for an even higher share of carbon emissions."

In addition to the smart tags, Ratti's lab is collaborating with the Smart Cities Group, headed by William J. Mitchell, at the MIT Media Lab to develop a smart hybrid bicycle called the GreenWheel. Although the GreenWheel can be used as a traditional bicycle, it also has a motor that offers riders more torque when going up a hill, and power when accelerating.

"The regenerative battery and motor harvests energy when braking and releases it while cycling, a system similar to hybrid cars," explained GreenWheel project leader Michael Lin, a graduate student at the Media Lab who also holds a Master of Science in Architecture and Urbanism.

All of the elements are housed in the rear wheel.

"I combined the battery into the hub, did the drawings, and sent out the plans for fabrication," said Lin. "The motorized hub fits into any size and kind of bicycle."

Other components include a wireless control module, reduction gearbox that reduces wheel speed and allows more torque, and an accelerometer, a chip that detects incline, decline, and acceleration.

Currently the SENSEable City Lab has a three-year partnership with the city of Copenhagen to look at how technologies can improve understanding of the city's sustainability.

City Lab's associate director, Assaf Biderman, said in a press release that sharing this information and showing individuals the environmental impact of their actions could be formidable, as research has shown that behavioral change is one of the most powerful forces in tackling climate change and reducing carbon emissions.

The system in Copenhagen allows residents to "borrow" city-owned bicycles, which are stored in stands and released for a small sum of around 20 kroner (about $3.40). The coins are returned when the bicycles are returned to any housing station in the city.

The city of Copenhagen is looking to increase its five-year-old fleet of 1,200 City Bikes to 5,000.

Many bicycles, said Outram, have turned up in canals and have to be fished out and repaired. She said in some cases residents are riding the bicycles downhill, but not back up, an issue that the GreenWheel could potentially obliterate.

Outram said the ultimate goal is to get the contract and build the prototypes for CityBike in Copenhagen, but if MIT doesn't get the contract, it will continue to produce the wheel as a stand-alone that can be sold to individuals. And the smart tag device can easily be distributed to people in Copenhagen and incorporated into their own bicycles.

"Practically it wouldn't be hard to incorporate the smart tag systems into any city," said Outram. "The model, however, would vary depending on government structure, support for deployment, and maintenance and incentives for citizens to engage in these programs."

The Smart Biking Project is scheduled to be implemented throughout Copenhagen in time for the November 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference that will take place there.

Send comments, bike news and events, and ideas for future columns to shiftinggears@globe.com.

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