A fleet of five fully enclosed, three-wheeled, human-powered, electric-assisted velomobiles is turning heads on the University of British Columbia campus.
The vehicles, an unusual combination of mini-car and self-pedaled bicycle, are part of a new ride-sharing service called Veemo that has entered its final phase of testing and is now just weeks away from being publicly available on campus.
The service, the first of its kind in the world, will rent the velomobiles by the minute using a model similar to other ride-share companies in the city.
Kody Baker, one of the four co-founders of VeloMetro Mobility — the company that will offer this new service — said that the vehicles are technically classified as bicycles but have many of the comforts of an automobile.
“We think we’ve found a really good niche that takes the benefits of both of them. We’re going to be cheaper than a car-share, more accessible since you don’t need a driver’s licence, and more convenient because you have access to bike lanes and can avoid more traffic,” said Baker. “We’re more convenient than bike-share because you’re protected from the weather, you have the electric assist, you’re safer and you have a lot of storage in the back.”
The velomobiles also have a coffee holder, an upright seat, power windows, rear-view mirrors, headlights and a tablet that acts as a navigational system and displays warnings if the vehicle is driven out of the boundaries marked by geofencing.
Four UBC grads started novel project
The pilot project was launched on the UBC campus in partnership with the university’s parking division, which designated 24 parking spots, each of which can hold three to six Veemos, for the vehicles.
The campus was a natural site for the pilot as all four co-founders are graduates of the university, although they met later while working for an electric-car company.
Baker said the inspiration for Veemo struck during a coffee break with one of the other co-founders. Each was working on a problem, one had the idea for a product with no way to release it, and the other was trying to figure out how to make ride-sharing possible for electric vehicles that needed down-time to charge.
“Really it was that ahaa moment over coffee. We realized that if we did an enclosed electric-assisted trike in a sharing network, we’d be able to manage the charging by doing battery swaps and it would be a really affordable way to get electric vehicles into the hands of everyone.”
It took three and a half years of research and development, during which the company received grants, secured patents, and developed and tested a series of prototypes, to turn this initial inspiration into a reality.
Now that Veemo has come to the UBC campus, the company is seeking investors to finance the next step, which will be to release a fleet of 50 vehicles in Vancouver’s downtown core.
City supports new transport option
The city has been supportive of the project and has allowed VeloMetro to use 280 green-geared parking spots distributed throughout the city.
Winston Chou, manager of traffic and data for the city of Vancouver, said that bike- and car-share services benefit the city both in terms of providing sustainable transportation options and maximizing limited road space.
“We recognize that walking and biking and taking transit is just more space-efficient in a very confined city geographically.”
Velomobiles will share crowded bike lanes
Of course, introducing these new vehicles into the existing transportation system will not be without its challenges.
Jeff Leigh, chair of the UBC and Vancouver committee for HUB Cycling — a non-profit organization formed to improve cycling conditions in Metro Vancouver — anticipates that the vehicles may clog up the bike lanes by moving slowly and preventing cyclists from passing one another safely.
“Bike lanes have been designed based upon this concept of a safe width so that you can basically overtake another bike. Most don’t meet those standards. Issues [like accidents where bike lanes narrow] are going to be a whole lot worse with a bigger vehicle. I don’t really care if it’s a Veemo, or a bike pulling a trailer, or just an adult trike, all of those create limitations around overtaking, and often the bigger ones are the slower ones.”
Leigh does not see this as a problem for Veemo. Instead, he sees it as a problem with the infrastructure. More space needs to be allotted to safely accommodate the growing number of active transportation options.
Baker suggests that the introduction of velomobiles on the roadways and bike lanes could be exactly what is needed to prompt those changes.
“The knee-jerk reaction for some cyclists is ‘You’re too big to be in the bike lane.’ But we’re hoping to convert people from driving cars to using active, clean transportation and that has a benefit for all cyclists. If there is less automobile traffic and this super–efficient method of transportation—cycling—is overburdening existing infrastructure . . . a city is going look at that and say ‘We’re going to now take this car lane out and add more cycling routes and more cycling bandwidth’ and that makes a safer, more convenient system for all cyclists in the city.”