By now, it's no secret that docked Citi Bikes can be used as free personal exercise machines, but could this new trend be used for a purpose other than giving the city's homeless population "sick bodies"? What if, instead of putting the kibosh on the practice by locking the pedals of the bikes (as some have speculated could happen), the city was able to harness the kinetic energy generated by the movement of these opportunistic New Yorkers' legs and turn it into electricity? And what if the resulting pedal power could charge up cell phones, emergency equipment or even solve some of the issues Citi Bike's been having with their off-the-grid stations going dead?
Pedal-powered generators are nothing new. In fact, we’ve featured quite a few examples here on Inhabitat from a pedal-powered music festival in Union Square (which was “Powered by Natural Ass”) to the pedal-powered premiere of NBC’s Revolution, a show about a post-apocalyptic future world with no electricity. But those were one-off events – not a permanent system that needs to perform daily like the Citi Bike program. Would it be feasible to install the same kind of apparatus on Citi Bikes or Citi Bike docks?
Brooks Maschmeier, CEO of ASE Power Arizona (the company that supplied the generators for the NBC event) says that the answer is yes. “It’s extremely feasible,” Maschmeier told us over the phone today. “Looking at the docking stations, there’s plenty of room to place generators behind the bikes if we elevated them slightly,” he said. “The apparatus exists. We make it.” ASE is currently working with the University of Toronto’s Human Power Vehicle Design Team and architecture firm RAW Design on an event taking place tomorrow in Toronto that will feature triathletes pedaling bikes to discharge electricity back into the grid.
A mockup prepared by ASE of what a Citi Bike station equipped with pedal-powered generators could look like. “Each rider is able to make up to 300 watts per hour because the generator is 300 watt motor,” explained ASE CEO Brooks Maschmeier. “But most riders like myself will make about 100 watts per hour. We have made 800 watt bike generators for real extreme riders, but that is a lot of power. The power produced is very dependent on the rider.” Note: Currently, docked Citi Bikes can only be pedaled backwards. In order to maximize the power generated by pedaling, it is recommended that the rear tires be lifted slightly so that they could also be pedaled forwards.
Navjot Kaur, a co-founder of The Charge Cycle, a company that makes bike stations that can charge personal electric devices using pedal power told us that his company has also considered the idea of adding generators to Citi Bike stations. “We think it’d be an added benefit to the bike users and to even people that need a charge when a bike is docked,” he wrote to us in an email. “The Citi Bikes are already using a dynamo to power the front and back lights of the bike. To add the ability to charge a phone would be an integration into the PCB on board.”
So the technology exists, but, just like everything else in New York, it all comes down to money – something that, right now, Citi Bike says it’s fresh out of. “I’d guesstimate each [generator unit] would run around $350,” Maschmeier told us. Of course $350 x 6,000 (the number of bikes in the bike share program) is well over 2 million bucks, so installing generators on every single dock is probably a longshot. But what if only one bike dock per station was equipped with a generator? With 330 stations (the current count), we’d be looking at about $115,500 to install one generator per station. Or, generators could be installed only at the stations that need a little extra juice (remember that some riders have been complaining that solar-powered Citi Bike stations oftentimes don’t work on cloudy days). According to Maschmeier, the system’s credit card machines don’t use much power, so it would likely only take one person pedaling for about 30 minutes to store enough charge in the battery to keep the station up and running for the day. Half an hour spent pedaling on a stationary bike may sound grueling to some, but let’s not forget that some people are already doing it just for the sake of their figures.
In addition to powering up Citi Bike stations themselves, pedal-powered generators could also come in handy during blackouts (something we’ve been worrying about quite a bit in NYC these days). If Citi Bike docks were outfitted with pedal-powered charging equipment, it’s possible that people could use them to charge phones, medical equipment, computers, radios or lights in times of emergency. Of course, we’d also have to make sure that the generators themselves – which sit on the ground – are sealed up tightly enough to keep water out.
While it may still seem like a pie in the sky idea to toss pedal-powered generators into an already complex bike share system that is still ironing out its fair share of kinks, we really hope that the Department of Transportation at least takes the concept into consideration. If a pilot program proved successful, perhaps we could even implement a payment system where stationary bikers could be rewarded with vouchers or credits towards Citi Bike trips. Such a system might possibly create a bit more equality for those who want to ride but don’t have the dough. And who wouldn’t want to be paid to work out?
Editor’s note: The credit for this article goes completely to my mom, who told me that I should write about this. One day I told her I went to a TV show premiere where people were pedaling on bikes to power a movie screen, and more recently, I mentioned that people were using docked Citi Bikes for free exercise. So she says to me (in Japanese), “Why don’t they just get people to power the city by riding Citi Bikes if they’re already doing it anyway?” And I thought, “Yes, why don’t they?” And she said “You should write about that.” So I did. Thanks Mom!