A Two-Wheel Revolution: Streamlining the Cycling Landscape

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The global landscape of cycling has changed dramatically over the last twenty years. It’s crazy to think I rode a bike in Brooklyn in 2000 with completely ill-equipped roads, unsuspecting drivers, and a lack of parking, fastforwarding to a city now where delivery workers and commuters zoom past you in dedicated lanes. Fuelled by climate awareness – and the perseverance of two legs and two wheels – in the recent past municipalities across the world have scrambled to do what they can to make cycling safer and more appealing. Startups have followed suit, with companies such as PopWheels, Oonee, and Velo aiming to improve cities and cycling for a wide-ranging demographic: from delivery workers in New York City, daily commuters, existing avid cyclists, and novice recruits. 

We know about cycle-friendly streets in Amsterdam or Copenhagen (where 62% of people commute by bike), yet in the United States, the culture and infrastructure is lacking – it has been a work in progress as the world catches up to change our carbon footprint. PopWheels, Oonee, and Velo are particularly attuned to addressing cycling issues in the urban environment, creating efficient ways to charge and store e-mobility batteries, providing city-wide bike parking, and helping riders feel confident and safe with an AI-powered co-pilot. After building on experience of previous ventures, solid years of development, beta-testing, and invaluable mentor support from networks such as URBAN-X, these startups are realities contributing to essential infrastructure change.  

I spoke with PopWheels founder Baruch Herzfeld, whose enthusiasm for supporting marginalized NYC communities (many of whom are cyclists) was contagious even through a video call. His previous venture created streaming access to far flung global radio stations for New York City’s immigrant communities, a lifeline for maintaining a connection to home. So it was no surprise that his latest project would funnel energy into helping a new generation of essential workers who keep the restaurant industry alive and well through delivery work. 

When Baruch was helping his local community during the pandemic by delivering groceries to house-bound seniors, and when his triplets needed transporting via a cargo bike, he realized that the ideal mode of transport for the city is not a car or pedal bike, but e-bikes and the myriad of personal transport methods available, powered by electricity. And the linchpin for all of this? A battery. Baruch realized the battery necessity required a network – and his solution in PopWheels is creating nodes for this throughout the city. 

David Hammer and Baruch Herzfeld, Co-founders of PopWheels with their battery swapping station.

For scooter riders or delivery drivers (of which there are an estimated 65,000), e-mobility is essential, but cheaper, unregulated and unsafe batteries with a propensity to catch fire are a major risk, as well as limited battery life that can end a shift when workers can’t afford to stop. PopWheels is committed to mitigating both of these issues. The concept is simple, as Herzfeld put it to me: ‘If New York banned batteries tomorrow, 300,000 restaurants may be left stranded, and at least one million New York City residents may miss out on their lunch and dinner deliveries’. Not to mention the lost income for essential workers. With battery stations that allow users to swap out fresh ones when theirs run out of juice, PopWheels helps prevent battery fires but also keeps riders on the road when they need to be. Their units are found across the city in Manhattan (midtown, downtown) and Brooklyn, targeting places where riders work and live, aiming for a thousand stations in the next two years. Word of mouth between riders has done a lot for their network, which now has a waitlist to join. 

For PopWheels, it has been a shared mission for fire safety working with the FDNY (with whom they have weekly discussions), and getting NYC DOT on board to make positive changes. Yet there are often challenges in pushing through essential urban planning proposals, needed sooner rather than later. We also spoke about the complex logistics and maintenance of his units, but it’s nothing that’s impossible, Baruch says, even comparing the idea to vending machines. And though he’s not averse to ambition, he’s focusing on improving his own community for now – in Brooklyn, and in his city of New York. But never say never – there are some big players out there who have it in their best interest to improve the efficiency of their riders, and they certainly are interested in what PopWheels is doing, with some exciting contracts soon to be announced. 

But where do you store your bike if you live in a city? The Bikes in Buildings initiative in NYC has encouraged workplaces to provide bike parking (over 13,000 spaces in 400 buildings), however more space is needed. This secure space is lacking, which is where Oonee comes in with their network of safe bike storage, rolled out in various sized pods and configurations.

Shabazz Stuart, Co-founder of Oonee with one of Oonees “Pods”.

Co-founder Shabazz Stuart noted that one in four households in NYC has experienced bike theft, something their work is aiming to change, with the idea that integrated bike parking can improve streets and communities. Since the pandemic’s pop-up al fresco dining (an estimated 10,000 structures in the city), the curb is having a Byzantine kind of moment according to Stuart, with so many possibilities to improve the streets. This is where Oonee is headed, making mix-and-match style configurations with their bike parking pods, including parks, play equipment, and other add-ons that will ultimately benefit local communities.

But again, most challenges come at policy and infrastructure level, getting cities to work at speed in implementing changes that contribute to more sustainable cities. With a background in policy, Shabazz is no stranger to this, but speed is needed for innovators, risk-takers, and the development of sustainable projects such as these. With urban areas contributing almost 70% of CO2 emissions, cities are the most important place for this work to take place, according to Stuart. Procurement reform is truly what is needed – for many urban startups in fact – but Oonee’s turnkey approach endeavors to take away barriers for communities and small businesses to have these pods transplanted, ‘giving people the core building blocks for what is a successful social street’ said Stuart. As a black and brown run business, they also are helping this community, who form a large part of the cycling and e-mobility demographic.

It’s not only the storage problem that urban cyclists face, but safety. For many, it is daunting, especially in an urban environment. Even though NYC DOT has installed 1,525 bike lane miles (of 6,300 total street miles) and 644 miles of protected bike lanes as of 2022, it doesn’t take away apprehension from users, and particularly a smaller proportion of women who choose to take the risk, with men three to four times more likely to cycle.

Pittsburgh-based Velo is mitigating these risks with its cycling co-pilot technology, an idea spun off the work of autonomous vehicle research. As a robotics specialist with a stint in the aforementioned industry, co-founder Clark Haynes decided to apply his knowledge to assist riders in cycling safely, particularly inspired after clocking 4,000 riding miles in 2020. Though cycling enthusiasm has grown in the United States, so have the fatalities (up 37% from 2012-2021), and so he thought it would be cool ‘to have a full autonomous vehicle perception system on the back of [his] bike.’ 

The lightweight Velo light and camera mounts on the back of the bike, with an app that notifies riders of vehicles approaching from behind, on the side, or in front. Though there are radar-type products on the market, this autonomous vehicle sensor technology combined with Velo’s in-house algorithms are a step ahead, using AI accelerator chips designed for deep learning, capable of faster computations with a fraction of the power. Working with early adopters, they are improving the product as they go, a crucial part of their software development. Clark emphasized the importance for him to get the product out half-baked with this essential feedback phase, allowing them to improve. If you wait, it could be too long for your product to launch and get to market. 

Velo AI’s “Co-Pilot” on a bike in Pittsburgh. Photo courtesy of Velo AI.

What’s most compelling however is the data capture. With users that capture data of car behavior and their own, as well as their routes, Velo learns from different road layouts and environments, contributing to a better future on the roads for bikes. By sharing this data and working with urban planners and departments of transport, the ultimate goal is to improve the roads for everyone. As Clark told me, their ‘core contribution is algorithms and models that understand the world and help you travel through it.’ And he actually ‘hopes we don’t need this product, because that means that there is safer infrastructure everywhere.’

This unflagging desire to improve (cycling) life, safety, and the environment for all types of people who choose to get on a bike everyday are what drive PopWheels, Oonee, and Velo. Challenging outdated policy and infrastructure and raising awareness of cycling overall, the innovation of these startups is changing our cycling and urban landscapes for the better. In their own ways, this work impacts different cycling communities at a local level, whilst contributing to broader solutions needed for sustainable cities, and eventually the planet. They are removing barriers, leading by example to empower cyclists in this two-wheel revolution, which hopefully will only continue to grow. Like PopWheels told me, ‘Everyone is a potential bike user’ – a frame of mind perhaps we should all adopt, if the cities, four-wheel users and city planners can catch up with us.

Written by
Corinne Mynatt
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