Pedaling forward with DC Cycling innovations and safety

My parents are always happy to drive down from New York to visit me in Washington, D.C., but they are never happy about D.C.’s brutal traffic. Tons of cars struggling to reach their destination means cyclists have even less space to safely bike. This lack of low stress places for cyclists is one of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association’s (WABA) biggest concerns. Local startups Handy Bikes DC and Aurora Smart Technologies are striving to address similar safety concerns and innovate cycling in the district.

The appearance of Handy Bikes DC is not very different than the numerous food trucks parked along L Street during the lunchtime rush, but a closer look reveals an entirely different kind of service. Handy Bikes DC is a static pop-up bicycle repair shop.

Owner Peter Buck launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to turn his trailer into a repair shop. He knew he couldn’t afford a brick and mortar space and was determined to launch after learning there were only a small number of service-based shops and a large number of cyclists in the area.

“I was an aspiring mechanical engineer prior to joining the Navy, and I really like being able to work with my hands to fix bikes,” Buck said. “There is always a new challenge to be solved, a new symptom to diagnose and solve, and it’s tough to beat the look on a happy rider’s face when their bike is finally functioning properly again.”

Buck was deployed to Iraq as a flight medic with the Marines in 2003 and served in Afghanistan with a marine infantry battalion in 2011. He started a small business as a handyman while stationed in North Carolina and went from handyman to handy bikes when he transferred to DC in 2012.

Colin Browne, Communications Coordinator at WABA, said Buck’s handiwork is great because many people don’t have easy access to bike shops. “It’s neat to see folks trying to bring access like that to a broader community,” Browne said.

Handy Bikes DC can almost always be found at the same spot near 1st and K Streets SE. When they travel for events or larger jobs they tweet and post on Facebook. Buck hopes to get a second truck and is talking through options for a brick and mortar shop.

“The initial idea was to be truly mobile, but I quickly found that to be a horrible business model due to traffic, poor roads and parking,” said Buck. “In the time it used to take me to visit one customer, I can see three or four by having them come to us instead.”

Traffic, poor roads and parking are a few of the factors fueling the lack of low stress places for cyclists. Buck believes getting more cyclists on the road will make drivers more accustomed to sharing it and checking for bikes.

Witnessing this danger and learning about subsequent bicycle related injuries, Gerard Poole, Ph.D., founded Aurora Smart Technologies, started a Kickstarter campaign for Aurora Bright Bikes, and enlisted the help of Craig Calfee, designer of the bamboo bike. The Aurora Bright Bikes’ unique features are a translucent frame and the lighting system that runs throughout the inside of the frame.

Most of the parts are 3D printed, customizable and compatible with an app. The app has a plugin for a heart monitor. Users can set the bike to turn various colors after different conditions have been met such as warm up rate, time limits or target distance.

Poole hopes his bikes will contribute towards a change, or at least an expansion, of bicycle culture from predominantly athletic riding to a more functional and leisurely experience. Browne was less optimistic about the bike’s impact on cycling and safety. “There are nifty gadgetry and gizmos, but the reality is it’s pretty easy to take any bike and make it safe at night,” said Browne.

Many of the features are optional, so cyclists interested in a more traditional bike can always opt for a cheaper model. The base model Alpha Bright Bike is $800, while the next step up is the Prometheus at $1000. Higher end models include a programmable horn system with custom sounds, app compatibility and custom LED patterns. Although the bikes have LED turn signals, Browne recommends using hand signals to make it extra clear where cyclists are going.

The bike’s design goes beyond traditional bike enhancements to improve bicycle safety. The “fanning out” headlight creates a circle of light around the bike that Dr. Poole said is more visible at different angles and can be seen from farther away than other lighting systems.

An additional safety measure is the alert function that creates an all white semi-strobe effect to catch the attention of inattentive drivers. “The function can be deactivated as quickly as it can be activated so that it does not become a nuisance to drivers in the vicinity- just enough attention to get the rider through a potentially hazardous situation,” Poole said.

The Kickstarter campaign ends early December and currently has about 25% of their $40,000 goal. Even if their goal isn’t reached, Aurora Bright Bikes might still light up the streets. They are meeting with potential investors and are moving forward with promotional tours.

“What motivates people most is seeing them live,” Poole said. "The videos do not do them justice, they have to be seen on the street to really be appreciated.”

WABA’s biggest obstacle and a challenge faced by cyclists like those behind Handy Bike’s DC and Aurora Smart Technologies is connectivity. Browne noted the district’s fantastic set of trails and protective bike lanes. However, many of them are inaccessible without crossing into busy roads. WABA is working to bring officials overseeing different jurisdictions on board with building and merging bike safe spaces.

“By 2035 I think everyone will live within a mile of a bike safe area,” Browne said.

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