John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
The city and Alta Planning are using the high-tech cycle to assess safety issues like potholes and obstructions.
Eight years ago, Colin Dietrich took an old steel Jamis road bike and started hacking it to answer a question about his commute: Is there a way to systematically record safety issues—a pothole here, cars parking in the bikeway there?
“My background is in mechanical engineering, and what does an engineer do with a problem? Go out and build something in a garage,” says the 36-year-old NOAA scientist and Seattle resident. “And that’s what happened.”
Being the kind of guy who converted a car to electric in his teens, Dietrich immediately loaded on the technology. He festooned the bike with accelerometers and ultrasonic range finders, a compartment with converters for sensors, a bulky lithium-ion battery, various 3D-printed doohickeys, and waterproof plugs. In time, it resembled not so much a vehicle as an exploded computer—something like the result of slathering a bike in Super Glue and ramming it into shelves at RadioShack.
“As in any good project,” he says, “it had a bit of scope creep.”
The prototype logged trail conditions with a mix of human input and autopilot. Dietrich used a switch on the handlebars to manually encode things he ran over, such as cracks, pavement abnormalities, and non-ADA-compliant concrete lips. The information he captured was sent via wi-fi—yes, the bike had its own network—to a computer in back, where he could pull it up later for inspection. Meanwhile, the sensors corroborated his observations by detecting when trails become rough and recording the time and GPS coordinates.
The rise of the "Frankenbike” might have stopped there, with Dietrich pouring over mounds of data at home each night, had it not been for Kim Voros, a high-school buddy who happens to work at Alta Planning + Design. Seattle is in the early stages of an ambitious trails upgrade plan, which aims to reduce emissions by making bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure more commuter-friendly. To do so, it tapped Alta to assess the current quality of 40 miles of city trails.
Voros, knowing about Dietrich’s souped-up machine and geeky enthusiasm, thought he could lend some help. She emails:
I don’t think I’ve known Colin when he has less than two or three projects going on! My sister’s favorite is the automatic pancake flipper that never really got off the ground….
The bike truly has been a hobby that got away from him. Colin can talk at length about anything technology related. Yesterday it was the GPS units that NOAA uses on their buoys. I quote, “1 CM accuracy in tidal variation Kim!!!!” I’m not exaggerating about the level of excitement.
So Voros and Alta subcontracted Dietrich and the “Frankenbike” and stuck even more stuff on it, notably a Microsoft Surface tablet with 16 digital buttons for different trail elements. (“Frankenbike” is the term that’s become locally popular; Dietrich says he prefers “DataCycle” because Frankenstein’s monster “killed its creator.”) This summer, two company interns took it on a 160-mile repetitive loop of the trails, entering on the tablet’s touch screen stuff like overgrown vegetation, impeding bollards, cracks and potholes, trail constrictions, crosswalks, ramps, stop and yield signs, and public amenities like water fountains, benches, and garbage cans.
It wasn’t easy registering all this data without veering into a ravine. “We did some testing, and there’s no doubt you’re definitely a distracted rider,” says Alta design intern Mike Schwindeller. He and his partner tried to limit their field observations to non-commuting hours and cruise at a steady 7 mph. The support rider also had the duty of watching out for incoming trouble. “The second person is behind calling things out: ‘There’s a sign on your right! Head’s up, there’s a bicycle coming at you!’”
They completed the task with no serious accidents, just a couple of tip-overs. “It’s easily double the weight of my race bike,” says Schwindeller. “It’s got a tablet across the handlebars, sensors all over the place. I would say it did not handle well, but served its function well.” Alta is giving the data it collected the GIS treatment, and will submit it in a report in a few months to Seattle. Voros says the company is now “looking at using the bike in other locations”—Alta has offices in several major cities—though nothing is confirmed.
Dietrich denies the cycle is cumbersome to ride, but does say the manual interface could be challenging on other cycles. “If this was my old Peugeot I would never have had anybody riding it,” he says. “You take one hand off the handlebars and you'd just be eating face.”
In the months ahead, he plans to keep adding new components and will probably apply for a patent. “It was something where I could just come home and solder a couple wires together and feel satisfied,” he says. “I really didn’t expect a major transportation company to get involved.”