I recently came across an article about the Halbrad (that’s German for “Halfbike”), and it’s quite literally half a bike.
The Halbrad is a cool bit of engineering and design, and it rekindled my interest in the last mile commute problem, a problem that has bugged me for a long time. In fact, I happen to have a sketch of something that looks a lot like the Halbrad in my notebook.
I was first, formally introduced to the last mile commute problem by my first year engineering design prof, one of the coolest profs I ever had. The last mile commute problem is pretty simple at its core, how do I get from my house to the bus stop? How do I get from the subway station to my office building? Those are particular, common scenarios, but in general, the idea is that public transportation isn’t going to take you directly from point A to point B, there always that gap, that last mile to cover.
The problem doesn’t sound that complicated at first, the obvious solutions are to walk or ride a bike, and that’s what most people do. Those are solutions, but not very good ones. A good solution should be fast, affordable, portable, safe, easy to use, and if we’re really thinking wishfully, weather resistant. Walking is safe and easy, and infinitely affordable and portable, but it’s so slow. Biking’s biggest issues are portability and weather, and if you’re too young, too old or out of shape, safety and ease can become concerns.
If walking and biking aren’t great, what’s better? I’ve come up with all sorts of ideas: powered roller blades, a backpack that converts into a scooter, wheels that clip onto your shoes, wheels that pop out of your shoes, conveyor belt sidewalks, the list goes on. Most of my ideas have already been created, are completely ridiculous, or both.
My prof came up with a cool solution of his own, he invented the Sole Skate, a mini, three wheeled skateboard. He came up with the idea, prototyped it, patented it, licensed it to Razor, and you can buy one on Amazon and from lots of other retailers, which is pretty awesome.
So is the Sole Skate the solution to the last mile commute? Maybe, but it doesn’t seem like it, because I’ve pretty much never seen anyone use one of these, and I’m guessing you probably haven’t either. The vast majority of people walk, some people bike, and there will also be the occasional skateboard, longboard, roller blades, and lately, folding bike. I know there are people who use the Sole Skate, I’m sure people will use the Halbrad, but will it really change last mile commute? Probably not.
The more I think about it, I don’t know if any mechanical contraption is the solution. The more I think about it, I think the solution is Uber.
It doesn’t have to be Uber specifically, of course, but as ride sharing becomes more and more ubiquitous, it’s starting to seem like the perfect solution to last mile commuting. My dad has often dropped me at the bus stop by car on his way to work, it’ll be the same thing, except now anyone can drop you off and pick you up. Most people, myself included, are happy to travel by car when possible, and with ride sharing you can get all the benefits of a car without hassles like parking. If you need to get from your house to the bus stop, if you can call a car in a couple of minutes for a couple of dollars, that’s pretty awesome.
We can take this one step further by adding in autonomous vehicle technology. Same idea as Uber, but now the cars drive themselves, making the whole system cheaper and faster. This is definitely further down the timeline, but at the same time it really may not be that far away. Uber is working on autonomous vehicles, so is Lyft, so is Google, so is Tesla, so are most of the other big car companies, so are heavily funded Chinese companies, so is pretty much everyone. With all of these big, rich players, it really just feels like a matter of time.
Autonomous vehicles might not just solve last mile commute, they might eliminate it, by eliminating the bus stop. Elon Musk just dropped a tasty tidbit about the idea at a transport conference in Norway. Speaking on the topic of urban transport, he suggested that Tesla is making “a new type of car or vehicle that would be great for that and that’ll actually take people to their final destination and not just the bus stop.”
For the time being, I’ll keep riding my bike to and from the bus stop (uphill both ways), waiting for the day when an autonomous Tesla comes to pick me up instead.