Human Powered Vehicles

By Greg Bryant

From the Encyclopedia of Energy Technology and the Environment, 1995, John Wiley & Sons

Aside from walking, running, swimming, lifting and pushing carts, today’s most common human-powered transport involves some form of bicycle. Most contemporary discussion of this device in the U.S. revolves around recreation: the consumer’s world of light alloys, colorful stylings, off-road robustness and aerodynamics. Details concerning recreational cycling could find a place in an environmental encyclopaedia, since its market activity, involving children’s bikes, touring bikes, and mountain bikes, plays an important role in making consumers aware of alternatives to motorized transport. But it is more appropriate, perhaps, to focus on broader, more innovative and surprising applications of human-powered vehicles, and the means of furthering their position in our economic thinking and among our cultural habits.



Just outside the mainstream of recreational cycling rides the cycling commuter, braving the elements in order to bypass morning traffic, reduce air pollution, get some fresh air and benefit from daily exercise. The technical achievements that have made this possible are many, and not obvious: helmets, generator lamps, on-road bike lanes, off-road bike paths, cyclist push-buttons for triggering traffic signals, well-built bike racks, showers at corporate office blocks, bike-to-work-week promotions, and carefully designed intersections and turn-lanes. Before the advent of the automobile and its infrastructure, many of these were of course unnecessary. Yet today, even given the recent surge of environmentalism, many regions of the U.S. have not implemented Traffic Demand Management (TDM) programs, replete with outreach, incentives and regulations. Europe is furthest along in helping the commuter by these means. Unfortunately, at this writing, many developing nations are actually moving against the cyclist in order to clear traffic for a newly wealthy minority of auto drivers and trendy vehicles.

Cycle commuting has become available to a wider ridership through fascinating designs developed over many years. Lightweight and sophisticated adult tricycles provide stability to people with balance trouble. Fun-to-ride hand-cranked cycles greatly aid the commuting paraplegic. Recumbent cycles, whose aerodynamic frame sports a low-slung, comfortable backed chair instead of a seat post, have opened commuting to the those needing back support, as well as the injured, elderly and handicapped. Shock-absorbing systems, which began to make serious strides with the introduction of the pneumatic tire in 1888, now include suspension systems and cantilevered seats, making more terrain traversable by those with weak constitutions.


The next most common cycling applications involve the use of cycling trailers, either the two-wheel or more narrow one-wheel varieties. These are used for carrying toddlers to day-care, fetching groceries, moving sacks of sod, or shifting other loads from 10 to 500 pounds, depending on the size and strength of the trailer and rider. Most cycles do not come with a trailer hitch, so the consumer must make something of a conceptual leap, and a modest investment, in order to obtain the complete rigging. Currently in the U.S., construction companies, landscapers and chimney sweeps are among the users of bike trailers. With eighteen gears and a strong pair of legs, most materials, especially those transported short distances, can be hauled with currently marketed trailers. The designs are remarkably simple: basically light-weight versions of the trailers that attach to automobiles, with the axle a bit in front of the center of gravity.

The trailer is to bicycles what the pickup truck is to gas-powered vehicles, enabling all-purpose casual hauling. But, certainly, they are not as readily available as pickups in most of the U.S. To remedy this, a few neighborhoods have bought trailers cooperatively, to share use among equal owners of the uncommon devices.

More common devices, also intended for hauling with a standard bicycle, include attachable baskets for handlebars, and racks, baskets and panniers for front and rear wheel systems. Those mounted over the back of the bicycle are invariably more stable than their front-mounted cousins.

There are complete cycles, designed with built-in platforms that make trailers and accessories unnecessary, appropriate for more specific hauling applications. The Long John, or Long Emma, is a narrow, one-piece hauling bicycle that, on an unusual enlongated frame, carries up to 200 pounds between the handle bars and a distant front wheel. It is perfect for cycling within traffic, since the load is not dangerously dangling behind or to the side of the rider. Similarly the Baker’s or Pizza Bike lets the average cyclist see the cargo, attached to the front of the bike, while pedaling a vehicle that rides much like the average two-wheeler (fig. 1). Baker’s bikes can carry up to 80 pounds, in a container or basket that attaches directly to the frame rather than to the handlebars or fork. Employing this engineering technique, cargo shifts only when the rider shifts weight, not when the handlebars turn.

Vending Bikes, Bike-Buses and Fire-Bikes

Human-powered utility vehicles, utility bikes or workbikes come in a staggering variety of forms to suit many functions. Most people are familiar with the ice-cream vendor’s trike, with its large insulated container mounted on two-wheels in front of the rider. In this country one of the original makers of these trikes, Worksman’s of Ozone Park, New York, is still producing them at low prices with the same heavy materials used for bikes at the turn of the century. Many of their models, usually with limited gearing, are particularly useful for transporting parts and tools across level factory floors.

The most common integrated utility bike is a landmark sight in China: the Cargo Trike, originally from Britain. The world’s most mass-produced tricycle has a large rear platform or compartment, sometimes caged, and is often used for hauling as much as a quarter-ton of goods. Modified versions act as school buses, firetrucks and police paddy wagons.

Also pertaining to fire: in 1905 the Birmingham Small Arms workshops of Great Britain produced a two-wheeled fireman’s bicycle with a full-size hose, nozzle and pulley block secured in a round compartment within a special frame, between the rider and the handlebars. It played an important safety role in the early years of the petrochemical industry.


Another familiar utility bike is used far more heavily in Asia than in North America: the Rickshaw Trike or Pedicab. Rickshaw trikes stow passengers over two wheels either in front of or behind the cyclist. Some models use an arrangement similar to a motorcycle side-car. Many rickshaw clientele do their shopping or commuting using these, which serve in the place of much more expensive, dangerous and resource-intensive gas-powered taxis.

But many developing countries are curtailing the use of these vehicles. An upper crust of impatient auto drivers, and motorized taxis and taxi-golfcarts, is solidifying to push out the cyclists. Rickshaw cyclists tend to be the poorest, and most abused, denizens of these cities. In India, for example, the cyclists are village refugees newly arrived in the city and almost invariably homeless. As a result, their health is often not good to begin with, and employers pressure them to perform with poorly made rickshaws, so they suffer fairly high rates of stress-related illness. However, interesting projects are afoot throughout Asia, encouraging cyclists to form political groups, live in mutually supportive urban villages, and help themselves in a variety of ways. The cycling rickshaw is not yet an historical aberration.

Government Services

In much of Europe, mail is delivered on postal bikes. In a few cities on the US west coast, meter-readers, or Parking Control Officers, use comfortable tricycles for their ticketing work, even carrying around metal boots for locking the wheels of offending automobiles (fig. 2). Recycling agencies in New York City use a few Dump Trikes, with giant tilting polyethylene containers, for gathering up to 400 pounds of material. Emergency medical teams in at least four U.S. cities have found that bicycles help them cut more easily through traffic. Cities across the U.S. have adopted mountain bikes for police patrols: Seattle police say these are simply better for patrolling than squad cars, since they are both quieter and greatly improve relations with the street-level public.

That these devices save money, and improve the health of civil servants, is well-documented by their respective governments, and considered common sense by the serviced populace. Certain terrain makes human-powered vehicular use difficult, but there are almost always useful applications if they are given serious consideration by local authorities.


More than one person on a bike can do useful work. Cyclists riding in tandem lower their drag to power ratio, making for great speed, especially in recumbent models. Tandems are perfect for those situations in which one cyclist has to go fetch someone without a bicycle. Tandem cycles make intimate conversation possible, of the sort usually considered available only to automobile passengers. Various side-by-side models are fairly common among park rentals for recreation, and designs for four and six riders exist that are intended for hauling cargo. The common two-rider one-track model now often comes with independent gearing for each rider, so that their pedal cadences may differ. The tandem provides excellent opportunities for the sight-impaired to get out and exercise, as in Los Angeles’ exemplary Eye-Cycle program.

Travel Bikes

The folding bike, strikingly in some modern models, requires less storage than any other vehicle with a seat. Many are built with smaller-than-average wheels and special parts that fold the frame in several places, and tuck away the handlebars and pedals. Placed in a case, sack or backpack, they are apparently very useful for certain military contingencies, in which role they have served for a century. More importantly in peacetime, they let travelers easily carry their transport with them while conveyed on public or other sorts of transit.


Most cycles are mass-produced at tremendous manufacturing works throughout the world, with the majority distributed from Asia. But massive machinery is not needed to build them, nor even to build them quickly and efficiently.

OxTrike, a project of Great Britain’s Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), has demonstrated the ease with which one can set up efficient production on a small scale, even in technically impoverished regions. In this case they helped to set up shops for building a special cargo trike, urgently needed in the developing world where huge loads are still often transported great distances, at terrible human costs, without the benefit of a well-designed load-bearing wheeled chassis (fig. 3). The OxTrike uses few special bicycle parts, and was designed with easy-to-find metals and materials in mind, such as square steel construction tubing for the frame (1).

The manufacture of the OxTrike is not intended to boost exports, but instead to serve the needs of the communities in which the shops are set up. The technical expertise thus transferred to these third-world shops led to specially made modifications of the designs to fit the pressing needs of their local clients. In this way, side-stepping the mass-production of bicycles created a qualitative technical gain for these communities. Clearly, good custom bikes need not be only for racers and the well-off.

In fact, in many parts of the world and at various points in their histories, everyday cycles actually evolved into a commonly custom-manufactured item. Although export mass-production beginning in the third quarter of the 19th century introduced the bike to a great many people, certain regions, such as Italy’s Lombardy, became heavily decentralized in bike manufacture. The neighborhood bike shop would actually build bikes for local citizens, custom frame and all, and maintain them for their lifetimes. There was nothing inefficient or unapproachably expensive about this small-scale, face-to-face production economy.

This particular scale of cycle manufacture requires welding equipment, milling machines for making mitered cuts in tubes, various hand-powered benders, drills, straightening tables and other devices for making the frame true (less important in tricycles), and jigs for various styles of frame. Of course, the time labored is greater per bike than under mass-production, but if consumers seek out such custom shops, these can generally survive in the local market, even offering reasonable prices.

Large-scale manufacturing today, involving either heavily specialized, assembly-line division of labor or numerically controlled automated milling, bending, assembly and welding, offers not only a much less satisfying worklife than a neighborhood bike-maker’s. It also tends to create lowest-common denominator products that reflect little understanding of the specificity and variety of human transportation needs (2).


Among the larger cycling community in the first-world, much attention is paid today to facilitating a transition from automobile-dominated development to bicycle-accommodating planning. Even among cyclists this involves an enormously contentious series of technical issues, with much of the friction generated as much by differences in motive as by the natural uncertainty and stress facing those who venture into the largely unmapped territory of social engineering.

For example, many cycling advocates are commuters who need desperately to get to work without fear of becoming a traffic fatality. Since there are many roads between all dwellings and all workplaces, they have their hands full fighting to put bike lanes on each one. The mechanics of bike lane planning are not trivial, involving careful placement at intersections with bus, pedestrian, train and auto traffic, and tough ground battles to thoroughly modify or eliminate street parking through large areas (3).

On the other hand, other advocates are looking not so much at immediate survival as at the detrimental effect streets and automobiles continue to have on the landscape. Their continued development, after all, seriously curtails the both the future of sustainable transport and the bicycle’s role in it. While usually not opposed to bike lanes (although some advocates feel that riding in lanes with autos is preferable), these activists work towards spending the limited political clout of cyclists on prevention of both suburban sprawl and high-traffic urban centers. This engenders squabbles with government planners over, for example, the appropriateness of strict zoning. The latter, while often preserving neighborhoods from direct development, creates a severe separation of land usage. Such division, of course, invites traffic between these new islands of everyday life: shopping malls, financial districts, corporate centers, and housing subdivisions. Some of the neighborhoods that zoning intended to save are made unsafe by the increasingly heavy traffic through them.
Many of these are ideological debates, among cyclists and between cyclists and established institutions, although intentions are usually concealed in highly technical arguments. This is, after all, the way most political discussion is conducted. It hides, unfortunately, the fact that most people simply don’t like traffic and hazardous transportation. One would think, in a sensitive democracy, this would be a powerful enough argument for the curtailing of automobile use.

All cyclists agree that these issues are as important to human powered transportation as any engineering breakthrough. Their tactical debates often depend heavily on differing views upon the best means of social and economic change: whether it can or should take place quickly, through a kind of absolutism from above directed by the government, or instead gradually, culturally, through grassroots efforts to convince people to change their habits. The arguments for strong government regulation are supported by any sober reflection on the speed at which the landscape is being badly developed.

The arguments against regulation, and for a gradual and Fabian approach, concern themselves with a potentially disastrous backlash: the automobile is, after all, one of the two or three most prominent devices woven into modern American life. After years of government and corporate promotion of dependency on the automotive lifestyle, strong measures, such as high gasoline taxes, could easily be seen as draconian and arbitrary.

Speed or method of reform aside, the selection of pieces from which one actually builds a future infrastructure is the same. It is a very deep selection, and human-powered vehicles play a large role in each invention. It is easiest to see these innovations as catalysts, of one form or another.

Take the lowly bicycle rack. In parts of the world where it is necessary to lock one’s bicycle, many end up regularly attached to the nearest balustrade, gate, fence, tree, lamp-post, parking meter or street sign. The bike racks of the past two decades have been dismal, tricky, back-straining affairs: ground-dwelling contraptions involving the threading of heavy chains or high-spring cables. All of this does not encourage anyone to cycle. Recent waist-height racks for U-locks are an improvement, but the seemingly obvious question, “what kind of bike parking can catalyze cycling in the average community?” is typically not asked.

A more careful sense of design would help a great deal. When cyclists arrive at a rack, they should travel through a transitional space, perhaps under a trellis or other relaxing manner of greenery. There should be a bench near at hand for convenient placement of removed gear. There should be plenty of room for bicycle trailers. The rack itself should be pleasant to look at, perhaps of wrought ironwork or cast metal of intricate design — Hector Guimard’s ornament for the Paris underground comes to mind. Bikes should ideally be visible from, and protected by, a building’s central courtyard, but that would require a more human-scale architectural sensitivity than is common these days. These are only some of the features that could make cyclists’ lives more pleasant, and reinforce their effort to stay away from individualistic motorized transport. Such well-designed spaces always become gathering places for cyclists, furthering and compounding their quality as a catalyst.

The bicycle parking engineer or planner must try to create an experience in convenience competitive with the automobile’s. The car driver pulls up, perhaps feeds a meter or collects a parking receipt, locks the car and is quickly free to walk. The car protects drivers from the weather and acts as storage during their travels. All this suggests the following for bicycles: roofed bike-racks for rainy areas, partially shaded racks for sunny areas, curb ramps, proximity to the bike lane, and nice-looking, secure lockers for personal items.
A further step is bicycle valet parking. Some corporations and athletic clubs have begun this practice, which frees the bike-rider from fumbling with the placement and security of jackets, gloves, helmets, bike-pumps, water bottles, rain gear, backpacks, and panniers. The whole affair is gladly handed over to a valet, while the rider heads in towards the company showers. Not very egalitarian, perhaps, but the experience offers a substantial relief from stress. Interestingly, many cycling organizations provide valet bike parking using volunteers, usually at community events, and advertise the service ahead of time to encourage ridership. Soliciting small donations for the service is particularly effective, since cyclists are delighted by the convenience and personal contact. Schools, which can use captive or credited student labor, can provide this service to dramatically cut down cycle thefts on campuses.

Another effective catalyst for cycling is the Community Bicycle Center (4). These have existed in one form or another for over a century, but have unfortunately degenerated, resulting in the sterile buy-and-sell atmosphere of the majority of modern bike shops. The best bike centers have a strong community component, providing a comfortable gathering place for cyclists of all stripes. They house the publishing offices for periodicals serving the local cycling community. They offer classes in bike repair, design and construction. They offer rentals of unusual and special-purpose bikes and trikes. Small-scale manufacturers have shops there, and common spaces are used for public meetings and shared resources. The mix can be terrifically inspiring to visitors: every town could use several such catalysts.

Although not nearly as directly effective as some advocates have hoped, bike-to-work-day activities have had a marked impact on attitudes towards the bicycle commute. The best of these events last more than one day, serve breakfasts to bike commuters, hold parades, mass rides or commute celebrations on cordoned-off streets, offer discounts from local merchants as incentives, and award most-cycle-commuters-per-business or best-business-bike-facilities prizes.

Some measures that gently lead to auto reduction, while beginning to build a more sensible infrastructure, include: mixed-use zoning, mass transit route and facility improvements, rideshare programs, carsharing clubs that discourage car use (such as Berlin’s StattAuto), load-hauling cycle courier services, jitney services for less well-established passenger routes, city-owned short-term auto rentals, free use of various kinds of city bikes, and user-driven flexible-route mini-buses. The human-powered element here is straightforward: all these motorized services must have bike racks or allow for easy bicycle carry-on. This turns all these types of shared vehicles into transportation interchanges (5).

The collecting points for more than one sort of transportation are among the most important catalysts for the increased use of alternative infrastructure. It’s best if someone without a car can fluidly leave home with their kids in tow, drop them off at daycare, bike on pleasant tree-lined paths to the local interchange, safely store an easy-to-remove bicycle trailer in a well-designed locker, fold-up the bike, hop on a bus, arrive in the city to grab a morning drink in a café and bike around to take care of some errands, send purchases home with a courier service, take the bike on a metro to arrive at a station near the office, use the same station to get back to the residential interchange, where the trailer is retrieved, as are the kids, and after a stop by the neighborhood grocer, everyone arrives home. This entire process can run smoothly and effortlessly only if various transport alternatives gather in visible, pleasant and convenient inter-modal interchanges, making it easy to plan how to get around. Their absence turns travel into a constantly disorienting experience, like searching for a room in a building when you can’t even find the front entrance.


Clearly, today’s engineer of human-powered vehicles has more to consider than just the technical and marketing problems of his or her 19th century counterpart. Many have great hopes that the environmental destruction and social alienation wrought by the automobile can be set right, in part, by the bicycle and its natural ability to delight.



(1) A project of IT Transport, Ltd., Old Power Station, Ardington, Oxon., OX12 8PH, United Kingdom.

(2) Rain Magazine, Vol. XIV, Number 2, p.14

(3) Zuckerman, Wolfgang, End of The Road, Chelsea Green, 1991

(4) Rain Magazine, Vol. XIV, Number 3, p.54

(5) Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language, p. 183, Oxford, 1977

Suggested Reading

The Bicycle Blueprint, 1993, Transportation Alternatives, 92 St. Marks Place, NY, NY 10009

Fermo Galbiati, Nino Ciravegna, La Bicicletta/The Bicycle, BE-MA Editrice, Milano, 1989

Archibald Sharp, Bicycles and Tricycles: An Elementary Treatise on Their Design and Construction, MIT, Boston, 1977

Rain Magazine, POB 30097, Eugene, OR, 97403

Kokopelli Notes, POB 8186, Asheville, NC 28814

Network News, POB 8194, Philadelphia, PA, 19101

New Cyclist, Unit 1, Hainault Road, Romford, Essex, Great Britain, RM6 5NP

Pro Bike News, 1818 R St. NW, Washington, DC 20009


(See figures in original article below.)

(Fig. 1) A baker's bike, here modified for milk delivery, carries its load upon the frame, rather than upon the less-stable handlebars. The front wheel is smaller to lower
the bike's center of gravity, making it easier to balance.

(Fig. 2) A parking control tricycle, in use by the City of Eugene,
Oregon. The use of this recumbent vehicle saves the city $2,000 per year over the cost of the equivalent motorized vehicle.

(Fig. 3) The OxTrike, developed by Great Britain's Intermediate
Technology Development Group (ITDG), was designed along with a workshop for local production in parts-poor Third World communities. Note the bent metal pedal, which brakes the rear wheels: it can be manufactured without specialized materials.


The original encyclopedia article: