Ed Wallace

Uneasy Rider


Driving into downtown Dallas, part of America’s fastest-growing metroplex, delivers sights rarely seen before. Everywhere one looks we see the start of our so-called futuristic sharing economy; in addition to cars, trucks, and vans filling our streets with motorists going about their lives, we are treated to the litter of piles and piles of idle bicycles. Remember “Don’t Mess with Texas,” the slogan designed to finish off the last thoughtless litterers destroying the pleasant appearance of our streets and highways? Really, one Styrofoam cup tossed from your vehicle would earn the immediate scorn of your fellow citizens —yet thousands of over-turned, unused bikes are now OK?

It would be different if those bikes were being used. After all, that’s the idea: Using bikes to get around means that individuals aren’t using their cars quite as much. But one problem is that, since those bikes landed in our sister city to the east months ago, I’ve seen only two kids riding them on a Saturday afternoon. Once.

Possibly the biggest problem is how these so far massively unsuccessful ventures suddenly pop up in major cities, and without most elected officials’ putting their feet down, setting up guidelines or, in many cases, even granting them permission to commence business. Apparently, in modern times, all you need do to shut down a City Hall questioning a company taking over our streets is to show them you have a smartphone app tied to your new venture; elected officials then roll over and play dead, because they don’t want to stop the future from happening. It was true with Uber and Lyft and is now, with these bikes.

Moreover, in numerous stories about the fabulous return of these so-called futuristic“1890” safety bikes — now with an improved 64-bit app to charge you for using them —it appears this current concept first appeared in China, then made its way to our West Coast, primarily San Francisco, and to the still undrained swamp known as Washington D.C. There, this April 7, the Washington Post published a lengthy story on our new “sharing economy” and bicycles. The article’s point is that “the number of bicyclists in the U.S. is growing, in part because of the rise of e-bikes.” Really?

The article went on to say that the District and nearby suburbs have rules prohibiting electric motorized bicycles on local trails and sidewalks. The good news is that the National Park Service is rethinking its position on where these electric bikes may be used. Come to think of it, some cities in the region are also debating whether a motorized bicycle should be allowed to use the sidewalk as a bike lane.

Much later, the article shares that pedestrians do not care to share the sidewalks with people riding bicycles, motorized or not. Come to think of it, thosewho use park trails for their morning jogs don’t want to have to deal with bicyclists on their paths, either.

The cycling connoisseur may enjoy knowing that the motorized bikes being used nationwide occupy a three-level hierarchy. Class 1 uses an electric motor just to make the job of pedaling a bit easier. Class 2 bikes have throttles, but go 20 miles an hour max. Class 3 bikes, also throttled, have electric motors and in combination with pedaling can attain speeds of up to 28 miles an hour. And, I kid you not, advocates say Class 3 bikes should probably be banned from our sidewalks.

Gee, you think? Does that mean the electric bike that can run into a group of pedestrians on a sidewalk doing 20 miles an hour is OK?

In today’s through-the-looking-glass political world, elected officials do little or nothing about the sudden spawning of bike piles in major cities; but one day they may need to mandate that pedestrians must wear helmets and knee and elbow pads, lest amateur motor bicyclists injure them.

There’s more to this story. The motorized push scooter has arrived, too; they just haven’t shown up in piles on our street intersections here just yet. But they have in San Francisco: That city’s paper covered Bird founder Travis VanderZanden, formerly of Uber, who managed to borrow a fortune to put his Bird electric push scooters all over America. (Santa Monica sued Bird for violating the city’s ordinances, including not asking for permission to put these electric skateboards on corners.)

Testing a very bad idea

Bradley Brownell of Jalopnik magazine tested these electric skateboards; and, for a publication dedicated to our personal mobility, Brownell wrote, “I tried it, and if this is the future of mobility, count me out.” His attitude showed up in the headline he used, “It Was a Nightmare.”

LimeBike offers a similar unit that it claims has an electric battery with a 37-mile range. One wonders, has the EPA certified that range, or is it just wishful thinking? After all, given today’s battery technology, a super small electric push scooter with enough range in its battery to take one from Fort Worth to Dallas seems a tad unrealistic.

But we do know this: San Francisco may be ground zero for bikes, electric bikes, electric scooters, and mobile robo-box delivery units — but more pedestrians than not don’t much like these interlopers taking up their walking spaces. Fortunately, as Brownell pointed out in his column, most of the new electric scooters were malfunctioning anyway. They’re not a threat to anyone, unless someone trips over them while walking and looking at their cell phone.

Then, just when you thought it was safe to get back on the sidewalk, Uber made the announcement that shortly its app will allow you to rent bicycles and even other individuals’ automobiles at will. One Slate magazine article ran under a subhead reading, “Uber’s plan to transform the transportation industry includes cutting-edge technologies, like bicycles and rental cars.” That’s where we need to apply the brake on hyperbole again.

First, I have an app for my radio show, but no one has written that somehow I have created “cutting-edge” technology for radio. Second, there is nothing new, or cutting edge about bikes or renting a car, just as there wasn’t anything new about a taxi company where you book rides on the Internet. Rental car companies have been around since the dawn of the automotive age, and as stated previously, the safety bicycle dates from almost 130 years ago. Long before Uber came around America had jitney drivers using their personal vehicles to cart paying passengers around. Apparently if these writers saw a mill on a New England river for the first time, with a water wheel that ground corn and that you could start and stop with an iPhone app, they would hail the return of water mills as “a cutting-edge technology.“

As long as there are bitterly cold winters and 100-degree summers, the likelihood of bike-sharing mobility taking over the modern industrialized world is slim at best.

“Value” for the Math-Challenged

And that takes us to Bob Lutz, former vice chairman of General Motors and the last real car guy; he’s changed the industry numerous times. Now, Lutz has already gone on record saying the days of personal car ownership are quickly coming to an end. Last week, according to the Automotive News, he doubled down on that position, saying the auto industry as we know it has two or three decades before its life as we know it is over. He added, “In order for the automobile to preserve its surface function, it’s simply going to have to evolve. We all know this end state is coming. It has to come.” Again, that’s Bob Lutz, the master of automotive design, claiming that our world will be taken over by bland self-driving automotive boxes; we summon them when needed and they efficiently take us to our destinations.

Left out of the article, but apparently discussed, was that this switch will happen when your cost for using self-driving cars drops to 50 cents per mile. Maybe. In a conversation with my friend David Welch, formerly of the Star-Telegram and now with Bloomberg Business Week, he said he questioned Lutz and others on whether that 50 cent figure could ever be made into a reality, based on the high cost of self-driving cars today. But even if it were to happen, the average person drives 15,000 miles a year; at 50 cents per mile that amounts to $7,500 annually. And at that price you can buy or lease numerous exceptional vehicles that you can park in your driveway or garage and never have to summon or wait for.

On a side note: Another “next big thing” being hyped beyond belief is getting your next new car on a “subscription,” instead of buying or leasing. For a flat fee per month you can drive a new vehicle and even have your insurance paid for.

The first email I received on this was from a radio listener ecstatic over the offer he received from Volvo to “subscribe” to its brand-new XC40 compact SUV for a mere $600 a month —including insurance. He couldn’t believe what an incredible offer that was. Yet I needed only one call, to Ronnie Dempsey at Autobahn Volvo, to discover that you can lease that very vehicle, with the exact same down payment, for only $400 a month. True, you have to buy insurance, but you can do that and still save $150 a month by leasing it instead of subscribing.

As many stories as I’ve already read raising the public’s excitement for these new subscription services, apparently no one else has checked the cost against a normal lease with the same manufacturer.

We continue to read that Millennials will let this coming revolution end the auto age as we know it. But the Millennials in our family, the families of those who work for me, and the parking lots at high schools across the Metroplex (and colleges nationwide) seem to suggest that those writing such predictions should get out more often and check out the real world.

As for a world of self-driving cars, we will never spend enough on our roads and highways to make that a nationwide reality. Roads have to be in nearly flawless condition for these vehicles to work, and that’s just not in our budgetary future. This does not mean self-driving cars aren’t coming; they are, but for some time their capabilities will be very limited.

This doesn’t mean that bikes by the hour won’t pick up in use; they likely will. Nor does it mean that those electric push scooters won’t become the next big thing. I’m excited about testing that 37-mile range on the LimeBike version, assuming State Troopers allow me to use the soft shoulder on I-30 between Fort Worth and Dallas. Still, I keep defaulting to the prediction we heard 20 years ago about the coming change to the auto industry, that today everyone would be driving hydrogen fuel-celled automobiles.

GM also made a prediction at the 1939 New York World’s Fair; the automaker’s pavilion showed how in the automotive future of 1960, every car would be a diesel that would drive on “automated highways,” which would end traffic congestion in our major cities forever. (Yeah, that was a problem back in 1939, too.)

Some new concepts aren’t new at all, just a rehash of what was promised at a World’s Fair almost 80 years ago. The only thing that has changed is that now there’s a smartphone app for that.

Note from Ed: Earlier this week the city of San Francisco, responding to a wave of citizens’ complaints, started confiscating those electric push scooters. On Tuesday night the city council voted unanimously to regulate their use in the future.

© Ed Wallace 2018 Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: edwallace570@gmail.com