Like most of us, Kody Baker is, admittedly, a “fair-weather bicyclist.” It takes a determined person — one who can endure cold, slippery streets, vertiginous hills, damp clothes, bike thieves and helmet head — to cycle throughout Vancouver’s long and dismal wet winters. The co-founder and chief technology officer of startup VeloMetro Mobility, Baker and a team of engineers devised a solution to these transportation challenges that have prevented many urban commuters from ditching their gas-guzzling vehicles. A new generation of bicycles, called velomobiles, are the steeds in the stable of VeloMetro’s vehicle-sharing endeavour, called Veemo, which is set to launch in Vancouver in early 2017.
VeloMetro currently has three velomobile prototypes undergoing internal testing. Similar to existing car-sharing businesses like car2go, an app is used to locate and unlock the nearest Veemo velomobile, says Baker. (Users, who do not require a vehicle driving license, will be charged just under 30 cents for each minute of use.) Inside the aerodynamic velomobile: two wheels in front, one in back, room for a driver and small loads like groceries. It steers, pedals and brakes like a bicycle but is enclosed — impervious to rain. A full-body support chair also makes the ride more comfortable. A top-end speed of 32 km/hr excludes the velomobile from highway driving, while features such as a seat belt, crumple zones, roll bar and LED lights make it safe for street driving. “We really tried to design a car-like experience,” says Baker, a long-time member of Vancouver City Savings Credit Union (519,736 members, $19.8 billion in assets).
“We really tried to design a car-like experience” —Kody Baker
Weighing in at 120 kilograms, and stretching 1.7 metres in height and 2.4 metres in length, the Veemo velomobile doesn’t sound like an easy pedal. Actually, it is. As an electric-assist bike, it accelerates as smoothly as a car. A torque sensor detects how much force the rider is putting into the pedals and magnifies that through a lithium battery and electric motor that launches the vehicle forward. “Because you have power assist, it’s like two Olympic athletes pushing the vehicle from behind,” says Baker. “It’s an exhilarating feeling and doesn’t take any effort on the part of the user.”
Baker predicts that his mode of transportation — sleek, colourful and nimble — may well become the vehicle-sharing system of choice in the near future, not only for Vancouverites whose municipal leaders have pledged to make the city the world’s greenest by 2020, but urbanites around the globe. Such a change in the zeitgeist is referred to as a “modal shift,” when people replace one mode of transportation for another, Baker says. Certainly the Veemo velomobile is attracting global national and world attention. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau examined a bright yellow prototype at the GLOBE 2016 clean technology conference when he was in Vancouver for a meeting with Canada’s premiers this past March to discuss plans for climate change mitigation.
Baker has met and overcome numerous challenges along the way; the most current one is the province’s mandatory bike helmet law, which has hindered the adoption of bike-sharing programs in Vancouver. Velo-Metro is currently working with the province to ensure that its three-wheel vehicle is helmet exempt due to its stability and extensive safety features.
Baker has both the education and experience to launch such a transportation revolution. After finishing a mechanical engineering degree at UBC, he attained an MBA from Simon Fraser University, which led to several management and consulting positions in the clean technology sector. He was involved in the design of green technologies like biomass gasifiers, systems for electric cars and other custom electrical engineering innovations. But it was the velomobile that captured his imagination, helped, in part, by its colourful history in Europe as a modest but jaunty horseless carriage for the masses. Looking like a self-propelled sidecar, but with room for one additional passenger, the early 20th century velomobiles became ubiquitous for one key reason: gasoline was exorbitantly expensive. When petrol plummeted in price following the Second World War, the golden age of the automobile began. “It displaced bikes, pedal cars and even electric vehicles,” says Baker.
“If we can boost the number of people who call themselves bicyclists that has huge effects on the health of a city” —Kody Baker
Getting Vancouver’s citizenry to embrace alternative transportation is a long-term proposition that is being supported by the city’s Green and Digital Demonstration Program, which provides support to clean-tech entrepreneurs. The program gives startups temporary access to city buildings, streets and vehicle fleets for proof-of-concept trials. Baker says that city workers will be using the velomobiles throughout the city to see how they handle on the street and how well the vehicles fit their needs for their shared fleet of vehicles.
Baker has high hopes for a smooth rollout of the Veemo velomobile-sharing program, which was conceived in 2013 with a few sketches, the financial backing and blessing of friends and family, and the idealism to help shape a better world. “Biking is great, but there are limitations to it,” says Baker. “If we can boost the number of people who call themselves bicyclists that has huge effects on the health of a city. The air quality is improved because people are driving cars less and they are leading a more active lifestyle because they aren’t sedentary in a car.” ◊
Name: Kody Baker
Occupation: Co-founder and CTO
Organization: VeloMetro Mobility
Home base: Vancouver, BC
Background: Mechanical engineering degree from UBC; MBA from SFU
Pioneering ways: Developed biomass gasifiers, systems for electric cars and other custom electrical engineering innovations
Random fact: Fair-weather cyclist