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City's Test of Electric-Assisted Bikes Gives Power to the Pedalers

August 12, 1993|VICKI TORRES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONROVIA — Dressed in white shirt and tie, Monrovia City Manager Rod Gould does not even break into a sweat as he pedals a bicycle with ease up a steep, 30-degree incline on Canyon Boulevard, his daily route home.

Astonished passersby gape as Gould, 36, waves.

"They think I'm in great shape, but I'm barely pedaling," he laughs.

Gould's secret is a battery-powered electric motor packed in twin saddlebags on the back of his specially equipped 21-speed bicycle, one of eight electric-assisted bikes being tried out in Monrovia in a novel experiment that began last week.

For 18 weeks, city workers will ride the bikes to see if they are a realistic alternative to gasoline-powered vehicles. The brainchild of AeroVironment Inc., a Monrovia-based research firm, the project is believed to be the first of its kind in this country, company officials said.

In Japan, the Yamaha Motor Co. has developed its own electric-assisted bicycle equipped with a microcomputer that controls the motor. That bicycle, unveiled in February, is being road-tested now and may be marketed later this year.

With funding of $134,434 from the Mobile Source Air Pollution Reduction Review Committee and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the idea behind the Monrovia project is to reduce air pollution by finding a way to entice workers to ride bicycles instead of driving cars.

"We were thinking in terms of community meetings, errands and other useful purposes, for people who just don't like the idea of getting hot and sweaty when they do these things (on a regular bicycle)," said Jay Gill of AeroVironment.

Two of the city's bicycle-mounted police officers will use the special bikes on daily patrols. Six employees will use the bikes on their daily commutes. Other workers, such as city water meter readers and employees with meetings in town, can borrow the bikes for on-the-job chores.

Riders will use the bikes for six weeks with the motors, then six weeks without and a final six weeks with the motors again to see if their use decreases when the motors are removed, Gill said.

The technology is relatively simple. A metal platform over the rear wheel of a standard mountain bike holds the one-horsepower motor and battery. The rider presses a small throttle mounted on the handlebar to activate a small drive wheel that turns the rear bike wheel.

The equipment adds about 37 pounds to the bicycle's weight. But it enables a rider to speed along without pedaling on flat ground at top speeds of between 20 and 24 m.p.h. When the rider pedals uphill or even on flat ground, the motor provides an extra boost for easier rides.

For AeroVironment, a 22-year-old company that has earned international fame for experimental cars and planes, the Monrovia project is more mundane and practical than some of its past creations.

Past AeroVironment vehicles include the 1977 Gossamer Condor, the first human-powered airplane; the 1981 Solar Challenger, a solar-powered airplane, and the 1987 GM Sunraycer, a solar-powered car that won a race across Australia. Five of its vehicles are displayed at the Smithsonian Institution.

Still, some details about the Monrovia bikes are kept secret, perhaps because of their practical application. At a press conference last week, AeroVironment representatives would not reveal technical information about the bikes.

"They're prototypes," Gill said, adding that the company has two other bicycles that it has kept for promotional purposes and more design work.

The practical application was evident last week when bike patrol Officer Jim Hunt said he had covered 15 miles in one day using the bike, twice the normal patrol mileage. Plus, officers now have easier access to the hilly north end of town, an area that they usually avoided, he said.

Electric motors increase their mobility, Hunt said, while preserving all the maneuverability and quietness of bicycles.

The electric-assisted bikes do have a couple of drawbacks, said Vance Pomeroy, a Monrovia city planner selected to ride one of the bikes.

State law requires riders to wear motorcycle helmets instead of the lighter-weight bicycle helmets, he said. And AeroVironment recommends not riding during rainy weather, not because the rider would receive an electric shock, but because the tiny power wheel may lose traction on the wet back tire.

For Pomeroy, who has an uphill, 10.7-mile commute to his city job, the electric-assisted bike provides just the motivation to get him out of his car and into T-shirt and shorts for the daily ride. He showers and changes into business clothes at City Hall.

"It allows you to get in shape a little at a time," said Pomeroy, who admitted that despite his lean, 6-foot-3 frame he is not in the best of physical condition.

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