Railcycles Past and Present

27 09 2010

I am officially a Shweeb Dweeb now. I had a ride on the weekend in Rotorua of the Shweeb. The Shweeb is a recumbent bicycle (although it doesn’t have wheels so it’s not a bicycle at all) sitting inside a perspex shell hanging under a rail.

It was fun and it was fast and it was over very, very quickly. It is also quite expensive (NZ $45 for about 2 minutes of fun). It’s set up like a velodrome. There are two tracks, each of 200 metres in length. So there is an inside and an outside track.

There are 7 gears. If you were to ride it you’ll most likely start in 3rd gear and be told that changing gears isn’t really necessary. Ignore that advice. Pedal your guts out, get it into top gear, and see how fast you can go. I didn’t get within sniffing distance of the course record for 3 laps for my age group. I was 10 seconds slower, but it still felt like flying.  The capsules swing out like a centrifuge. There are no brakes inside the Shweeb, so when it is time to stop a track underneath the Shweeb is raised. They can’t engage it if you’re pedalling your guts out. It took a whole lap without pedalling to bleed enough speed off to engage the braking thing. Afterwards my legs were like jelly and I had trouble climbing down the steps.

Now as a tourist toy it doesn’t work so well because the punter throughput it really low. If you got there on a busy day you could be waiting mega-yonks to have a go. I figured I’d be there for nearly an hour, but one group ahead of me had an odd number of people, so I got to jump the queue to make up the numbers. Still despite the wait and despite the cost I’d recommend it at least once for the novelty. A second go is $20. I will have a second go next time I’m passing through Smellytown.

After I finished I texted my significant other to tell her it was fun, and she told me that Google had just given the Shweeb people a lot of money to develop their idea of getting Shweebs into cities as public transport. The NZ Herald wrote about that too.

Now it isn’t a completely new idea to use monorail bicycles for public transport. Whilst waiting to ride the Shweeb I took a photo of their display of historic bike monorails:

I recently got a copy of William Least Heat-Moon’s most recent book Roads to Quoz, An American Mosey. Whilst waiting for it to arrive I started reading River-Horse again. I loved it 9 years ago, and I’m loving it again. He’s got to be amongst the best writers of travel narratives. River-Horse is about taking a small boat from the East River of New York to the Pacific Ocean in Oregon. In it it has one of my favourite lines in all books where he yells out to a worker having his lunch sitting under a bridge on the East River that he’s headed to Oregon, and the worker replies “You’re going the right way then.” I haven’t started moseying to Quoz yet, as I’m still on a Missouri flood, but flicking through the book I spied this picture:

and I want to know so much about it, but I have to wait. I’ve heard about it being done before on the B.A.M. railway on a ride between St. Petersburg and Vladivostok, but it isn’t altogether new. For this blog post I thought I’d find a picture of a kalamazoo, sometimes called a handcart, which Quick Draw McGraw style you and a friend push up and down on a lever and you travel on the railway lines, but the Kalamazoo Railway Supply Co, for which kalamazoos are named, also made what they called velocipedes.

I found it on this site from Whippany, New Jersey, where I also found that there was a pedal inspection car made by a company in Indiana:

I’ve long believed that a town on a closed branch line of a railway could get itself a few kalamazoos and then encourage visitors to have a go getting between one town and the next. If you were pumping faster than the people on the kalamazoo in front you just swap places with the people on that kalamazoo. I envision that it would be quite a popular little tourist attraction in an otherwise dying town. So far Cummins, in South Australia is the only town that comes close.

So what about the potential of the Shweeb? It is kind of like a pedal powered PRT pod. PRT ranges from the nearly useful, but still yet to be operational Heathrow Airport system to the very ridiculous. PRT is a land for dreamers and kranks, but I guess there is room for innovation. Hey I think even an interurban rollercoaster would be great. For instance Auckland to Hamilton with lots of loop de loops. Inventiveness needs encouragement, but reading one after another about those PRT schemes will make you pull your hair out.

Firstly getting into a Shweeb capsule is a little awkward. The seat has to be adjusted depending on the rider’s height. Collisions between capsules when a faster rider comes up behind would be buffered and they’d kind of entrain themselves. Switching between one section of track and another I imagine would be reasonably easily engineered, but it’d have to be under the rider’s control. Small children and the infirm wouldn’t be able to ride it. With hills and inclines the riders could get some form of mechanical assistance. The speed is to be a reasonable 20km/hr, even if it is possible to get them up closer to 50km/hr. It would be quite expensive to build a network of lines. They do lift themselves over obstacles like roads and rivers quite easily, and it would be a little less scary than some other proposals. They’d be all weather.  I’d love to see it tried. A network with Shweebs would be a bit like a bike hire scheme, so they’d need some form of load balancing for the capsule locations. So then you’d need workers to hitch a few together and ride some empty ones around the network. It would be quite interesting to see it done.

Still if I was a city mayor and I was working out whether to add freeway capacity, rail capacity, a PRT, or a Shweeb network, I think I’d go a Shweeb network. However I think a network of off-road paved cycleways would be more effective, cheaper, and available for everyone’s bikes, trikes, rollerblades and velomobiles. I’d make bridges for cyclists and pedestrians to cross major roads, and I’d throw up cable car funiculars and aerial gondolas to get people and bikes up hills. Then around heavy rail and light rail stations I’d have secure bike parking, and stands for a bike share scheme.

I hope that somewhere in the world Shweeb takes off for urban transport, but I wish everywhere in the world had safe Dutch-style cycleway infrastructure, the kind where it would be safe to ride a normal recumbent bike without the danger of getting run over by a car, or a bus or a log truck.


How to Vote in Kapiti

17 09 2010

Update: I’ve got a new post on my other blog about the 3 worst candidates in Kapiti

I’ll be back talking about bicycles and cycleways soon I promise.

This is how to vote in the local elections if you happen to live in Kapiti. It’s a joint post between my two blogs, Wellington Regional Cycleways and Clean Air Society of Kapiti Coast. Kapiti, as you may know, has had a divisive debate about rerouting the SH1 motorway through the district. I sent a set of questions to all the candidates I could find an email address of on topics other than the motorway, and namely cycleway related questions and clean air questions. Personally I am sick of the debate on the motorway, so want to remind voters that there is more to life on the coast than the motorway.

Here are the questions I asked those candidates:

Questions for my cycleways blog:

  • 1. Do you support the concept of signposting the National Cycleway through Kapiti from the Coast Road to the Waitohu Valley?
  • 2. Do you have any ideas for a safe cycle route from Peka Peka to Te Horo/Te Horo Beach that isn’t along the highway?
  • 3. Would you support the paving of the riverside paths on one or both sides of the Waikanae River to make them cycleways?
  • 4. Would you support the paving of the riverside paths on one or both sides of the Otaki River to make them cycleways, and negotiating for cycleway access on the extant paths from Te Horo Beach through the Otaki Ferry reserve and surrounding private land to the southside tracks on the levee banks of the Otaki River?
  • 5. Do you have any other ideas for promoting walking and cycling in Kapiti?

Questions for my Clean Air blog:

  • 1. Do you support a complete ban or a phasing out of woodburners to remove the toxic pollution that they inevitably emit?
  • 2. Do you support a ban on new installations of wood burners? (such as in Central Otago)
  • 3. Do you support the right for a neighbour to veto smoke coming into their house and property? If so from what sources (domestic wood fires or outside burning)? If not, why not?
  • 4. Do you support a ban, or tightening up on burning off throughout the district? A suggested tightening up would be a ban on all properties less than 2ha for instance.
  • 5. The KCDC has a current rule of no rural fires within 40 metres of a property boundary. I have a burnoff fire 42 metres from my property boundary. The smoke of course doesn’t magically stop after 40 metres and I’ve copped the smoke. Will you support a minimum distance more in line with reality rather than in line with stupid? I have also copped smoke from fires 150 metres or more from my house.
  • 6. What is your plan to clean up the air in Raumati and Raumati South?

I got quite a good response in terms of the number of candidates who took the time to answer, which is perhaps a good sign for the future. Some of their answers were lazy, obfuscated, non-committal or in politician-speak. That bodes less well for the future. One thing apart from getting run over by a truck or having polluted air to breathe that I can’t stand is bullshit. So I have rated the candidates on a few issues. Firstly just about every candidate says they’ll keep rates down, so I say so what to them. Next if they’re incumbent generally that’s not good. I thought the leadership through the freeway debate was needlessly divisive and lets face it, air quality reforms in Kapiti are very much overdue and nothing is being done. Plus I am quite convinced the Compliance and Monitoring team has let me down over the smoke problems I have experienced. This should have not happened on the current councils watch. Next I’ve never liked the Chamber of Commerce type of people and hence have a hard time recommending any One Kapiti member. I’m more a green kind of voter, but it has to be more than just a self asserted tag of greenness. It has to be in actions and not words. My bullshit detector goes off around a lot of folk claiming they’re green, when really they’re just clueless. Fluoride is a non-issue.

I didn’t get many of the answers I would have liked to the questions I asked. That’s fair enough as people are entitled to their own opinions other than mine, but it has to be a sensible opinion in its own right. I didn’t get many people thinking the river paths should be paved. A lot said it would distract from the current qualities. Mostly I’d say that they haven’t tried to ride the paths then. They can be rough as guts with large round stones and they can be muddy and puddle filled. I also think they can be paved for usefulness without distracting from their “naturalness”. It’s a case I’ll make at some other time.  As for the question of signposting the route of the National Cycleway I can say it was near universally supported by all candidates. Not many had any idea on a safe cycle route from Peka Peka to Te Horo. I myself don’t have an answer for that.

As for the smoke questions I did get agreement for all questions from some candidates. I also got an acknowledgment that smoke can be a real problem and a real nuisance. Not many agreed with a complete ban on all burning off, which I am more and more convinced of due to the unpleasantness and toxicity of woodsmoke which has no place in our neighborhoods . The banning of burning off on sub 2 hectare lifestyle blocks was widely supported amongst candidates as previously noted here. Also lots of suggestions for ways to control woodsmoke were put forward, but they were all measures that have been tried and have failed elsewhere such as in Launceston, Tasmania or in Central Otago. I think all those failed measures just waste time and we should go to a full ban on woodburners as the only measure actually proven to work.

So with no further ado here are my personal recommendations for how to vote.


CHAPMAN, Ann and WILSON, Nigel

Vote for Nigel with a tick.

Nigel is supportive of further environmental monitoring (including of woodsmoke pollution) on the coast.


3 CHURCH, Ross

5 CLULEE, Mike

1 GLOVER, Chris


6 ROWAN, Jenny

4 TURVER, Chris

Mr Glover is good on cycleways. I don’t think Ms Rowan should get another go after the farce of the motorway and trying to nick the Electra payments.



13 BOOTH, Roger

11 CARDIFF, Mike

14 CHURCH, Ross

1 DAVIS, Hone


9 ELLIS,Peter


2 HOOKER, Glen

12 JACK, Tony

6 MCCLOY, Iride

10 MITCHELL, David


7 SCOTT, Michael

3 ZUUR, Doris

Hone seems to be among the better candidates, but even he doesn’t fully understand the poisonous nature of wood smoke and thinks its ok in the winter time, which means I’d never be able to live in one of the Kapiti suburbs ever again. So obviously these are the best of a bad bunch. Ms Ammundsen told me she doesn’t believe woodsmoke is toxic.  Even though it’s a proven carcinogen and mutagen. I do get frustrated with elected officials who don’t have basic scientific knowledge.


1 BAKER, Andre

2 GAYLOR, Penny

Mr Baker is best suited to represent all people from Otaki. Ms Gaylor answered all my cycleway questions and didn’t answer the air quality answers, which I thought was obfuscation.


I couldn’t get much out of all the candidates here apart from a fob off. I’m not voting in the ward and have no opinion of them, except for David Scott. Vote 1 for David SCOTT. He is the best candidate, by miles, in terms of support for air quality measures. Apart from Nigel Wilson, David is the only politician who will actually listen if you are having smoke problems. Hopefully the rest of council this time will make way for his ideas. There is a lot of dead wood in the current council and they just get in the way.


1 GLOVER, Chris


3 WOODING Hilary


If you live in Paraparaumu or Raumati please do not vote for Jonny Best. He does not care about the pollution he is causing his neighbours and even boasted to me of using a chiminea in the summer to give a “great atmosphere”. He is part of the problem, not part of the solution. If you do live in Raumati and are wondering why your air is too foul to breathe, Jonny Best is in part responsible.

The other community boards and health boards I am not making recommendations.

Thanks to all the candidates who answered my questions. Whatever the makeup of the new council hopefully we can see some real progress made with cycleways and in particular air quality in Kapiti. Something really needs to be done about the out of control wood smoke pollution experienced in both the suburban and the lifestyle block parts of Kapiti. It is a problem that needs to be taken seriously and urgently. So whoever wins you have some work to do.

Thinking outside the hypercube on electric bikes

12 09 2010

Sometimes you come across something that is just so out there inventive and lateral in its thinking that you laugh out loud. So if you were thinking of a hub drive or crank drive for electric assisted bicycles and that was all you could come up with, check out what some guy named Carl came up with – a robot on a tandem.

That’s not thinking outside the square, or even thinking outside the cube, that’s thinking outside the hypercube.

Electric Bikes are Gangsta

11 09 2010

The last few weeks I’ve been commuting by electric bike to a local school where I’ve been doing what’s known as a practicum (since I’m retraining as a science teacher – you know midlife crisis or something similar). Commuting by bike to a nearaway place has been so much better for the soul (and wallet) than my normal long driving commute on State Highway 1.

Many of the kids at school had been asking me for a ride and one science lesson I was happy to oblige. I worked it into a lesson about distance/time graphs and many of them had a go. Some of them more than one. The verdict was “It’s gangsta, Mister,” which I think roughly translates as “The bicycle is a whole lot of fun, Sir.”

I have celebrated two firsts as well. My first first was copping unwarranted abuse from a motorist. I have read in so many blogs about bike commuters getting regularly abused by idiot drivers and it hadn’t really ever happened to me. I overtook a parked car. Well it was parked when I started overtaking it, and he pulled out without using an indicator or by looking in his mirrors, or anywhere at all. I yelled out “Hey!” loud enough for him to hear and he stopped the car and thankfully didn’t hit me. A little down the road when he caught up to me he wound down his window and yelled that I should look where I was going and that I should make myself visible. It was daylight and since it was cold I was wearing my fluorescent yellow jacket. Yeah my bad.

The other first is on a rural road riding home from school I passed a guy coming the other way on an electric bike exactly like my own. I had seen lots of other cyclists in town those few weeks from the kids riding to school, to the ladies doing their shopping, to the old men riding, and the pretty staunch Maori guy who rides a bike without any brakes and stops by putting his feet on the ground, which he does barefoot. Ouch!! But another electric bike, I didn’t expect it.

So are electric bikes catching on I wonder. One thing that might help is that Shimano have got a new range of bike bits which aren’t for sale in the shops yet, but will be appearing on bikes in the next year or two. This is going to mean that just about every bike manufacturer rather than just a few are going to have an e-bike model. Apart fr0m the lack of a throttle (those damned stupid restrictive EU laws) the set looks pretty nice. Integrated lights, a handlebar mounted e-bike/normal bike computer, computer and fly by wire internal rear hub with 8 gears. Hopefully this’ll mainstream e-bikes in terms of bike shop support. If there is only one set of gear to learn about then the average humble bike mechanic won’t get all nervous and refuse to work on an e- bike. And hopefully at the same bike shop the sets will be sold, and as spare parts too. It’ll be so great to get a second battery as easily as it is to get a spare tube.

Although some purists out there rankle at the thought of all those “lazy” people on e-bikes, or maintain the quaint line that they are only good for disabled people (you know who you are), it isn’t going to change the world if e-bikes only substituted for normal bikes but if they helped substitute this:

with this:

then the world will be a better place.

At school I have to read out the notices. One notice was that the local police were targeting non-compliance with local mandatory helmet laws and were giving out $55 spot fines. The “good news” was that if you got fined you could take the fine to the local cop shop and buy a helmet for $50 and the fine would be waived. Like religion the egg-head mandatory helmet people are using a “get them while they’re young” strategy.

And the last thing to say this morning is about the Gruber Assist.

If you don’t mind your seatpost being heated til it is 7o degrees C then you can have a secret motor on your bicycle. It is quite expensive like anything manufactured in the E.U. (the company is Austrian) and it is seriously underpowered with their tiny batteries, but it can be fitted to any normal bike with a straight seat post.

Happy pedalling!!

Bad news out of Palmie

2 09 2010

It seems Palmylink is on the political backburner and may not be going ahead. 😦 Palmylink was the idea of linking the Square with Massey University’s Turitea Campus by aerial gondola along Fitzherbert Ave and across the Manawatu in Palmerston North.

It seemed to me like such a great idea. It would replace smelly diesel bus services with a silent cableway powered by the windfarms on the hills above the town, freeing up road capacity on Fitzherbert Ave, and pushing back the date when more capacity on bridges across the Manawatu will actually be needed.

With Palmylink joining the main campus with the Square and then being extended to the railway station, and increasing the Capital Connection from one train a day each way to 6, and extending the train service to Feilding along with a continuation of the Palmie City Council’s policies of provisioning quality cycling infrastructure, Palmie could start selling itself as a sustainable city.

C’mon Palmie Councillors be a little bit brave. Adopt cable technologies for urban transport and integrate it with bicycle (and bikeshare?) infrastructure and the Capital Connection and then show yourself off to the world.