One day in a golden future—when the euphoria of free-wheeling through the clean air and safe streets of any global metropolis is taken for granted—the new cycling citizenry might trace its warm glow of contentment back to Boston, circa 2017. That is probably unrealistic with the realities of the densely populated urban jungle, but hold that cynicism in check for a moment. In Boston, the seeds of an ideal city scenario have taken root, thanks to a pair of tireless entrepreneurs: tech genius Assaf Biderman and bike rental groundbreaker Andrew Prescott.
Biderman built on his research with the SENSEable City Lab at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) becoming founder and CEO of Cambridge-based company, Superpedestrian, where he hopes to revolutionize transportation, no less.
Prescott is the self-styled Chief Wheel Officer of downtown bike shop Urban Adventours which—like the SENSEable City Lab —was founded in 2004, when Boston was arguably the least friendly city for cyclists in the U.S. Now, Boston is the hub of a brave new pedal-centric universe, thanks to the smarts of these hometown visionaries.
The Best Way to See Boston
For more than a decade, Prescott has helped raise the profile of cycling in the city by offering guided tours as well as bike rentals and sales.
“I shamelessly promoted my business everywhere I went,” he recalled. “People would be proud of the fact they were riding in Boston. We got involved in any cycling event that was going on, whether that was working with the mayor’s office in Boston or Cambridge, letting them know that there was somebody who cared that we got biking to the forefront.”
For Prescott, biking is not just a great way to experience the city, it’s the natural first choice.
“I feel that our tours—and just riding a bike in Boston—are the best way to see as much as possible. There’s so much diversity with every different neighborhood, whether it’s Back Bay, the South End, Beacon Hill or Charlestown to Chinatown: it gives you a whole other perspective. Riding anywhere along the Charles River is great and the Emerald Necklace goes from the Public Garden all the way out to Jamaica Plain and beyond.”
Forget About the Technology—Just Pedal
Ideally placed to speed Boston’s progress towards bike utopia is Biderman, whose inspired mashup of cycling and advanced robotics has literally reinvented the wheel. Superpedestrian began as a collaboration between MIT and the Danish city of Copenhagen. The goal was to increase bike use by eliminating many of the reasons—time, hassle, distance and effort—with which we excuse ourselves from taking to the streets on two wheels. The solution, devised by Biderman and his fellow researchers, was the Copenhagen Wheel.
Fitted to any existing bike and hooked up to a proprietary smartphone app, the Copenhagen Wheel with its signature red hub of technological trickery has an almost supernatural effect.
“You move your body, it feels like magic,” says Biderman.
The instant you start to pedal a Superpedestrian bike, a sweet charge of momentum kicks in seemingly from nowhere—like your legs have become bionic—leaving nothing but dust and a deep sense of euphoria in your wake. It’s easily controlled, quiet as a breeze and can be dialed up or down at will, from ‘eco’ (mild assistance) to ‘turbo.’ Superpedestrian, it seems, has breezed into the e-bike space with a genuine game-changer.
Sensors, Algorithms and Wonder Woman
“In a sense, it’s a vehicle condensed into one wheel,” said Biderman. “We’re building it to provide an identical experience to riding a regular bike, but you think you became Superman or Wonder Woman. We developed our own sensors and algorithms. As a user, you don’t need to know anything about this. Forget about technology: just pedal. You can go anywhere, you don’t need to think twice; hills flatten, distances disappear.”
So far the signs for Superpedestrian have been encouraging. First-time users tend to walk away from their test rides, as we did, with broad smiles. Those who have bought into the Copenhagen Wheel, said Biderman, tend to use cars and taxis far less often.
“These people are not cyclists,” he said. “It just makes sense.”
Prescott's Top Tips for Boston Cycling
Taking right turns generally avoids crossing traffic.
Keep a safe distance away from doors even when you’re in a bike lane.
Ride with the flow—don’t go against traffic.
Ring a bell, I think it’s courteous.
It’s a pretty bright idea to use lights at night.
Everybody likes some good helmet hair—if you wear a helmet you’re going to be a lot safer.
Try the Minuteman Bikeway, up through Lexington and Concord. You can take your bike on the red line to Alewife and there’s a bike path right there.
Our Funway to Fenway tour is pretty cool. We leave here at 2 pm, get to Fenway Park about 4.15 pm and someone from the Red Sox comes out—it’s a VIP tour.
You get great views on the Cambridge side of the river by the Longfellow Bridge because you can see the State House dome on top of Beacon Hill and all the buildings in the Back Bay.
Strava (cycling app) gives you different places to ride, depending how far you want to ride—you can save your route and share it with other people.