The automobile has taken American culture a long way, but that ride hasn’t come without costs. The cost we notice the most these days appear in the numbers splayed on gas station marquees, peddling gas at $2 a gallon. But there are other costs, too. The wear and tear on your body, as it sits limp and placid, growing larger by the day. The cost of carbon monoxide spewing into our air, and its implications for the temperature of the planet. The congestion created on city streets, sometimes so thick that it impedes pedestrian traffic, essentially dissecting the city. While automobiles are certainly the vehicles of choice in our mass-consumption economy, other options are beginning to sprout.
One of the greenhouses of such emerging alternatives is Lightfoot Cycles, based just out of Conner in the southern Bitterroot Valley. Housed on a tree farm in an old horse barn, the place seems more lost in time than ahead of its time, but here at Lightfoot, a staff of half a dozen diligently works to create a world-wide pedal-powered revolution for Honduran farmers, African agrarians and Manhattan commuters. The work implies a revolution in transportation planning, community dynamics, ecology and health.
Lightfoot founder Rod Miner sees a gap in transportation options. It’s either the car or the traditional upright bike, with little middle ground in between. That’s why he decided to start providing bikes and trikes with the capacity to carry multiple people and massive cargo loads in a comfortable, stable position. Miner’s creations are easy to pedal, allowing people with handicaps to ride them, and are even available with an electric power assist. Some cycles have locking trunks, some hand cranks for people with disabled legs, others provide shelter from the weather, and all are recumbent, which means you’re kicking back in a seat. Through his vehicles, Lightfoot sees a sustainable mobility future that’s greener and healthier.
“In a way we are competing with Detroit as well as [bicycle manufacturers in] Taiwan,” says Miner. “I’m sure Detroit would laugh to hear that, but I think we can do a lot to increase the usefulness of cycles. A large part of our goal is to build cycles that can be used as vehicles. They need to have the ability to ride in any weather and the ability to haul standard everyday things: kids, groceries, pets, the computer to the repair shop.”
Miner’s cycles are forged of aircraft-grade chromoly steel, colored with baked-on powder coat, outfitted with Shimano hardware with super-low gear ratios, and offered with a lifetime warranty.
To create such inventions one has to build outside the box. Luckily for Miner, a self-taught, self-described “folk engineer,” he never started out with a stack of traditional rules about how a bike should be built. He assembled his first recumbent bike in 1983, revitalizing a bicycle concept that had lain dormant for years. The recumbent ride was more comfortable for Miner, due to a neck injury that made it painful to ride neck-bowed on an upright.
Before becoming a bicycle engineer, Miner worked as a backcountry ranger in Yellowstone, a solar-design technician, a wilderness guide for troubled teens, a wildland firefighter, and executive director of the Center for Resourceful Building Technology. He’s built straw bale structures, including the one housing the Lightfoot Cycles’ office. He’s worked with permaculture farming, evidenced by extensive gardens scattered around Lightfoot headquarters. Miner and his wife and business partner Marty Stomberg have logged their land with horses. He’s pretty much a jack of all trades.
“I absorbed [my engineering knowledge] from my dad,” says Miner. “I learned a lot about how things go together.” His dad, for his part, absorbed much of his engineering knowledge working on bombers in the Air Force. Miner’s formal education actually came from the University of Montana, where he studied Natural Sciences and Energy Economics.
Lightfoot’s first business project was a program called Personal Energy Transportation (PET); the project specialized in delivering trikes equipped with hand cranks to land-mine victims in Asia and around the world. To date, the PET project has delivered such bikes to 47 different countries.
Lightfoot was officially born in 1997 and named in honor of its product’s light ecological footprint. Miner has always been interested in the efficiency of the cycle, and how powerfully it magnifies the body’s energy.
This year could be the year that Lightfoot catches up with its engineer’s aspirations. Just last month, amazon.com added the cycles to its sporting goods section. Dealers across the country are beginning to carry the company’s products. Lightfoot is working to sell a bicycle design to Jacana, a non-profit searching for a better bicycle for Africa. Farmers in Honduras want an agricultural vehicle. Tanzanians are interested in a similar rig to pick up coffee beans from rural farms. A resort in Hilo, Hawaii, wants 50 “Ranger” recumbent mountain bikes for tourist outings. And the cities of Phoenix, Charlotte and Los Angeles have solicited quotes for pedicabs. Lightfoot also receives smaller, more personal orders from Finland, England, France, Australia, Canada and Kuwait, among other places.
While Lightfoot has some competition in the United States for its recreational recumbents, there is no domestic competition for the family and work cycles designed to compete with cars, according to Miner.
The pedicab solution
Here’s a problem: You don’t like having to drive your car 12 blocks to the grocery store for your weekly food fix, but your 3-year-old can’t make the hike, and besides, you have to cart your bounty back to the cupboard. Face it: The car creates pollution, and you need some exercise.
“Most Americans don’t have a choice. They go out to the garage and there’s a car, then over behind the plywood, getting dusty with flat tires is a bike,” says Miner. “Most quickly abandon the bike because they assume that bicycles are unstable, unsafe and impractical. We are trying to stand that on its head. Those people aren’t riding bikes even though they know what the health benefits could be, what the benefits to the neighborhood could be, and what the ecological benefits could be. There may be a design opportunity that hasn’t been exploited yet and we’re working to exploit it.”
Lightfoot’s solution to the problem: pedicabs and “microcars.” The pedicab looks like any three-wheeled cycle, only it has space for two passengers in the back with the option of a canopy over that space. The driver sits in the recumbent position, relaxed.
With one of the only recumbent pedicabs on the market, Lightfoot has been receiving calls from cities around the country.
“Over the past month we’ve had several inquiries that show us that there’s a pretty good demand out there for our pedicab. We’ve struck a nerve with our design,” says Miner. “It has the recumbent seating and a new-tech look to it. We don’t try to make them look like something from old India. They’re pure function. Oftentimes in the city people don’t want to walk 15 blocks, specifically because they are carrying something. So a pedicab service that is part of a downtown transportation infrastructure can haul people and cargo. In that way we’ve taken a step ahead of a lot of other pedicab designs.”
The price tag on the pedicab isn’t cheap at $5,160, but it’s cheaper than the microcar, priced at $6,857. Touted as a “sociable” tandem, the microcar differs in structure from the pedicab, with four wheels, two side-by-side seats and a trunk option.
And human power isn’t the only engine of Miner’s wheeled revolution. Lightfoot also offers the option of an electric motor to assist cyclists when they need it.
“All of our cycles accept power assist, generally an electric assist with a hub motor. The electric motor is built into the hub of the wheel,” says Miner. “A lot of our clients are not wheelchair-bound, but neither are they athletes. A lot of them would like some assist to make it up that one big hill they have to go up on their way home. You can also use gas engine assist. It gets 200 miles to the gallon and goes down the road 20 to 25 miles per hour.”
Three wheels better than two
Another conundrum. You’d like to travel around the city on a bike, but your wrist was crushed in an accident years ago and you just can’t steer an upright bike. Or maybe you can’t legally drive a car because of poor vision or seizures but would still like the means to get around town.
Lightfoot’s solution: either the Greenway or RoadRunner trike for $3,541.
“Sitting in it is a lot like being in a car,” says Miner of the recumbent seating position. “Your head is up, you’re not staring at your front tire with your head down. You have mirrors. You have a good sense for what’s ahead of you and what’s behind you. The recumbent seating position achieves all of that. And then when you put it on the trike, you achieve another level of stability and ease of use.”
Miner says he’s had a number of handicapped customers purchase his vehicles for autonomous local transportation. “We do a lot for people who don’t need to be in a wheelchair, but can’t ride a conventional bike,” says Miner. “Some people with some small degree of special needs can ride our bikes for one reason or another. Unlike upright bikes, recumbent designs don’t have the weight of the arms on the handlebars. A person with a non-functioning arm can ride in the recumbent position and steer just fine, whereas on a regular bike it would be much more complex.”
On top of that, Miner hopes his cycles can help prevent people from becoming effectively disabled by sliding out of shape.
“If you look at our transportation situation with how it’s tied into our health, then you’ll see that Americans are suffering from our ingenuity at replacing our daily work with inputs of power,” says Miner. “The Center for Disease Control considers obesity an epidemic. They have said that reintroducing physical activity into our daily routines is vital. These were designed with that in mind.”
Let’s say you’ve got a load of Doug fir slash to move, or a bumper crop of Bitterroot apples, but don’t want to (or can’t) drive a truck to move your load.
Lightfoot’s solution: trikes with a super-capacity cargo areas. The models that Miner has designed for Honduran and Tanzanian farmers can function in mud, on steep hills and with huge loads.
“Our biggest trikes have a cargo capacity of 600 pounds,” says Miner. “Our cycles are designed to be useful anywhere in the world, but they are born and bred here in Montana and they have a rural bias. They tend to be big with lots of capacity.”
The agricultural cycle design Lightfoot is drafting for Tanzania will eventually be manufactured in Africa, then used to roll around coffee plantations, picking up the product. A Honduras-bound machine will perform similar tasks, but will also be equipped with power assist.
And here’s one final scenario: You like to road and mountain bike, but an upright bike just isn’t comfortable.
Check out the Lightfoot Ranger, priced at $2,695. Heralded as one of the first truly successful recumbent mountain bikes, the Ranger is advertised as a smooth ride, and its chopped handlebars have style to spare.
Conditioning the road
The technology is here, but is the world ready to adopt, and adapt to, Miner’s wheeled revolution? The cycles are costly and Miner understands that price is a barrier to getting great numbers of his vehicles on the road. The company hopes to shave prices by 10 percent in the coming year as production increases (Lightfoot hopes to complete 200 bikes this year). There aren’t any official Missoula dealers yet, either—another problem Miner aims to fix soon.
Then there are the constraints of an urban road system. Many streets in Missoula are without bike lanes, which could be troublesome for riders of Lightfoot’s wider bikes (Miner has lobbied for transportation planning to accommodate his cycles).
“A pedal-powered vehicle is classified as a bicycle and is entitled to use the bike lanes, which are about 5 feet wide,” says Phil Smith, Missoula’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, and a fan of Miner’s “creative” works. Miner’s widest bikes run just under 4 feet. Smith also says that when bike lanes are unavailable, any pedal-powered vehicle is legally allowed to use traffic lanes, as long as it stays as far to the right as possible and obeys traffic laws.
Missoula bicycle advocate Bob Giordano has been tracking Lightfoot Cycles for years and is excited about Lightfoot’s designs and the options they create.
“They’re helping to expand the bicycle as a means of transportation, literally with their design, but also in how people think of a bicycle as transportation. The more options that there are, the more people are likely to choose it,” says Giordano. “I think it’s going to expand the range of the bike, and I think it’s also going to help people choose a car-free lifestyle.”