September 29, 2012

Heal Your Life & Save the Planet with the Velomobile. ~ Frederik Van De Walle & Trista Hendren

The velomobile is a zero-pollution vehicle and the world’s most energy-efficient transport.

A velomobile is a closed vehicle powered by an abundant, sustainable energy source that is not used enough: human power.

There is an acute awareness that society would substantially benefit from if transportation became more ecologically sustainable. Yet, our world is dependent on transportation to function, which makes change an uphill battle. Part of that difficulty is our inability to think outside the box and go beyond what is considered normal.

Reflect on this all-too-common scenario:

Bill lives in the suburbs with his beautiful wife Judy and their young children. He feels it would be somewhat impossible to get by without a car given his family size. However, sitting in traffic on his daily commute, he wonders endlessly about the need for a second five-passenger vehicle that he drives alone every day.

He comes home exhausted every night to three kids bickering for his attention. Judy barely has the stamina to glare at him after spending the last 12 hours chasing after the kids. This keeps her in great shape but doesn’t help Bill’s self-esteem after putting on 30 pounds. Bill wants to get fit again but feels he would only be able get to the gym at the expense of spending time with his family. None of his clothes fit anymore and he’s become more of a daddy than a sex-symbol to his wife.

Recently Bill’s brother died from a sudden heart attack. Bill worries about his own health and the consequences of not taking care of himself for his family. He feels trapped in a lifestyle that keeps him always working, but never fulfilled. He knows there must be a better way, but he hasn’t the energy to find it. Defeated, he crawls into bed where Judy already has her back turned away from him and pretends to sleep.

Why not try this alternative ending?

Desperate, Bill gets up and vows to change their life. He does some math and discovers this extra car is actually costing them about $12,000 a year. He sells it and buys a velomobile with the proceeds, which he begins to ride to and from work every day. In four months, he is back to a healthy weight and saves nearly $1,000 a month. Bill not only has more money to spend and save but feels better about himself. Instead of coming home crabby from his long commute, he has energy for his family after a great ride home. On weekends, he attaches a trailer to the back and rides around with the kids. Judy appreciates his efforts and their marriage improves tremendously.

The velomobile is an oft-mentioned solution for single eco-friendly transport. A velomobile is a recumbent bicycle with a fairing. Modern velomobiles usually have an aerodynamic, streamlined body resulting in high efficiency, allowing the possibility to reach greater speed. The velomobile also provides weather and crash protection and an overall practicality on a different level than the bicycle.

Experience from velomobile users is that on first sight, most people think a velomobile is a little electric car. When they find out it is driven with pedals, the observer either is disappointed or exclaims: “Oh, it’s a bicycle!”

The concept of the velomobile has been around for a long time, and may be rationally very convincing. Many fine prototypes have been built and a good number of academic papers have been written. Yet, velomobiles have not had a breakthrough as a more widespread commuting option.

Current data shows there are currently only approximately 10,000 velomobile owners around the world.

Most western societies are automobile-centered. Only when cars show strong signs of failure (chronic congestion and in-your-face pollution) is the bicycle considered as alternative transportation.

Automobiles are extremely expensive to own and many people are in a period of cutting back now.

“In 2004, the American Automobile Association conducted a study and found that the average American spends $8,410 per year to own a vehicle. That was just the cash out of pocket. The true costs of vehicle ownership are even greater. When accounting for the multitude of indirect costs associated with driving—not only the cost of the car, fuel, insurance, maintenance, and fees, but also infrastructure costs—according to commutersolutions.org, the average cost of driving 10,000 miles per year is somewhere in the range of $12,000-13,000.” ~ Shannon Hayes, Radical Homemakers.

Cycling as an ecologically sustainable and a healthy means of transportation does not need much further explanation. With the increased consciousness of environmental degradation and unhealthy populations, modern societies have put up many noble goals of sustainable development.” Nevertheless, the transportation sector is hard to change, and the overall situation does not seem to improve. Personal travel keeps increasing, air pollution and congestion in cities remain problematic and oil dependence is as high as ever.

Consider the following statistics:

No miracle technology is going to change these trends and significant improvement is needed to pave the way toward true sustainability. Until fairly recently, governments and planners mostly ignored the bicycle as transportation. Fortunately, things are slowly changing and the bicycle’s role is more actively acknowledged, especially in Europe.

We live in a consumption-based world. We know that the latest technology and a higher price yields a better product. Yet, for transportation many compare their experience with a $200 bicycle with a $20,000 automobile. Guess which mode is more attractive?

When you spend a little more on your bike, you will see how much more appealing cycling becomes. Cycling can offer a lot more comfort and performance if one is willing to make a investment in this technology.

The velolobiles that exist today are only the first glimpse of how superb cycling vehicles could be if we embraced cycling fully, allowing it to serve both our needs for transport and exercise. A velomobile makes cycling longer distances more accessible because it is easier on the body. Dr. Paul K. Nolan wrote a full article on the Medical Benefits of Recumbent Bicycles. Consider the contrast between a traditional bike and the recumbent.

“The semi-reclined position of the recumbent rider provided a much broader distribution of the body weight across the more anatomically correct padded areas of the buttocks and across the back. The hands, arms and shoulders were in a relaxed position not bearing the weight of the torso. With the back in a reclined positioned, the abdomen was flat and straight which allowed full and easy expansion of the lungs. The feet rested on the pedals allowing easy flexion and extension of the legs and afforded a relaxed resting position much like on a recliner foot rest. The head was held in a neutral position, looking forward, the neck relaxed. Eye contact with motor vehicle drivers was second nature to the recumbent riding position. The conventionally mounted cyclist was a dichotomy of the recumbent cyclist.

The weight of the rider was concentrated on the narrow unpadded symphysis pubis (pubic bone) and on the hands. The Homo sapiens were not anatomically designed to bear weight on the arms like a quadruped nor was it designed to sit straddling a fence rail (politicians excluded). The head is forced in a perpetual downward stare, making eye contact with drivers a forced event, the rider having to hyper-extend the neck to get a glance down the road. This can lead to neck muscle spasms and cervical spine strains.”

With increased velomobile use, cycling as a whole will get more attention. The bicycle benefits from the velomobile in a practical sense too. Developments for velomobile technology can also serve bicycles just as bicycle technology is now used in velomobiles. It’s also likely that awareness caused by the unusual looking velomobile will result in more cycling road infrastructure.

The velomobile also opens new doors for women. Consider the case of Lisa, a single professional woman who wants to be more eco-friendly but doesn’t like the traditional choices of either driving or biking.

Initially, Lisa didn’t think it was possible to live without a car. She needed storage for her work documents and laptop that a bike could not provide. She also worried about arriving at meetings looking unprofessional. However, despite a good income, she was always broke. After crunching the numbers, she found her car was one of her largest expenditures.

She approached her eco-friendly company, who agreed to fully sponsor a velomobile purchase in exchange for placing their logo on the side of it. Lisa now rides to work in her sleek-looking velomobile, shielded from the rain and frequent harassment she received when she used to ride her bike. Her friend installed an electric-assist to help with big hills, although she finds she rarely needs it. She is able to store her work items in the back of her velomobile, keeping everything safe and dry.

Since biking to work last year, she has stopped taking antidepressants and lost 15 pounds. She’s also put away $15,000 in the 401k she never used to have money to contribute to. Some of her friends think it’s strange that she doesn’t drive a car but she knows her body, her wallet and Mother Earth are all healthier for it.

There is a long list of health benefits and improvements in psychological well-being that can be expected from cycling. Health, just as non-renewable resources, can often not be bought back. The decreasing health of western populations is one of its most expensive problems. A cycling population is a healthier population.

Here are just some of the benefits of cycling as a mode of transportation.

People often say they don’t have time to bike to work, but then spend an hour driving to and from the gym. None of us have an abundance of time; however, cars are not the time-savers we believe them to be.

According to a new study by the Texas Transportation Institute, the average American will spend almost a full work week in traffic resulting in 26 extra gallons of gas.

“By one estimate, when the miles driven are divided by the time spent buying and maintaining our cars, the average speed comes out to five miles an hour. By this calculation, Erik Knutzen’s view that bike power is more efficient is certainly valid.” ~ Shannon Hayes, Radical Homemakers.

Given our current economy, the two-car suburban family doesn’t work for many Americans. We are depleting our energy by living sedentary lifestyles and draining the earth’s resources in the process. Cars have their uses but when people are obese and use them to cross the street, something is very wrong.

We need solutions that fit our pocketbooks and our lifestyles. Biking is not for everyone, but it isn’t the only option. Creative combinations of biking, walking, public transportation, Zipcars and carpooling can bridge the gap between owning a car or not. Looking at quality of life and the sustainability of our planet, the velomobile is one more option that deserves greater consideration.


Frederik Van De Walle built his first velomobile from a kit at the age of 15.  He graduated in Mechanical Engineering in Belgium with a specialization in Aerospace Technology. As part of his thesis, he also designed and built his own velomobile, the Waw. That prototype was later put into hand-made production by Fietser.be in Belgium. Frederik wrote his Master’s Thesis on Velomobile Transport at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden,  Frederik’s Thesis, “The Velomobile as a Vehicle for more Sustainable Transportation” has become has become the go-to starting point for people wanting to explore the technological concept of the velomobile.


Trista Hendren is a Certified Coach with Imagine a Woman International and author of The Girl God.  She lives between Portland, Oregon and Bergen, Norway with her husband, who inspired her to write this article with Frederik. After years of agonizing the merits of driving her kids to a private school, Trista sold her car last year and gets around primarily by foot. In her spare time, she helps to promote eco-friendly transport with her husband through his site, www.velomobilemedia.com.


Editor: Sarah Winner

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