Does MIT's Copenhagen Wheel go the distance?

A new take on storing and boosting power, keeping track of nearby friends, and monitoring traffic, fitness, and fog has bike/health enthusiasts scratching their heads.

It's no secret that Portland, Ore., is one of the world's top biking towns. (Full disclosure: I live and bike here, and love both.) Thanks in part to a bike culture that has led to the development of hundreds of miles of bike lanes, ample signage, and rows of bright blue parking racks, Portland gets accolades for healthy people and air.

MIT's new take on storing and boosting power, keeping track of nearby friends, and monitoring traffic, fitness, and fog doesn't have everyone convinced. Senseable City Lab

But it is Copenhagen, Denmark, home to the 2009 climate summit, that tops pretty much every list you'll find as the world's best biking city, with a whopping 36 percent of commuters going by bike. So it is fitting that MIT's Senseable City Lab came up with The Copenhagen Wheel, which it unveiled this week in Copenhagen.

But to some, the wheel, whose several great features include storing kinetic energy for help up hills and monitoring traffic, fog, and nearby friends, is also a bit of a joke, something akin to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

To environmentalists, there are far bigger mountains that need to be summitted (pun shamelessly intended), all the better if by bikes-without-batteries, as the saying may soon go.

To engineers, the storing of kinetic energy is nothing new at all. It's already used in hybrid vehicles, and the 1982 book Bicycling Science, put out by none other than, you guessed it, MIT Press, outlines various energy storage systems for bikes known three decades ago.

And to bike enthusiasts, who've tended toward lighter and simpler bicycles of late (Portland's hipster v. roadie "Performance" video sums up the culture well), adding weight and complexity to a bike, not to mention a hefty price tag estimated at $500 to $1,000, is downright counterintuitive.

And when it comes to one's health, of course, it's best to use your own body to get around. Pedaling a bike is better for your heart rate than, say, pushing buttons on an electric one. The Copenhagen Wheel is to someone who already bikes a lot what a diet fad is to someone who already eats well.

But at the end of the day, if the Copenhagen Wheel gets people who wouldn't otherwise bike to actually bike, it's a boon for personal and, at least to some extent, environmental health. As MIT project leader Christine Outram tells the New York Times, "It's a technology that can get more people on bikes."