Walking the talk: Bio-inspiration for personal transportation

Transportation can be divided into the mass transit, individual vehicle, and pedestrian categories. In previous posts I have written about the first two, in describing how bio-inspired design has improved trains and been instrumental in the development of autonomous vehicles. In this last of three themed columns in the “Getting There” series, I write about how nature might inspire a better pedestrian system.

One of the major challenges of urban transportation planning is designing the so-called “last mile” of a person’s journey, that short hop from the control and efficiency of an arterial route system to the unrestricted movements within a neighborhood or district. The success of a mass transit system, for example, depends largely on this provision for individual mobility and way-finding. Making this part of a journey faster and easier would certainly improve many lives -- and nature has a few suggestions about how to do it.

Wheels

Before discussing how nature might carry you on that last mile, it's worthwhile to look at how technology does it currently. Steven Vogel, in his classic book, Cats’ Paws and Catapults, outlines the differences in these two “schools” of design. In particular, he mentions how very well we make wheels, while nature tends to bend and slide itself to mechanical advantage.

There has been an explosion in wheeled personal assistance devices in the last five years, driven by the need for cheaper transportation and cleaner air, the production of motors small enough to fit inside wheels and advances in material technology that offer strength with less weight.

The Segway is the best-known example. A two-wheeled gyroscopically balanced stand-up, it is a lean-and-go machine that can have a seat fitted to it, and comes in a four-wheel Centaur version. The Hands Free Transporter is a Segway derivative controlled by the knees and trunk motion and does not have vertical handlebars.

Next page: Other developments