Lift off: taking the the uphill struggle out of cycling

Original article about the Trondheim cycle lift in Norway, which first appeared in Cycle Mobility Dec 2011

Of all the infrastructure developments that have been designed to encourage cycling, it is surprising so little attention has been devoted to that hardiest of potential cyclists’ bugbears – pedalling up hill. Even in the inventive tumult that enveloped Victorian cycling, no one appears to have devised a lift to help two wheelers gain altitude. But journey to Trondheim, in Norway, just 300km south of the Arctic circle, and the proud burghers have been pointing flocks of tourists to inspect their cycle lift for nearly two decades.

The centre of the city is a compact area, enclosed by a sweep of the Nidelva river as it flows out to the Trondheimsfjorde. Steep hills rising to 565 meters surround the city centre, so there are some pretty steep roads. And it is as they ascend one of these that cyclists draw the crowds.

Brubakken is among the shortest and sharpest routes up the hill towards the Kristiansten Fortress, and yet it is to this route that the bicycle riders flock. There, standing beside what looks like a parking meter at the bottom, they adopt an odd-looking position, with one leg over their bicycles and their other on the curb. Then suddenly, they start to ascend – rising up 130m of road, and gaining 25m of altitude.

Parts of the climb are as steep at 20% (1:5), but the cyclists glide upwards without turning a pedal.

Welcome to Trampe: to date a unique innovation in the world of encouraging active transport.

Nor is it the only surprise that the city has to offer those interested in cycle promotion. The other is the sheer numbers of bicycles.

Trondheim is Norway’s third largest city with a population of 170,000. For three months of the year, the average daily high temperature rarely tops 1 degree centigrade, and the average low is well below freezing. There is sufficient snowfall to make cross-country skiing a popular pursuit in one of the city’s recreation parks.

Despite the climatic challenge, cycling enjoys a 12% modal share for local travel – the highest in Norway.

Trondheim is a bustling student centre. Graduates and undergraduates at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology make up 20,000 of the population. The organisation that directs academic research in Norway has its headquarters in the city, which is also home to a major teaching hospital and a noted conservatoire. The young, fashionable hi-tech culture permeates the urban centre; it is a feature often noted by the thousands who visit the city each year while on cruises of Norway’s fjords.

The cycle lift is the brainchild of Jarle Wanvik (that’s him in the top picture demonstrating his innovation), a design engineer with a background in transport planning, whose home is at the top of one of Trondheim’s many hills. “I had travelled on ski lifts, and I stated to think that something similar would make it a lot more comfortable for cyclists to get up hills. My cycle ride to work took five minutes, my trip home used to take 20 minutes”, he remembers. “I thought, ‘we could do better’. I was lucky. People I spoke with immediately understood my idea and I got backing to create the lift very quickly.”

Wanvik’s luck was partly due to his timing. In 1991, the city of Trondheim established a ‘toll ring’ on roads entering the city centre. It was a response to fears that the ancient city centre’s roads could not cope with projected increases in motor vehicle volumes. The scheme required cars to pay to enter the controlled area (most did so with automatic electronic tags), with the revenues raised being devoted to improved road infrastructure and sustainable transport. This meant that there was money available for innovative schemes. But Wanvik also found himself speaking with municipal officials who were deeply sympathetic to his ideas. “We started the project in silence” he now says. “It was 95% finished before politicians were involved”.

The choice of Brubakken for the location was driven by three factors, he explains “It is steep, there are hardly any crossing streets and, close to the city centre, it is at the heart of the city’s tourist area.” It also linked cycle tracks that were otherwise broken by a very steep climb, as well as being a major student route.

Wanvik’s invention is surprisingly straightforward. The lift’s bottom is located bedside the “station” – a 3m high instruction and control panel. Users insert their user cards into the control panel and press the start button.

Alongside the road proper, rising up from the station, is a conventional curb, 10cm to the right of which is what looks like a steel tram track, with a slot cut down its middle. This track continues up the hill, at the same distance from the curb.

Beneath the ground is a steel cable, in a steel housing that extends 40cm into the ground. A 5.5kw electric motor pulls the loop of cable between two 60cm turning wheels buried in casings 1m deep at the top and bottom lift stations. The drive train is similar those utilised by building-site paternosters.

Having activated the lift, a user positions themselves, with their bike still between their legs, and their right foot on a raised foot rest that covers the bottom of the track. Three loud beeps count down the emergence of a steel footplate the footrest, beneath the cyclists’ foot. A patented soft impact system applies the upward thrust gradually. The lift then propels users smoothly up the hill at 7kph. There is a footplate every 20m, so the lift can carry at six cyclists at any one time. That’s 360 cyclists an hour.

At the top of the lift, most users simply push off with their right foot, righting their bicycle in the process, and pedal off smoothly. Since installation, more than 220,000 upward journeys have been recorded. It is said that some young people have perfected a technique without being on a bicycle at all (although I didn’t see anyone try it).

Wanvik concedes that there is a knack to using the lift. A rider should keep their left foot on the pedal of the bicycle, but shift most of their weight onto their right foot. Watching people try for the first time, it is clear that some take a few attempts before they master the technique. It is clearly not that difficult, though, given the numbers who use the lift.

There are currently 4,500 permanent key card holders. Each pays NOK 100 (€13) per annum for a key card, with visitors’ cards available for free. A recent survey showed that 44% were aged 15 to 25, 50% aged 25 to 50; 74% were men, 26% women; 55% were students, 44% in work; 83% held drivers licenses; 71% rated using the bike lift as either very, or fairly easy; 41% said that the existence of the lift had affected their bike usage; 72% wanted to see more bike lifts and 61% said that they saw themselves are regular lift users in the future.

Wavnik suggests that the cost of installing a system similar to Trampe anywhere else would be approximately NOK 10,000 (€1,276) per meter – that’s €165,000 for a system like that in Trondheim.

Despite it ingenuity, however, Wavnik’s brainchild has born no progeny – which does beg the question, why?

His answer is this: “It is very innovative and surprising, and the way that politicians and officials in municipalities change makes it very difficult for a decision to be made to install one and the funding guaranteed.” He also points out that there is a good deal of competition for the generally fairly modest spend on cycling infrastructure. “The time of the cycle lift is coming, though,” he predicts.

Nonetheless, after nearly two decades of trying to sell the idea, Wavnik has now licensed his patent to Poma, the French ski-lift manufacturer and installer, which is now marketing it under its Skirail subsidiary. Wavnik will continue to work on the projects with Poma, and the first new lift for nearly 20 years is about to be installed – in Trondheim. Now being marketed as Cyclocable, rather than Trampe, the new lift will replace the old one and should be up and running by the spring of 2012. Outline plans exist for Trondheim will have two further lifts by 2015.

The major innovation of the new lift is that the footplate will now retract if the cyclist’s foot is pulled away. The retractable footplate means that it will be easier to install lifts on roads that do have cross traffic. Vehicles will be able to drive over the lift with no more difficultly that they cross tram lines.

Although the current lift is protected by a curb, this is not a necessary feature. It is also possible to build the lifts around modest curves, horizontal and vertical, so long as the radius is no less than 25m.
Poma licensed the product in 2008 and, in 2009, displayed a working model of the lift to delegates at the Velo-City conference in Brussels. It towed cyclists 20m up a ramp at a 10% slope. The company says that it was attracted to the product because of its impeccable safety record (there have been no recorded accidents involving the lift during the entire time of its operation), its environmental credentials and because it requires no operators other than the users themselves.

“We are really excited about the prospects for Cyclocable”, says Sarah Francon, a Poma representative. “Several other cities are interested in installing lifts and are currently undertaking feasibility studies.” She declined to be more specific about where the company is working, but was keen to stress that they consider Cyclocable to have an exciting future within the company.

Initial enthusiasm aside, it is impossible not to wonder how much priority Poma will afford the product. The company is undertaking major civil engineering products all over the world – it has recently installed a cable car over a stretch of sea in Vietnam, a cable car crossing from Manhattan to Roservelt island, and its ski lifts can be found on snowy peaks the world over. Bike lifts will generate the company very small change indeed, compared to constructing high-tech steel marvels in inhospitable locations.

But while a cycle lift might lack the high-octane, environmentally costly, glamour of a ski-lift, it still has the capacity to generate attention. Trondheim’s success at promoting cycling has certainly won it plaudits in active travel circles. The city is considered middle-ranking in terms of modal share for a north European city – but Virgin Vacations, for example, rate it as the 7th most cycling-friendly city in the world.

“The cycle lift has provided a unique attraction for the city,” says Amanda Winter, of the European Cyclists’ Federation. “And the technology could certainly be useful in other cities that are considered too hilly for cycling. It shows how a city can face challenges [to promoting cycling] and then reap the benefits.”

There have, of course, been many initiatives aside from the cycle lift. From 1989, the “Trondheim package” was a €43.2m investment in alternative forms of transport – particularly public transport and cycling. With finance coming from the road tolls, more than 200km of cycle paths (some segregated, some on road) were constructed, as were new cycle bridges, a great deal of cycling signage and a city-bike scheme. A fee of NOK 90 (€11.50) gives citizens of the city access to a fleet of 125 bikes that are locked in central location. Trondheim is also linked to Norway’s network of long-distance cycle routes.

It is easy to see how the lift could be applied in dozens of other cities. Anyone who has ridden a bicycle in San Francisco or Paris, for example, will be able to immediately call to mind slopes up which a bit of mechanical assistance would be welcome. And for all that sporting cyclists might enjoy a climb, appearing over exerted is one of the main reasons that many people cite for not using their bicycles for urban journeys.

If cycle lifts do ever take off, however, it will diminish Trondheim’s magic ever so slightly. The city will always have the first cycle lift but if more people become acquainted with the sight of sweat-free hill climbing, Trondheim’s cyclists, and their lift, may lose their tourist attraction status – even if the city’s status as an exemplar of civil engineering rises.

TD Dec 11

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