Feds Spent $300,000 Studying How to Ride Bikes

Researchers rode bikes on treadmills with taxpayer money

September 26, 2014

The National Science Foundation (NSF) spent $300,000 studying how "humans interact with bicycles," the latest example of what a House committee chairman calls waste in the agency.

The premise for the project, which was conducted between October 2009 and June 2013, was that bicycle dynamics are "poorly understood," and researchers set out to come up with new designs to encourage more Americans to bike to lower their carbon footprint.

"Although human operator control models exist for numerous aircraft and other vehicles, the bicycle with a rider is a human-vehicle system whose dynamic behavior is poorly understood," researchers at the University of California, Davis said in a paper publishing their interim results.

The paper said the authors had "deeper questions" about how people control bikes, and argued that no designs in the last century have been made with "desired handling qualities."

"Even the simplest models of a bicycle with a rigidly attached rider have yet to be completely understood," the researchers wrote.

"If successful, this research will improve the fundamental understanding of how humans interact with bicycles and will help pave the way to the design of bicycles for a wider population and for a wider range of tasks," they added.

To fulfill this goal the researchers built two bicycles and rode them on treadmills.

Mont Hubbard, a professor at UC Davis’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, gave presentations entitled, "How we ride bicycles," with his results.

"(Almost) everybody knows how to ride a bike, but (almost) no one knows how we ride a bike," the slideshow begins.

The presentation said the project "doesn't study ‘How people learn to ride a bike,’ but rather, ‘What they are doing after they know how.’"

The authors said they were motivated to conduct their research because "roughly half our energy use and carbon footprint is for transportation."

"Bicycling and walking will eventually become a larger share of our transportation solution; sooner is better," they said. "Knowing how we ride, and how bike design affects this, can help in bicycle design for outlier populations like elderly and children and promote more biking."

The presentation included a video of a professor struggling to ride a bike on a treadmill and nearly falling. The researchers then discovered that the professor could maintain balance when he is tied to the treadmill.

Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R., Texas) said the study was unnecessary when considering the bicycle industry is nearing $65 billion a year and puts millions of dollars into research.

"The NSF has gone off the road, and taxpayers are paying for it," Smith said. "Scarce public funds were awarded for an ill-conceived study to improve bicycle designs. Peddling their proposal, the researchers asserted that bicycle riding dynamics are ‘poorly understood.’ Yet bicycling is a $65 billion per year global industry that invests hundreds of millions in research and development."

"What’s really poorly understood is why the NSF wasted $300,000 of taxpayer money on this project," he said.