Columns / Discourse / February 28, 2018

Bike Nice: Can Knox campus really be human-powered? How?

It’s not like the campus recycling program hasn’t tried to be “human powered.” Almost 10 years ago, long before the slogan was rolled out in our marketing materials, a student-powered bike and trailer rolled around campus to collect paper for recycling.

It’s not like the administration was not supportive. When a homemade trailer proved inadequate, a commercial-grade trailer was purchased with funds from one of the administrative offices on campus.

We’ve benefitted from both student initiative and administrative support. But it wasn’t enough to maintain. And whatever it was, it wasn’t enough to spread. If anything, we’re seeing more motorized traffic through campus.

Which would be of small consequence, except that now we’ve committed to the “human powered” theme to telegraph what’s special about Knox. And it’s a great theme. Instead of an empty abstraction, such as “eagerly striving for excellence,” we’ve got a theme that has concrete meaning. “Human” means us, and “powered” means getting stuff done.

If it sounds like I’m a naif who takes words at their word — I am. “In Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice . . .” That’s gotta mean something.

I’m advocating that we try more literal human power. We may not have to “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” But to put feet to our phrase “human powered,” we need more than a smoothie blender and we need to be more than “Don Drapers, obsessed with selling an image rather than tending to what lies underneath.”

I was not disciplined enough to submit a proposal for the Innovate Knox Initiative, and I’m not qualified to submit a proposal for Green Fee funding on my own. But I’ll sketch one here:

First, do some research.

Inventory sidewalk-sized, motorized vehicles (aka Gators, etc.) used to carry people and materials on campus; survey the users of these vehicles; gather observational data on actual usage, occupancy, load-carrying, distances covered, etc.; determine the total cost of ownership/operation of this fleet; and estimate the cost/benefit of replacing one or more motorized work vehicles with human powered work vehicles.

Then, assuming the research shows a chance of feasibility, try it.

Switching to “human powered” work vehicles can come across like an administrative imposition on front-line employees. But there are offices that “get by” with human-powered four-wheel carts, when they could be requesting Gators to haul their materials — kudos to ITS and AV.

And given our budget, it would be hard to object to a one-for-one replacement of a motorized vehicle with a work trike — even if it’s only one or two, purchased with Green Fee funds and used by students to collect recycling.

Change involves up-front costs and ongoing commitments. Just like the solar panels, students may have to take the initiative to show that a counter-intuitive idea — paying more for electricity right now — can benefit campus and community in the long run.

For example, a work trike may not carry as much as a Gator, but the trike is cheaper to operate. Lower equipment costs may be offset by higher personnel costs. Collecting recycling will take more loads, more student-work hours, more work-study money paid to students. And that’s a bad idea because . . . ?

Perhaps students, who initiated recycling on campus, will have to re-initiate a human-powered method of collecting recycling . . . and maybe students will show Knox how to innovate a more sustainable and ultimately more affordable method of getting people and small loads across campus.


Peter Bailley

Tags:  bike nice green energy human-powered

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