|Kirsten Shead answers the questions from John Scardina (left) and Jared Matthews about her ELF, an eco-vehicle that can be pedaled or run on solar power.|
Shead and her husband, along with another couple, are co-owners of what is thought to be southeastern Wisconsin's first Organic Transit ELF, a solar-pedal hybrid bike in an egg-like shell that has piqued the curiosity of cycling enthusiasts and alternative transportation advocates across the country.
Everywhere she goes these days, Shead draws a crowd. Curious onlookers wave from porches, shoot videos from their car windows, and hover with questions when she parks outside local businesses or her west side office.
"I call it the happy-maker. ... It's like being in a parade every day," Shead said of the ELF, which can reach speeds up to 20 mph.
The ELF can be pedaled or run on solar power, allowing riders to exercise or cruise.
And while no Interfaith funds were used to buy the ELF, she sees it as in keeping with the conference's mission, whether that's promoting sustainable environmental practices or building bridges across lines of faith and color, neighborhoods and rungs of the economic ladder.
"Really, the most powerful part of the ELF is its inspirational value," said Shead, who gets the same enthusiastic reaction whether she's driving through the North Shore or on Vliet St. in Milwaukee's central city.
Rob Cotter is CEO, founder and chief architect at Organic Transit, which produces the ELF — for Electric Light Fun — in Raleigh, N.C.
He came up with the idea about five years ago while consulting on a bike sharing program for New York City. He and a couple of colleagues spent two years designing the early prototypes. They raised capital through angel investors and the online crowdfunding site Kickstarter, delivered their first ELF in March 2013, and have sold about 400 since, Cotter said.
The ELF is essentially a recumbent aluminum tricycle encased in a body made of Trylon — the hard plastic used for kayaks — and carbon fiber. It's legally a bike, but it has a solar-powered electric motor and room to haul eight bags of groceries, Cotter said.
"It gets the equivalent of 1,800 miles per gallon," he said. "If you get the advanced battery pack, you can go 40 to 45 miles without pedaling and 90 to 100 miles with pedaling. There's one that gets half that much and another that gets double that."
The bikes range in price from $5,500 to $10,000, depending on the features. Shead's wasabi-green model came in just shy of $7,000.
"It seems like a lot for a bike, but if you compare it to an electric car at 40K, it's not that bad," she said.
Shead and husband James split the cost with Tom Heinen, her boss at the Interfaith Conference, and his wife, Katie. They trade off the vehicle between the Heinens' home in Wauwatosa and the Sheads' in Shorewood.
Attracting a crowd
The Sheads are evangelical Christians and "car light" folks, who opt for bikes or the bus when possible. They went vegan a few years ago, in part for the health benefits, but also because of the environmental impacts of meat processing. They wear organic, sweatshop-free underwear. Worms compost their food waste in their basement.
"I would love to live car-free, and maybe someday, but we're not there yet," Kirsten Shead said.
And so, when she can, she dons her watermelon rind bike helmet and hits the road in her ELF. Shead rode south in the bike lane down Humboldt Ave. on a recent ride to Colectivo Coffee Roasters. She held court in the parking lot as one passer-by after another stopped to chat.
"Talk about the church of two wheels," said Sean O'Byrne, an executive headhunter.
"That is so cool!" said Claudine Lienau of Riverwest, whose husband, Dan Soiney, poked his head inside to get a better look.
Tom Heinen discovered the ELF while researching a possible new car purchase. He knew it would appeal to his wife, an environmentalist who volunteers with the Earth Network. He reeled her in by suggesting he'd get some exercise pedaling it.
The Heinens and the Sheads flew to Raleigh in February to check out the factory and took delivery of their ELF in April.
They see it as an investment in the search for alternative technologies and a rolling advertisement for what is possible.
Tom Heinen saw that potential when he drove the ELF recently to the Wauwatosa Farmers Market. Among the curious who flocked to it was a Marquette University engineering professor, who started measuring the vehicle. He invited Heinen to bring it to his class, and he plans to challenge his students to improve on it.
"That's the whole idea, to inspire possibilities," Heinen said. "Maybe it's the solution. ... Or maybe it helps spark the thinking that produces something even better."
Since the foursome bought their ELF, a Milwaukee-area bicycle maker, Tom Ryan, has signed on as a franchise dealer. Ryan said he will demonstrate the ELF at area biking events.
The real test for the Sheads and Heinens will be this winter. Heinen is already looking into studded tires.
"The winters in North Carolina I'm sure are much different than they are in Milwaukee," Shead said. "But part of what we're doing is to test it out, to see if this kind of vehicle works in Wisconsin."