The AltWheels Festival in Boston—Cool Cars, Sleek Scooters & Clever Folks

The crowd at AltWheels came out to enjoy the sunshine and do a little gawking.© Photos/Brita Belli

Boston, home of the "Freedom Trail," a collection of historical sites from the city’s colonial days, offered freedom of a different kind at the AltWheels Festival, held at City Hall Plaza the weekend of September 28 and 29. A tour around the booths gave visitors a vision of energy independence, with a healthy dose of activism, politicking, veggie wraps, barbeque, folk rock and quirky concept cars thrown in. The festival, now in its fifth year, might once have appealed only to the devout hippie contingent, those on spiritual quests or with politically correct axes to grind, but the visitors at Saturday’s event were mostly families and couples, students and other passersby interested in prolonging their enjoyment of an Indian summer day and gawking at a human-sized, human-powered hamster wheel.

The notion of "green" is no longer seen as a kind of extremism. Mainstream car brands—Toyota, Volkswagen—had set up sizeable tents and exhibits to show off their latest hybrids and clean diesel technology, pushing, if not for a gas-free future, for at least a less-gas-dependent future. VW’s "Dieselution Tour" exhibit-in-a-semi hosted a steady stream of people looking to learn about the advantages of clean diesel. The company’s 2009 Jetta TDI will be on sale in the U.S. in Spring 2008, and as the booths explain, could improve fuel economy some 35 percent over traditional gas models. In the meantime, the Dieselution Tour is hitting stops across America to reeducate people about diesel’s potential as an alt-fuel, even the 2008 Superbowl.

Volkswagen"s diesel-powered Jetta TDI will be available in the U.S. in Spring 2008.© Photos/Brita Belli

Two women associated with the Pachamama Alliance and situated just behind E‘s booth were selling their own brand of spiritual-social-environmental enlightenment. The group aims to save rainforests by developing sustainable communities. "It’s about challenging assumptions and thinking creatively," said Pachamama representative Sharon Seivert.She relayed how AltWheels founder Alison Sander was inspired to launch the festival by a trip with the group to the Ecuadorian rainforest where she met with the Achuar tribe. "The shaman said, "You should change the way you think about transportation," said Seivert. So, technically speaking, an Amazonian community centered on family life launched the largest Northeast alternative transportation festival, one that attracts 15,000 visitors and is committed to a sustainable future for the traffic-clogged Northeast corridor.

Getting Schooled

The eighth graders from Boston Latin School"s Youth Climate Action Network, changing the world one idling school bus at a time.

Some of the freshest ideas came from the event’s youngest participants, particularly the members of the Youth Climate Action Network from the Boston Latin School, the oldest public school in America which counts among its alumni such distinguished thinkers as Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock and Samuel Adams. History teacher and Youth CAN coordinator Cate Arnold never imagined the impact Al Gore’s climate doc An Inconvenient Truth would have on her class, but the students immediately decided that doing something big was the only appropriate reaction. "Eighth grade is such a wonderful age," Arnold said. "They really believe that changing things is possible."

The environmental movement is a catalyst for youth empowerment and leadership, and the kids I spoke to sounded seriously energized by their mission to educate others about climate change and to start to enact real change, by working to shut down emissions on idling school buses and developing hybrid school transportation options. The kids are planning their second Youth Summit at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, partnering with the nationwide Focus the Nation, and have rounded up some 300 members, and the group’s not even a full year old yet.

Over in a corner booth, one fellow had taken the concept for his Harvard social entrepreneur lab to the real world—creating an organization called I.T.S.C.O.O.L. (Innovative Tactics for Sea Level and Climate Change Outreach and Opportunity Leaders—yikes!) that, simply put, replaces those candy bars and wrapping paper sets that kids sell for school fundraisers with compact fluorescent light bulbs. I thought only parochial and private school kids were stuck with that thankless task, but apparently kids all over are forced to peddle wares for their schools, so why not peddle a little eco-education at the same time? "We’re setting up a pilot in Seattle," says Andrew Varyu, "where kids sell the lightbulbs instead of chocolate bars. And people in seven states have expressed interest."

Andrew Varyu (left) with eco-artist Terry Bastian aims to swap candy bars for CFLs in school fundraisers

School drive swag is big business—a $2-3 billion per year business according to Varyu—and this drive would allow ITSCOOL to tap into states" clean energy funds, money collected as a surcharge on energy bills. Thirty-four states have such funds, totaling some $800 million. Some of that money can be used to purchase the CFLs, which the schools can then sell. Varyu says ITSCOOL would keep twenty percent for facilitating the transaction, a better deal than the 50 percent schools usually get.

The Two Wheelers

Not all of the vehicles on display at AltWheels fit into the overblown science project or mainstream dealership variety. What with the clear, blue-skied day, the electric scooter and bike contingent received plenty of attention. Having never seen an electric bike that didn’t look like a Schwinn with a lawnmower engine attached, I was particularly impressed with the Veloteqs on display, whose sleek lines and flashy colors were more reminiscent of a racing motorcycle than a bicycle. The company is based in Houston, Texas, but Barbara McDonald recently opened her own dealership, New England E-Bikes, in North Quincy, Massachusetts and will ship the "Lexus" of electric bikes anywhere. McDonald rides her own red model, and can rattle off a list of the bike’s best features: no license or registration required, no fumes, no noise, anti-theft alarmed, a smart charge battery that runs for pennies a day, and all of the models sell for under $2000. The maximum speed is 25 miles per hour (unless that pesky governor is removed)."The bikes sell really well in Canada," says McDonald, who predicts that there will be nationwide dealerships within the year.

Barbara McDonald on her Veloteq electric bike which she predicts will find its niche this year.

Continuing the "popular abroad" theme were the Vetrix maxi-scooters in the tent next door. The electric scooters are big and bold, a far cry from retro, pastel-colored Vespas, and the representative, Jon Twombly, pushed the vehicles" power components: accelerating to a top speed of 62 miles per hour, going zero to fifty in 6.8 seconds, faster than most gas-equivalent scooters. A quick glance at the speedometer seems to imply that the bikes go up to 120, but that’s because the outside numbers are in kilometers-per-hour, the measure of speed in Europe where they do a much brisker business.

"America is still a four-wheeled society," says Vetrix technical service manager Dana Decosta. "It’s not getting people used to electric versus gas power, it’s getting people onto two wheels that’s the first big challenge."

Jerry and Elli Belli test the Vetrix electric maxi-scooter.

While there are other electric scooters, Vetrix is the only one with its particular power and range (40-60 miles on a single charge). Decosta says he’s logged more miles than almost anyone on his maxi-scooter, and says he’s never been stranded. "There are more plugs than gas stations," he says.

CONTACTS: AltWheels Festival; Pachamama Alliance; Boston Latin School Youth Climate Action Network, (206)909-8868; ITSCOOL, (617)786-0676, New England E-Bikes, (401)848-9993; Vetrix

BRITA BELLI is Managing Editor of E.