In 2012, Seth Powsner completed an Iron Man competition in 16 hours, 34 minutes, and 9 seconds. In 2015, he commutes from his home, just north of East Rock all the way to the Yale-New Haven Hospital on a combination tricycle-electric vehicle, sometimes in under 20 minutes.
He said he likes it because it allows him to stay in shape, even in the bad weather.
Powsner travels down Orange Street (see video)—because of the bike lanes, he said—and then turns onto Crown Street to get to the hospital. He parks it in a motorcycle spot in the Air Rights Garage because the vehicle is much smaller than a car and so light it won’t trigger the mechanical arm guarding the entrance to the garage.
Powsner, 61, is the director of the crisis intervention unit at the hospital and and a professor of psychiatry and emergency medicine at the Yale Medical School.
He is also one of approximately seven owners of such a vehicle in the entire state of Connecticut, according to the manufacturer’s estimates.
This vehicle is an “ELF,” which stands for electric, light and fun. It is sold by Organic Transit in Durham, North Carolina.
“The ELF is a revolutionary vehicle powered by you and the sun, designed to make your commute more fun, practical, and affordable than ever before,” said Rob Cotter, founder and CEO of Organic Transit, in a promotional video on the company’s website. The ELF is powered by foot pedals and a lithium-ion battery, which is the size of a small briefcase and similar to the type of battery in a regular laptop computer. The battery is charged both by solar panels on the top of the ELF and through a regular electric outlet.
Powsner purchased the ELF for about $7,000 so that he would be able to get more exercise in Connecticut’s rainy and snowy weather. Powsner bicycles frequently; he has been commuting by bicycle to the hospital since 1986. He said that he can tell the difference between a bad-weather week, when he only bikes once to work, and a good-weather week, when he bikes every day. “I could feel it, and the scale would start to show it,” Powsner said.
He found the ELF solution in the fall at a cardiology conference.
He was in Chicago in September for the 29th annual “Bubble Conference,” where researchers from around the world gathered to discuss contrast ultrasound, a medical imaging technique. The conference’s organizer was Steve Feinstein, who was Powsner’s resident when Powsner was an intern in 1978 at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago. At the conference, Powsner said, “You could see who was aging well and who wasn’t.” Feinstein fell into the former category.
Powsner said that Feinstein told him that he had recently purchased a covered bicycle from bluevelo, a Canadian distributor for Velomobiel, a company based in the Netherlands. Their models are more tubular than the ELF and are completely foot-powered. They don’t have batteries or engines. Powsner said that Feinstein highly recommended it. After doing some research, Powsner chose an ELF because it would work better for urban environments, he said.
In Connecticut, an ELF is considered a moped, a low-speed, electric bicycle, Powsner said. Drivers must have a driver’s license. The ELF itself doesn’t need any separate or special licensing. As with a bicycle, it is supposed to be ridden only on the street. And with the exception of the chassis and the motor, most of the parts are regular bicycle parts.
Powsner also bought a standard bicycle speedometer to attach to the ELF. During a recent commute, it measured between 9 and 12 miles per hour. The ELF’s motor maxes out at 20 miles per hour by design. Powsner said he can get up to 25 pedaling downhill.
“I wouldn’t want to go faster than that,” he said.
Before pedaling off toward the hospital, Powsner let a reporter take a turn behind the handlebars. (See video.) Even though the ELF is light, you can feel its weight as you pedal. And it’s easy to back up if you get stuck in a snowbank: Just drop your feet and push off the ground.
Powsner walked the ELF toward Chapel Street and pushed it into the road. As he pedaled away, two people came up and started asking a questions about the vehicle. Is it electric? How much does it cost? Ella, who declined to provide her last name, said that she would consider purchasing one if she was younger. She is now 75.
Sitting in traffic behind a CT Transit bus, Powsner shouted that the ELF doesn’t help with the exhaust fumes. But in a sense, it does. The ELF doesn’t emit exhaust because it operates by burning calories (pedal) or using electricity (engine). Powsner said that it is much more efficient than cars.
“You can get somebody back and forth to work with that little material,” he said. The ELF weighs 160 pounds and cost Powsner about $7,000. For comparison, the 2015 Honda Accord weights over 3,000 pounds. and would cost over $21,000.