Check out our interview to find out more human-powered vehicles, solar-assists, and the ways Lightfoot has made a difference both to their local economy in Montana, and in developing countries where clean, reliable transportation is needed.
Green America: What does your business do, and what is your most popular product?
Lightfoot's vehicles can be designed with a solar-assist for an extra power boost.
Rod Miner : Lightfoot Cycles designs and builds human-powered vehicles. We design to maximize the capabilities of our cycles, to the point where they become much more than mere recreational toys, and become tools for sustainable lifestyles. We design our cycles to fit most people and to accommodate special needs.
Our most consistently popular products have been our recumbent trike models like the RoadRunner. These provide very comfortable seating, a safe and stable geometry, adjustability to correctly fit anyone in the family, cargo capacity to carry groceries, passenger capacity to carry one or two children or a small adult or a big dog, optional all-weather protection, wide-range gearing for climbing steep hills easily, all-wheel disk brakes, and adaptive options for people with a bum knee, bad back, weak hand, etc. These cycles also accept electric assist if desired. These are the “vehicles” that many of our customers find themselves choosing to use, even when a car is available to them.
Our most popular adaptive cycle has been the Trailer Trike; this adult-size cycle attaches behind any bike or trike and creates an instant tandem, allowing couples of different abilities to ride together, and parents with adult children with disabilities to get out and about with their child.
Our most popular bikes have been our Ranger recumbent mountain bike and our World Traveler touring bike. Developing into a new favorite, it seems, is our TCX cargo extension, a bolt-on unit that turns almost any mountain bike, cruiser or recumbent into a pedal pickup truck.
What makes your business green?
|Rod (left) with his family, Skye, Ben, Cesar, and Marty, his wife and founding partner of Lightfoot.
Rod: Lightfoot’s home base is Singletree Farm, in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, where sustainable forestry, solar energy technologies, and indigenous building methods have been demonstrated and practiced for the last 18 years. If you visit, you can witness the integration of the wilderness that surrounds us with the active stewardship of the land we live on and use. You can walk inside our buildings of indigenous materials, see our solar water pumping, our solar charging station for electrically assisted cycles, and you can test ride our human-powered and solar electrically assisted vehicles.
What did you do before you started your green business?
Rod: Long before Lightfoot Cycles Inc., the Miner family worked on creating highly useful and capable micro-vehicles. The TRAG was a multi-functional tractor/truck designed by my dad, Earl Miner, for very small farmers in rural areas of developing nations; a quarter-ton hauling vehicle that quickly converted from three wheels (truck) to two (trail-capable stretcher/ambulance motorcycle), and from truck to tractor. He also designed the PET (Personal Energy Transport), a rugged, low-cost handcycle designed for rural survivors of landmine explosions, providing them with basic walking-speed mobility, in places where there are no sidewalks.
After the PET was developed, we came to realize that we could help a lot more people with a restructuring of the operation, so the PET project was re-created as a volunteer-driven organization. Now known as Gift Of Mobility, the PET project has been sustained by thousands of people donating time, tools and specialized labor.
As we began to hand off the PET project in 1998, we simultaneously began to develop a line of human-powered vehicles for the domestic market, and successfully made the transition.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Rod: The easiest choice for bicycle manufacturers is to simply outsource production to Taiwan or China, as most of our fellow producers do wholly or in part, and to cease to worry about the labor and environmental challenges of their production. Our cycles would cost less if we did so. In costing less, more people would be able to afford them, and ostensibly, our impact on the world would be greater with greater sales numbers.
Despite this, we are consoled by knowing that the majority of the people who buy our cycles are making a long-term investment, and not simply shopping for the cheapest bicycle available. A Lightfoot is designed to get the job done, to be capable of doing it well, to be a safe and reliable vehicle and not just a toy, and to last for a lifetime. We do plan to grow a lot more, and plan that this growth will bring economies of scale that will allow us to whittle away at our prices (while keeping our manufacturing local), even as our vehicles become better and better at providing efficient, safe, all-weather transportation for all people, even those with special needs.
What's been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Rod: An elderly man once visited our shop, entering on the arm of his son, with a cane in his other hand. He slowly mounted one of our trikes, favoring a bad leg, and to the astonishment of all, took off down the driveway at a very impressive rate of speed. His wide smile when he returned cracked us up. When we see someone with limited mobility transformed, it hits home. When we get a letter of thanks from someone who has been so busy using their vehicle for years that they never thought to write before, it makes it all worthwhile.
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Rod: When we started building cycles, we were aware of five other startups building roughly comparable bicycles, work cycles or recumbent bicycles. A decade and a half later, only two of us are still in business. We have been very cautious when it came to accepting expansion loans, though we have accepted loans to get us through rough times, and consequently do have debt to service. When we hired our first employee, we were lucky to get a very motivated person to help us in our initial growth; an uninspired or dishonest employee at that crucial stage could have dragged us down, as we learned (with much difficulty) later. For a small business, the quality of the people who come on board is critical; we have learned to go with our instincts about a person’s motivation, excitement and energy, and to train the right person.
What's the next green step you're working on right now?
Rod: We are emphasizing this year some simplified designs that can help bring down selling prices. Taking this to an extreme, we are also working to return to our roots with some extreme-low-cost designs for developing nations that can be built with locally available materials.
In many ways, a bicycle is automatically “green” because of its capability to displace a fuel-consuming and resource-intensive car, and getting a large number of durable, effective human-powered vehicles out there in daily use will be our greatest accomplishment.
We are pleased to be part of a nation-wide effort toward sustainability, and happy to have people in our local community working toward the same goals; encountering the diverse people doing this work and products they provide gives us moments of delight when we discover them, and deep pleasure as we witness an unfolding history of hope for our common future.
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