West Coasting

The art photographer Alan Hoffman, who graduated from Emily Carr College of Art and Design in 1998, developed a signature style that made his big Cibachrome prints instantly recognizable. With a large-format camera, he composed photographs with a tiny depth of field, which made the crisply focussed subjects in the very centre of the blur (a tractor, say, or a neon sign) look like train-set miniatures. The effect is somehow both nostalgically soothing and portentous of some postapocalyptic future. Hoffman still uses the technique in his gallery work. And so does everybody else now, it seems.

Hoffman is ahead of his time in a lot of ways. That much is clear if you happen to spy him commuting from his home in East Vancouver to his day job downtown at the Hostelling International headquarters on Burnaby Street. Hoffman drives the first production-model velomobile in Vancouver. A velomobile is officially considered a kind of bicycle. Technically, it’s a tricycle. But effectively, it’s a little pedal-powered car. The driver sits recumbent inside a sleek podlike shell about as long as a Prius. Hoffman’s model is called a Waw (pronounced “wow”), a play on the name of its Belgian designer, who created it as part of his master’s thesis at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

“ Frederik kind of designed it for himself,” Hoffman said one Friday morning recently. “He wanted it to do straight fast and to turn fast, and it does those things.” The Waw cruises comfortably at up to 40 kph, and because it can avoid gridlock by plying the bike lanes, it gets Hoffman to work as quickly as he could get there by car. (To buy it, Hoffman sold his beloved motorcycle.) Hoffman’s Waw has a BionX electric motor that kicks in to help him out on hills. “The Dutch”—world leaders in velomobiles—“think it’s a bit of blasphemy for me to put an electric assist in there,” Hoffman said, “but you know, there aren’t a lot of hills in the Netherlands.”

Hoffman bought his velomobile last year for practical reasons: car traffic had reached a critical degree of impossibility, and winter was coming and he just didn’t relish another season of cycling through cold rain, coming in to work stencilled with mud. (“I wanted something that combined the virtues of a bicycle—the exercise and the environmental component—with the coverage and the speed of a car.” Ask, and the Internet shall deliver.) But he soon realized that driving it was a kind of performance.

“ It never occurred to me when I bought it, but it’s true,” he said. “An object that gets people’s attention, makes them think about possibilities they hadn’t considered, and maybe triggers an emotion—that’s interesting. And it’s exactly what I hope to do with my artwork.”

ON THAT FRIDAY MORNING, Hoffman rolled the velomobile out of the garage. He was off to work, but he had some mileage to put in before then. Hoffman, 43, is a slender man. It would be a great story if he’d been 325 pounds until all the velomobiling whittled him down to a trim 140. But in fact “I’m the same weight I was in art school,” he said—“except that I’ve gained four pounds in the last year, and that’s just in my legs.” He slipped into the velomobile the way people climb into a kayak. It was a chilly morning, but Hoffman took off his jacket before climbing in. (The capsule traps body heat pretty well.)

He gunned it up the little hill by his house. Head turtling out of the top of the rig, he presented a fearsome visage: heavy brow ridge, shaved head, painful-looking stud through an unlikely part of his ear, dark shades—the whole package capped with a vaguely Third Reich–ish grey helmet. But the menacing mien shattered whenever he smiled, which he did almost immediately and often on his commute. Some parents in front of his son’s school waved at him, and he pulled over to sign a petition to keep a popular teacher from getting transferred.

Hoffman headed west on Adanac, opening it up to 55 kph, the electronic regenerative braking aid kicking in to stop him from getting greased by traffic on Commercial Drive. When a velomobile is going that fast, it’s hard not to suspect there’s an engine in there. “The velomobile drivers I’ve talked to online, most of them have been pulled over at some point, but I never have,” he said. “Maybe the police in Vancouver have seen it all.”

He cruised down Pender Street through the Downtown Eastside. A guy with a big Afro standing on a corner said: “No shit!” A disembodied voice from some high window said: “Yeah, buddy!” The Waw left quite a lot of shouting in its wake.

Further west, orange-vested guys working the Canada Line dig gave a quiet thumbs-up as Hoffman ghosted through an intersection. Watching a velomobile pass is an affiliative experience, the way looking at art can be. You could see people grab the elbow or sleeve of the stranger next to them. Do you see that? Look.

Ray Mickevicius, the Toronto lawyer who imports European velomobiles to Canada (and who worked with Steve Schleicher of Maple Ridge’s Rainforest Designs to produce a rare homegrown velomobile that will roll off the line this fall at a plant in Oakville), maintains that “velomobiles aren’t for introverts.” But they could be. Because driving one, you’re out there but you’re hidden. “I joke to my friends that I can commute to work naked if I want to,” said Hoffman.

A velomobile rides lower on the road than a Lamborghini, which makes it a bit hard to see. But as they used to say about Sonny Liston (“When he hits you, you stay hit”), once Hoffman is seen, he stays seen. People track him until he’s out of sight.

At the Starbucks at Robson and Thurlow, Hoffman pulled the velomobile up onto the sidewalk, right next to a parked Bentley, and locked it up with a heavy chain—more out of habit than worry. “I don’t think it’s a big target for theft, because—what would you do with it? It’s not like you could take it to a pawnshop.”

Almost everyone who walked past looked, and some stopped to peer inside. An Asian gentleman looked around, then quietly began taking photos with a tiny camera—not of the whole velomobile but of various parts of it from 10 centimetres away.

“ How much—if you don’t mind my asking—does it cost?” a young guy in a T-shirt said. “About 10-and-a-half thousand dollars, the electric assist included,” Hoffman replied, and the guy let out a low whistle. “A lot of people say, ‘Hey, for that price I could buy a car,’ ” Hoffman said, a little later. “But have you ever sat down and figured out how much a car costs to drive? Thousands of dollars a year.” (Hoffman figures, with the help of a subsidy the hostel is paying him to put its logo on the side, he’ll break even in about five years.)

The driver of the Bentley—a dead ringer for Albert Finney in Erin Brock-ovich—returned to his car. He stopped by the front fender, brandishing his keys. He looked from the velomobile to the Bentley and then back again.

“ Hm,” he said. “This one or that one?”

“ Trade you straight across,” Hoffman said from his chair on the sidewalk.

“ No matter how much gas it uses?” the Bentley driver said.

On the Burrard Bridge on-ramp, Hoffman slowed to 15 kph or so as he worked against gravity. Normally he can just about keep up with traffic, but now cars were whizzing past. Then a black sport-ute in the curb lane slowed right down and matched his speed. The passenger window opened and people in the car started peppering Hoffman with questions. Within 10 seconds the driver behind laid on the horn. In Vancouver, no less than in any urban centre in North America, there are two types of people. There are those who recognize the future. And there are those who don’t have time for the future because they had to be somewhere five minutes ago.