Sunday, July 31, 2011

What side of the tracks are you on?

Environment shapes choices, for all the rhetoric about how people can rise above their means, the reality is that geography often governs the choices we have.

This clearly the case in this sad story of the tragic death of a child in this NPR story. The mother Raquel Nelson did what people do all the time and jay walked to save some time. She crossed a four lane highway and unfortunately was at the wrong place at the wrong time and her son was killed by a drunk driver. The twist in the story was the mother was also charged with reckless endangerment of a minor for crossing there.

She was crossing since the bus stop was right across from her apartment complex and to go to the crosswalk was a third of a mile away. This is about ten minutes with children to get to the crosswalk and ten to the apartment complex. A pretty large time penalty.

Goldberg tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that these new residents are "using the bus, they're walking, but they're in places that are entirely hostile to people on foot."

Goldberg says the bus stop where the accident took place primarily services Nelson's apartment complex, yet there is no crosswalk at the stop, forcing riders to walk far out of their way just to cross the street at a traffic light and get to it. He says that neither state nor local transportation officials have addressed the safety issues posed by the accident because of the potential for litigation.

For all practical purposes, the United States is built with cars as an assumption of citizenship and not having a car is almost a poll tax on participation in our society. Transit has always defined class lines in most societies. The car is a sign of arrival (whatever that means) in China and India where having a car is a signifier that you are upper class. The two properties that a car confers are privacy or exclusivity and time. Exclusivity, in that we don't have to experience others. And time in that we don't have to wait for our transport (but ironically, in China, since no one has to wait for their car, they have to wait in their cars instead). The power of locomotion over time facilitated people living in the suburbs and on hills. In the past, people use to talk about people who were not of the right class as living on the "other side of the tracks" Transportation defines class, and the lack of effective public transportation is a form or redlining, as much as any political action. That seems to be the case in Atlanta where this tragedy occurred.

What's interesting is our most vibrant cities, the wealthy frequently use mass transit. One of the things that can raise the value of a house in New York City is it's proximity to a subway stop. In fact the A, B and C subway lines stop in some of the most desired addresses of Central Park West. So transit can be an equalizing force, because it's a vehicle for understanding, for seeing how the other side lives.

In closing, in our escalation of class separation, if you think this phenomenon is limited to cars, check out this story in the New York Times about how private planes are now the preferred way to get your kids to camp.

Was Missing Persons right, "Only a nobody walks in L.A.?"

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The coming of the e-bikes, or biking for the bunches?

The August 2011 issues of Outside Magazine (On newsstands at the times of this posting) has an exploratory article about the possibility of ebikes becoming mainstream. The article by Todd Balf talks to different acolytes of ebikes including San Francisco shop owner Brett Thurber of The New Wheel who carries a range of electrical bicycles and bike fitting kits.

There is no doubt that E-bikes can definitely be a part of the solution in citieswhere short distances make the difference between car and bike negligible. The bigger question will be is this going to be viable for the suburbs where distances are larger. Out towns are zoned for cars, but perhaps our zoning laws could be changed to reflect a more earth friendly scale. Note that most building codes in the suburbs mandate a minimum number of car spaces for commercial spaces, but they do not mandate minimum bicycle spaces. A problem I've encountered in the past.

The cost of e-bikes is also prohibitive, but the popularity of these in China and Europe should drive the price down. Something to think about as time moves forward. While I was looking for the article online, I found out that Outside had written a blog post from 2009 where it reported sales were 200,000. The article this month says that sales are in the 350,000 for a single year with an expectation 800,000 within five years.

I can say personally that if one is not time pressed, electric bikes are a great way of exploring places in a relaxing manner. Last year I tried Change of Greenery in Napa Valley and we were able to explore a lot great wineries and enjoy the great scenery. While the bikes were heavy, it was definitely doable for any reasonably fit person to see a large part of Napa.

So if you have a chance to e-bike, or have e-biked, please let me know your experience in the comments.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The sad cost of road rage...

Being in Silicon Valley, it's not a surprise that I am involved in the technology industry. I was shocked to hear about the sudden death of a well respected Software Engineer Steve Lacey as a result of Road Rage incident detailed here and here.

Cars have become such extensions of ourselves, magnifying both the speed our lives, but also the power. The discontinuous nature of small actions that cars enable is something we often forget.

"Let's be careful out there" - Sargent Esterhaus, Hill Street Blues.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Now that's commitment!

A Santa Monica Airlines Skateboard owner who pledged to donate $10 per minute that the bikes beat the plane made good in the most appropriate way. He sold his car to raise the funds! more details here and here.

What a winner in every respect.

P.S. Some more coverage of "Carmageddon" from the NYTimes. People took it in stride. We assume cars are the only way, in the same way that a fish goes what's water. This is Water.

Leadership when we need it....

The New Yorker's News Desk details New York City Mayor Bloomberg's donation of $50 million to the Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" campaign.

The campaign’s aim is to stop the construction of new coal-burning power plants and to shut down—or to use the more polite term “phase out”—up to a third of the coal plants now in operation. Coal produces more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than any other fuel, so any reduction in coal use means a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions.

I have been impressed by Bloomberg's approach to problems in that he is relatively free of ideological fervor, equally likely to approach a problem from either side of the aisle. He is a data driven leader, understanding that science knows no ideology. I heard him speak, and I was really impressed that he defended the work of civil servants, saying they were as sharp as anyone he had worked with in the private sector. That reluctance to fall back on stereotypes is a strong trait in a leader.

Here's to a more sustained sensible discussion on the topic of climate change.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A step toward cars and peds safety

Over at Network World (yeah go figure) there is a blog post on a new technology by Toyota that makes cars stop for pedestrians. Unfortunately due to the increasingly distracting lives we lead, collision avoidance systems of all types will become more necessary. This is a nice advance in that it helps cars avoid smaller objects as well. Check out the video too.

You don't have to be going at high speeds to cause damage, according to this website driveway accidents are the second leading cause of deaths for children at home. Something to think about.

Summer of Smart Sustainability: Hackathon 3

A reader reached out to me to let me know about the Summer of Smart Sustainability sponsored by the Gray Area Foundation For the Arts. This series of events have brought together individuals from different backgrounds interested in creating solutions to our commuting and transportation needs. They are looking at crowdsourcing, self reporting and sensor based solutions to find better ways to help people get around more effectively. If you have a laptop, the Android SDK and iOS SDK are free and if you have a techie background relatively easy to learn.

Also look at technologies from Nike such as the Nike+ GPS Sports Watch, Nike+ iPod and the Garmin Forerunner collect GPS data and can be used to track how many miles you DON"t drive and give encouragement. One of my favorite features of the Nike+ GPS Sportswatch is that it will remind you "Are we running today?" it may be possible to hack these devices to ask, as we not driving today. Battery life remains an issue, but we charge our phones nightly don't we.

Anyway, a world of opportunity out there. Too bad I found out too late.

Disclosure: I occasionally get notified of products, events, resources by PR agencies, companies, other bloggers, etc. My policy is to disclose the source of the information where there may be a commercial tie. Note: Commercial does not mean bad, these are legitimate ways of getting the word out. I will do my best to vet the product, event etc to determine if it is relevant to the audience of this blog. If I am unable to vet, I will simply note that I was informed and passing this along.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Another argument for reuse over recycling.

MIT Senesable City Lab wanted to track down what happens with e-waste when the first world is done with it. They put together a cool video which is available at Bostinnovation. Worth a few minutes to check out.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A nice recap....

Slate's Tom Vanderbilt recaps the #flightvsbike action. Who would have thought people ride to the airport on their bikes? I've ridden from my home to the airport en route to downtown, and beaten light rail. It's the parking that's the pain.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

"bikes beat the plane, bikes beat the plane, bikes beat the plane"

"bikes beat the plane, bikes beat the plane, bikes beat the plane" - the Ghost of Bobby Thomson.

Congrats to the @WolfpackHustle for beating the BUR->LGB JetBlue flight, and to JetBlue for being such good sports. Final results: Unofficial times via twitter - Bikes-1:34 Metro/Walk-1:44 Rollerblader-2:40 Plane/lost cab driver-2:54.

What turned out to be the highlight of the Carmaggedon weekend was the throw down match between the Wolfpack Hustle a bicycling club in Los Angeles and a special promotional flight offered by JetBlue (just when you thought unlimited blue potato chips couldn't be bettered) for the weekend. The whole thing was kicked off on Twitter by Author Tom Vanderbilt who wrote the book Traffic that I've written about before who twipondered (to ponder out loud on Twitter) could some bike beat the flight if all the security lines were taken into account. Add did they, by a long shot!

As fun as the event is, it does bring into mind how much of our transportation is getting to the transportation. I have a 2 mile rule where I try to make as many of my less than 2 mile trips on my bike. Not a problem in sunny Califor There are viable alternatives when and where there is support. I recently rode to a strip mall and there was ZERO bicycle parking. It's interesting that most local building codes mand minimum car parking requirements, but they don't mandate minimum bicycle parking. This tweet asks the big questions

class5tax Devin Martin
Cyclists just proved bike is most efficient transit in why do cars/planes get all the tax breaks??… #flightvsbike

Cars have become the oxygen we breathe. In the same vein, most citizens don't realize the expenses of driving, in the same way they don't think of many government services as government Service. Robert Reich points out a survey by Cornell professor Suzanne Mettler:
A recent paper by Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler surveyed how many recipients of government benefits don’t really believe they have received any benefits. She found that over 44 percent of Social Security recipients say they “have not used a government social program.” More than half of families receiving government-backed student loans said the same thing, as did 60 percent of those who get the home mortgage interest deduction, 43 percent of unemployment insurance beneficiaries, and almost 30 percent of recipients of Social Security Disability.

The cost of the 405 Freeway expansion is about $1 Billion. I wonder how much people think the expansion is going to cost? Probably not even close.

This little stunt was exciting in that it shows, alternatives exist, but we have to believe this is true to act on it.

A race for the ages!!!!!

It's finally here! CARMAGGEDON! For those who haven't been overwhelmed by the debt ceiling coverage instead have been covering the important things, freedom of lightbulbs, NO! It's Carmaggedon, the closing of the 405 in Los Angeles that was going to paralyze all of L.A. (which having been to L.A., isn't that normal?)

Jet Blue in an stroke of marketing genius, is offering $4 flights between Burbank and Long Beach (that is actually cheaper than taking bus normally). Some intrepid twitterers had the genius idea, would it be faster to ride your bike. Slate has the details in this great article.

I honestly do justice to how hilarious the article is so, just stop reading and go here/ or just follow it on twitter at #flightvsbike. I'll be back with an update tomorrow.


Sunday, July 10, 2011

How do you motivate people to take the bus?

Or more correctly how do you motivate people to take the bus at a different time. One of the reasons traffic is so terrible is that we tend to live i lock step, hence the phenomenon known as "rush hour" This creates havoc for mass transit systems since if you build for peak, you have a lot of "rolling stock" being unused or underused most of the time. This is the same reason that on Mother's day you'll often get "all circuits are busy" messages when you call mom.

Singapore has invested a lot in their mass transit and the Economist explores the novel incentive system to encourage off peak ridership. Instead of directly paying individuals to leave earlier, they use a system of lottery tickets to get more chances at winning a larger prize. It works in the same way that slot machines do at casinos, the stakes are high enough that you win occasionally, (or others close by win) to keep you habitually tied to the new schedule.

It'll be interesting to see if it works in Singapore...

Does Feedback matter?

The Washington Post has an article looking into the efficacy of the new law in Montgomery County Maryland to post the calorie counts of food items on menus at restaurants. Unfortunately the data does not look good, most diners don't take into account the posted calories when ordering.

Now what does this have to do with carbon free living? A lot given that meat has a much larger carbon footprint than vegetables, and the fats and oils associated with meat tend to lead to higher calorie counts. So why is this the case that people act against their own best interest? Well the cynics in the article exclaim
You don’t need a pile of studies to tell you that people do not always do what is in their best interest. If humans were a fully rational species capable of using obvious information for obvious benefits, then millions of people every year would not keep forgetting to sign up for their 401(k) plans, nor would they eat an entire bag of Doritos when the label says the bag contains three servings.
However, I think that there is something else at play and that numbers without context are just numbers. What most people don't know is what is the daily calorie consumption for an average person? I would argue most people don't know. Another question that people don't know is what are the number of calories for a pound of additional weight on your body? (Approx 3600) Add to that if you eat a gigantic meal you don't immediately gain a pound the next day (unless you are Kobayashi). So causality is very difficult to establish for most people. So they shrug going, oh well....

The other factor at play is that behavior stems from belief. One of the challenges in climate change debate is not the data (which is incontrovertible, the Keeling curve is a great example). But if you fundamentally don't believe there is a problem, you won't change your behavior. Most people believe they are in good shape, I think it's interesting in the article that most people who don't care tend to be white males, who have a well established place in the hierarchy. Conjecture, but it'd be interesting to see who does and does not change their behavior.

There is something to be said for norms, which is a form of belief. In the article, they do highlight one positive light in behavior change -- Starbucks. Where people did alter their food purchasing habits but not their drinks.

Loewenstein, in his editorial, cited just one “rigorous” study showing a positive effect: at Starbucks stores in New York City, where diners seeing calorie information reduced their intake — but only for food, not beverages. Researchers consider that result a bit of an outlier, theorizing that Starbucks consumers are more sensitive to nutritional information. “I’m sure the average BMI at Cheesecake Factory or McDonald’s is a lot larger than at Starbucks,” Loewenstein said, only half-joking.

These norms are important. Liberal circles often talk about acceptance, but we do have norms that specify what is rude and what is not. It's interesting that the article mentions Starbucks as I was there last night after dinner grabbing a cup of tea. And in there was a very obese man who grabbed a gigantic coffee and a pastry. What was great was that he was also riding a bicycle which he rode quite well. I paid a lot of attention to how he was getting on the bike and riding. My friend asked was I going to make fun of him and my response was "You never make fun of someone who makes an honest effort to improve themselves." Hats off f him to being carbon free.

But back to Starbucks and I think most restaurant menus is that the values listed don't actually offer a choice. Almost every pastry at Starbucks is high in calories (400 - 500). The only things that are lower in calories are smaller versions the standard offerings. There hasn't been an effort to offer something with lower calorie density. (Not true, they do offer bananas). So if you are joining people for a meal you have a choice usually of a salad or something high calories. Menu diversity is going to be critical if we truly offer people an viable alternative to choose.

Information and incentives are not going to be enough to change behavior, David Brooks in his most recent column talks about actions and decisions in context. It's a good read about why we need to understand the interleave between incentives and path dependency. It is very reminiscent of the decisions that get made when we are aroused as demonstrated in Dan Ariely's Laptop Experiment where explicit choice seems to be an option but is not.

Understanding our imperfections are going to be critical to improving our actions for our planet. And that's a lot to digest.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Bicycles as engines of economic development.

It's fitting on Independent Day that Nancy Folbre an economist at the University of Massachusetts has a fantastic blog post on the benefits of bicycling on economic development and the negative economic benefits of driving. In short the benefits of bicycling for freedom.

It has a lot of links to great resources including one to that liberal paper The Economist. I really can't do it justice, but here is a sample. but go read it directly:

Here is the economic logic behind increased efforts to promote bicycle use:

Cars enjoy huge direct subsidies in the form of road construction and public parking spaces, as well as indirect subsidies to the oil industry that provides their fuel. These subsidies far exceed the tax revenue generated by car use (as this excellent discussion of the technical issues at stake in these calculations makes clear.)

Yet cars impose major social costs: their use contributes to global warming, traffic congestion, accident fatalities and sedentary lifestyles.

Bicycle use is good for both people and the planet. In a country afflicted by obesity and inactivity, people who get moving become healthier. Riding a bike to work or to do errands is far cheaper than joining a gym. Cutting back on gas consumption improves air quality, reduces dependence on imported oil and saves money.

Increased bicycle use is practical and feasible, especially if it can be combined with effective public transportation for long-distance needs. As John Pucher of Rutgers University (dubbed Professor Bicycle by some of his fans) explains, about 40 percent of all automobile trips in metropolitan areas are less than two miles – a distance easily biked.