Monday, July 26, 2010

The power of limits.

Circumstances have forced me back to a carfree life again and it's really amazing what I've remembered from my last stint of carfree living. Most recently I've realized the power of limits on your behavior and the ability to force you to live in the here and now. In particular I am realizing that having limited amount of space in my backpack and in my panniers forces me to decide exactly what I am buying at the store and do I really need it since I have to lug it around for the rest of the day. In the past I'd buy something and I could just toss it in my trunk. I see this in so many cars that I get rides from that our cars become our lockers. I know mine was.

Since i have to be very careful about what I need to buy since I need to carry it, I find myself more conscious of my purchases. Do I really need all those peaches? And if so how many do I need. What am I going to do with them? I find myself buying just in time vs just in case. A nice side benefit is that there is less clutter accumulating in my life.

And for what does stay in my life, I find out that I can figure out new uses for different ingredients and tools. Limits of things makes your mind think of new ways of using what you have.

If it wasn't so easy to carry things that we buy as we go from store to store, it means we would probably make fewer impulse buys. I know I do. Limits bring you into the moment, asking you what do you need vs what might you need. It shows you the possibility of what you can do with what you have even if you weren't planning to use it that way.

Limits force you to better choices.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Moral Hazard?

The Washington Post has a really instructive article titled "Why going green won't make you better or save you money" on some psychological research on how incredibly powerful our weakness in our resolve can be. If I wanted to be pessimistic, I would say that the research described is depressing, but being more positive knowing our failings allow us to compensate, which is ironic because the research is that we are very good at bargaining with our psyches to convince ourselves that we are better people than we are. The gist of the research is that we are able to use a green action (such as buying organic food) to convince us that are green even though we do something much more negative in another action. For instance the article highlights the following:

Like most Whole Foods shoppers, David Bain thinks he is a decent citizen of Earth. His family buys mostly organic food. They recycle. He recently fortified his green credentials by removing a leaking oil tank in his yard.

But here's a head scratcher: Though the Bains live in Arlington within walking distance of Whole Foods, they often drive there in an SUV that gets just 19 miles per gallon. He has noticed that his SUV is not alone in the lot.

Does that make Bain a hypocrite? He paused before responding: "I could see how people would come to that conclusion, but I don't have the illusion that people's decision-making is always logical."
"There are so many contradictions in today's world, especially when it comes to green issues," said Keith Ware, who has watched with raised eyebrows as Hummers pull up to his environmentally sensitive appliance store, Eco-Green Living, near the nuclear-free zone of Takoma Park.

I've written in the past about laughable construction projects and green homes in the exurbs. No one wants to be austere, we only want to pretend to be.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

We have become cyborgs.

One of the challenges in car free living is that you have to live as a living human being. It's true that human beings when engaged in locomotion under their own power have the unfortunate side of effect of sweat. It's how we demonstrate that we are living beings as we metabolize energy to move and in doing so warm up our bodies and need to cool down. This even happens when we swim believe it or not, even when we are submerged underwater.

The problem is that sweating is somehow thought of as being not normal even thought it is the most normal thing a person can do. So instead of sweating, we have become cyborgs, we augment ourselves with machinery to avoid that human function of sweating. We attach ourselves to cars and air conditioners to we can change the nature of our existence. We cannot function in societally acceptable ways unless we attach ourselves to machines. Yes we have become one with the mechanical to become the living in our modern age.

So what are we going to do to go car free and live as we come out of the womb, a self regulating, body cooling set of correcting cycles that allow us to do that simple thing called living? Maybe all that is needed is a new point of view, and probably a little bit new point of smell.

Going Car Light and Car Free

Today is a big car oriented day for our friends at the New York Times. The first story is about a city sponsored car sharing service in Hoboken, NJ. In a city with too many cars, it seems odd that adding cars would improve things, but at first glance that seems to be the case. The convenience of cars seems to be wearing thin with the cost of ownership causing being more than its worth. Author Tom Vanderbilt (who I've feature in past posts) says it's like the difference between owning your music and streaming it. Much more convenient. Hoboken is still more urban than say where I live.

If I could find a way to create a fractional car ownership business along the lines of NetJets I'd be thrilled.

The other story is the rise of tricycles in New York City. People are increasingly using tricycles meant for hauling things to carry their kids and run errands in New York City. It is again the glamour moms driving this. No pun intended. It makes a lot of sense, as I've investigated getting a pull cart for my bicycle to run errands. At this point, a new set of panniers will probably do the trick.

The effective range of bicycling is probably 4 - 8 miles, Manhattan is ideally sized for this kind of use. We'll see what happens in the winter. But I'm glad that people are doing it now. What we need is Tricycle sharing program. ZipTrike anyone?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A sure path to cycling popularity...

The Wall Street Journal has a nice article on the rise of bicycles as fashion accessories. The nice thing is that it highlights bicycling not as spandex cruising but tools for getting around everywhere. I find it really funny though that like many thing in life like say the iPhone 4. Style is more important than substance and the retro look is really in. What amused me was the following:

It's a testament to our love affair with retro that people are importing Flying Pigeons, a simple bike used in China since 1950.

Now the Flying Pigeon is legendary and about as prol' as you get. Hipsters are about as un-Prol' as you get. This my friends is called irony. The PA-02 is about $150 in China today, and in the U.S. it fetches about $500. The original bike was built about durability. We have new technologies and for $500 you can a good light weight bike that will be more practical, but maybe with a little less style.

But if style will get more people on the road then that's a good thing.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

RIP Harvey Pekar

I was never a fanatic about Harvey Pekar, but I was inspired by the movie to go out and check out the comics from the library and read them and be deeply moved. It really is a story of the ordinary yet epic struggles that most of us go through to make it through the day. In some ways it captures the challenges that we have in living a non-impactful life. However the challenges of the world, the architecture of the world conspires against those who try. It's that struggle Pekar captured in his stories. Great voices can come from anywhere as Anthony Bourdain shares here

While this blog is about eco-living and the impact of cars on our society, Pekar's death reminded me of the touching work of graphic novelist Jason Lutes Jar of Fools. In it there is a series of panels talking about the goal of life for some is not to make big splash and cause ripples, but to leave no ripples at all.

Something to think about.

A way to keep score...

Everything is becoming a game. Or this is the claim of game designer and Carnegie Mellon Professor Jesse Schell in the talk at the DICE 2010 convention. If you have ever visited your Facebook news feed, all those stories about finding lost sheep probably confirms it. In that same vein, Cateye has created the new Commuter bicycle computer that tracks how much carbon offset you are performing by riding your bike. From their description:

The Carbon Offsets are computed by using a fixed 150g/km or 240g/mile figure and multiplying it by the distance ridden. It tracks it in real time and shows day to day, week to week, month to month and total carbon saved.

So with those figures you can figure out on your own. Pretty neat. It's too bad there's not a way to upload this to your computer or Facebook. (full disclosure: "I am in a relationship with Facebook" and "It's complicated" :) so you could tweet it if you want instead). The notion of tracking your progress reminds me of something from Schell's talk:

“If anyone has the new Ford Hybrid car, it has a speedometer and it has a gas gauge. What are those leaves? What the hell is that? The more gas you save, the more the plant grows. They put a virtual pet in your car and it changes the way you drive. Games have crept out and they are going everywhere.”

Bonus points to save the world!

Monday, July 12, 2010

So how much is that drive costing you?

One of the things that make public transportation seem so expensive is that you pay each ride and it seems to be a lot. But have you ever figured out how much it costs to drive a car. We had a recent commuter day at work and AAA was there. They were handing out a pamphlet called You Driving Costs which spells out exactly how much driving a car costs, and the amount is surprising: $0.56 per mile. This takes into account the cost of the car, insurance, maintenance and gasoline. So this means that the average commute according to the ABC News/Time Magazine/Washington Post Poll is 16 miles and costs about $8.50.

So mass transit is really a bargain, except for the fact that mass transit takes more time and that's really the wash. In NYC and other places, mass transit can be faster. Elsewhere that's the rub.

So cars may be faster than mass transit in many cases, but they are not a bargain.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

looking to the future.

Development is a huge issue here in Mountain View, where Google is located. There is a lot of desire by businesses to grow. However, there is a lot of concern about the impact of that growth. People tend to live far from the office, and here in California that means more cars. Major companies such as Google, Yahoo!, Apple and Facebook even have private bus systems that ferry employees who wish to live in San Francisco to get to work. Most of these companies have commute programs.

Well Google wishes to grow and in this article you can read about their proposal to the Mountain View city council. It is something out of Buck Rogers. Pods carrying individuals around.

Less futuristic are ideas about mixed zoning so that apartments and offices co-mingle. Concerns of creating a "second downtown" Well maybe not a new Downtown, but Canberra in Australia has a layout of multiple town squares that serve as anchors to the community. You can see this classic layout in Savannah, Georgia as well. What is old is new again.

So the question is how do people live these days? Work and non-work are blending timewise. We are tied to Blackberries and iPhones more and more. So as those temporal zones of life disappear, why do our physical zones of life remain segregated? I am not saying there are good reasons for boundaries, but for white collar work for good or bad they are disappearing.

One thing is that we focus on the new at the expense of the old. Segways replace biking. We prefer powered transport over self powered transport. The equation of power and time collide with efficiency. In the end we want richer lives, not more efficient ones. Our locomotion impacts our health, just as apparently our information mediums impact our learning.

I am happy to hear that there are dreamers looking for a new future, but let's make sure we don't reinvent the wheel.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Brought to you by our loyal members...

Today I received my renewal from my local NPR station reminding me to renew my membership (they start really early since my membership doesn't come due until October) and it got me thinking about one of my pet peeves. And that's not pulling your weight.

I read an interesting statistic that only 1 in 10 active listeners are members of their local NPR station. So that means that for everyone one person who donates, they are carrying the weight of nine others. If a public radio station just covers its expenses that means that each person who does pay, is paying TEN times their FAIR share. The average yearly membership is about $60. So that means the average active listener's contribution is $6. SIX DOLLAS. That's not even a beer at a San Francisco restaurant. Hardly a sacrifice.

What kills me is that most people who listen to NPR if you believe the stereotypes are liberals who want public subsidies and taxes. But when they have a chance to voluntarily pay they shirk their RESPONSIBILITY. There aren't many reasons for not becoming a member of your local station if you are a regular listener. Perhaps people do need to be coerced. What a bummer view of the world.

So how does this relate to the environment? If someone really cares about the world they live in, then they have to step up just a little bit. If you derive benefit from public radio, it's only fair that you step up to your $6 instead of letting someone else do it. If you really care about global warming, then don't just click on some email petition. Actually modify your drive once in awhile. Take mass transit, carpool. Sure it might be a little inconvenient, but once in awhile it'll make you appreciate what you do have that much more. Do something. I have plenty of liberal do gooder friends who have never ridden mass transit in California. Good intentions are swell, but let me repeat. Do something.

This clean planet is brought to you by our loyal members. It's the only way it works.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

More on parking, and bicycle parking.

Andrew made a recent comment on the cost of parking, and I decided to do a little more reading from the source of my original post by Tom Vanderbilt. (It's clear that Tom Vanderbilt is becoming the contemporary version of Howard Kunstler and his classic Geography of Nowhere.

In this post, Vanderbilt talks about the importance of bicycle parking to enable commuters. It is very true that if you are tethered to your mode of transportation, the means of storing your transportation becomes that more valuable. What is under appreciated with cars is that they not not only serve as transportation, they function as personal storage and recovery spaces. Any policy needs to take that into considerations.

Highly urban cities have developed cultures of spaces to just hang out. Be them pubs or coffee shops. In highly scheduled lives there are gaps between appointments, and a place to hang and recuperate is very valuable. Cars do serve that purpose for many people. For those in cities, I know that friends develop networks of friends where they can camp out for an hour or two between appointments.

So in addition to parking for our transportation, vibrant alternative transportation also needs to figure out how to configure the zoning to support hang out spaces that are profitable for owners as well as comfortable for patrons. In Taipei and other places in Asia I have found that McDonalds oddly fits the bill. Ironic that a place associated with drive throughs is associated with walk throughs.

If we leave bicycle parking for a moment, Vanderbilt's recent post on dedicated bicycle freeways is interesting. This quote strongly resonates:

"Most people don't ride bicycles to work not because they're difficult to store/lock up but because they are at a serious disadvantage safety-wise. No bike helmet will protect you if an SUV driver on a cell phone accidentally broadsides you!"

This is a scary proposition when you are in a car as I recently found out when I was driving and hence once again carfree. On a bike it's a downright showstopper. And with the myriad of distractions in cars (Puhleez, do we really need DVDs in the front console of a car?).

So my question is this, does the architecture of our society rule out bicycles and if not, what can we amend to make it viable?