August 28, 2015

What to Do About Our Choked Roads?

There is a poster, produced by the city of Muenster in Germany, for their 2001 campaign to push for better space management of their roads. It compares, side by side, the space required for sixty people to commute to work by car, by bus and by bike.

A picture is worth a thousand words! A composite picture like this poster is worth more than three thousand words, which is great for me, as I have a few other things to say.

August 23, 2015

License-Plate Parking

I'm squinting at the parking meter, grateful that it's a quiet weekday morning and nobody is behind me waiting their turn to use it. That gives me a chance to take my time with the new routine, and to step back and admire the photovoltaic panel mounted on top like a minimalist umbrella.

But let's step back in time a bit: In the beginning, there was the mechanical parking meter. Putting in a quarter (or a lot of quarters, depending on where you are parking) made the steel arrow move to the desired parking time. The arrow sits in a glass window, so you can see it from both sides of the parking meter.

Parking meters lined up down the length of the street alwas reminded me of the scene in the Odyssey, where Penelope challenges her suitors to shoot an arrow through the eyes of twelve axe heads. Except parking meters were never that well lined up.

August 18, 2015

Urban Heat

"Urban Heat" sounds like a cool name for a band. Unfortunately it's nothing like that. In fact, it's not exactly cool. The "urban heat island" refers to the fact that the average temperature of a large city is higher than the surrounding rural area. Sometimes, quite a bit higher.

This is because a lot of energy is used in cities, for transportation, heating, cooling, lighting, running computers, washing machines, coffee makers and all the other machines that make modern life possible. And once that energy has done its job, it turns into heat.

And that's even before taking into account some other things that make it worse, like the lack of cooling trees, and the presence of dark asphalt and rooftops that are very good at absorbing heat from the sun. So there is more than fresh air that makes it so "refreshing" to get out of the city and into the countryside.

Urban heat is hard on cars. On a nice sunny day cities can be warmer than the area around it by up to 27F (15C). And if you park your car in the sun, it can get hotter still.

This hapless Megane got stuck in a confluence of unfortunate circumstances: Its owner had parked it in the sun, on an asphalt lot, in an Italian town, right when a heat wave hit it in August 2015. Oh, and the car was dark blue.

August 16, 2015

Not Enough Fear and Loathing in The Hague?

Since I shamelessly borrowed, for the title for this post, from Hunter Thompson's book "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", let me start by saying that I've actually never visited one of the Dutch "coffeeshops" where they don't sell coffee. So the photo below is not mine, I found it at a website called coffeeshopmenus.org. This menu is pretty, and it's from a coffeeshop called Tweede Kamer, perhaps in honour of the Lower Chamber of the Dutch Parliament that passed the policy that, while marijuana, like other drugs, is not legal in the Netherlands, possession of marijuana "for personal use" (up to 5 grams, if you must know) is not prosecuted.

This is probably the most famous example of the Dutch ability to see something without seeing it.

August 12, 2015

Car Ownership Is So Twentieth Century

"Surely you're taking the car?" says my dad.

"Umm no, we're going by bike."

It's summertime, we're in Delft, the Netherlands, where my dad lives, and we have this conversation every other day: My dad is forever offering us the use of his car. At first we thought he was being very generous. Then we started wondering, why the insistence that we not take the bike, or the train? You'd think that after we'd said No Thanks about two hundred times, he'd get the message. But he persists. And now that we have my aunt's car on loan, he's even offering us the use of her car, which is kinda funny if you think about it.

And that was what finally made me realise: he doesn't offer us the car because he think's it's less tiring than the bike (it is) or cheaper than the train (it is, for a family of four). He wants us to take the car because he thinks it's unseemly for a middle-class family not to move itself by car.

From the time that Henry Ford started making cars affordable (which was only a few years before my dad was born), car ownership has been the aspiration of everyone on the planet. Even if it was the Fiat 500 (tiny at the time it was introduced), you got a car as soon as you could afford it.

But even as millions of people in places like China and India, who are just arriving into the middle class, aspire to car ownership, those who have been in the middle class for a while are starting to look beyond.

[blue lline: new private cars]
[red line: car-share customers]

These people tend to live in high-density places where public transport is good, roads are friendly to pedestrians and cyclists, and where space is scarce. In Germany, for instance, the number of people signed up for car-share programs in a given year will soon be larger than the number of people buying new cars. It helps that the dominant car-share programs are offered by BMW and Daimler.

August 8, 2015

Electricity, cars, and Norway

This is the Geirangerfjord. It's one of the most popular sites to visit on Norway's coast, and it's not hard to see why. The surrounding mountains are stunningly beautiful. The walls are improbably steep. Which means that there aren't too many people living on those near-pristine slopes.

Photo by Frédéric de Goldschmidt

The fjord also illustrates how Norway can become a zero-carbon society.

July 29, 2015

Mark your calendar for People's Climate March 2015

The date is 29 November, 2015. It's a Sunday. Mark your calendars.

This is the day of the 2015 People's Climate March, the day before the COP21 climate talks start in Paris.

Here is our chance to tell world leaders that we care about our planet's climate, that we need it to remain livable, for us, for our children, for all who come after us, and for all creatures with whom we share this blue marble.

400,000 people walked in last year's Climate March. We stunned the world. In New York, so many people showed up that there was literally no end to the march: the organisers had to cancel the closing ceremonies because there was no time, and no space, for all of us to attend it.

The 2015 People's Climate March can be bigger than that.

July 24, 2015

Urban Design and Traffic

My kinswoman Danielle (I like her too much to think of her as my step-grandniece twice removed), knowing my interest in sustainable transportation, loaned me one of the books she used for the urban design studies which she recently completed.

I took it home and, as often happens with loaned books, spent a few days admiring the cover photo, and the heft of the book.

Then one day last week, I actually opened it. It hasn't let me go since. The very first random page I landed on had diagrams of residential neighbourhoods showing the layout of homes and roads, specifically designed so that there was a safe route to school from nearly each home, requiring at most one or two road crossings.

July 11, 2015

The Melon

The other evening, I came home in my aunt's old car, and fished a large melon from the passenger seat before carefully locking the car. The melon was football shaped with a nice heft and a beautiful pattern on its skin; my aunt had given it to me as part of a string of exchanges that would have impressed David Graeber, the anthropologist author of "Debt: the first 5,000 years", in which he describes various forms of social, non-monetary debt.

Here's the story.

Earlier this spring, my ancient dad had a small car accident. Nobody was hurt: he had caused his car to scrape by a sidewalk pole. I think the pole, a sturdy concrete thing, wasn't even hurt. Only the car needed body work.

June 26, 2015


"Crossover" is a car that's neither a sedan nor an SUV. The push for higher fuel efficiency has spawned a generation of vehicular mutts intended to look not as sedan-tary as a sedan, without the full frontal area that messes up the fuel efficiency.

Never mind that: for most families crossovers are still unnecessarily over-sized. I mean, my family of four fits, together with two cellos, in a Volkswagen Golf. With all doors and windows closed.

On the other side of the range, crossovers are also happening. The elderly and handicapped had long enjoyed mobility aids that are hybrids between bicycles and golf carts. Electric motorcycles are becoming increasingly popular among the well-heeled young.

And now there is a push for micro-cars. These are for getting yourself (and one friend; and perhaps one cello) from A to B, while keeping you dry. Some are barely more than golf carts, dressed up more nicely than what you need for 18 holes. Some are smaller, at the intersection of a golf cart, a minicar, and a motorcycle. Many are not highway worthy, but perfect for negotiating crowded cities. And charging is fast. Because of course they're electric.

If it's just you and one friend, why drive a bungalow with a windshield?



You may also like:
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2. Seven Ways to Keep Your Teen from Texting While Driving
3. How to Drive on the Wrong Side of the Road (and Live to Tell the Tale)


May 21, 2015

Rise of Self-Driving Car Set to Make My Dream Come True

A while ago, I wrote about my ideal Car of the Future: it would be self-driving, not owned by me but available at my beck and call.

It seems that I am not the only one thinking of the ideal car that way. In fact, an analysis by Barclays indicates that the demand for such transportation will be high enough that the self-driving car will largely displace the privately owned car, and that within the next 25 years.

The report, quoted in a Financial Review article, "foresees four vehicle categories -- traditional cars and trucks driven by individuals for work or in rural areas; "family autonomous vehicles," owned by individuals and shared by a single family; "shared autonomous vehicles" that would be "robot taxis" summoned by smartphone; and "pooled shared autonomous vehicles" that accommodate multiple riders, like a bus or a van."

And get this: "Every shared vehicle on the road would displace nine traditional autos, and each pooled shared vehicle would take the place of as many as 18."

With this, the cost of mobility will go down drastically from what it is today, contributing to the popularity of driverless cars in a nice feedback loop.

CelloDad is totally ready for this. There are days that I suspect his dislike of driving is what made him marry his chauffeur - that was me. He's so looking forward to the day that he can be mobile without relying on me, or having to wrangle the shift stick I insist on having. So when the self-driving car comes into its own he will be one happy fellow.

But he is not the only one who will benefit from this new mode of transportation: Children too young to drive, the elderly who are starting to feel uncertain behind the wheel, especially at night, or the occasional car user will all be helped by the self-driving car.

Oh brave new world that hath such vehicles in it!



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2. The Car of the Future Comes to Singapore
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May 20, 2015

Learning HOW to Talk About Climate Change

My friends, it is a wonderful time to be a life-long student! Right as my children are transitioning into independence and I'm past changing diapers or even providing for their every meal, massively open online courses, or MOOCs, are coming into their own. Not only that, they are being ofered for free by the best educational institutions partly as a public service, and partly to showcase their best professors.

You can find excellent online courses on statistics, Dante's Inferno, Python programming, growing award winning orchids - and climate change.

I've so far taken four courses on the science of climate change and climate policy. It wasn't always a piece of cake - I did sweat the problem sets on that MITx course given by Kerry Emanuel - but these came naturally to me as I am, at heart, a science geek.

But if I also want to be an effective climate communicator, I'd better get a handle on how to bring the message that we need climate action. There are online courses for that too! Right now, there are two ongoing, each with a different perspective.

One is "Making Sense of Climate Science Denial" at edX, given by a team led by John Cook of the University of Queensland (Australia), a premier climate communicator and the founder of the Skeptical Science website that offers climate science to the general public, as well as pointers on how to debunk the climate myths that are promulgated by the fossil-fuel funded deniers.

The course goes over the psychological barriers (in the minds of the audience) that climate communicators have to overcome before their message can be heard, and lays out the tricks used by the merchants of doubt to discredit climate scientists and to dampen public will for action.

It's a lively course, well produced and well presented, and the feedback so far has been very positive.