December 13, 2014

Bicycle Lanes in Cambridge

It's been quite some time since the fare was a quarter. But wandering the old haunts in Cambridge MA over Thanksgiving, I was pleased to find that the Number 1 bus still plies its route over Massachusetts Avenue, between Dudley Station and Harvard Square. The buses have been updated, and the fare column is now equiped with an RFID reader for the CharlieCard that gets you access to Boston's public transport network.

But what is new on Mass Ave is the bike lane that goes both sides along its length.

December 7, 2014

The Diesel to Electric Transition

Diesel engines pack a roaring fuel efficiency. Modern diesel engines, with a turbocharger at the front end and scrubbers at the tail end, pack much higher efficiency than gasoline engines, and are much cleaner than diesel-powered trucks of the past. But are they clean enough?

While modern diesel engines, both for personal and commercial vehicles, no longer spew out a cloud of black smoke wherever they go, they are not entirely "clean". The biggest problem is the small particles in their exhaust, that cause health issues in the lungs. The small particle (or PM2.5) pollution is much reduced with the use of "clean" diesel with very low sulfur content.

But where the sulfur content is high (China, India, Brazil outside the big cities) the use of diesel can still lead to severe smog and extreme particulate pollution. And even where the diesel fuel contains ultra-low concentrations of sulfur (US, Europe), very high densities of diesel vehicles can still cause problems.

December 3, 2014

Making Carbon Dioxide Visible

"If only you could see carbon dioxide," is the sigh often heard from climate activists. If carbon dioxide were not an odourless invisible gas, we would have started to curtail its emissions long ago. It is unfortunate that something so dangerous goes undetected by our human senses.

But what if you could see carbon dioxide? What if it had a colour, say pink, and you can watch pink clouds billowing out of factory stacks, chimneys and tail pipes? Gregg Kleiner has imagined just such a world in his children's book "Please don't paint our planet pink", that visualises the problem and - pardon the pun - paints a solution. (Book review by ClimateMama here).

Laurel Thompson's illustrations for this book may seem whimsical, but they are in fact close to reality.

November 26, 2014

Turkey Dealer

I'm on the road and see a VW dealer. There's snow in the forecast. I'm feeling generous toward my conveyance, so I decide to replace a wiper that has a loose patch of blade with a genuine VW part, from the VW dealer. So I pull into the dealership.

Photo by Ilya Plekhanov

I ask the way to the parts window - this is not the dealership near by me where I usually get my dealer business done - and wait a while. They have to page the clerk twice before he appears. I apologise for cutting into his lunch (it's 1.30pm) and he's gracious about it.

"What can I do for you, ma'am?"

"I just need a replacement wiper blade for my Golf."

"OK. Can I have your name and phone number?"

I blink.

November 20, 2014

Science on a T-shirt

Twitter can be extremely useful for many reasons. It can be a waste of time. It can be a fun waste of time!

My favourite hashtag this week is #scishirt. People post selfies of their science-themed T shirts. Some have institution's logos, often re-worked to get some effect. Some are funny. Some make you think, Oh God that's way over my head. But it's great to see how scientists are into their science.

Here's one for justifying slacking in the lab:


November 15, 2014

Tesla Taxis

What do you think of when you hear the word "Taxi"?

The answer depends on where you live. New Yorkers think Ford Crown Victoria painted in that iconic yellow. (So iconic, no privately owned car comes in that colour. Which is a pity, because it would make for a badly needed break from the reds, black&whites and blues on American streets).

Photo by David R. Tribble

London has its own iconic taxi, the FX4 with the cavernous passenger compartment that has plenty of space for luggage, baby stroller or cello. London's hackney cabs have recently abandoned the traditional black garb, and now come arrayed in a bewildering plethora of advertising graphics.

November 9, 2014

Average Work Commute Takes Six Weeks a Year

When I was growing up, we lived on the south side of Delft, a Dutch city of 100,000; my mom went to work on the north side, a 30-minute bike ride away, or 10 minutes by car if the weather was very bad. Her friends and acquaintances were always amazed: "You work all the way on the other side of town?"

But that was back when school children and working people still came home for lunch. If you lived 30 minutes from work, it would be hard to come home, have a decent lunch, and come back in the time normally allotted for lunch, about 90 minutes.

In places where workers don't come home for lunch, it turns out about half an hour is the average commuting time. This is true across the board in developed countries (including today's Netherlands).

Average commute times by zip code

This map shows the commute time in the US by zip code (a click on the map links to the interactive version). The countrywide average commute is - drumroll - 25 minutes.

October 29, 2014

The Price of a Prius

Cars are cheap in the US. I've said this before (and I will probably say it many more times). That's because, in the US, the price of a car is just that: the price of the car. The sales tax gets added on, but that varies from 7.5% (California) to nil (Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon).

I've compiled the list price of a basic Toyota Prius in selected countries. I've chosen the Prius because it is sold everywhere, with the same hybrid drive and engine size, and in much the same version - although it's always amusing to see the variations in the websites. Here's a screen shot from Toyota's Chinese website:

Yeah, I know: I don't read those kanji characters either. But there is a trick that makes it possible for English speakers to navigate websites that don't even use alphabets: my tips here.

October 25, 2014

Solar Energy From a Road Surface is Now a Reality

Roads are great for allowing us to get from here to there in a quick and safe way. But while they're waiting to serve the next vehicle, they're just lying around idle, making the world warmer with their dark surfaces.

But it doesn't have to be that way. A city in the Netherlands just installed the first bit of road capable of generating electricity: this bike path - of course it's a bike path! - has solar panels embedded in the surface, beneath a protective glass layer.

October 14, 2014

Limits on car sales in Singapore: a model for capping carbon emissions?

Singaporean authorities would rather that you not buy a car at all. After all, the tiny city state has excellent state-of-the-art public transport, and not a lot of space for roads and parking. But its wealthy population loves cars; even steeply increasing road taxes didn't keep the automotive overpopulation from becoming an acute problem. By the 1980s Singapore's road congestion had become unbearable.

Enter the Certificate of Entitlement.

The COE scheme is birth control for cars - to be precise, import control: Every year somebody counts the number of cars that have been retired from Singapore's automotive fleet, either by being scrapped or by being sold abroad. Also, the desired number of cars is determined for the next year. Those two things set the number of new cars that can be sold for that year, embodied by Certificates of Entitlement.

A Certificate of Entitlement is the right to own a car in Singapore for ten years. The COEs go on an auction, so the price is determined by how badly people want to own a car. This month, a COE in the "small car" category (engines up to 1.6L and 130HP) went for S$ 63,880.

October 11, 2014

My Dutch Canondale

I was getting too old for my bike.

Not that I'm getting too old for biking. Let me explain.

My trusty bike is a Canondale that has been with me for twentyfive years now, and on which I spent happy days with my friends, tearing up the trails in the woods.

The bike easily accommodated my children when they came: first in a baby seat that I hung from the handlebars, then in a child seat on the back. I have two Dutch bikebags that I hang from the luggage rack, for errands to the library, the grocery store, etc.. The only thing you have to be careful about is that the Canondale, with its aluminum frame, is considerably lighter than a standard Dutch bike, so you have to be more careful balancing cargo - such as a baby at the handlebars.

About those handlebars. You know how mountain bikes have straight handlebars? It gives you better handling on rough terrain.

But I'm never on rough terrain any more. And the straight handlebar, not exactly ergonomic, was starting to hurt my wrists. Leaning on them while biking doesn't help that at all. Also, as I'm getting older I find that I'm less comfortable leaning over: I feel much better balanced on a Dutch bike that allows you to sit up straight.

I considered importing a Dutch bike. CelloDad told me I was crazy. And he has a point. A good Dutch bike of old-fashioned quality is not a cheap item, and then you have to get it over here somehow.

But I did the next best thing: bought myself a Dutch handlebar this summer. Dutch bike shops have a selection of them, with varying widths and different curvature. A handlebar is much cheaper than a whole Gazelle bike, and you can carry it inside a suitcase. Last week, I finally made it to a local bike shop, the haunts of one of my rideshare children; they did an expert job of installing the handlebar.

October 9, 2014

Greener Ways to Get There

I've written before of the lowest-carbon way to get from here to there, and summarised it in this graphic:

The people at 1BOG (which stands for One Block Off the Grid) have made a much larger infographic which is more complete and breaks things down by the distance traveled. I don't usually like large infographics, but this one is worthwhile because it shows that for transportation, not one size fits all.

A few takeaway points:

For travel inside or near town, nothing beats a bike. (And it makes you feel happy. And it's good for you!).