It had been three months since I first drove our new car home from the dealer. In one of those flashes of inspiration, I parked it nose-first in the car port (we don't have a garage), so that its nose would stay in the shade, but its rear would be basking in the afternoon sun. I left one of the front windows open by about a half inch. Then I locked it and went away for six weeks.
The idea was that all the plastic components in the car interior would proceed with the outgassing of their various toxins while my family was riding bikes elsewhere, and that the new car smell, not very strong to begin with in this car, would be much reduced when we got back. The sun warming the rear of the car would speed the process a bit. And I hoped that most of the toxins would escape through the open front window.
This is what I found when we got back.
This was one of those experiments that I wish hadn't worked quite as well as it did. I fought back a freak-out feeling and drove the car out into the sun before writing the words with my finger and taking the photo. The haze, which was all on the inside, was much thicker than I expected, and what's more, it was mighty hard to remove.
My usual approach, a mild soapy solution, took off only part of it. I switched to dishwashing liquid diluted with just a bit of water, that took off most of the rest. But there were still greasy-looking streaks all over the inside of the windshield, which would be consistent with the deposit consisting of long-chain hydrocarbons. When lit by the sunlight just so, it was going to reduce my view through the front window, and it was going to give me an uncomfortable reminder of just how successful the experiment has been. I sighed, and went inside to dig up the ten-year old bottle of grease-cutting Windex that's bad for your in other ways but was still lurking among my cleaning supplies. That finally took off the last of the haze.
I can only hope most of it went out that open window, but I can't tell. Neither can I tell what exactly was in that layer of gunk inside the windshield without one of those cool portable spectrometers that help you analyse materials in situ. But I have an educated guess: it's some combination of plastic softeners and flame retardants escaping from the upholstery and such, the gases that together give a new car that "new car smell" that is so attractive to some new car owners that they try to find ways to preserve it. Those gases are actually dangerous to your health.
You know how a glass filled with iced water will frost over on the outside? It's because the outside surface of the glass is cooler than the ambient air, and water vapour condenses on it preferentially. The same thing happened in my car: the gases released by the plastic components inside the car condensed on the coolest surfaces around, mostly on the inside surfaces of the front of the car. The rear windows had much less of a deposit, since that part of the car was heated by the sun, unlike the front which was tucked under the carport and stayed relatively cool.
So now, on every sunny day, the car stands in the middle of the driveway, in the full sun, with the windows wide open so the gases can escape instead of depositing themselves on my windshield. Fresh air is our friend.
How did the Dutch do it?
How did they manage to build that bicyclist's paradise, the envy of bikers around the world, a pervasive network of cycle paths where nobody wears a helmet and mothers let their eight year olds find their own way to school, to the library, to the neighbourhood grass fields for a soccer game with their friends?
You can point out many reasons, but they all come back to just one basic thing: the broad and deep national concensus over bike use.
This is probably the most important reason that so much energy and funds are spent on building bike paths in the Netherlands, and one that I feel is often overlooked by communities trying to start up a system of bike paths. Dutch bike paths are used by a huge section of the population. In so many other places, bike riders and car drivers compete for space on the road, for right of way, for road construction funds, and so have an antagonistic relationship, an "us against them" attitude. I believe this attitude is entirely absent in the Netherlands because every driver is also a cyclist.
Before you can walk, you're already on a bike, quite literally: your mom would put you in the seat attached to her handlebar (so she can keep an eye on you). If she's a nice mom, she installs a windscreen so you don't catch cold too often.
When you outgrow the handlebar seat, or when you acquire a sibling, you move to the back of the bike, onto a seat attached to your mom or dad's luggage carrier. When you're four, you're a big boy / girl and expected to know not to do anything stupid behind your parents' back.
Your big moment arrives when the training wheels come off your own baby bike and you can get on the road yourself, next to your parents, who instill traffic rules into you the way they taught you to talk: without even thinking about it very much. It just happens.
Just to be sure, and especially handy if you have expat parents, traffic safety and rules are part of the primary school curriculum, much like Drivers' Ed is in U.S. high schools. Sometimes there is also a road test.
But the real test is whether you can make it to school and back without incurring the wrath - I mean the comments - of other bikers. For the Dutch feel quite free to point out your mistakes to you, and not very politely so if you've made them brake or swerve. It's like having an army of aunties and uncles watching over you all over the place. -- Okay, I am being uncharitable: they do it because they are parents too and hope that someone will call their children on anything stupid that they might do. Because everybody realises that the road IS dangerous for bikers, and if it does come to a collision with a moving car, the car will always put a much bigger dent into the biker than the other way around.
Throughout your life you bike: to school, to a date, to college, to parties, to work (and yes, some will show up to their weddings on a bicycle). It is still not unusual to come across a Dutch person without a driver's licence. My parents' neighbours, now retired, never did bother to get one. Another set of neighbours are nearly 80 and think it a capital joke if you suggest that maybe they shouldn't do their groceries by bike any more. I have an aunt and uncle, now in their mid-70s, who at least once a week go on a 100-km ride (65 miles) for fun, to the beach, or someplace pretty, usually where there's a good restaurant tucked among the meadows.
Dutch bikes are comfortable.
Of course you see mountain bikes and racing-type road bikes on the streets in the Netherlands. But such "performance" bikes are the minority. Generally, Dutch bikes are workhorses, not recreational vehicles: sturdily built and equipped with cargo carriers, they give a very comfortable ride. Saddles are wide, and have just the right amount of cushioning. Steering bars are high (so you're sitting upright) and angled at the ends for an ergonomic hand grip. The tires have splash guards that keep your feet (and those riding behind you) dry even when you ride through puddles. Lights are compulsory and powered by a small generator that can be attached to your front wheel: no batteries are ever required.
"Eight to eighty" by markenlei via YouTube
The Dutch traffic manual includes a large section dedicated to car-bike interactions on the road: the rules are clear, and backed up by efficient law enforcement. And they have recently been revised to give bicyclers more road rights.
But it's not so much the threat of a ticket that makes drivers look out for those bikers: it's because on another day, that might be you on those two wheels, or your son, your niece or your grandma. Those bikers are you, in a sense, and therefore your treat them with care and respect, even when you happen to be in a car, and you make sure it's not your fault if they don't make it home in one piece. Besides, hogging the road, tailing or otherwise intimidating bikers is labeled "aso", the Dutch shorthand for anti-social behaviour just this side of solipsism, and is not tolerated. Where there are no bike paths, you're expected to share the road.
Everybody bikes, not just across ages, but also across social strata. The hierarchy is very flat, but still, it's not just the janitors, the students, and the construction workers who use the bike to get to work, it's also the teachers, the doctors, and all the other professionals. Heck, the prime minister, Mark Rutte, rides his bike to work.
"Bicycle Rush Hour in Utrecht" by markenlei via YouTube
Check out the footage (above) of a bike path in Utrecht at rush hour: you see a broad cross section of the Dutch population (except the retired, who prefer to wait until it gets quieter). Everybody from high-schoolers with book bags to parents with young children on their way to school or day care, to professionals in suits and ties toting their leather laptop bags. Even one lady with a cello on her back!
There you have it: there is no "us against them" - there is no "them". Those bikes, and bike paths and everything else that goes with it, is "us".
But it wasn't always that way: even the Dutch had to fight, and fight long and hard, to get those bicycle paths. Before that happened, many cyclers died, including a huge number of children, because they weren't used to sharing the road with cars, whose numbers mushroomed after the second world war.
"How the Dutch got their cycle paths" by markenlei via YouTube
More at BicycleDutch: "showing you what NL cycling is about"
The cost of all that infrastructure that puts bikers from other countries (except Denmark) into a swoon, is borne as a public expense, and on the whole with good cheer. Because everybody realises that in the long term, there are financial benefits that vastly outweigh the costs of supporting bicycling. The frugal Dutch have a sharp eye for savings, even if they occur in the future.
Biking is frugal.
Even from the shortest possible point of view, a bike is cheaper by far than any other means of personal transportation, be it horse, car or private jet. Or even a motorbike. 100 euros will get you a very decent used bicycle, and after purchase it requires nothing but minimal maintenance that you can do yourself (mostly), plus enough food for you to pedal it around. That's energy independence for you.
You certainly don't need the gasoline that's sold at around $9 per gallon here.
For places without the biking culture, it's a chicken and egg problem that requires intervention at city or state level: For without a good and safe network of cyling paths you will not convince enough people to start riding their bikes, to make it worth while. You need to convince moms, professionals, seniors, in short, everybody, that the paths are safe. This includes putting in place clear traffic rules, so that cars, bikers and pedestrians know the proper road etiquette. It all sounds like a lot of work, but the potential benefits are huge and will continue to pay back far into the future.
Biking saves on health care costs. Firstly, riding around with your hair in the wind (remember, no helmets) makes you intensely happy. Even when you don't realise it. Like, when you're struggling into the 25 mph wind that's not unusual in the fall. It keeps you in shape and the exercise is good for you.
The second happy-making effect is independence, both for teenagers who don't need their parents to ferry them everywhere, and for older people who might feel uncertain behind the wheel of a car but are allright with the slower pace of a bike. There are tricycles, power-assisted bikes with small electric motors, and other ways for the elderly and the disabled to stay on the bike paths, which are increasingly shared with scootmobiles, a cross between a tricycle and an electric scooter (see photo).
Even though the country is completely flat, there is still enough exercise in biking to benefit everybody, even the 80-year old going to the neighbourhood grocery store.
There has been a decade-long campaign to get people on their bikes for fun. The promotion of recreational biking (rather than simply getting from A to B) is high on the government priority list because they realise that healthy citizens are cheapest, in terms of health care costs, unemployment or disability benefits, and the cost of the social support network, a large part of which is borne by that same government. If you look at it that way, installing a complete network of bike paths is not a luxury. It's the savvy thing to do.
Cities in the U.S. - New York being the latest - are discovering that building bicycle-friendly roads enjoys broad popular support, even if the "infrastructure" consist of nothing more than bicycle-shaped paint affixed onto the asphalt, and offers no real protection from cars. But if they stopped do to a few estimates, they would find it would be worth it to install real bicycle paths, separated from the cars. A lot more people would use those.
It makes the news in the US when scientists calculate that a good bicycle infrastructure that actually gets people out on their bikes could lead to a city saving worth billions of dollars annually (both from the health benefits of cycling itself and from the increase in air quality). Dude: why re-invent the wheel? The Dutch Court of Audits ("de Algemene Rekenkamer", literally the General Accounting Office) has arrived at this same conclusion several decades ago, and the arithmetic is not changing on this one, especially as the population is ageing.
Biking is frugal all around, and there is probably no bigger return on a municipal or state investment than a network of interconnecting and safe bicycle paths.
Did a double-take the other day: There was a Ford Focus of the hatchback persuasion, but it wasn't a Ford Focus. Its sleek body was elongated at the back, and a quick peek into its trunk showed it was cello-worthy.
After 2007, Ford stopped selling the Focus Station Wagon in the US, and now offers only a sedan and a 5-door hatchback. In Europe, they don't sell the sedan version, but they do offer the 5-door hatchback, as well as the Station Wagon (which is called the Estate). And that is what gave me the double-take.
Stateside, your choice of engines is limited to the 2.0L gasoline injection engine, the 2.0L EcoBoost engine (only available on the "sporty" ST version), and the electric engine on the version whose MRSP, $39,200, is twice the $19,200 price on the basic hatchback (SE 5-door) version.
If you bought the Focus in Great Britain, the engine menu shows 14 choices, of which eight are diesel engines (the electric Focus is scheduled to arrive on the European market later this year). The table below shows a selection of the 14 engines as well as the US options for the hatchback, to compare apples to apples (pricing shown for Zetec trim on UK models). Of course, the same engines are available for the Estate / Wagon.
To get a European Focus fitted with a 2.0L engine, you would have to buy the Zetec S trim (just under the Titatium trim). The more basic Edge and Zetec trims come with at most 1.6L under the hood. But those are worth considering.
Firstly, there is the sweet and frugal 1.0L EcoBoost, the tiny sibling of all the larger EcoBoost engines introduced by Ford to the US recently, which still manages to deliver 123HP. Start-Stop technology gives the fuel economy a nice boost, to a real-life 37mpg.
So far the 1.6L Duractec diesel is proven on the road to be the most frugal, getting 48mpg. Just to be clear: this is not a hybrid. You can tell, because it doesn't have the hybrid price tag.
But for fuel efficiency, you want to go with engines from the Duratorq series, which have proven their worth in Ford's other European models. The 1.6L Duratorq diesel is too new for real-life data, but is quoted to get 23% higher fuel efficiency than the 1.6L Duractec. Since it comes with the same price tag, the choice is clear.
Thanks so much to Small Footprints for nominating me for the Sunshine Award and for being so supportive of my various ramblings. She's a committed Greenie of the practical, one-step-at-a-time approach, and I've really enjoyed connecting with her and with other bloggers through her green challenges and her Meet & Greet Monday feature.
This is an award that comes with a task. It's summer, and I'll play!
1. If you are nominated, you must blog a post linking back to the person/blog that nominated you.
2. You must answer some questions, nominate ten fellow bloggers and link their blogs to the post!
3. You should comment on your nominees’ blogs to let them know you’ve nominated them.
In a way, asphalt is a car's dream surface: Asphalt is smooth, minimising noise and a bumpy ride. Asphalt is cheap (although that is changing). Asphalt smells good, both in the laying and at the first rain fall on a hot day.
However: Asphalt requires huge infrastructure to install, and is easily attacked by freezing water, and dissolved by clay soils. Asphalt makes the road surface waterproof and contributes to runoff, keeping rain water from reaching aquifers. Asphalt has near-zero albedo and blacktop roads contribute significantly to the local warming of cities: in the summer, coming home from an asphalt-covered mall parking lot to a tree-lined neighbourhood means experiencing a 10-20F temperature drop. Think of the temperature consequences for the planet as a whole.
But it wasn't always that way. Roads were ubiquitous in the Roman empire, but for their paving Roman engineers used stone, which has many advantages over asphalt. For one thing, stone is nearly unmatched for longevity. The original paving of some of those roads have lasted for 2000 years, although the wagon-wheel ruts are clearly visible. Most Roman roads didn't have water drains: except in heavy rainstorms, water just seeped between the stones to reach the soil underneath.
After the Romans, road builders started to use smaller stones, or, where stone wasn't readily available, clay bricks baked to near-lithic hardness. North European clays apparently were especially good for making sturdy bricks, some of which have survived from the Middle Ages. These have their advantages.
Smaller stones work particularly well in those places that need better drainage, such as the rain-blessed Low Lands. This is perhaps why brick-sized stone pavers are still called Belgian block. The seams allow most rainwater to drain right through to the sandy substrate underneath; that means you can build reasonably large market squares without installing a drain every few feet.
Whatever water seeps into the ground contributes to replenishing the aquifer, and does not contribute to the flow into the storm drains, which drains into the nearest waterway, which drains into a larger waterway, and so on until (in most of the US, anyway) the flow finally becomes part of the Mississippi River which has recently acquired a disturbing habit of showing 100-year level floods every few years or so, which can partially be ascribed to the paving over of so much land area.
Belgian block and street bricks have flat surfaces, so when laid properly the resulting road surface is reasonably smooth for rubber tires inflated to 30psi like most car tires are. It is also a pretty quiet ride, although not as quiet as asphalt.
Bricks tend to give a bumpier ride to bikers whose tires are inflated to 60-70psi. So in the Netherlands, bike paths tend to be paved with larger concrete pavers. Sidewalks are paved with the same pavers, sometimes in different patterns to distinguish them from the bike paths. Both are a strong cue that these portions of the road are off limits to cars. For good measure, they tend to be rimmed with tire-eating curbs, interrupted only at those places where bikes can move from the road onto the bike path or sidewalk.
Even on the cars' portion of the road, different paving patterns are used to indicate various functions, such as turnoffs and parking spaces. White bricks are used for demarcation lines, between lanes, and between parking spaces. Special bricks can be used to designate handicapped parking.
The spaces between the bricks also act as expansion joints, so stone or brick paved roads are less sensitive to seasonal temperature variations than asphalt roads. And even road bricks have an impressive lifetime. Of course, road surfaces built on clay ground tend to shift and buckle with time. Young shade trees mature and their growing roots will cause an interesting topology centred on the tree trunk.
Four decades after it was first constructed, my parents' street was a veritable history of people's favourite parking spots, their favourite part of the road to drive on (the middle), and the growth of various trees at the edges.
No problem. The city arrived one day with a crew of workers, who lifted up all the bricks, laid down a fresh layer of sand, neatly graded, and re-used all the unbroken bricks, which were the vast majority, to re-lay a new street surface. The whole job was done in a few weeks, and required less than one pallet of new bricks (and maybe a box of white ones) to replace the broken ones. If you look at the re-used bricks you can see that they can stand up for a repeat of this procedure every forty years for a long, long time.
That's what I call sustainable road building.
Stone-paved streets are strangers to that bane of the asphalt surface: potholes. If laid properly, the bricks hold each other in place. However, if the ground sinks in one localised spot, it is trivial to repair just that patch seamlessly: that would be impossible to do with asphalt which prefers curb-to-curb installation: It's like the difference between carpet tiles and wall-to-wall carpeting.
By the same token, it is quick and inexpensive to install a temporary road surface, or to modify it temporarily, such as when you need to re-route trolley tracks while road construction is going on. It's relatively painless to install a rail change element, and pave around it so traffic can still cross the rails, and moving back to the original configuration is equally straightforward.
Snow removal difficult
One of the few downsides about stone paving is that it is nearly impossible to use a snow plough on it, since that requires an asphalt-smooth surface to be effective. Every brick that stuck out just a little bit would be flipped out of its spot by the relentless front edge backed by the power of a bulldozer.
Then again, only the places closest to the poles are covered in snow in the winter. Places with more moderate climates don't need to take snow removal into account when planning for their city streets.
On the other hand, if you choose a lighter colour for the pavers, you can significantly increase the albedo, or the reflection of sunlight, from your road surface. That helps slow the warming of both the immediate neighbourhood and the planet, over the lifetime of the paver. This benefits especially cities and towns in temperate and tropical zones.
Stone paved streets used to be cleaned with brooms, but now that job is done by what amounts to giant vacuum cleaners on wheels, outfitted with brushes to get at the dirt in the corners. European streets are, not as clean as Japanese ones, but clean enough. By that I mean that in a forty years of logging the miles all over Europe, my dad hasn't suffered a single flat tire.
Of course, seams between pavers attract weeds. Even those are dealt with firmly, though no-one would dream of spraying them with weed killers. The street cleaners are simply fitted with a steel brush: no weed can stand up to that.
So with the increasing price of asphalt, towns and cities in warmer zones might just be inspired to consider pavers for their streets. Older towns in the US might already have them, hiding underneath a thin layer of asphalt. As the top asphalt layer starts to crumble, all you really have to do is to spread a layer of clay over it, wait a season or two for the clay to dissolve the asphalt (this process is surprisingly fast), and sweep it all away to expose the glorious original stone paving.
Then you can take away the No Skateboarding signs.
On this summer holiday, I had a chance to try out the 1.6L diesel engine that is not available for the VW Golf in the USA. Make no mistake: I don't mind feeling the occasional kick in the lumbar region in our 2.0L Golf TDI (at least, when neither the cello nor the children are in the car); but it's obvious that the 2.0L is way too much for a car the size of a Golf, and I would have jumped at a chance to buy the 1.6L TDI if it were for sale in the US.
So on our UK holiday I went for a Škoda Octavia of the Czech manufacturer, which shares a platform with the VW Golf, and does come with that 1.6L diesel engine. It is significantly larger than the Golf in all three dimensions. Its 4.57m length is closer to that of the VW Passat (4.77m) than that of and the Golf (4.20m), as is its general aspect ratio.
I was grateful to be able to close the front door while properly seated in the driver's seat (which I can't do in a Passat, nor an Audi A4). But I'm starting to suspect that car seats are built deeper in Europe than they are for the US market, West-Europeans being among the tallest people in the world: the backs of my shins just never quite clear the seats, and I could have done with a small pillow.
So it was very nice that the transmission was so forgiving. The steering wheel was, of course, on the right hand side of the car. We got befuddled by the map and lost our way. Lanes were narrow and traffic fast. In short, plenty of opportunities for the multi-tasking required for driving to break down. But the mellow transmission bailed me out every time I needed it to.
The kerb weight of the Octavia is nearly 10% less than that of the Golf. As I suspected, the 1.6L diesel engine has plenty of torque to move this car, loaded though it was with all four of us plus luggage. If I was at the front of a row of cars, it was because I was unwilling to get the car scraped on its sides (more about narrow lanes in a minute), or because we were lost - anyway not because the engine was labouring to keep speed.
We tend to travel light, and our luggage rattled around in the cavernous trunk, which could easily accomodate two cellos. The back hatch swivels at roof level, so once the back seats are folded down it's super easy to load in large pieces, a marvellous solution to the usual conundrum with sedans where the small trunk cover still prevents you from loading large pieces which can in principle fit in the car with the rear seats down.
However, the price you pay for this versatility is that short people like me end up looking ridiculous jumping for the edge of the hatch every time it needs to be closed. There is a rubber pendulum with an uneasy resemblance to a uvula (the thing that hangs down way in the back of your mouth), that you can grasp to pull down the hatch - but it's still a stretch for me, and if I use that I need a second hand to actually close the hatch. Now, when you're closing that hatch, you usually have something in your other hand: a cello, or beach gear, or a suitcase. So you just need to be tall enough for this car.
In general, as it turned out, the car was too large for our holiday. Since we're not camping, my family of four could easily have fit in something significantly smaller. I should have remembered that the only time I had a grazing encounter with an oncoming car occurred in Devon. That time we were in an Opel Vectra, a wagon of impressive width that just fit all our camping gear. Its side mirror got shaved off by an oncoming BMW going a bit fast on a Devon road that was much too narrow for beeming. People who know, like locals, go for more modestly sized cars; the owners of the cottage where we stayed have two: the larger one is a Ford Focus; the other one is significantly smaller. Smart move.
Because in Devon, even "A" designated roads are not all that wide, and on Dartmoor a "B" road is actually 0.8 lanes tucked between carefully manicured hedges. I speculate that if they're behind on the hedge cutting maintenance they would have to detour the traffic. Every 300 metres or so there is a lay-by, where the road broadens to 1.5 lanes, and you puzzle your way past any oncoming cars, taking one or two back-and-forths if required.
This mode of transportation seems to be so attractive to Brits that even in towns, where roads officially have two lanes, they still manage to turn them into effectively one-lane roads by allowing road-side parking. These are old roads, flanked on both sides by a row of houses; the sidewalk is barely two persons wide and sees a lot of use, so the only place for parking is on the road. It is far from unusual to see a row of parked cars on the left, with a car squeezing by on the right lane, which is the wrong lane. Basically you end up alternately dodging parked cars and oncoming cars. While this may be a charming, if slightly scary, way to get about when you're a tourist, it's not all that amusing for natives who don't have all day to get from A to B and who will play the chicken game at every row of parked cars, squeezing in just before the guillotine closes between the last parked car in the row and the first oncoming car. It goes without saying that this game of chicken involves a great deal of acceleration and braking. And all this while driving on the wrong side of the road, and with the shift stick in the left hand. Dextrous people, those Brits.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. We are completely in love with Britain in general, and Devon in particular, and we'll take it, wild traffic and all. All this is just to say that for many of the miles on this holiday I've been in third gear, often slowing to second or even first, and on several occasions going into reverse when the only place to pass oncoming traffic happens to be behind me. Even so, at the final tally after nearly 900 miles, it transpired we had done 47 mpg in this car under these trying circumstances. That's about the average reported by British owners of this model car with this engine, but I'm sure I could do significantly better on home turf, in small-town USA where roads have two full-sized lanes and are wide enough for three, and driving styles are mellower.
The Škoda Octavia with the same 1.6L TDI engine also comes in a Greenline II version which has a suite of fuel-economy enhancing technologies; the equivalent package is known as Bluemotion for Volkswagen vehicles. This version gets a real-life 51 mpg as reported by its owners. Its higher price reflects unspecified upgrades in the trim level (compared to the S Hatch trim) that are opaque to figure out, so only some unknown fraction of the £ 1,475 price difference can be ascribed to the fuel efficiency enhancement technology.
IF this were the only way to get that sweet 1.6L engine (especially with the Greenline II option) I would buy this car. But I would retrofit the hatch so it doesn't open quite as high. Better yet, I would go for the Estate, or wagon, version which is a proper hatchback. But it would be too big. The truth is, what I really want is a 1.6L Bluemotion Golf. With its proven 52 mpg.