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.