NYC bike lanes

For those of us not lucky enough to live in cities where there is forward thinking transportation policy, we can but dream of things like NYC’s cool bike lanes where they are protected from the traffic by the line of parked cars. Of course this was up in leafy Morningside Heights. Other parts of the city still seem pretty scary to ride around in, but the bike share program is certainly taking off.

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Vélib’ in Paris

Just spent the most satisfying day testing out Paris’s bike hire program. It was fabulous on every level.

Bike stations are everywhere which makes it easy to pick up and drop off. The kiosks are multi lingual and initial rental was relatively painless. If you only have an American credit card, set it up online ahead of time, but with a British chip and pin debit card it was seamless then and there. I

We found the roads only mildly scary, even Boul. St. Michel. There are bike/bus lanes on main routes, although I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for anyone except confident, experienced cyclists. Tealgeen daughter, aged 11, did just fine.

The best part was that we covered way more ground than we ever would have by foot and enjoyed more scenery than being underground on the metro. Our routes were fairly circuitous, stopping to check the map and reorient only occasionally – but that, of course, is half the fun.

You don’t need anything special to ride a bike in Paris – no slinky bike shorts, loud jersey or special shoes. We just wore what we had on (and both Tealgeen daughter and I were both wearing skirts and sandals – it was fine). The seats are hugely adjustable and comfy, there are 3 gears, easy to operate, and a basket for gear.

We all came home convinced that you absolutely could survive without a car in Paris, between the excellent metro system and the bikes, and in a pinch, the electric car share program. More on that tomorrow.

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The Slippery Slope

Eight years.  I’ve lived in the States as a fully certified adult for eight years.  I did grow up America, but then spent my formative, early young adult years (post college to age 35)  in Europe, so think of my life in terms of how long I’ve been “back in the States.”  It was a strange thing returning after so long away.  I left as a recently graduated college kid and returned, married, with 2 kids and a mortgage.  So although culturally, it seemed like coming home, things felt incredibly foreign in some unexpected areas.  I didn’t really know the ins and outs of “grown up” life – how to establish credit, get a mortgage, run an old, New England, wooden, house (my god, the houses here are made of ant food, and need SO much maintenance).

But the surprises went far beyond the practicalities of how to navigate the logistics of adult life.  What I found was that culturally, although on the surface it felt like coming home — I have the right accent and even say wicked and talk about the Red Sox – in so many ways, I am no longer comfortable with the status quo in American social norms.  So imagine my horror when the other day, I found that I ran 3 errands within 1/2 mile of each other, moved the car between each on, and didn’t even think about it….until I was sitting in the car after the third one, and it hit me.  It’s not just that I’ve slipped down the slope, it’s that I didn’t even feel the wind in my hair on the way.

Over the last several years, I have been disheartened by the lack of awareness of Americans of their impact on our planet.  And even now, eight years later, there’s much more awareness, but slim evidence of willingness or even desire to do anything about it.  My tendency to see the best in people and empathize makes me think that as people become more aware, behaviors will change.  But watching my own behavior and the tendency to slide to the “norm” of what’s around me, makes me pretty despondent about our hope for change.

When we arrived back in the States, it would never have occurred to me not to walk or ride my bike on any journey of up to about 5 miles unless it was pouring rain (forget about drizzle).   Now those journeys are done regularly in the car, or there’s definitely discussion about the logistics of not doing them in the car.  Our heating would never have been above 68 – and yet our thermostats’ default was 72.  I had few clothes that I wore until they were dirty, washed and rotated, for many years.  I now find myself feeling the need to buy more stuff, just because I can. The pressure I feel to have a lush, chemical, water sucking lawn is palpable – to not do so feels like a cheat on the neighbors and their property values.  Even though I feel pretty passionate about more sustainable landscaping, including growing my own food, given that we have a fair amount of open land, I feel the sting of bucking that status quo.  I find it easier to act where the results are private and I can still give the semblance of “fitting in.”

Intellectually, I know what’s going on here.  It’s pretty well documented that people tend to drift to the norms around them.  On the whole, this is a good thing; it’s what makes societies function effectively.  Knowing when to shake hands, what kind of tip is expected at restaurants, how children are to behave in public, etc all be useful.  But what happens when many of the social norms are found by a large minority within a society and by the world beyond, to be fundamentally flawed or harmful?  What happens when on an abstract level, sensible minds agree that the norms we have need to change, but on a practical level, people just want to carry on as they always have?  How do we make that happen?  That’s where we are with changing behavior in a more environmentally friendly direction.

Traffic-snarled LA goes bike-wild with 1,600 miles of lanes

I love this article on so many levels that I am going to put the entire content of it into my blog rather than just link to it.  Maybe, just maybe, there is hope.

RIDING ONTO THE SUNSET: BY Sarah Goodyear
Traffic-snarled LA goes bike-wild with 1,600 miles of lanes
3 MAR 2011 10:32 AM

The Backbone Bikeway Network proposed by the L.A. Bike Working Group was incorporated into the city’s master plan for 1,680 miles of new bike lanes.

The cab driver who cut off Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa when the mayor was riding his bicycle last year may have done the city a huge favor.

After the incident, in which he fell from his bike and broke his elbow, Villaraigosa started talking a lot more about the importance of bicycles to the city’s future.

And on March 2, he signed a kind of astonishing bicycle master plan, which had been unanimously approved by the city council the day before. It calls for the creation of 1,680 miles of interconnected bike lanes in the city where transport has been defined by the automobile for generations. Significantly, this is a network designed not for recreation, but for actual transportation.

The plan, which was created with significant input from the city’s well-organized bicycling community, would mean 100 miles per year of new lanes over each of the next five years, and 40 miles a year thereafter. Funding will come, in part, from a half-cent sales tax dedicated to transportation upgrades, overwhelmingly approved by Los Angeles County voters in 2008.

Since 1977, the city has built just 377 miles of bike lanes.

As Matthew Fleischer notes on KCET’s SoCal Focus blog, this is just the beginning. NIMBYism and bureaucratic delays could get in the way of the plan’s implementation.

But let’s put doubts aside for a moment. Think about the implications. Los Angeles — the city that has for so long defined, epitomized, and glamorized American car culture — could become a truly great bicycling city. And that could change the way ordinary people and politicians alike think about bicycles as transportation in the United States.

Makes me want to give that cabbie a nice, fat tip.

Sarah Goodyear is Grist’s cities editor. She’s also on Twitter.

One Car Challenge….fail?

I suppose in my heart, I knew it wasn’t going to last.  But we managed to get from March to nearly November  in 1 car and still maintain most of the vestiges of our suburban lifestyle.  Of that I am proud.  We proved that it can be done.  We discovered what in our hearts we already knew – that to do it took some serious compromise.

After months of angst and frustration regarding the paltry market for cars with serious mpg ratings, I came across the following which lifted the cloak of depression about what a girl should do when reality means a 25 to 30 grand Prius or VW diesel is out of her price range:

  • hybrids get great gas mileage but it takes 113 million BTUs of energy to make a Toyota Prius. Because there are about 113,000 BTUs of energy in a gallon of gasoline, the Prius has consumed the equivalent of 1,000 gallons of gasoline before it reaches the showroom. Think of it as a carbon debt — one you won’t pay off until the Prius has turned over 46,000 miles or so.There’s an easy way to avoid that debt — buy a used car. The debt has already been paid. But not just any used car will do. [Read the entire article HERE]

So what did we buy?  Well, suburban family life kept trying to steer us to a van but I just couldn’t do it.  Even knowing that buying used was a good option, I just couldn’t stomach buying something that’s rated around town at below 20 mpg. The new Mazda 5 comes in just above that, but again, that’s all very well if you’re willing to dig into your wallet for upwards of 20 grand for a new car.

So I spent weeks doing searches on yahoo cars and Craig’s list, just putting in “wagon, manual transmission.” I can tell you, that’s not a very satisfying search.  Most people don’t want to drive a stick – who knows why. Maybe just so it’s easier to drink the coffee and chat on the phone while driving (at least texting is illegal in our state now).  It came down to: Audi A6, BMW 3/5 series, Dodge Magnum, Ford Taurus, various Mercs, Saab, Subaru, Saab 93/95, VW Passa/Jettat & Volvo elephant wagon.  And realistically, on checking out the search results, most of these weren’t even sticks, they just snuck through somehow.

So how to choose?  MPG is always first on my list, but TealGreen hubby and I are, I confess, actually enthusiastic drivers and have high standards on looks, build quality and driving performance.  So out went Dodge (terrible Consumer Report reviews anyway), Ford Taurus (likewise), Mercs (too expensive and thirsty), Saab (test drove and just didn’t like the feel), Subaru (a little thirsty and feels tinny), Volvo (bad reviews from several friends).  Test drove a couple of ancient Audis.  Nice enough but not blown away and older models don’t get very good Consumer Report reviews.  So back to VW and BMW, our old friends from many years of living in Europe (the last 3 in Germany).  Still like the looks and drive feel of a VW, but feeling burnt by water issues with our totaled one, so feeling tempted by BMW.  But riddled with guilt that that’s all terribly middle class, suburban status symbol.  So keep doing the Craigslist searches and fate intervenes.  The PERFECT car comes up as a hit.  Black 3 series, wagon, sub 100 grand miles, pucker spec (leather, good sound system, yummy lights); good mpg rating (not the 40mpg of the diesel…but that’s out of our price range), and on the market within our budget (goal is sub 10 grand; substantially sub being even better).    So we pluck up our courage and decide to bite the bullet and test drive this baby, prepared for it to be not what it seems.

But it is; so far anyway.  A cream puff of a car, lovingly driven and serviced, looking pretty new even though at 90k and 10 years, it paid off its manufactured carbon debt several years ago.  And the best news: although it’s rated at 20/29, it actually is coming in at about 25 town, 30 highway, both of which are better than my Passat ever was.  So that’s the end of the car story.  A nice, nippy beemer 3 wagon for TealGreen family driving.   And it’s still rated at zero mpg when I’m riding my bike!

Fuel Economy PLEASE

The car saga continues….hubby is away this week and mother nature is in a bad mood.  Kids’ activities are taking over my life and I can’t believe how much mental energy I spend on thinking about getting everyone where they need to be, when they need to be there.  Living in the suburbs without a car is, this week anyway, really HARD.  Not that I didn’t realize it before, but there’s nothing like living it to really bring it home.

So, seriously looking at 2nd vehicle for TG household now….and came across this post on The Hill from Mindy Lubber, president of CERES.  “It’s past time. Today’s fuel economy of U.S. cars, SUVs and passenger trucks ranks among the lowest in the world. We pay a huge economic price for that daily.” The entire post is here

Reality setting in

It comes as no surprise to me that now that summer’s over, the reality of how to survive on one car in our active family of 4 is now not quite as rosy as it was over the last few, incredibly dry, school free, summer months.  Thinking about what to do next raises so many issues, I hardly know where to start.  As with so many things in life, in the end it comes down to logistics, priorities, and how hard we are willing to work to make this thing happen.

Let’s start with logistics.  In the spring when we started, a close friend of ours was driving daily by the T stop that would drop my husband near the door of his office, so if I felt I needed the car for the day, help was just a phone call away.  In a way, it almost felt like cheating because I wasn’t really living without the car at my end, just needed to plan for it.  No real hardship there – just a need for foresight, queuing up errands more efficiently and being aware of my schedule and my husband’s, which weirdly has made us generally more aware of each other’s lives which has its good points too.  Sadly (more so for our friend than us), the catch-a-ride-with-a-friend-to-work option is gone.  So life in the new school year is considerably more complicated than it was at the end of last year’s.
The last few weeks have left me feeling fairly preoccupied with trying to figure out how to continue as we have.  But emotionally, it’s been downhill as it is seeming harder and harder as we face a new round of activities and pending colder, wetter, darker weather.  Thinking carefully, I have stacked the kids’ schedule to put activities where I really do need the car (darned cello is so big; amazing piano teacher lives just a little too far away) all on the same day.  This took some doing, but it’s done.  Other in-town activities are bike-able for the moment.  I haven’t really addressed the reality of our very cold, snowy New England winters.

But what’s really been on my mind in the last few weeks are the other two elements in this equation, priorities and how hard we are willing to work to make this happen.  Let’s start with priorities.  Before my car died in the flooding of March 2010 (see post here), we were a 2 car family and happily so.  Our approach was to simply use them efficiently by always using the smaller, better mpg car first and minimizing car use for short journeys, the bulk of which have something to do with child rearing and living in the suburbs.   To achieve this, my husband and I have spent the last 8 years teaching our children the rules of the road, safety, independence, common sense and street smarts.  We have spent hours walking and riding with them whenever possible, and also by modeling that we, too, can make our short journeys under our own foot or pedal powered steam.  I hasten to add that as part of this effort, we have set as a priority investing in really good equipment for the whole family including bikes, hefty locks, the helmet of choice, regardless of cost (they’re more likely to wear it if they like it), front and rear lights (not just reflectors) and cargo racks to help transport school, athletic and musical gear (excluding the cello of course; but a flute and a clarinet we can do).  Of this list, the one most parents seem to forget is the lights, either because it doesn’t occur to them (most suburban parents may never have had occasion to ride in the dusk or dark, only ever having cycled for recreation), or because they swear their kids will never be somewhere when they need them.  The bottom line is better safe than sorry – dusk comes awfully early in November.  So back to priorities.  We’re well on our way to achieving the goal of self sufficiency for the kids in their own local transportation.  We as a family understand conservation and practice sustainable transportation, whether or not there is a second car in the the driveway.  The challenge is whether we will continue to achieve this if we decide to get a second car out of the feeling that a New England winter without a car is a step too far in a town with no public transportation.

Which brings me on to the third element: how hard we are willing to try. I guess the appeal at the start of this experiment was that in having only one car, it really forced us to live our values (OK, I’ll be honest, my values).  If the car’s not sitting there in the garage taunting you with its ease and flexibility, there’s no arguing with the kids about whether or not you’re going to give them a lift somewhere.  It has been liberating to some extent to see that we can do it, but within this experiment, I have also been keenly aware of avoiding the mistake of turning this into a crusade that makes my family (read my kids) miserable.  Whereas for my 12 year old son, self sufficiency has translated to freedom, for my daughter, it still feels overwhelming a lot of the time.  Some of it is personality, but some of it too is sheer size, ability and stamina.  And of this I am keenly aware as the youngest sibling in my own family.  So in thinking about where to go next, it’s not a straightforward equation of whether I think I can manage to carry on as we are.  It’s all muddled up with the whole issue of decision making as a family, parenting and balance.  My conclusion at the moment is that realistically we will move  back into the realms of a 2 car family in the near future.  I don’t think I have the stomach to torture my kids that much and the reality is that at the moment our family feels the need for a little more flexibility, especially in the winter months, than just the one car affords.

Does this feel like failure if we go down that road?  Well, yes and (a qualified) no.  Yes because I know we could live with one car.  It would simply take more compromises and perhaps some unpopular decisions, like limiting particular after school activities or spending more time on my part shuffling my husband to the train station if I feel I need the car myself.  So the feeling of failure is that we would be choosing to avoid those compromises.  So how do I reconcile myself to this?   Well, to start with, in the car I choose, about which, a lot more later.  But ultimately, in thinking carefully about how we choose to use the resources we have, and on that, there will be no change.  Whenever possible, feet and bikes will always come first, with a car a distant third.