- a collection of notes and reflections on urban living from the perspective of a family of five in Tokyo. My epiphany was many years ago, but being hit by a motorbike and seeing my life flash before my eyes caused a sudden change that slowly made me reflect on whether American style auto-centric urban transportation of the Roosevelt era really is a capital G "Good Idea" for civilized modern cities in the 21st Century. This blog explores the good and the bad in urban planning and design, here and elsewhere. The goal is simple - not "death to all cars," just more walkable communities, quiet tree-lined streets, good public transport, traffic calming, Velib style bicycle sharing and a bit of common sense. The bolg is mostly theraputic, so I don't go wanting to throttle every dangerous driver I come across, but partly also out of a real desire to see positive change. This blog explores how it can be done, the people who do it, and how, in many small ways, this very old idea may at last have found its zeitgeist. Comments and suggestions welcome.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Peter Newman

Peter Newman, author of "Cities as sustainable ecosystems: principles and practices" with Isabella Jennings, is one person who seems to have kept on fighting when the "traffic wars" of the 70s were thought to have been won decisively by the automobile. Peter does not appear to be anti-automobile per se - rather he objects to "auto dependence" a term he helped popularize. Now that the world is finally coming around, his ideas are having a huge impact on the way we think about our cities today.

A fantastic interview with him on the Science Show recently reminded me to write this little tribute. Personally I think he is spot on - cars, electric or otherwise, are just not going to be as big a part of our economy as they once were.

Thanks Peter. I am not much of a royalist, but you deserve a knighthood for bravely sticking to your principles while the world went gaga over cars.

Thanks also to Robyn Williams and the Science Show team for conducting the interview.

Interestingly, it was around 2002 that I had my little epiphany about cars, and 2005 that I started this blog myself - so right around that 2004 year that Peter mentions was the inflection point when the world began to turn away from cars en masse. Bring it on, I say.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fact: Cheap electricity fuels the economy.

Do we really need nuclear power?

Is it really worth it for Japan and other countries, post-Fukushima? The problem is, of course, that if you want a big, fat, juicy, expanding economy, right now, then you currently have very little option but to support nuclear, and even if you had other options (renewables, say), you might support it anyway - it'll make things all the juicier!

On the other hand, to bring into question the long term global environmental/human impact of sustained and widespread nuclear (or oil or gas or coal based) power production is to question the very viability of modern economies, at least at their current scale - it may well be a position that ultimately proves correct, to be sure, one day, but it is unlikely to win support from the business/finance community, at least not publicly, not even now after Fukushima.

A large part of the support for nuclear power stems, it seems, from the realization that global warming is real and air-pollution ain't that swell either, so cars will eventually need to move to electric power.

Now those who know me and this blog will know I think that cars are actually a very large part of a great many problems, and that simply getting rid of 90% of them is both feasible and would go a long way towards sustainable solutions to many of these seemingly intractible problems, including the question of whether we need nuclear power. But that's a similarly unpopular seemingly bearish argument. Hell, anything that might cause the economy to contract, no matter how nice it sounds, is a pretty hard sell; just ask any politician.

But of course, I can see a day coming when the world has decided it needs to switch to electric vehicles due to global warming and energy security, which will require massive increases in local electricity generation capacity, which will require heavy investment in nuclear energy. In fact, our leaders may have already reached that consensus. This ultimately may result in a really terrible nuclear disaster at some distant future point in time, indeed one that will make us wish that we had just got rid of 90% of the cars to begin with. But I think that engineers are pretty smart chaps, so the chances are pretty good that I won't be around at that stage to say "I told you so".

In fact, chances are probably much higher that all this investment will just result in cheap electricity, just as those smart engineers planned, and then (oops) the kind of gradual, unexciting, inexorable decline and degradation of our natural environment that can't really be pinned on anything in particular except maybe really vaguely on "population growth", but which eventually leads us all to the same conclusion - perhaps we should have just dumped 90% of the cars to begin with and re-jigged our urban planning models. Unfortunately, if the other smarties at IPCC are to be believed, this may indeed happen during my lifetime. In which case, I will be able to say "I told you so", but it won't be much fun.

So I like to think that maybe people will just realize en-masse that living in car-free communities is good for your body and soul as well as the community and the environment, and that all of a sudden all those lifeless, soul-sucking, stinking 'burbs' the world over, synonymous with sprawl and environmental degradation, will be transformed as we transition to low-impact, happier lifestyles in close-knit, car-free, multi-use communities where people actually get to know each other and look out for each other, and, who knows, maybe that will happen without either economic or environmental catastrophy...

One can only hope, and maybe do a little as well. One without the other is a recipe for insanity. But at least all this focus on power saving since Fukushima has made people realize that energy is precious, and that it can and perhaps should be conserved where possible, at every level.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Kuroneko Delivery Bicycles with Trailers

I had been meaning to upload something about the Kuroneko electric bike + delivery trailer system, but found this, so I am just going to show you this gentleman's video instead.

The system itself has been around for a few years now. I thought it was only rolled out in the inner city where streets are narrow and fairly dense, but it looks like they are doing it elsewhere also, which is great.

As some readers will know, my wife and I used a Japanese electric bicycle + child trailer for several years to take the kids around town without a car and it was really fantastic. I sometimes wonder how good these trailer hitches on the Kuroneko trailers are so high up under the seat there, but the kuroneko guys seem to use them just fine.

There are a number of other companies that also use electric bicycles and trailers in Japan these days and it is fantastic to see. It really does save these companies a bucket load of money, is good for the environment, and keeps the couriers very fit. I have seen them running mountain races in their uniforms - rightfully proud of their extra fitness.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Architect's urban living guide doesn't include cars

From the Miami Herald - introducing Andrés Duany and his book "The Smart Growth Manual"

Why this is on the "Arts" page and not the cover page of course is a question that we will probably have to answer to future generations.

Short piece, and well worth a read. Discusses the "New Urbanism" movement, why many are now saying it's best if we just leave the Prius at home, and a few other prominent American writers on the topic.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Car Free Day in Japan

In contrast to American rock and roll ideas about freedom and mobility, the Car Free Day is a celebration of human mobility, started way back when in Europe and now an annual event as part of Mobility Week.

An ever growing number of Japanese cities is participating in this event, with the 松本カーフリーデー above a regular participant, closing of a number of streets to automobiles.

Nine Japanese cities participated in 2009, according to Japan for Sustainability, and one can only hope this event grows even bigger, as Japanese city centres are surely ripe for more car-free zones.

The whole stretch between Matsumoto Station and the famous 烏城 or Raven Castle is an obvious candidate. One of my favourite candidates in Tokyo is the whole area around Jiyugaoka station. A popular high density urban transit node and trendy shopping district, the area is an intricate network of narrow streets and always seems to be a mess of cars still attempting, often aggressively, to assert their right of passage in what has become a defacto pedestrian zone.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Positive Note to End the Year

2008-9 was a year when we were starting to see some progress. The zeitgeist of the walkable cities movement really began to get rolling, concern for the environment and anti-automobile sentiment was running high. Oil prices were skyrocketing, bicycle sales were going through the roof, car sales falling through the floor, people talked about building communities not roads and restoring waterways and pedestrian streets.

But then the "GFC" scared everyone off for a little while. Environmental concerns took a back seat while governments decided things were bad enough to require propping up the ailing auto industry with unprecedented levels of government intervention to maintain the status quo, the reasoning being that we had to keep the Titanic afloat if we were going to turn it around. Possibly sound policy, but to those concerned about where the status quo it has been very disheartening.

However, amid all of this, more and more people in business, government and the community seem to be slowly but surely getting behind the idea of walkable communities. And the really wonderful inspiring thing is that this zeitgeist is gathering pace with little to no advertising, marketing, viral marketing, legal teams or highly paid political lobbyists.

So here are a few videos celebrating these wonderful developments. Enjoy!

Starting with something serious, but uplifting all the same, we have an interview with Rodney Tolley, editor and contributing author (I think) of the book "Sustainable Transport":

And more Rodney Tolley:

Secondly, a practical look at Copenhagen with Jan Gehl. The climate talks in Copenhagen this year may have failed, but this video shows just how far ahead of the rest of us Copenhagen is in its thinking about sustainable transportation. This short excerpt from the fabulous "Contested Streets" documentary.

Love this quote: "sometimes [the pedestrian areas] are too popular. If you don't have enough nice spaces you can see overcrowding like this, but then you should just make more pedestrian spaces."

Omotesando in Tokyo had this problem some years ago. The car free Omotesando, with its lofty trees, was so popular it became overcrowded. Unfortunately Omotesando turned the otherway and decided to let the cars back. Now it is both crowded AND noisy.

Next, a look at Auckland's dismal situation. I find this one uplifting because recognition of a problem is the first step towards redemption!

Part I

Part II

And finally, a simple happy celebration of the new car free streets in New York:

Two legs good, four wheels bad

Prince Charles on urban planning priorities:

I couldn't have said it better myself...

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Congestion Tax

This from the New York Times: M.T.A. Tax Revenue Is $200 Million Short

If ever there was a time for New York to introduce a congestion charge (an electronic charge on driving automobiles into the inner city) that time is right now.

Friday, November 13, 2009

China Dust Clouds

China's dust clouds have been getting some attention around the world of late. To be honest I am a little afraid for Japan on this account, due to proximity. The dust can noticably impare air quality as far away as Tokyo, and it seems the effects are felt elsewhere also - in fact, just about everywhere.

A Japanese study using a NASA satellite has apparently found that one 2007 storm in China's Taklimakan desert made "made more than one full circle around the globe in just 13 days" according to this Reuters article.

A frightening thought and yet another reminder that there can be no shirking from dealing with the effects of global environmental damage, of which climate change is really just one element. Americans, Canadians and Europeans can no longer export the environmental impact of their consumption to China and the developing world without facing the consequences directly.

On a side note, I notice that the article also quotes the researchers as saying that "Dust clouds contain 5 percent iron, that is important for the ocean." It has been said that iron in the ocean can increase absorbtion of carbon dioxide, reducing the impact of global warming. Ironically (pun intended) this means that the dust storms - perhaps themselves partly a consenquence of global warming as well as urbanization and bad land use practices, may also be mitigating the impact of CO2 emissions elsewhere.

An interesting thought, and really in line with the somehow comforting Gaia concept of an essentially self-regulating Earth environment - including living and non-living elements. That is, until you imagine life with lots of big dust storms like this and realize that this particular "self-regulation technique" does not a nice living environment make for us humans...cough cough

Driven to Distraction

This is old news now, but very noteworthy. A July 21, 2009 article in the New York Times revealed that the U.S. government withheld important data on risks of distracted driving, stating:

"In 2003, researchers at a federal agency proposed a long-term study of 10,000 drivers to assess the safety risk posed by cellphone use behind the wheel. They sought the study based on evidence that such multitasking was a serious and growing threat on America’s roadways.

But such an ambitious study never happened. And the researchers’ agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, decided not to make public hundreds of pages of research and warnings about the use of phones by drivers — in part, officials say, because of concerns about angering Congress."

The article includes statements by the likes of the former head of the highway safety agency who is quoted in the article as saying he was urged to withhold the research to avoid antagonizing members of Congress who had warned the agency to stick to its mission of gathering safety data but not to lobby states.

Fortunately the research data has since been released and in case you weren't convinced of the danger, the article notes also that "The highway safety researchers estimated that cellphone use by drivers caused around 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents over all in 2002."

This article, and in fact there is now a whole series on the topic on the NYT website, to me really shows the importance of public opinion in shaping public policy. Congress can be bought out, and at times that can be extremely detrimental to the nation, but it can only go so far if the public opinion turns against them.

I sometimes wonder if the US would not be a very different place if there were all of a sudden no automobile advertising, which incidentally stood at something like US$10 billion or more in 2008. Good use of public bailout money that is... car companies start to fail because we realize we just don't really want life with cars so much any more, then govt steps in and bails them out so they can keep pitching cars that we don't want to us.

Stats and views from the USA

I did say I would try to focus more on Japan, but I found some very thoughtful comentary on US automobile dystopia by an investment analyst on a Seeking Alpha blog "The Ramifications of Growing Global Gas Guzzlers" and thought I would share.

Many interesting stats and insights from the US Department of Energy's Transportation Energy Data Book. He also hits the issue on the nose by pointing out that while the US is now (slowly)starting to head in the right direction, we need to be (very) worried about global car ownership.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Blog Intro

Introducing another interesting little blog: The Sexify Blog *in Seoul*. The owner of the blog posted a comment here a long time ago, but I didn't follow up. Perhaps it was the peculiar title. However it is actually an entertaining and well organized blog - related to all things urban cycling, by a British person based in Seoul, with some good commentary and a few interesting links.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Extreme Golf

My latest hobby is "Extreme Golf". In Japan, the land of mountains, the only place left for golf courses is high in the mountains. Most people drive there by personal car - often alone, meeting their friends there, who also drive their personal car. This tradition has held me back from golf, as I avoid driving whenever there is another option. However, I lately discovered the golf delivery service, a service whereby for about 15 dollars you can have your clubs delivered from your home to the course overnight - and back again afterwards. Thus unburdened, I can take my racing bicycle on the Shinkansen (express train) and enjoy a leisurely ride from the nearest station up through the forests to the golf course. You may ask "What is so extreme about this?" Well, often tee-off is quite early, so not wanting to rush, I will sometimes take the train up after work the day before, and ride in the evening, camping out somewhere near the golf course in a bivvy bag, where I can wake to a stunning dawn and reach the club house in time for a quick wash, breakfast and still be the first to tee off. To be honest it is not particularly extreme at all but the golfers I know seem to think it is.

You may also ask just how much less impact is this when you are still sending a truck up the mountain. Well you would just have to see the truck - absolutely teeming with tens of bags to be delivered back to Tokyo. In Japan, many people do the same thing, but of course taking the shuttle bus rather than riding a bicycle from the station.

The moral of the story is that when you give people low-impact options, they can and will use them - it is not just about hardship, but in fact can be more pleasant and satisfying provided the right systems are in place.

My Extreme Golf is a flippant example but take urban sprawl for instance. Living in a sprawling auto-dependent city largely precludes low-impact living due to the transportation constraints. But put in just one car-free greenway that crosses the city from the mountain to the beaches, a few trains or trams and a good delivery system, and all of a sudden, people have an option that is not only low impact, but actually a better experience. Why are beachside houses so popular and expensive despite forecasts of rising sea levels? I believe it may well be because we have beach parks that enable healthy living options, while increasingly wider roads away from these parks cuts off other citizens from these wonderful places. Imagine now if one of these beach parks had a strip extending, not along the beach, but perpendicular right up towards the mountains, forcing all major roads to go under it and other to just dead-end. Immediately you have given thousands of people the option of ditching their car for a healthy way to get to the beach, and probably dramatically increased land prices around that strip. If I had my way, every beach town in Australia would have one or two of these green highways going out from the beachside or town centre. This is how governments can and should add value - because they are the only ones who can do this kind of thing. And if we don't we will find we are bonded to our cars like so many slaves to the machine.

The Paris' "Velib" system is another case in point. Give people a good, simple, convenient, low-impact, cheap, fun and healthy way to get about a city via a system that really works, and surprise surprise - what do you know? Tens of thousands of people start using it the very day it was introduced.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Which should come first, cycling popularity or better planning?

Very interesting study here. I never knew that bicycle use in Japan doubled from 1975-1977. According to this article it appears to have been triggered by a change in public policy in favour of bicycle use. Pity they didn't think of a system like the Paris Velib project, which would have eliminated some of the need for spwrawling parking facilities.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Taken for a Ride

Fairly well known documentary about efforts to derail mass transit in the US. Just thought I would put it up here in case anyone has not seen it. Really wish a similar thing would be done about Japan's own sordid history of motorway construction - right up to the reduction of highway tolls today as "economic stimulus."

Friday, August 07, 2009

What sound should electric cars have ?

As noted in a recent Reuters blog article Gassing About Electric Cars, motor engineers these days appear to be faced with a peculiar problem - what sound to give electric cars?

Automotive industry participants obviously do not buy into the idea that we should have fewer cars on the road. More is better from their perspective. Anything else and even Government Motors will not be saved. Hell, the auto industry hasn't even liked the idea of moving to electric vehicles. However the industry has recently been forced to concede that at a bare minimum, a shift of the current fleet to electric vehicles will be necessary if we are to avoid a future not worth considering.

Now, as I have noted in previous posts, for various reasons I think the switch to EVs is just one very small part of the change that is necessary. In fact it may even lead to more difficulties down the road as the world gears up nuclear power stations to provide all the electricity necessary.

One thing I do find amusing is that electric vehicle designers are confounded by the noise of electric vehicles - or lack thereof. Why should it be a problem for a vehicle to be quiet? Well, not so surprisingly, automobiles are extremely dangerous. Those of us lucky to have good hearing have relied on it to save our lives. It is no surprise to know that deaths by automobile are highest among the elderly. The elderly cannot hear vehicles coming. Pretty soon we will all be faced with this issue. So what to do? Give cars artificial noise. Well this will bring a whole new dimension to the fight over noise pollution in cities. Not only are drivers making a lot of noise - it will be entirely preventable.

Meanwhile the USA has poured another billion dollars down the drain with their "Cash for Clunkers" program, while urban renewal projects that promote walkable cities are being knocked back due to lack of funding.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

When Can Deflation be a Good Thing?

The Real Tragedy

- Private Cars in China Up 28% in 2008
The number of privately owned cars in China rose by 28% in 2008, making the
total number of civilians owning private cars 19.47 million, according to the
National Bureau of Statistics of China (probably an unreliable source).

Even if the figures are overstated, this is the real tragedy. China, Russia, Brazil, India. If they all start driving like "Westerners" do, we are screwed.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Honda: Insight or Incite ?

Really great commentary from Worldwatch Institute on the advertising for the new Honda "Insight" hybrid, which the company touts "theoretically seats 6.75 billion."

OPINION: The More Hybrid Drivers the Better?

The Worldwatch Institute gets right to the crux of the issue when it notes that more hybrid drivers does not in any way deliver energy saving. In fact, if the world's people (all 6.75 billion of them) were to drive hybrids or any kind of motor vehicle it would be an unmitigated disaster.

There is an interesting paradox in energy called Jevon's Paradox, which simply put notes that technological advances in energy efficiency tend to increase output rather than decrease overall consumption of the resource, so much so in fact that you end up with greater overall consumption due to the elasticity of demand. In other words, improvements in fuel efficiency do not automatically lead to decreased consumption - in fact the opposite is true.

In the context of hybrids, this would mean that the more efficient the vehicle, the more we would tend to drive. Looking at Honda's advertising, this is clearly their goal. It has nothing to do with saving the environment, though they would have you think it does.

Way to go Honda... very inciting, but lacking insight.

So a smoker kicks Lucky Strike for low tar. Woohoo! Actually, no. He's still a smoker - and the chances are pretty good he will just smoke more cigarettes to compensate. In the process the habit becomes even further ingrained into his daily life...

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Japanese Media Critisize Honda Over F1 Pullout

ARTICLE HERE. Well they damn well would winge and complain wouldn't they. The advertising industry is one of the forgotten beneficiaries of the automobile industry. And a hefty largesse it is too.

I find it quite heartening that they could not find a buyer for this team. It just goes to show what the public think of the "sport" of motor racing these days.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

World's Most Livable Cities

What do these images have in common?

Reuters shows a Photo slideshow of the top 25 "most liveable cities of the world." Not surprisinging, not a single one of them has images of highways or automobile transport. The fact of the matter is, when thinking about what makes their city great, nobody really cares how fast you can get from one side of the city to the other. Nobody is proud of their auto traffic jams, noise, or drunken or dangerous drivers.

But what these images do have in common is a theme of peace, quiet, and any images of roads are ones that are tree lined and free of cars, roads physically connect people but in a more peaceful and more meaningful way, where there is time to communicate with others. One even has an image of a Velib type bicycle sharing as the quintessential image of their livable city - the new Bixi system in Canada.

Something for all city planners to think about.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Compressed Air Car

This is a Reuters video about a compressed air car being developed for the European market in the near future. Nice idea, and a damned sight better than what we have now.

A few notes:

1) Sceptics quoted in the video note that it "does not meet modern automobile safety standards". What these people do not realize is that this is not a normal automobile. It is a complete rethink of the car. In other words, at low speeds "modern safety standards" are complete overkill. The more speeds are reduced, the more such "standards" can be relaxed. Why would anyone want to relax standards? One simple reason - less weight. Lower weight drastically reduces the energy input required. The incumbent motor industry realizes this, therefore pushes the "modern" auto safety standards line as hard as they can, because high-speed crash "standards" means greater weight, which means higher energy input levels are required. On that playing field oil/gasoline wins (if we ignore the myriad problems associated with it).

2) OK so let's consider the compressed air car as a people mover (ignoring for a moment that it is fairly clear the long term goal should be just re-development of our cities around walking, cycling and public transport). OK, so this thing runs on air and does not spew out pollutants. That's good. It is also lighter, which means it consumes less energy - good again for environment. Hopefully it is also inherently slower - because given its lower weight, it will need to be slower for safety reasons. This not only protects the occupants of the vehicle, but everyone else around. Assuming there will be more pedestrians around in the coming post-auto era, this is definitely a good thing.

However, we must ask one question... "Where does the compressed air come from?" Even if we give these guys the benefit of the doubt and assume that they have also developed solar powered compressors to provide the air that charges these cars, there is another question: "Where are the compressors and solar panels created...?" Are they also created and transported with renewable energy?

This reminds one yet again of the KISS principle, and the simple beauty of just making cities walkable again. Most of us have legs - so let's use them, eh?

God only knows, at current obesity rates, most of us could use a good walk...

(Austin Powers as "Fat Bastard")

Monday, June 15, 2009

Demotorizing our Urban Centres

With the popularity of PPS, Transportation Alternatives, Velib and the like, it seems many movers and shakers are finally realizing that "de-motorizing" the urban centres of our cities may be necessary to achieve the drastic cuts in fossil fuel energy consumption that are required to avoid the global warming disaster that scientists now seem to agree we are heading for ever more rapidly. De-motorizing a city results in drastically less CO2 emissions (transport is estimated to generate around a quarter of CO2 emissions) but also less pollution, less noise, less stress, less loss from death and injury, more human interaction, better sense of community and a range of other tangential benefits. And face it, who wouldn't enjoy walking through the city on a tree-lined (car-free) boulevard?

Speaking of which, am I the only one who thinks EVs are a fantastic great red-herring? If you believe the motor industry and battery making companies, EVs are the world's only hope. But surely it is marginal at best, for until most or all the energy for electricity generation, not to mention the factories that produce the EVs, and the mining for the resources that produce them, comes from clean sources there will be little or no net gain to the planet from switching to EVs. Doh!

By applying the KISS principle(Keep It Simple Stupid) those who choose to do so can deal with many of the critical transport issues on a personal level by simply riding a bicycle instead. I do not expect everyone to suddenly start riding bicycles - not at least until some of these boulevards are built.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

All Tokyo Train Stations 100% Smoke Free From April 2009

So, as of April this year, all Tokyo JR train stations are completely smoke free. This is something of a milestone to be celebrated given that some stations have close to a million people pass through them each day.

I find it very encouraging that Japan has finally joined the anti-smoking movement. It should only be a matter of time before residents of the city realize that automobiles are just as "meiwaku" - but in many more ways than just the stink, carbon emissions (or noise). Tobacco kills, but for the most part only kills the persistent smoker themself in a way that might almost be seen as evolutionarily satisfying if it weren't for the issues associated with the drug and the demography of the addiction patterns. Allowing driving to become our main form of transport on the other hand, endangers all of us. In fact, it endangers the people around them more than the driver themselves, which does not engender responsible driving.

The big question is whether we will we realize this before billions are invested in EV technology, and before China goes too far down the automobile path...

I guess the only safe automobile might be a true AUTOmobile - one that drives itself. Whether or not that can be reconciled with the environment is another question given that high automobile use encourages urban sprawl, and the high cost of the systems necessary for automatic driving.

The Invisible Hand

Article on the twisted state of health/life insurance companies investing in tobacco industry, while excluding smokers from policies. Insurance companies win on both and anyone who smokes gets doubly shafted.

It makes you wonder about evolution and where it will all end up.

Inner city Driveways and Garages Strictly Not Allowed

Very interesting article here in the New York Times.

Of course, as usual, Japan appears to still be going in the opposite direction. I am told that many wards of Tokyo will raise taxes on vacant lots in an attempt to force owners to build on empty plots. One exemption however is car parking. So, them message is clear: pave over and create a 4-car carpark and you will save tax. Some wards even go so far as REQUIRING SPECIFICALLY that car parking park be created on a vacant lot if a building is not to be erected immediately.

Imagine if a slightly different policy were implemented - that driveways and garages could not be created in built up areas. There would be less parking. It would become more expensive. Less people would drive. More people would walk or cycle. More people would catch the train. Trains would make more money and (hopefully) improve service and increase lines. Community based organizations would prosper (less bed-town phenomena). Only good things could come from this - except perhaps the inevitable vitriol that would come from old men who like to drive cars. But I would enjoy that. When these old men complain, I know we have got something right.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Carbon Cost of Hydrogen

Nice to see Reuters looking at this.

Hydrogen is definitely not the best answer. The best answer is for government to admit that supporting auto as an asset is not the way forward. If no private lenders will lend to people who want to borrow money to buy automobiles, then probably THERE IS A VERY GOOD REASON. Why is the government supporting automobile credit? OK cars are handy sometimes, but WE HAVE MORE THAN ENOUGH OF THEM. If we could just get our act together we could probably do just fine with a tenth of the cars currently on the road. And given the environmental crisis on our doorstep, and that hydrogen is not the answer people are hyping it to be, it may come to pass sooner rather than later. Is this the root of the crisis? It is of course tied up with demographics, because as people age they drive less and discover for the first time in their lives just how inconvenient, how inhospitable, how downright hostile Western cities are these days for the non-driver.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Depths of Disgrace

A little off topic, but wow. SEC employees under investigation for insider trading?! By whom? The SEC? HAH! These guys are supposed to be the watchdogs... What a disgrace.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Canadian Smokers (sorry, drivers) up in Arms

This article is great. It reminds me a lot of the "Great Whinge" that smokers kicked up when the tide of public opinion turned against them a decade or two ago. Front page on the Globe and Mail National Section, the article is a good whinge about how automobile lovers are under attack from all sides in the city of Toronto. The hilarious hypocrisy that says it all about this kind of view is the Porsche advertisement at the bottom picturing the automobile drivers wet-dream of a road - fast, scenic, pedestrian free, even sidewalk free, and no other vehicles on it except your own, not even a motorcycle. This is a dream that not only excludes all non-drivers but is also fundamentally unattainable. Yet, this is the very dream that generations of last century's Americans were sold, came to pine for and ultimately paid billions in real money in an utterly vain attempt to attain, the only lasting legacy of which is horrific snarling traffic, chronic sedentarism, pollution, the ongoing liability for maintaining these automobile dystopias left for future generations, and half a century of neglect for non-auto transportation infrastructure. I could go on, but you get the picture. I think this article shows the level that the auto-crowd have fallen to. Like the smokers complaining bitterly when the public first began to call for bans on smoking in pubs and restaurants a few decades ago, the next step is capitulation. Let's take it all the way.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

53 Miles Per Burrito

Interesting little article linked above - a reminder of the efficiency of different forms of transportation. Makes you wonder why many roads are effectively designed to make life difficult for cyclists.

Norway Considers Ban on Gasoline Automobiles

The fact that Norway, the world's 6th largest oil producer is seriously considering banning automobiles run on fossil fuels from 2015, should be a wake up call for Japan.

This sort of pressure is only going to get stronger so as one of the world's primary automobile producing countries, Japan really needs to pay attention. The writing is on the wall.

It also goes to show that even countries with a large stake in the old "dirty" economy need not hold back from striving to become leaders in the new green economy. As usual it takes a combination of legislation, popular/consumer support, and innovation.

In Japan the popular support definitely exists, as does the corporate innovation. All we need now is politicians and bureaucrats who can take the necessary legislative and regulatory steps.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Liquidity Crisis or Solvency Crisis ?

The auto industry is where the argument that this crisis is one of liquidity alone breaks down. Increasingly, people are discovering that even with tens of billions of dollars in money from the US federal government, the auto industry is just not viable. Why? Because citizens (aka "consumers") are turning away from automobiles and in particular automobiles made by failed automobile companies.

Liquidity crisis it may also be, but ultimately it is the solvency of such companies as GM and Chrysler, together with the many outer-suburban sprawl related real estate industries (and the banks that supported them and lent to them) which is in question here.

We can only hope they all are liquidated before more money is wasted trying to sustain a failed business model, so that the government can spend its money productively helping to build the new, sustainable green economy rather than propping up old mistakes from a former era when the automobile industry was King.

Does that sound radical? Perhaps, but it might also be said that there are two kinds of radical ideas in the world: the kind that would take us on a path which diverges significantly from that which we have followed to date (for better or for worse); and the kind which diverges significantly from the generally accepted practices or beliefs of the population.

If you read the next post here about Norway considering a ban on fossil fuel burning automobiles from 2015, you will note that these ideas is increasingly only radical in the former sense - that it marks a departure from previous behaviour, but with increasingly strong popular and legislative support.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Pedaling for the planet - Join the Danish Ambassador in Historic Ride

News photo
Wheel time: Franz-Michael S. Mellbin, the Danish Ambassador to Japan, on one of his twice-weekly early-morning bicycle rides. "In Denmark," he says, "people would be probably more impressed if you say, `I bike 20 km to work every day' than to say, `I've got this nice Mercedes and I go to work in this every day.' " TOMOKO OTAKE

Pedaling for the planet FULL ARTICLE HERE

Join Denmark's ambassador on a cycling tour he's hosting in Japan to mark a climate-change meet back home.

For more information about the COP15 cycling events, call the Japan Cycling Association at (03) 6229-2715 or the Danish Embassy at (03) 3496-3001, or visit

Great video interview by NHK (in English) HERE

There will be nine consecutive stages around Japan from Sapporo to Kyoto with kick off in Tokyo on 23 May. A 10th stage will take place in Copenhagen, where messages on climate change collected from people taking part in the stages in Japan will be handed over to the prime minister of Denmark, the co-chair of COP-15. More information about the events in the enclosed flyer and on the Embassy’s homepage:

This on the top page of Reuters. Yahoo. Sounds like we are finally getting somewhere - and we are not going by car!


America's road hogs veer off freeway 6:00am ET

Car ownership and the serendipitous pleasure of the highway have been a celebrated part of American life. But several signposts suggest America's love of driving is stalling. Full Article

"serendipitous pleasure of the highway" is a bit too poetic a description for the horror of the highway, but there were a few choice quotes in this article:

> "I see people cutting back who don't even need to cut back."
Duh. It is called a fundamental shift in consumption patterns.

>"It was as if people had started a new travel behavior, a new habit," Miller said. "And they have stuck with their habit."
Yup. Get used to it. Auto advertising dollars are like water on a ducks back these days.

>"We were road hogs," said John Townsend, spokesman for the American Automobile Association's mid Atlantic club.
Spoken like a true recovering alcoholic. Damn right you were.

>Some warn the American consumer will revert to old habits if the economy roars back.
If the full power of the money set aside by the US federal government for rail networks, transit and other sustainable transport initiaves is allowed to flower into real "brick and mortar" new public transport and transit systems to support the car-free lifestyles that people are so very clearly wanting, then there is very little chance that America will go back to its bad old ways. And if it does, we are all screwed. China, India and others will be watching very carefully.

>Americans also have started to embrace car sharing. Zipcar, the world's largest car-sharing company that rents cars by the hour or day, saw its membership soar 50.3 percent in the past 12 months.
>Zipcar chief executive Scott Griffith said he sees a major shift in philosophy that could stay in place for a long time.
>He said his firm's surveys show people take 46 percent more public transit trips, 26 percent more walking trips and about 10 percent more bicycling trips after joining Zipcar.
>"To me what their understanding is, I can live a more sustainable life and also save a lot of money by changing my behavior in some ways -- like using car sharing and driving less in total," Griffith said.

Go Zipcar. These are big numbers. More evidence of this change in behavior. The credit crunch may yet be seen as the financial world simultaneously realizing the need to abandon a model of economic growth that had previously supported the US economy for several generations - suburban sprawl. Their reasons for abandoning this model were not altruistic of course. The smarter (and richer) of the financial wizards simply noticed that Americans themselves were slowly but resolutely abandoning that model themselves and that the returns from propping it up and frothing it up were becoming progressively thinner. Hurray for people power. Bring it on.

Funny though, how the options people have affect behaviour in different countries.
The article says "America's road hogs veer off freeway, hop on bus" but I suspect they only use the bus because there are very few real lifestyle-friendly, car-free options in the United States comparable to the compact cities of the old world where kids can walk to school and people use trains and bicycles. 70+ years of auto infrastructure and urban sprawl means the only non-automobile option is a bus, a poor substitute for true sustainable living, but I suspect that it is only an intermediate trend until the infrastructure can be put in place so that people can really enjoy the fruits of car-free life.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Make the most of new transportation opportunities

Make the most of new transportation opportunities

After years of pushing all-for-the-auto policies, the government is now serious about supporting alternative ways of getting around

For decades, the federal government would fund 90 percent of an freeway project and much less—if anything at all—of a subway, light rail or commuter train line. That changed the face of America, as highways were slashed through the heart of vital communities, breaking their spirit and hastening the exodus of people to far-flung suburbs. In the same period, hardly any federal or state money went toward expanding trains and other alternatives to the automobile. From the end of World War II to the opening of the Bay Area’s BART transit system in 1972, only a few miles of subway lines were added nationally, compared to tens of thousands of miles of interstates and other highways. That gross imbalance may well have affected the growth and character of your neighborhood.

See full PPS article HERE.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Systemic Issues

If ever there was a time that best showed that lack of automobile safety was a systemic issue rather than one of "just a few bad apples" - it is during the Easter break. 3300 drivers caught speeding - and the holiday only just started today!!

Queensland Tilt Train Cancelled Due to Safety Concerns

The Story Here in the Courier Mail. Pretty pathetic really. If only the Australians and Americans could learn from the Japanese. A bit of railway technology transfer could go a hell of a long way...

End of America's Love Affair with the "Exburbs"

Wow. Even Reuters is cottoning on - very thoughtful piece here on the massive change in American attitudes to suburbia. Watch this space. This really is a paradigm shift that has hit the tipping point.

Pity Japan's government is still flogging the dead horse of automobile-centric life. You'd think they would have cottoned on by now. The irony is that in such a small, old-world country with great public transport they have fantastic examples of how great it can be, yet still choose to build more freeways to nowhere despite an aging population.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Call it quits while you are ahead (in less deep?)

Bligh, Queensland's State Premier may be "confident of tunnel project future" according to this article on the ABC regarding the rediculous Brisbane airport road tunnel project, and this sounds a little like government support for more pork-barrel automobile infrastructure (and verbally it is), but the reality is that these are just the sound of politicians placating fat old relics of a soon-to-be bygone era - the auto era. What matters is that the government appears staunchly opposed to committing any public funds - which is as it should be. Thank goodness. It seems that real change really can happen and is happening.

Incidentally, has anyone else heard the rumour that the owners of Brisbane airport intentionally made the airport rail link station as inconvenient as possible, in order to make car parking the most convenient because they could take parking fees from drivers but not from people doing the right thing and using public transport? I would not suggest that anyone could be possible of such money-grubbing, dirty profit-maximising behaviour but the fact does remain that the rail link to BNE airport is intollerably inconvenient by international standards.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

There is no such thing as an "environment-friendly car"

This just in on Reuters - in the Environment section, no less:

Hyundai to go ahead with eco cars 12:49am EDT

GOYANG, South Korea (Reuters) - Hyundai Motor Group, the world's No. 5 automaker, will go ahead with plans to develop environment-friendly cars despite the segment's low profitability and an industry downturn, a senior executive said on Thursday. Full Article

****If these people think that developing and selling cars that don't run on gasoline is going to solve all of the many problems caused by automobiles, they are in for a bit of a shock. Let's hope we do not go down that route at all, but face up to the fact that the problem is a systemic one, and the solution must be a fundamental paradigm shift away from the automobile model towards the European/Asian one of higher density urban areas, "un-suburbanization" and more and better public transport.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Faking Places

This funny "April Fool's Day" (or is it...) piece from the folks at Project for Public Spaces:

US Transportation System Revealed to be Giant Ponzi Scheme

Inline Image Much of the wealth invested in the US transportation system has disappeared into a giant pothole. Recent events have revealed that Americans have been paying into a system of transportation that has been creating wealth on paper, but when communities move to withdraw from their investment, they find only that they are in worse shape than they were before .Based on performance measures for climate, congestion, energy security, land consumption and public health, most Americans would have been better off stuffing their transportation money into a pillow.

By Ethan Kent

Read More »

Human Powered Forklift

This link just in from the World Carfree Network mailing list, is a link to a tidy looking little human powered forklift. Very neat - and made in Japan.

I did a quick search online and found what I think is the manufacturer here. Click on the photo to get a pdf catalogue. Another site showing the forklift here lists the price at 200,000 yen. Quite a steal if you think that the operating cost is basically zero. And here is one more advantage - you don't need a licence to operate it.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Reinventing America's Cities - The Time is Now

Incredible piece here in the New York Times about exactly the kind of change that is needed in America's cities. The only disappointment is that it is in the Arts section. This would be equally as relevant in the Politics section or the Business section. Well done Nicolai Ouroussoff. Here's hoping America is listening.

For that matter, let's hope Tokyo is listening. For all the talk of a green Olympics bid, there is scant evidence yet that the road building juggernaut has got the message.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Japan Rail Starts Car-Sharing

OK, here is something Japan specific. And wow. This could really change the way things are done around the place. From "Terrie's Take" (thanks Terrie):

-> Trains and car sharing

It seems that car sharing is really starting to catch on,
with East Japan Railway (JR East) announcing that it will
enter the business and make a small initial fleet of 6 cars
available in Tokyo and Kanagawa. Subscribers will be able
to unlock the cars using the unique ID on their Suica
commuter card. Apparently JR East will extend the service
to over 12 stations in Tokyo over the next 24 months. The
price will be JPY630 for every 30 minutes of use, plus the
usual registration and monthly subscription fees. ***Ed:
Obviously a small experiment to start with, but imagine if
JR East started doing this service at stations popular with
tourists -- outside Tokyo.**

Damn right! Just imagine. And it isn't such a leap from there to imagine JR getting into the bicycle sharing gig also. Just imagine if you could glide into any JR station in Japan and take your pick of car or bicycle depending on the needs at the time. Now THAT is seamless, safe, efficient, ecological transport integration. Enough! highways - THIS is what we really need.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Amazing Video Selection

Sorry. None of this is Japan specific content - just recycling from Streetfilms, but some VERY very cool stuff so I had to pick out a few favourites...

And hooray for more of this!!

And this...! Damn, it is no wonder cars are not selling.

So it is not rocket science, but it WORKS. Talk about 1st class service! If you make the effort to ride your bike, then free vallet parking is the least we can do to reward you!

And this is absolutely INCREDIBLE.

All these great videos from Street Films:

Carfree Communities Are Child's Play

Great stuff this - and how simple it is. It reminds me of the times when it snows in Tokyo, and the back streets become playgrounds. Kids come out of the woodwork and you wonder where they all were before the snow. Of course, before long the snow melts, the cars are back, and the kids are chased back to their computer games. But if we can only redesign communities to restrict automobile access within certain areas...

- Carfree Communities Are Child's Play
Traffic prevents children from playing. Between 1973 and 2006, the proportion
of children playing on UK streets fell from 75% to 15%. Two charities, Sustrans
and Play Wales, are calling on planning authorities to lead the UK to build
carfree housing estates, which gives a high quality of life for all its
residents, particularly for children in traffic-clogged urban areas allowing
them to play safely outside their front doors and travel independently. The
proposals would also help cut obesity in children who are unable to play in
traffic-clogged areas. The plan envisages that car parking in the new
developments would be limited and situated away from people’s homes.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Everyone wants a piece of the stimulus action

Even good old oil companies: NPR story here about how Shell is arguing that they need offshore drilling as they expect demand for oil will double by 2050. Well if that is allowed to happen, then look out. Business as usual for another half century does not sound like sound policy considering what scientists are telling us about the state we are in already.

Friday, February 27, 2009

An example

Here is a perfect example of how NOT to stimulate the economy. Just as the Japanese government is faced with falling tax receipts, and drastically increasing costs with an aging population, they do something as stupid as THIS and reduce the cost of driving presumably to encourage people to drive more which no doubt would have some overall effect on an economy. The rational is perhaps that if the export market is tanking we should stimulate domestic demand. But this fails to recognise two things: (1) Japanese do not traditionally buy the same things they export, nor is it necessarily a good thing to try to make them do so, and (2) there may be a very good reason that foreign countries are cutting back on their imports of these items, and stimulating demand domestically will just put Japan well behind the curve in terms of adapting to the changing world. This is a very great pity, because Japan has traditionally been ahead of the curve in its focus on family, lifestyle and culture over purely economic factors. But the pointy heads seem to have forgotten that efficiency in an economy is not simply the efficiency with which we can create crap that other people will buy - no. Efficiency at the national level is what matters. Indeed efficiency at a global level may be required to meet environmental targets, but it is national efficiency that is increasingly important for a country wishing to be competitive. And when it comes to transport systems, nothing is more efficient than rail (and the high-density cities that come with it, thus walking and cycling, which add further efficiencies by improving the health of the population, not to mention the land use efficiency when cities dependent on motor transport find a quarter or third of their land devoted to the automobile). This is why I find news like this- that the Japanese government would subsidize driving at a time like this extremely disappointing.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why we cannot be slave to the economy

Crazy opinion piece here in Reuters suggesting that the fastest way to revive "the economy" is to legalize drugs and tax them. There is probably little doubt that this would "work" in a sense. But it is equally obvious that it cannot be done without forever transforming that "economy" into something very different to what it was before. This example highlights the obvious, but often forgotten fact that economies should not be judged purely on dollars and whether it is in overall growth or contraction as financial economists would have us believe. The lesson is especially important in times like these when our economies are contracting. If governments must experiment with fiscal stimulus, then at least do it in ways that will improve quality of life in real tangible ways rather than just trying to push the lever of growth over substance. If you have followed this blog, you will know what we mean by that - things like urban redevelopment into walkable safe car-free communities, better train systems, mass transit, Velib type programs and the like.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Nice Little Video

It's Your Ride from Cinecycle on Vimeo.

Thanks Alastair.

Of course, there are probably a few too many grungy shots of the bike going over broken glass or through big scary black-hole puddles - but it is a tyre commercial after all.