- 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.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Catch-up Game

Yesterday I was riding a JR train, and in front of me was a map of the JR lines. To pass the time, I counted how many lines there were and was amazed to find that there are no less than thirty six (36) different Japan Rail train lines in the Tokyo area. Now that is just the lines owned and operated by East Japan Rail. After switching to the subway for the last leg of my return journey home, I counted the subways. There are also fourteen (14) subway lines (private and public) that crisscross Tokyo. Now that is a round FIFTY (50) DIFFERENT TRAIN LINES in just the Tokyo area! Next time when I have a LONG train ride I might even count the number of stations, but at a very conservative 15 stations per line that is no less than 750 train stations just in Tokyo. Absolutely incredible!

Now Tokyo has its own transport problems - not least of them being the fact that it actually lets motor vehicles into the city for free despite all this public trasport, that it does not have any bicycle sharing program and that people are brought up to give cars right of way everywhere and in every situation. But despite all of this, public transport in Tokyo wins hands down on both convenience and cost - not to mention all the knock-on improvements in individual health and sense of community that use of public transport bring at a societal level.

All this made me think just how much infrastructure development work other cities around the world have ahead of them if they really want to improve public transport to a level that makes it compete favorably on convenience. New York, Sydney, London - man, oh man you guys have a LOT of work to do.

Shop, Damn it SHOP!

Is this what government was created for? To encourage people to shop more?

No. I have no doubt that, in the long term, the credit crisis will be a good thing for society - or it would be if the governments of the world could just accept it rather than try to prop up the status quo with free money for banks and automobile companies so that they can keep doing what they have been doing, and what we now are coming to realize was probably the wrong thing.

In the USA, Obama seems to have realized that while Keynsian infrastructure spending may be necessary to avert a "car crash" in the economy, this money must be spent in ways that will transform US cities from auto-culture to networks of walkable communities. This is a none to easy task given the cumulative effect of about 80 years of money and effort already spent on developing auto-culture and the sprawl, pollution and waste that goes along with it. This article from Reuters highlights the fact that the fight is still far from won.

States want to use Obama's stimulus for roads, not rail
U.S. President-elect Barack Obama is striving to revolutionize infrastructure through a proposed stimulus that may reach $1 trillion. States, however, seem to have other plans. Missouri, Utah and other states are planning to use the federal funds on highways rather than the environmentally friendly mass transit and rail lines that Obama envisions. Bloomberg (24 Dec.)

National governments now understand what needs to be done. Local governments mostly understand what needs to be done. This fight needs now to be taken to State governments as it appears this is perhaps the last stronghold of those dreaming of a return to the failed pork-barrel auto-dream of last century.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Electric cars are not the answer

Interesting little piece from Reuters HERE, again suggesting that electric cars are not the answer to environmental problems caused by automobiles. And hydrogen cars are not either as you must factor in how the hydrogen itself was generated and of course its transportation to refueling stations. No - in modern urban societies we must look to options that are more efficient by design.

I have not verified this yet, but I recently heard on the radio that in order for a highway to carry the same capacity of people at the same speed into town as a regular commuter train line, it would need to be 60 lanes wide. Even if I misheard and it was only 20 we are talking many times if not orders of magnitude greater efficiency by rail than by car. It is simply that efficiency which makes it more friendly to the environment than the automobile.

Must try to look into that line a bit further. It is a compelling one.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Santa Claus Principle

Is the Government like Santa Claus? Very interesting story HERE by a Financial Times related blog, suggesting that all this bail out of industry and finance may ultimately do more harm than good as industry comes to think that the government is a reliable Santa Clause who will come and bail them out when they want - until Santa has nothing left.

There is a lot at stake and the signs are not good. From the front page of Reuters today, just a week after the auto bailout, these stories:
Post Bailout Chrysler Still at Risk
Commercial Property Seeks Bailout Aid

Jeez, and people say they don't understand GenX or GenY ! The boomers seem to want to have their cake and eat it - and if there are any consequenses, they should be held off at all cost until the boomers are long gone. That seems to be the attitude.

At least Obama seems to be saying the right thing - promote the shift to a greener economy ASAP. I just hope it does not end up like the promises of so many NSW state premiers for so many rail and subway networks for Sydney that have never materialized despite billions spent on new roads and tunnels in the meantime.

ps - another article along a similar vein here on Reuters: Fed Unleashes Greatest Bubble of All

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Leaner Nations bike, walk and use public transport

Interesting AP Article here noting a recent study showing that leaner nations walk, bike and take public transport more.

I started this blog a few years ago as a celebration of our family life without cars (despite having two small children), but recently with all the auto industry news around the world it has become something of a political commentary on the dangers of giving in to pork barrel support for sunset industries.

So I thought I would post this to get me back on track and remind myself, and readers of just why it is that we are so against cars in the first place. And of all the reasons, this is perhaps the most personal - your own health.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Satellite Data Reveal Full Impact of Beijing Olympic Pollution Controls

Nasa researchers have shown that the highly publicised controls on auto traffic and other pollutants during the Beijing Olympics really did have a significant impact - reducing NO2 by as much as half. Some had argued that the controls had had no impact - but clearly they did, and thanks to NASA for showing us that. Here is the news from the NASA site itself.

But look at this image closely. Hmmm. One small area of China gone from red to green for just one month, while the other red areas are so big... pollution really is a major issue for China... and neighboring Japan... and the USA, where the wind blows....

And of course, pollution is just half the problem with automobiles...

Thanks to Eureka Alert for this one.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A pretty picture...

This is a pretty graph from the Economist. Readers of this blog will recognize the total vehicle-miles graph from the DOT website that I highlighted last month. If you look at it more closely as in my previous blog, the number of vehicle miles has come off by several billion in the last year or two - nice, and shows just how much discretionary driving there is around the place, but just a drop in the ocean compared to the ramp up in car use over the last 40 years. The Economist has interestingly added the number of miles of roads in the US, which looks essentially unchanged since the 1960's. The unspoken implication is that we are drastically in need of more money for roads...

That is, until you think of these things:

1) Once you already have a road network, you don't need ANOTHER one, even if people are driving more. We already know that nearly a third of all the land space in US cities is already allocated to automobiles. What are you going to do - make more space for them? Oh yea, that's what we are doing with the billion dollar cross city tunnels we are building. No - building more roads because people are driving more and the roads are getting blocked is like a doctor saying that a patient with high blood pressure just needs more veins to carry blood - by that logic he'd pretty soon be all veins and nothing else because the underlying condition is not treated. No, what we could really do with is a different kind of network - a proper rail network or a pedestrian roads network, as it has been shown that the only reason that a lot of people drive at all is because there IS no other option.
And I am not talking about railway networks that will just carry coal to the coast - which seems to be the biggest rail item on the recently announced Australian infrastructure spending plan.

2) Secondly, just because
"Highway System Mileage" has not gone up does not mean that we have not built more roads. If you measured "Highway System Mileage" by miles of lanes rather than miles of roads, then the line would probably look steeper than the other line showing total miles driven. In other words the graph is a complete illusion. Roads and highways in the US have swollen to rediculous proportions like the cancerous growths that they are - so much so that experts seem to agree that adding new lanes actually does not alleviate traffic problems - it has become part of The Traffic Problem. And the new infrastructure - bridges and tunnels etc., that have been built to accomodate those new lanes have cost the nation a FORTUNE. And of course the more such infrastructure is built, the more needs to be spent on maintenance.

To be fair, the thrust of the Economist article seems to be that just such lasting metro rail and other infrastructure should be built in that the US and that it should be paid for by an increased gasoline levy, which would have the added positive effect of discouraging discretionary driving even further

But at first glance, that is not what the picture says.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Auto crisis predates the credit crisis

The decline of the "auto nation" is not a short term phenomenon coming out of the credit crunch. It is a fundamental world-wide rethink of the long term viability of the whole automobile economy with US automakers at the epicentre. People may still want to ignore it, but it's happening - auto has become a sunset industry in the US, and my bet is it may soon be worldwide. There might be an argument for US handing out helicopter loads of federal money to permit an orderly decline rather than collapse of the industry in 6-months, but "you're gonna pay tomorrow" as the song goes - Americans better be ready to pay the price for bailing out companies that make things nobody wants any more.

Even if they manage to retool, any hybrid or EV market that develops will be a far cry from the scale of current auto markets, because people have discovered that automobile society itself is not ideal. It does not matter what kind of automobile, the just won't sell like they used to. This graph shows that clearly.

And thank God for that. Many people have been praying and hoping for the demise of Automobile society for a very long time. It looks as though they may be heard.

What is wrong about this story?

Cash recipients urged to spend
The Australian - 11 hours ago
KEVIN Rudd has urged the nation's pensioners and families to "go out and spend the money" as the first wave of his cash handout plan to avert a recession hits bank accounts from today.
Spend bonus now ABC Online
Aussie PM pushes Christmas splurge with welfare bonuses USA Today
Sydney Morning Herald - The Canberra Times - Sky News Australia - The Age
all 97 news articles »

This story really reads from the plot of The Story of Stuff, a fast-paced 20minute clip looking at the underbelly of our consumption-driven economy.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Damned Fools

Now this is just stupid. What are they going to do next, fund the TV networks because they winge that automobile makers are not advertising any more? Oh yea, they already did that with the FIVE BILLION DOLLARS they gave to the automobile manufacturers - foreign owned ones at that.

Car dealers to get $2bn Government lifeline - 3 hours ago
By staff writers THE Government has struck a $2 billion deal to prevent the financial collapse of the car sales industry. Car dealers facing closure as a result of the global financial crisis will now be underwritten by a Government debt guarantee, ...
Car dealers get a $2b bail-out Sydney Morning Herald
Car dealers welcome $2b lifeline Ninemsn
Forbes - ABC Online - - Adelaidenow
all 47 news articles »

The Australian government seems convinced that it needs to support the automobile industry in order to maintain the capability to build vehicles in Australia at all. They are probably right. Australia is a small market and it costs money to maintain such large factories there. But why spend 5 billion dollars supporting a foreign owned auto industry in the country, and then another two billion supporting foreign owned dealers? Chances are probably quite high that a lot of this will flow out of the country - or at the very least it will save head office from having to support them themselves.

No - if the goal of the federal government really was to support and maintain a local auto industry, why on earth did they not wait until these companies - Ford and GM primarily, announce they are going to pull out, as they probably would have to without local Australian government support, and THEN step in with a local buyer, pick up the assets at or below replacement cost and Bob's your uncle, you have a locally owned industry - albeit smaller scale than it was before for obvious reasons.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

GMAC puts institutional investors ahead of private investors

Oh boy, this is too much. According to the Bloomberg piece below, GMAC intends to leave their "mom and pop investors" out in the cold also.

GMAC puts institutions ahead of private investors
Individual investors who bought SmartNotes from GMAC Financial Services are being left out of a plan by the General Motors financing unit to exchange cash, preferred shares or new debt for existing debt held by institutional investors. In the event of a bankruptcy, retail investors could end up with nothing, analysts said. Bloomberg (01 Dec.)

Putting this another way, not only does GMAC want taxpayers to foot the bill and rescue them when they have finally got themselves stuck in a hole with bad auto-loans after years of massive profits from shafting high priced loans on unsuspecting car buyers with doubtful credit, NOW they want to shaft individual investors who bought the company's debt in favour of their institutional lenders. So if you are a US taxpayer and one of these individual investors in GMAC debt you would get doubly shafted if the bailout were be passed - and if you happened to also be a borrower of one of their auto-loans, you're triple shafted. That's a hattrick. If there was a prize for shocking ethics, surely they would win it.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Auto Slump is Worldwide

It is not just the US automakers that are facing the brink. Japanese automakers will also be facing similar challenges in the coming years - and no taxpayer money will (or should) save them from it.

This article from the Japan Times quotes a 39-year low for auto sales in Japan. All of a sudden people are realizing they don't need new cars, and maybe cars aren't so cool anyway after all.

This auto-slump is similar to the sub-prime mortgage crisis in many ways. For years the auto industry - in cahoots with credit card operators and others in the finance industry have contrived to convince the population that they NEED to buy the latest coolest sexiest extension of their personalities (on credit...). But just like the shiny new hovel in a deadpan suburban outpost miles and miles from the city with no public transport, people eventually realized that the dream they were sold is more of a nightmare - the financial and emotional burden of the debt combined with the un-fulfilled promise of a better life that a sterile suburban existence cannot ever provide.

Time for a little reality folks.

But the interesting thing here is that reality doesn't have to be all that painful. In fact it might actually be pleasant and preferable to our overly hedonistic existence of recent years (decades?). More emphasis on building walkable, livable communities (not "suburbs") has to be a good thing. Ride a bike, lose weight, meet and greet the neighbors on the way to school and work. Frugality can be surprisingly fulfilling.

GM and Chrysler consider bankruptcy to get bailout

Reuters article HERE. I still don't get it. How does declaring bankruptcy entitle them to taxpayer money? Bollocks. How can they spend millions on advertising and still go cap in hand to the government with a straight face? I would hazard a guess that without that advertising demand for autos would fall to their natural "real" level - i.e. one that cannot sustain so many car companies.

No. You have to give them credit for persistence, but hang in there senators. Don't give in to the threats. There is a better way. For example, liquidate and help the workers and communities as they find new occupations and develop new - sustainable economies.

Because, as well all now know (and probably have known or suspected for the last 40 years or more) auto-society is not sustainable. It is not even desirable.

Even Devine, the condominium builder in far off Queensland Australia has realized that the new future is one of localized, mixed-use, walkable, safe, quiet, socially strong communities with good public transport. And that is one where the cars are mostly left in a big ugly building in the corner of the site and only used occassionally.

There is a very limited future for any auto maker - US or Japanese or otherwise, in this world. The price of oil may be down, but Hummers are just as un-cool as they have become lately. This will not change - even if the advertising (taxpayer funded or otherwise) continues.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Ken Ohyama's Japan Highway Photography

Ken Ohyama's Japan Highway Photography

This has to be about the most beautiful anyone anywhere could possibly make highways look. Does this look like a place fit for human habitat? The automobile is all about getting from A to B and in-between be damned. Does anyone else also get the feeling that everywhere is becoming that "in-between" these days, and that "A"s and "B"s are few and far between?