- 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.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

GMAC wants to become a bank ?!

So, let me get this straight - Ford Motor Credit, Chrysler Finance Corp., and GMAC have already been given access the Fed's commercial paper program and now they want to become banks in order to access federal government bank rescue funds because nobody in their right mind will lend to these auto related companies.

Let's think about this for a second. No-one wants to lend to auto finance companies because car prices and sales are falling rapidly, defaults are rising, and their business is dwindling away.

So because no-one in their right mind would invest in such companies, they cannot access credit. If they cannot access credit they cannot offer credit to car buyers. Doesn't sound like such a bad thing at all really. Do Americans really need to drive three trillion miles a year? And aren't Americans in too much debt anyway? Do most Americans really need to buy that new car right now? The consensus - even in the US itself, seems to be that it is time to ween ourselves off this addiction. More, it seems clear that feeding the addiction will only make the situation worse.

But the government is running scared. If they do fall prey to these threats, and step in to allow these particular companies to access the Fed's commercial paper program, indeed by allowing them to become banks (if they are in fact allowed to do so - I fail to believe that Congress could permit this), the government is effectively bailing out the investors and lenders who have enjoyed wonderful returns for the past or so decade. offering money to these companies so that these auto finance companies can continue to lend money to people with bad credit to buy new vehicles that will fall in value so that they can continue to satiate their addiction to automobile lifestyles - environment be damned, energy security be damned, everything else be damned.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Livable streets - a "how to"

Who hasn't been inspired by these roads with high canopies of tree cover? Cars need wide roads preferably open for visibility at high speed. Everyone else however, enjoys a good canopy cover. This provides fantastic protection from sun, wind and also light rain - not to mention inspiring awe and wonder. Narrower streets are best for good canopy cover.

It is surprisingly easy to make a regular road livable and friendly. A few nice big planter boxes in the middle of the road is all it takes. This road is still accessible by car - but no longer a through road. There is also a special access for emergency vehicles. All of a sudden the stinking noisy screeching dangerous inner city roadside becomes a peaceful oasis - it is itself a part of the park.

Bollards have the same effect. A few of these bollards are removable to allow emergency vehicle through access as necessary (but chained so they cannot be taken far). Locals quickly put them back in place to stop regular traffic (because they have come to value life without high speed through traffic - gasoline-powered, electric or otherwise).

And who said that all roads need to be wide enough for vehicles? Why not have some roads that are just tracks - short cuts wide enough for pedestrians and bicycles. Cars must go around. This encourages people to get out of their comfort zone (lazy zone?) and walk, jog or ride.

In the West, road builders assume that pedestrians are there simply for pleasure, and therefore tend not to make (non-motor) paths straight. Pedestrian-only streets should be reasonably direct particularly if in busy areas - but on side areas it is not impossible to play a little with the design.

Just think - in the West you can drive a car from your street across the entire country with barely a bump in the road. Imagine if there was a similar network of car-free streets where the entire design goal was the efficiency and convenience of non-vehicular traffic. Why is it that pedestrians must "cross" a street? If we thought about it a bit, it could quite conceivably be the other way around - where the pedestrian has a straight and flat, unbroken path which automobiles must "cross" (and wait to do so). Design can assist in facilitating this perception in many ways other than these above, just as it is used now in the West to create the perception that roads "belong" to automobiles. But a picture is worth a thousand words, so hopefully these pictures will give people an idea of the incredible "traffic-calming" potential of these design features.

Incidentally, all of these streets are in inner city Tokyo.

The price of our oil addiction

Deeply disturbing issues are explored mercilessly by Michael Watts in this beautifully written and thoughtful but starkly confronting piece on the CNN website - HERE.

I will not add any quotes because I think you should sit down for a minute or two and ponder all of what he has to say.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Picture Tells a Thousand Words...


Sounds like a lot, huh? That is, until you see this graph...

and see just how bad things have become in just the past 25 years. I found this graph, created by the DOT Federal Highway Administration in a Treehugger article. Just in case you can't see the image so well, this graph tracks annual vehicle miles travelled in the USA, counted in the BILLIONS of miles, and shows the change in miles driven since 1983. Americans in 2007 drove some 3 trillion miles. OK, so it is a fairly steep dip right up there in the top right of the graph - that is promising. But if you look at where we are coming off from... WOW. This trend of the last few months might have to continue for 20 years or more before we come back to the levels we had then. Nevertheless, a return to the levels of even 2 or 3 years ago would probably indicate a fairly major shift in lifestyles and attitudes. There is an old saying in finance that "the trend is your friend, until the end." Well this may be the end of the trend that has been friendly to the US auto/sprawl related industry investor, and the beginnings of a new trend that is friendly to a new type of investor - the green investor, the new urban citizens and the farming community. Indeed, many an investor has already bet the farm that this will be the new trend for the forseeable future in the United States.

China, India, South America and Russia/Eastern Europe have become the new battleground - where the old forces of oil/auto/coal/sprawl/consumerism have already taken their investment dollars.

This strong new trend in US driving (or lack of driving) patterns continues, despite falls in gasoline prices, with total miles driven in August 2008 now 15 billion miles lower than the same month in 2007. Cumulatively this year, Americans have driven over 67 BILLION miles less in 2008 than the same period of 2007. This is a reduction in driving the likes of which the USA has never seen before. Sounds like a lot huh... and yet... again... it is just a drop in the ocean when you look at this graph of what we have done to the country in recent decades. Attitudes towards driving are changing, and fast, but it will take more than this before any real progress is made.

Friday, November 14, 2008

This is why no amount of bailout money will save auto makers

-In late October 130 major European cities pledged to fight climate
change, and sounded out action ideas such as creating new
eco-quarters, developing new forms of mobility and limiting urban

Simply reducing tailpipe emissions by switching to some other form of propulsion is not enough. If we are to really get sustainable we need better urban planning. And whether you want it or not, governments around the world are getting serious about it.

Are Aussies worse than Americans?

Australian government wasted no time bailing out their auto industry... this despite the fact that automobile manufacturers in Australia are essentially foreign owned and build for the most part gas guzzling monsters.

And yet, the government has its detractors on this policy and there are more than a few. Here is one scathing piece:,21985,24643119-664,00.html

The author is right to attack a rediculous bail-out, but wrong to think that electric cars are the answer. I would wager that no new technology is going to fill the gap that is about to be rent open by Gen X and Y forsaking automobiles. Walkable built environments are the answer, not automobiles, electric or otherwise. GenX and GenY know it already, and the oldies are beginning to cotton on also despite having for generations seen car and suburban house as the God-given fruits of life in the New World, are getting the picture.

We don't need to spend money redesigning our cars - we need to spend money redesigning our ROADS so that we don't NEED cars so much.

Bush seeks redemption? ブッシュの罪滅ぼし

President Bush seems to have found religion and seeks redemption as he doggedly refuses to bail out automakers:

Detroit rescue may have to wait for Obama administration
Faced with hardening opposition from President George W. Bush and Republican members of Congress, Democratic leaders said it is unlikely that they would get a bailout for automakers passed in the upcoming lame-duck session. They are increasingly accepting the possibility that a rescue for the Detroit Three, along with economic-stimulus measures targeted to middle-class families and workers, would have to wait until the inauguration President-elect Barack Obama. The New York Times (13 Nov.)

Why is it that politicians seem do the right thing when they have nothing to lose?

...on the other hand, Obama has a lot to lose (political support from auto workers). He probably does not need their support really, but has the boy from Chicago already sold out? -

Obama wants $50 billion for automakers
Faced with warnings that General Motors is on the verge of bankruptcy -- a shock that would echo through the entire U.S. economy -- President-elect Barack Obama is asking Congress for $50 billion to rescue the auto industry. Obama's plan includes creation of a czar or supervisory board to oversee the rescue. To have any chance of passage, said people familiar with the matter, the measure would need the support of President George W. Bush, who has opposed the idea of giving government money to automakers Bloomberg (13 Nov.)

Sounds like a lot of empty threats to me. Hands up those who think that we would all be better off if one or two of the automakers just went under. Well what do you know, even some of the shareholders seem to think so:

Some say GM bankruptcy preferable to bailout: Some experts said a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing by General Motors might be better for the company and the nation than a government bailout that is gaining support in Washington. They said the money might do nothing more than put off a transformation that GM must go through to become a profitable, competitive company again. One activist investor said he would rather see the money used to help GM workers and train them for new jobs. The New York Times (12 Nov.)

Well, heck - if even shareholders are saying that it should be allowed to go bankrupt, who are we to argue?

Let the company fail, and support the workers in retraining for new jobs. Now you're talking sense.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

"No" to Bailout for Automakers

Reuters poll results on the question "Should the Government bail out US Automakers?"

Yes: 25%
No: 75%

That's three to one. I dare the Democrats to try. They will regret it. But lets look at this level-headedly here -there is no reason to support an industry that has had plenty of opportunity to change since they saw the writing on the wall in the 70's but they didn't for one reason or other (selling cars and SUVs was making so much money!). Well now they are paying the price. And if people don't want as many cars anymore, there's no point paying the companies to keep making them just like they were 5 years ago. We must simply accept that there will be consolidation and pain in the industry and let's do what we can to help the workers find something else to do. And the sooner the better. Build trains. The Japanese do it. The French do it. The Chinese do it. Why can't Americans? Build roads and towns that are walkable and don't even need driving. Imagine if your 10yr old kids could walk or ride a bike to school without you having to worry for their life. Imagine if you could walk to schools, shops, pools, tennis, library, doctors etc without having to get in your car everytime. Instead of being wide, open high-speed rivers of steel, exposed to the elements, imagine if most roads in the city were narrow tree-lined lanes with a canopy of tree cover, to protect pedestrians from the wind, sun and all but the hardest rain.


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

GM's `Time Is Very Short' for U.S. Government Aid, Altman Says

This is not even a veiled threat. This guy is blatantly attempting to extort money from the US public - "give us money or we will cause untold economic pain".

Well, Altman, would you like me to suggest where you stick your cars that nobody wants any more...?