- 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 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.