Tag Archives: transportation

Innovations to make future cities far more livable?

From folding cars to robotic walls: 5 innovations to make future cities far more livable

Big cities across the globe will soon be getting much, much bigger. As architect Kent Larson shares in this future-focused talk from TEDxBoston, 90 percent of the world’s population growth is expected to happen in cities. But while newly established cities tend to sprawl to accommodate growth, Larson envisions that the metropolises of the future will look more like cities of the past — for example, Paris — with tight-knit neighborhoods offering residents everything they need within the radius of a 20-minute walk.So how will we live comfortably with even more people crammed into even smaller areas?

(via TED Blog.)

I love the idea of cities becoming more like what they were in the past, but it is clear that there is a struggle being waged – albeit subtly and even at times subconsciously – between different visions of what the city of the future will be, and this TED Talk is an example…

The talk outlines several innovations to make city dwelling far more livable that architect Kent Larson and colleagues at the MIT Media Lab are working on, though their Changing Places research group and City Science Initiative.  But the 5 innovative research projects looked at in the blog post have little to do with creating a city “more like cities of the past — for example, Paris — with tight-knit neighborhoods.” Instead, they seem to focus on maintaining a city much like cities of today — or maybe 1980 — and in particular on maintaining the whole structure of private, individual ownership, of already existing capitalism, as much as possible:

  • A tiny car that can be parked anywhere
  • Headlights that communicate with pedestrians for the ubiquitous autonomous cars
  • Bikes for elderly and disabled: Persuasive Electric Vehicle (PEV)
  • An apartment that changes, thanks to robotic walls
  • Do-it-yourself sunlight for tiny apartments

Don’t get me wrong — all of these sound cool and interesting, particularly to a techno-nerd like me. And they sound like positive developments.  But they are all innovations designed to improve or ameliorate conditions produced by the all-conquering private automobile/mode of transport and a notion of living space that emphasizes private space for individuals and nuclear families above all else.

That is not the Paris — or New York — of the past, more like the LA or Chicago of the present (or maybe 1980, before the problems of urbanism really started cross-fertilizing with neoliberal policies to produce the situation in which we now find ourselves).

Not tiny cars nor autonomous cars with smart and sexy headlines, but effective public transit solutions are what we need, along with a return to a mode of living in which work, consumption and living spaces were not separated by such distances, where people could easily walk to most things.

Having robot walls and the ability “to program a personalized sunlight plan for their apartment, using their cell phone” sounds okay.  But consider the solutions of the past to the tiny, crowded living spaces and lack of sunlight for the majority of urban dwellers in New York and Paris and elsewhere — like Central Park.  Public space, shared space, communal space to provide the room to stretch out, and to enjoy the sunlight, which private quarters didn’t and couldn’t provide.  I’d rather have my city parks refurbished and maintained, and expanding in number, size and variety, than have “programmable sunlight” in my apartment, as its walls shift to give me some sense of space in the property I rent (because, let’s face it, you are I are not going to be able to buy a place to live in the City of Tomorrow).

As cities grow, as the number of people living in urban spaces increases, and as environmental issues weigh ever more heavily, the only way to accomodate those numbers in anything remotely pleasant and healthy is going to be to recreate all those shared, communal and public solutions that have been disappearing: laundromats instead of a private washing machine and dryer in every apartment; large, effective public parks.  Cafes and bars that function as de facto living rooms and meeting halls (very common, for example, in NYC at the beginning of the 20th Century). Cheap and healthy dining halls for walking people. Public baths.

And that electric bicycle for the elderly and disabled? I suspect most elderly and disabled would rather have effective public transit, though they might welcome the bicycle as an addition.  The real market for that PEV: “the businesswoman who has to wear a suit to the office, but wants a workout on her way home.”  And don’t make any mistake:

these innovations are all about the market, for developing new products for the City of Tomorrow rather than innovating for real livable cities that combine the best of modern technology with the best of the “cities of the past.”

More Ideas: Transportation

Everybody gets so much information all day long
that they lose their common sense.
~ Gertrude Stein

Some discussions, ideas and scientific discoveries from around the internet with implications for transportation…

Every (Ash) Cloud has a Silver Lining

Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption could transform the economics and politics of Europe: Already, the events of the last several days have revealed that we rely on air travel for far more things than we usually imagine. Things like supermarkets—all that fresh fruit—and florists. Things like symphony performances, professional soccer matches, and international relations. In fact, “European integration,” as we have come to understand it, turns out to be utterly dependent on reliable air travel. (via Slate.)

Andrew Simms – 79 months and counting …: Eyjafjallajökull provided a glimpse of a possible future in which the aviation industry’s wings have been clipped [….]

Within hours, airports all over Europe were closing as if giant master switch for the aviation industry had been flicked to off. Why? Fine dust from the vast billowing cloud thrown up by the volcano was lethal to modern jet engines. Planes that had flown through similar clouds in the past had suffered terrifying, nearly disastrous losses of power. For days Europe was grounded. ‘Five miles up the hush and shush of ash/ Yet the sky is as clean as a white slate,’ wrote the poet Carol Ann Duffy.

One of the main arteries of the modern world – cheap, ubiquitous air travel – was suddenly cut. What happened next was revelatory, and possibly a glimpse of a future world in which both climate change and strictly limited oil supplies have clipped the industry’s wings…. (via Comment is free | guardian.co.uk.)

People came up with a variety of methods of coping with the transportation chaos created by the grounding of so much plane travel following the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano. Monty Python’s John Cleese took what some people were calling the most expensive cab ride in history.

But this is neither an option available to most people, nor a sustainable practice. And we certainly couldn’t transport all those cut flowers from Africa to the tables of Europe in taxis. As a better alternative, let me suggest…

Bring back blimps!: The New York Times asked me and three other people the following question: ‘The Icelandic volcano that disrupted global air travel last week raised a concern: should we be thinking of alternative ways to move masses of people and goods?’ My answer: bring back blimps (and dirigibles).

Their large surface area and inherent buoyancy mean they can be run with solar-powered motors, making them eco-friendly. They can take off and land without a runway, which means they can load and unload passengers almost anywhere (no more airports!). (via Boing Boing.)

Funnily enough, I’ve read a number of science fiction novels recently in which blimps are used as a regular form of transportation – including Red Mars, Antarctica, Dark Light, and The Windup Girl. In the latter, they and technologically sophisticated sailing ships are the primary means of long-distance travel in a world devastated by “both climate change and strictly limited oil supplies.”

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GM’s Electric Pod Car

Get a Closer Look at GM’s Electric Pod Car: “No one’s talking about taking away your SUV or sportscar. But Borroni-Bird says the little electric runabout addresses six issues facing urban mobility in increasingly dense cities: energy use, environmental concerns, safety, congestion, parking and affordability…”

(via Autopia | Wired.com.)

First impressions: Cool! The future finally arrives! I want one!

But… on reflection, I have to raise a few issues.

For starters, why aren’t we talking about “taking away your SUV or sportscar”?

I suppose Wired meant this to be funny, but in fact they are deploying, subtly, a notion that is fairly problematic for efforts to address climate change – this notion that the green movement is going to take away your toys. There are two aspects to this. One is that of losing your toys, of having to do without, and the other concerns heavy-handed greenshirts forcing change on people – taking those toys (by force).

The problem with the first of these – of “losing your toys” – was raised very intelligently a couple of years back in a critique of “Earth Hour” – of getting everyone to turn off all lights for an hour. This critique raised two related problems for this widely popular event: it focuses on environmental change, or change to prevent environmental disaster, as requiring hardship and sacrifice; and with the darkness, it puts people into a situation that has associations with fear and danger and death.

I think that critique was spot on, and much more relevant than another criticism of the same event, which points out that switching off all those lights actually doesn’t reduce power consumption at all, because the power is still generated, has to be generated because of the way our electrical grid works – it is just not used. This is absolutely true, but misses the point of the event – which is to raise awareness, create solidarity and empower (no pun intended) people to see (again, no pun intended) that they can work for change in their daily lives.

But the point I want to make is simply this: we are indeed going to have to give up some of our toys, and more generally alter our attitudes towards consumption, if we are going to find a way out of this mess, and into a just and sustainable future for everyone on this planet.

(Regarding attitudes, consider the psychological factors that are behind the purchase of an SUV or sportscar – including the connotations of the word “sport” – as opposed to a more “sensible,” “family” or “compact” car. And consider how cool they make this Pod Car look – but maybe that is just the sci fi geek in me.)

We need to find events and publicity stunts that focus on positives rather than negatives – as that critique of Earth Hour suggests is the problem with that event. And we also need to think about rhetoric like that of this Wired piece, that likewise paint a negative picture of change.

But the rhetoric of that first sentence is a fairly trivial matter – there are much more serious problems here that I want to raise.

This Pod Car looks awesome. I’m a geek and a gear nut, I read science fiction, I lust after cool future tech – so of course I want one. But…

But the answers for a just and sustainable future will not come from such bandaid responses to the problems we face. The Electric Pod Car tries to finesse the problems of over-use of oil, of pollution and crowding by coming up with a smaller, cleaner private vehicle. It is, to use a phrase that I deploy quite often, business-almost-as-usual, when what is needed are more fundamental changes

Planners everywhere and cities throughout Europe have already addressed the problems of “energy use, environmental concerns, safety, congestion, parking and affordability” in much more sensible, sound, sustainable ways – through, for example, public transit, bicycles and sensible urban design (often the result of history as much as any conscious planning).

GM’s Pod Car and the other (mostly less sci fi) electric cars that are starting to come out seem to me fallback positions that try to preserve the power and profits of the automotive industry and its ancillaries by continuing the emphasis on the private car – a disastrous addiction that has been a major factor in getting us into the mess in which we find ourselves. And the Pod Car looks to be intensely privatized – not just a private automobile, but an automobile for one, and for one without any (or much) space for luggage, groceries, etc. And it is precisely when you need to shift goods, and kids, that a private car starts to see like a real need; on your own, it is relatively easy to get around in big cities by walking, riding the bus or biking. So even with a Pod Car, you are likely to want a second vehicle – maybe that SUV that they are not talking about taking away from you.

And it’s not just suburbs that have resulted from our addiction to the private automobile, though they are a huge part of the resulting dysfunction.

Even after the energy crisis of the 1970s, and the long lines at the petrol pumps, we continued to make changes that increased our dependence on the private automobile. Consider the changes in San Francisco in the last few decades. The City used to be dotted with corner grocery stores – every few blocks, in every neighborhood. Some still remain, but most have disappeared – turned into flats or offices. Of those that remain, too many have degenerated into little more than outlets for booze, cigarettes and junk food. Likewise, the neighborhood pharmacies and hardware stores are mostly gone – wiped out by big corporate chains and the real estate boom.

They’ve been replaced by supermarkets, big box stores and large corporate chain outlets – with easy parking, which they need because you pretty much have to drive there.

Like the suburbs, which shift people far from the places they work and shop, this move to big shopping outlets, mostly located on the fringes where land is cheaper, increases our dependence on private cars.

There are other impacts as well. A shift from family businesses that are an organic part of their communities to large corporate entities. An increased reliance on packaged, processes and frozen foods – which are less healthy and require more chemicals and packaging. With a corner store, you can pick up small amounts of fresh food every couple of days on your way home. If you are making the trip to the supermarket, you buy for the week – so packages, preservatives, frozen, etc.

At the end of the day, perhaps, there is something like a “clash of civilizations” emerging here. On one side, you have a world of suburbs and office towers, of multinational chains, shopping malls and “big box” stores, and the private car. On the other, neighborhoods with corner stores, medium to high-density living mixed in with local businesses, where you can walk most places, ride the bike or take public transit.

To a very real extent, the push for electric cars – along with a number of other “green consumer” developments – seems to me deluded, head-in-the-sad, desperate – a case of trying to have your cake and eat it to – of trying to hang on as much and as long as possible to the old ways – to GM and the private car – while making a few concessions to the crisis that is emerging. But too few, I think. Because to make more would begin to affect the power and wealth of the people who, right now, we are letting run the show.

CatEye Commuter – A Carbon Footprint Fail

Wired Magazine‘s “Spring Test 2010” roundup of the latest gadgets for geeks and toys for tycoons includes a new kind of bicycle computer that will not only compute your travel time, but also the amount of CO2 emissions you’ve saved by bicycling rather than driving.


On a couple of counts. First, if I were going to have some sort of trip computer on my bicycle, I’d want one with GPS and links to optimal bicycle routes, as well as all the standard features you expect from bicycle trip computers – in addition to these time and CO2 features.

But more importantly, this CO2 emissions calculator would only make sense to me if it included in its calculations all the CO2 involved in producing, packaging, shipping and powering this useless piece of consumerist gimcrackery.

Nerdy Number Cruncher Makes Biking a Blast

There are two pressing questions every bike commuter faces: How long until I get there? And how self-righteous should I feel? CatEye’s new Commuter bike computer answers both.

Program in your trip distance, and the Commuter uses current speed to calculate your ETA. Slow down and watch the number and progress bar grow. Speed up and you’ll know how much time you can waste in GameStop on the way to work.

As for quantifying self-righteousness, the Commuter tells you how much CO2 you’re keeping out of the atmosphere by not driving. Using 2008 averages for gas-powered cars as a baseline, the unit calculates how much CO2 you would have produced for the distance you’ve pedaled. It gives you totals for the day, week, month, year and life of the computer.

(via CatEye Commuter | Wired.com Product Reviews.)

New US Gasoline Mileage Standards – Too Little. Too Late?

The Obama administration has issued new guidelines on gas mileage that will require automakers to meet a fleet-wide average of 35.5 mpg (miles per gallon) by 2016:

White House Issues New Gasoline Mileage Standards

That gallon of gas is going to get you a little farther. The Obama administration signed off on the nation’s first rules on greenhouse gas emissions Thursday and set new fuel standards that will raise current standards by nearly 10 mpg by the 2016 model year.

The so-called CAFE standards, issued by the Transportation Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, cover cars and trucks for model years 2012 to 2016. Automakers will be required to meet a fleet-wide average of 35.5 by 2016.

The standards forthcoming under the ‘clean car peace treaty’ are a good deal for consumers, for companies, for the country and for the planet.
– David Doniger, of the Natural Resources Defense Council

Although the new requirements would add an estimated $434 per vehicle in the 2012 model year and $926 per vehicle by 2016, drivers could save as much as $3,000 over the life of a vehicle through better gas mileage, according to a government statement. The new standards also will conserve about 1.8 billion barrels of oil and cut carbon dioxide emissions by nearly a billion tons over the life of the regulated models.

(via NPR. )

That 2016 figure of 35.5 mpg translates out to 6.63 litres per 100 km (L/100 km), the standard way of measuring fuel consumption standards in much of the rest of the world.

To put the new US requirement into perspective, the 2008 standard for China was 5.7L/100 km – or 41.27mpg, almost 20% better than the US standard for 2016. Other studies put current Chinese mileage at 35.8mpg – so China has already surpassed the requirement that Obama wants to implement in 6 years. And Chinese officials have announced a new target of 42.2mpg by 2015. Europe is implementing a requirement for an even lower standard of 5L/100 km by 2012. So… the new requirement for the US fleet basically sucks.

China to Impose Stricter Gas Mileage Rules Than U.S.: “The president of China’s Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation has said that Chinese officials are drafting new mileage standards that would require an 18 percent improvement in fuel economy by 2015. New cars in China already average about 35.8 mpg and under the new rules, would be required to get 42.2 mpg by 2015. The new U.S. standards require an average mgp of 35.5 by 2016.”

With this kind of attitude on the part of one of the major players, it isn’t really surprising that the Copenhagen conference did so poorly. And as to that, a recent study has found that if the agreed-upon principles that came out of Copenhagen are followed, the world will experience a rise of 3 degrees celsius, rather than the 2 degrees which is seen as crucial if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change effects.

‘Paltry’ Copenhagen carbon pledges point to 3C world.
Pledges made at December’s UN summit in Copenhagen are unlikely to keep global warming below 2C, a study concludes.

Writing in the journal Nature, analysts at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research in Germany say a rise of at least 3C by 2100 is likely.

(via BBC News.)

Not only are these new US fuel consumption standards a case of too little, and possibly too late, but the Obama administration’s other efforts to face up to the challenge of climate change are being threatened by domestic politics – specifically, the increasingly nasty and brutish dispute over immigration:

Immigration row delays energy bill: “The high visibility roll-out tomorrow of proposed climate change legislation for America collapsed at the weekend after a Republican co-author threatened to withdraw his support for the bill in a row over immigration.

Democrats were forced to postpone the much-hyped unveiling, putting a core Obama mission in jeopardy and further complicating international efforts to reach a deal on global warming.”

(Via guardian.co.uk.)

No wonder the rest of the world is losing patience with American foot-dragging on climate change.

To convert between miles per gallon and litres per 100 kilometres, see Convert Fuel consumption, Miles per gallon (one of many sites that will handle this and other conversions for you).

For more information on mileage standards and fuel consumption, see Fuel economy in automobiles – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Electric Cars

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Drive from your suburban home along busy streets and highways to your corporate, soul-deadening, paper-pushing job – in the solitude of your private electric car!


Leave it to Detroit…

Chrysler just announced  three new electric vehicles (“Up to Speed,” LA Times), the first of which is supposed to hit the streets commercially in 2010. And what are they? Small, energy efficient, safety-conscious vehicles? The sort of cars you see on the streets of Europe and Japan, like a Smart or Fiat 500?  Nope. A minivan, SUV and two-seat sports car.

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