Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Gulf Spill, One Year Later: Still a Good Reason to Get Off Oil

Today marks one year since the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform blew up, killing eleven workers and initiating what’s been called the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. This week, news outlets are running retrospectives of this crisis that has not yet ended. There is still oil to clean up, there are still claims to process, and there are still visible environmental effects around the Gulf of this huge spill.

In a segment a few days ago, NPR reporter Debbie Elliott mentioned the significance of two ongoing Gulf spill stories: the many long-term ecological effects that remain unknown, and the significant mental health impacts on Gulf residents that continue to grow. As an example of the latter, Elliott noted that calls to an Alabama mental health hotline tripled just last month, long after the Deepwater Horizon leak was capped.

It’s a sad circumstance whose repetition could be avoided if only we could wean ourselves from oil. With an eye toward recovering from oil addiction, I ran a series of posts on this blog starting on June 21 last year and running daily for a month as crude continued to gush from the broken BP well into the Gulf.

These posts suggested simple strategies we might all pursue to cut our use of crude, things like using bike trailers, walking kids to school, taking Amtrak, avoiding petroleum-based perfumes and body-care products, or eating food produced with less fossil fuel. The series ended with a four-part story (starting here) about a hypothetical small town that reduced its use of oil with several simple-to-institute measures.

It’s still a good time to do these things, and I hope readers will return to these posts and reconsider the ideas they suggest. Not only is the Gulf still struggling a year later from the oil spill’s ugly effects, but gas costs have once again spiked. We might no longer have a spill disaster topping the headlines, but we still have a long list of good reasons -- and many good ways -- to get off oil.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"The Greenest Routes from A to B" 3/24 at MTU

From pedestrian streets to urban bikesharing to modern streetcars to renewable fuels, innovative options for green travel are expanding around North America and the world. What makes these travel modes green? And which are the greenest ways to get around?

I’ll be talking about some of the best examples of green transport at Michigan Technological University on Thursday evening, March 24th at 7 p.m. My one-hour presentation, “The Greenest Routes from A to B,” is part of MTU’s Earth Week, organized and sponsored by Students for Environmental Sustainability.

The group will give out copies of Divorce Your Car! to the earliest arrivals at the event, while supplies last. There will be about a half-hour for questions and discussion after the presentation.

If you’re anywhere near Houghton on March 24th, please join us in Room U115 of the MTU M&M building. I’m delighted to be able to present news of some exciting recent developments in green travel, and I look forward to seeing you there!

Photo credits: Katie Alvord; B-cycle;

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Transportation Transformation, Installment Three: Bikes Bikes Bikes Bikes

A guest post by
Nelson Sommerfeldt

Bikes, my favorite mode of transport. To be honest, I have yet to fully embrace the bicycle as my primary vehicle. A few factors play into that. One, like most things bikes are expensive here, even second hand. Two, if I’m going to ride almost every trip I require at least a decent level of performance, meaning I won’t settle for a clunker scraped together from the parts bin. Lastly, public transportation is so cheap, easy and comfortable is it difficult to give up. But like many things, making a smooth transition is important to long-term acceptance. I’ve already made the move from car to public transport, and by the end of our stay here I hope to be a full-fledged cycling commuter.

For the first few months here I was able to participate in Stockholm’s city bike program. (If you are unfamiliar with bike sharing programs, see the explanation in my first installment). When I was considering transportation options, using public transport combined with the city bikes was the most cost-effective option. Any used bikes I found that I liked were $600 to $1100, and that didn’t always include fenders and a rack. $800 gets me public transportation for the entire school year, so I knew that if I was to get a bike for commuting I would have to make it my exclusive choice for travel. Being a relative rookie when it comes to commuting I was nervous about my dedication, especially with my first Swedish winter approaching. Paying less than $30 to use the city’s bikes sounded like a much better option.

Bike sharing is a great concept and is quite popular in Stockholm, but I haven’t always been so excited to grab a bike. I always have three concerns when checking one out: getting a newer model that fits me, having air in the tires, and finding gears that work. There are two generations of bikes, and only the newer ones come close to fitting my lanky 6-foot-4 frame. Sometimes, there might only be one newer bike in the rack, and I have to spend several minutes checking in and out all the other bikes to get it. Once I get the right frame, I have to check the tires for adequate air. I only made the mistake of neglecting this early on. Most of the city bike tires were low on air, which I didn’t realize until October when they got a top-up and then I noticed how much faster they were. When tire pressure is deemed acceptable, that's when I’ll take the bike. Once riding, you quickly learn how many usable gears you have, which most of the time is two, in any combination. All city bikes are equipped with 3-speed internally geared hubs, but most have been abused to the point where two and sometimes only one gear still work. For some trips this is a non-issue, but for the moderately hilly, 4 km ride to campus, it is nice to have some gears so I don’t get too sweaty for class. So while all of these things are relatively minor on their own, combined it makes selecting city bikes over public transportation somewhat difficult. But hey, it's only $30, right?

Certainly, the city bikes have their place. For quick errands during the day they are hard to beat. Depending on where in the city you are going, they can be significantly faster than buses or trains. And if the weather is nice in the morning, but then rains in the afternoon (which it did A LOT this fall) it's nice not to have your own bike to deal with. But ultimately they are built to be generically utilitarian and thus not much fun to ride. I do plan to sign up for the program again next summer because it can be very convenient and is so cheap, but I can’t say I’m looking forward to throwing a leg over those blue beasts.

But there is the chance next year will be different. I had a major awakening in mid-October when I was riding my mountain bike to the Nacka nature reserve. Bikes aren’t allowed on trains or buses in the city, so I rode from my apartment in the north to the trails in the south, about a 50 minute trip. Riding my own bike through the city was so much more fun and faster than riding the generic city bike that it reignited my desire to get a bike for commuting. Even now in winter, bike lanes are all plowed, rocked (they use pea gravel instead of sand, much more bike friendly) and lit with the same consideration as roads. So if all goes well, next fall I’ll be able to get my own commuter and become fully self-propelled!

It's become clear the main ingredient to making bicycle commuting accessible is the infrastructure. So many of the roads here have been built to handle every type of traffic, which really makes riding in the city fun. Back home in Michigan, I try to ride legally on the roads in town, but they are so crowded with cars as it is that I feel like I’m interrupting traffic, and sometimes drivers let me know I’m interrupting so I feel even more anxious and unsafe. If cities really want to promote cycling, the infrastructure has to be in place so bikers know where they are safe to go and drivers know where bikers will be.

While I know the name of the game here is “divorce your car,” I’ve learned that cars aren’t always a necessary evil, but a necessary tool. As the book itself points out, there are ways to fit cars optimally into the transportation mix. I’ve recently started understanding how that can work, so next time I will discuss Stockholm and its cars. All of them, not just the Volvos and Saabs.

Hej då!

Photo credits: ©2011 Nelson Sommerfeldt

Monday, January 31, 2011

"Save the Planet One Trip at a Time"

In case you haven’t seen it yet, the latest essay recounting my particular approach to car divorce appeared in the December 2010 / January 2011 issue of The Progressive. “Save the Planet One Trip at a Time” tells how I get around these days and suggests a few ways we can all free ourselves from the “need” to drive so much.

I first started reading The Progressive in the 1980s when I worked at the Napa City-County Library. You have to love a journal that's been around so long -- more than 100 years now -- and that takes such a strong stand against disenfranchisement, and for peace, social justice, and the environment.

The December 2010 / January 2011 special issue on “Saving the Earth” continues that long tradition. The entire issue is nicely done and well worth a look, with essays and interviews by and with Barbara Kingsolver, Wendell Berry, Vandana Shiva, Bill McKibben, and others. Check it out by going to, where subscribers can access full text of the magazine online.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Transportation Transformation, Installment Two: Trains + Buses = Mobility

A guest post by
Nelson Sommerfeldt

In my first installment, I introduced the Stockholm County public transportation system. It consists primarily of a complicated network of trains and buses that thoroughly cover Stockholm City, but also reach impressively far into the rural areas of the county. As you might expect, traveling within the city is extremely easy almost any time of day. When you live in the suburbs, as I do, traveling does require a bit more planning. But you adapt and it becomes a part of how you live. Does that mean I’ve lost my mobility freedom? Become a slave to someone else’s schedule? To a small degree, yes, but it’s hardly a net loss.

SL, which stands for Storstockholms Lokaltrafik AB, is a corporation wholly owned and managed by the Stockholm County Council that manages all public transportation in Stockholm County. Roughly half of the operating budget is funded by county taxes and the other half by ticket revenues. The system is incredibly complex, running hundreds of routes, encompassing thousands of stops and carrying hundreds of thousands of people every day. An impressive machine to operate indeed.

Using public transportation is proving to be many times less expensive than owning a car. I purchase tickets on a monthly basis, which gives me unlimited travel on any route during that time. With my student discount, one month costs $70, roughly $2.33 per day. Back home I was married to a lovely 2005 Subaru Outback averaging 20 mpg, and when I left the US I was paying an average of $3.00 for a gallon of 92 octane gasoline. I was fortunate enough to own my car outright, so I won’t include a monthly loan payment. However, insurance still cost me around $120 per month ($4 per day) and with my car being a bit older, maintenance costs were about $1000 per year ($2.75 per day). Because of many long distance road trips, I had many more miles than the average person, 130,000 in 6 years. For the sake of comparison we’ll say I averaged 30 miles of local travel per day, half of the total mileage. All these numbers add up to a monthly car ownership bill of $338, or $11.27 per day. I’m saving $268 per month in transportation costs, and that doesn’t even include a loan payment! And this is for owning my car in the US, owning a car in Sweden is far more expensive (i.e. $30k for a Ford Focus and $7.00/gal gas) so the savings are even more extreme when compared locally.

The primary argument for owning a car is that it gives you personal mobility freedom. However, nearly all of my traveling needs are met with SL. My daily commute to campus is 5.6 miles and takes about 30 minutes using two buses. The timing is perfect: I have almost no wait in the transfer and I arrive on campus at exactly the time I need. SL statistics say the same commute would take about 15 minutes in a car, not including time to find a parking space. However, I usually spend that time on the bus checking my schedule, emails or Facebook on my phone, something I couldn’t do driving a car in city traffic. So really, those 15 extra minutes on the bus are actually 15 minutes I would have spent sitting at my desk anyway. It’s hard to count it as lost time. And while you can carry rather large packages on the bus (I took a bike box home), it’s true that I could never move a couch or mattress on the bus or train. But on the very rare occasion that I do need to do that, I can rent a car with a trailer from almost any gas station for 2 hours and pay only $75 plus fuel. So for an extra $268 per month in my pocket, I am not giving up much.

It’s not all roses with SL, though. There are times when I get frustrated dealing with busses and trains. My biggest pet peeve is when I just miss a stop, and end up having to wait 10, 15 or 20 minutes for the next ride. I have mitigated this significantly since I started using SL’s mobile site, allowing me to type in addresses and store my most frequently used stops to calculate exactly when I need to be there and how long my trip will take. For instance, once a week I stop by the grocery store on my way home from school. This is often at random times, so when I’m riding the train there, I will look up when the next bus heading home will be leaving. This gives me a goal, to buy only what I need and get in and out of the store quickly to catch the bus. While this usually works well, most recently I picked the wrong check out line, behind a woman buying loads of weird produce and the new guy at the register having to look it all up. So I ended up just missing the bus and had to wait 20 minutes for the next one. But as I get better and better about moving within bus and train schedules, most of the time I’m catching rides right on time or waiting just a few minutes. I see this becoming less of an issue as I hone my public transportation skills.

Along the same lines, there is a challenge in traveling to or from home during odd times of day. For example, if I’m in the city on a Friday or Saturday night, I usually set an alarm on my phone to remind me that I need to head home. Around midnight, buses in my neighborhood switch to a one-hour rotation and then stop running at 2:00 a.m. So if I miss a particular trip I will have to wait another hour or possibly walk home. While this does dictate how I behave during these times, it has yet to really bother me. In fact, I kind of like it. It helps keep me aware of the time and prevents me from inadvertently staying out later than I’d like.

Overall I am extremely pleased traveling with SL. The few inconveniences I do have are surely worth the significant monetary savings. In a later installment, I’ll discuss SL’s initiative to eliminate CO2 emissions from public transport, and eventually from all vehicles in the Stockholm City. But next time it’s all about the ultimate CO2 fighter and super-fun joyride, bicycles. I’ve been using the City Bike program for the past six weeks, and I’ll report on all the good and bad of riding bikes in Stockholm.

Hej då!

Photos: Both from Storstockholms Lokaltrafik (SL)