Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Brilliance of Walking

"Walking in the Hills" Edward Potthast
Walking. So simple. So powerful. So cheap. If you could put the benefits of walking 30 minutes a day into a pill, you'd drive 80% of all medications off the market and make untold billions. That's how great walking is. And you can get this wonder drug for free. Here are fifteen reasons to get out and walk:

1) Vital for your lymphatic system. Our lymphatic systems carry nutrients to our cells and cart off the routine wastes of cellular function that become toxic if allowed to build up. The lymphatic system also produces and transports white blood cells and disease-fighting antibodies. But this system doesn't have its own pump like the blood system does. It relies on muscular movement. Without your body's movement the lymph can't circulate and can't do its job protecting your health. You can be a little overweight and be healthy. You cannot be sedentary and be healthy.

"Painter on His Way to Work" Vincent van Gogh
2) Cancer Prevention. Walking 30 minutes a day cuts risk of uterine and breast cancer in half for women. It cuts risk of colon cancer for both sexes by 60%. Even more extraordinary, walking can stop prostate cancer in its tracks. Men diagnosed with prostate cancer who start walking briskly 30 minutes a day are 57% less likely to see the disease progress. This is amazing. And for women with breast cancer with hormone-responsive tumors, those who walked an average of 30 minutes a day reduced risk of dying from their cancer by 50%.

3) Prevents heart disease. Reduces risk by 40%. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US for both men and women.

4) Reduces incidence of high blood pressure by 40%.

5) Lowers the risk of stroke by 37%.

"Tobias and the Angel" Piero del Pollaiolo
6) Boosts the immune system to fight off colds and flus. And if you do get sick, being fit reduces the number of days you are sick, the number of symptoms you experience, and the overall severity of the illness by 30%. Also boosts your overall energy levels.

7) Cuts likelihood of getting type 2 diabetes in half. If you're pre-diabetic, it can reverse this condition and get you out of the danger-zone. If you have type 2 diabetes, it can reduce your need for insulin.

8) Good for the heart and circulatory system. Keeps arteries and veins unclogged and functional.

9) Reduces bad cholesterol, regulates blood sugar levels, and aids digestion. (Especially good if done 15 minutes after a meal.)

10) Prevents depression. Reduces depression as well or better than, Zoloft, Prozac or behavioral therapy. This is true no matter your age. Currently in the US, of my age cohort--women between 50 and 65--a full one fourth are taking antidepressants. This is nuts. Walking also alleviates stress and anxiety and helps you fall asleep at night and stay asleep.

11) Combats arthritis and strengthens joints. Eases lower back pain as effectively as a muscle-strengthening program at a clinic. Reduces need for pain medication.

12) Strengthens your bones. Reduces risk of osteoporosis.

13) Helps pregnant women with a host of common pregnancy problems including back pain, constipation, swelling and trouble sleeping. Walking during pregnancy (and during first part of labor) is also proven to result in shorter labors, reduces the risk of gestational diabetes and miscarriage, and makes it easier to get back to your normal weight after the baby is born.

"Couple Walking with Crescent Moon" Vincent Van Gogh
14) Keeps your brain functioning in old age. Reduces risk of Alzheimer's by 40 -50%. Reduces brain atrophy, dementia and cognitive decline. Reduces likelihood of brain shrinkage.

15) Improves health and well-being later in life. Being fit in your fifties compresses the likelihood of experiencing chronic, debilitating illness into the last five years of life rather than the last 10, 15 or even 20 years of life that occurs for sedentary people. 

Of course walking is not the only form of moderate physical exercise that's good for you. Bicycling, swimming, ballroom dancing, yoga, and tai chi are also options, and no doubt there are dozens of others as well. But it turns out our bodies are especially designed to walk, and we specifically need a goodly amount of weight-bearing exercise for optimal health, so definitely keep walking in the mix of your activities. Whatever exercise you choose, you don't have to get out of breath and sweaty to benefit. But you do need to do something that gets you moving and your blood circulating for thirty minutes every day. It doesn't have to be all at one time, but just puttering around your house or the office doesn't count.

The very best way to get moderate exercise regularly is to work it into your daily routine. Can you walk to work? Can you park a mile away from work and walk the last bit? Can you walk at lunchtime? Is there a store or business you frequent regularly that is walking distance from home? Is there a pleasant place in your neighborhood you can take a walk after dinner? If moving to a new address is in your future, strongly consider settling in a walkable neighborhood where are things to walk to. Where people live is proven to make a huge difference in how much moderate exercise they get in their lives.

I hope I've convinced you walking is better than any drug you could take. More tips on getting started:
1.) Baby steps. Set small goals at first--even 5 minutes of walking a day is good! Increase by one minute each day. By the end of a month you'll be up to 30.
2.) Get a walking buddy, someone you can meet to get you out walking.
3.) Get a comfortable pair of walking shoes so that lack of footwear doesn't get in your way.
4.) Listen to music, though only have an earbud in one ear if walking near car traffic.
5.) Give yourself a non-food reward for walking every day for a week, for two weeks, for a month. Post your progress on Facebook, or even make a chart with stars on your refrigerator. 
6.) If you can, get your exercise in nature. This has proven spirit-lifting benefits even beyond walking.
7.) If inclement weather keeps you from walking, invest in good, reflective rain gear. It's worth it!

In my first novel, Pearl City Control Theory, I wrote about city Buddha-mind walking and its emotional and philosophical benefits with little idea of walking's health impact. But I wrote Pearl City way back in 1992, and it was published in 1999, well before the abundance of studies and scientific research about walking that are now available. The reasons to walk are even more pressing now than they were in 1992.

Starting a habit of walking is initially going to take energy and willpower. Be dogged, be determined. After a month, you'll have noticeably more energy, endurance and stamina. You will be stronger. You will see things you've never noticed before. You will get sick less often, your spirits will lift, and you will just feel a heck of a lot better. Happy Rambles!

Friday, September 27, 2013

Some States Are Adding Wind and Solar Capacity Like Crazy! Is Yours?

Some States Are Adding Wind and Solar Capacity Like Crazy! Is Yours?

Some very heartening data has come out of the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) in their recently released July 2013 year-to-date numbers on electricity generation by state. Some surprising states are adding wind and solar capacity at an amazing clip:  Iowa! Kansas! Oklahoma! Arizona! Nevada! North Carolina! New Jersey! Vermont! Other states are doing little or nothing even when they have excellent wind and sun potential falling in their laps.

Before we examine each state, let’s consider solar and wind potential on a national level. One U.S. news broadcaster of note reported that Germany has installed 15 times the per capita solar generating capacity of the US because Germany is sunnier than the U.S. Ho, ho, ho! One tiny little internet search will show you that Germany gets less direct energy from the sun than any U.S. state except, possibly, Alaska. Which means every U.S. state except Alaska has decent solar potential. In fact, many US states get far more solar insolation than sunny Spain!

Germany is the cold-looking one on the right.
As you can see, our southwest states have very, very high solar potential. This means every solar panel in these places would generate double the electricity that the same panel placed in Germany would. Some of these extremely sunny states are taking advantage of this fact. Some are not.

Onto wind. Here is a map of wind potential and installed wind capacity cumulative to 2012. As you can see, the whole Midwest from North Dakota down to Texas is smoking hot. Absolutely amazing wind potential. And yet some states are taking advantage of this and some are not.

The bluer the windier

Onto the states!

We’ll examine them by census district since that is how the US EIA divides them up.  The EIA numbers only include solar energy produced by utilities and Independent Power Producers (IPPs). We have to look separately to find residential solar installations. In the EIA’s national numbers, the electricity produced by residential solar largely shows up not as production but as reduced demand. Note: generally when I refer to renewables, I mean “all renewables except large hydro” and I will spell out large hydro separately. Also note: in general I’m not a huge fan of nuclear power and would rather not see new nuclear plants built. But in my opinion unless one is in a dangerous area or is falling apart, keeping it going constitutes less of a threat than continuing to burn coal.

New England:  So far in 2013 Maine has increased its installed wind capacity by 12% over 2012, with wind now providing 7% of the electricity it generates. Maine has installed almost no solar. Since Maine exports electricity, if we consider just internal consumption, hydro + renewables covers 72% of Maine’s electricity demand. New Hampshire expanded wind generation last year by 38 %, but the total still comes to a very small amount. If they stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, their internal consumption could be supplied by hydro + renewables + nuclear with still 30% left over to sell to other states. Vermont nearly tripled its wind capacity over last year, but the amount is still pretty tiny. However, hydro + all renewables makes up 40% of the electricity it consumes internally. The state has installed a significant amount of residential solar, making it ninth in the nation for solar capacity per person. Vermont has at least as much wind potential as Maine yet has one fourth the installed wind capacity. 

This data is from 2012.
Massachusetts imports 61% of the electricity it consumes, sucking up all the excess electricity from the surrounding states and then some. So far in 2013 it has doubled its wind capacity over 2012 and almost quadrupled its solar output from utility/IPPS. Unfortunately, that’s not saying much since both are still tiny. It has, however, installed a significant amount of residential solar, making it 10th in the nation in installed solar per capita. In fact, in the second quarter of 2013, it was fifth in the nation for total solar installations.

Connecticut produces about half the electricity it generates from nuclear, almost none from wind or solar, and is a sizable energy exporter. If the state stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, it could cover 66% of its own electricity needs with nuclear + hydro + renewables. Rhode Island produces almost no electricity from wind or solar. It imports a fifth of its electricity and produces pretty much all the rest from fossil fuels. (Sigh.) It can certainly do better.

Middle Atlantic:  Though New Jersey has next to no wind capacity installed, it has gone whole hog with residential solar! It has the third highest installed solar capacity of all US states, and 2nd quarter of 2013 it was also third for newly installed capacity. New Jersey imports 14% of its electricity, generates 45% through nuclear power, and has over half its electricity coming from fossil fuels. New York increased its wind capacity by 14% over last year but has done very little in the way of solar. Though it has good wind potential in the western part of the state, it produces about as much electricity from wind as Pennsylvania, a state with far less potential. New York imports a small percent of its electricity, gets 22% from hydro + renewables and 31% from nuclear. With its large population, New York is a high electricity-consuming state.
Pennsylvania is a huge energy producer, generating more electricity than any other state except Texas. It exports 37% of its electricity, a fifth or so going to New Jersey and New York, and the rest likely going south. Pennsylvania ramped up its wind capacity by 50% this year over last. Still, wind makes up just 1.5% of the total electricity it produces. Pennsylvania is a huge nuclear state, second only to Illinois in the amount of nuclear energy it produces.  And it burns a heck of a lot of fossil fuels (mostly coal.) If Pennsylvania didn’t export electricity, it could cut its fossil fuel consumption by two thirds.

Wind in 2000--pretty sparse
East North Central: Illinois is cantering ahead of this pack in terms of installed wind. It increased its wind generation by 25% over last year, and wind now makes up 5% of its total electric generation. This is substantial progress given much electricity this state generates. It also has a small amount of solar. Illinois exports 30% of the electricity it generates. If it didn’t export electricity it could cover 75% of its electricity demand with renewables + hydro + nuclear. Indiana has very good wind potential but it increased wind production by just 10% last year. Renewables make up less than 4% of its energy production. They have no nuclear, negligible hydro and solar, and are a small electricity exporter. Michigan doubled its wind capacity last year, but they are playing catch up even with Indiana. Michigan is self-sufficient in electricity generation with 27% coming from nuclear and 4% from renewables + hydro.

Ohio imports 10% of its electricity, gets very little from wind or solar and 10% from nuclear. I’m depressed just thinking about it. Wisconsin has wind installed at a level comparable to Michigan—a little over 2% of their net electricity generation. They import a small amount of electricity.

Wind in 2012--getting gusty
West North Central:  This is the area of the country where things are really interesting!  Iowa has been installing wind capacity like crazy, and it now generates a full 28% of its electricity from wind. But Iowa is also an electricity exporter. If we only consider the energy Iowa consumes, 35% is generated from wind! This is a great accomplishment. Kansas is also going pedal to the metal on wind. It doubled its installed wind capacity over last year, and is now producing 20% of its electricity via wind. It is also an electricity exporter, so if we just consider its electrical demand alone, 25% is covered by wind. Minnesota ramped up their wind capacity a bit and is now up to 16% of its electricity generated by wind. However, Minnesota imports a full quarter of its electricity, which, right now, means other states burn fossil fuels to make electricity to export to it.

South Dakota and North Dakota come third and fifth in the region’s wind production derby, producing 28% and 15.5% of each state’s electricity via wind. Strangely enough, with all the great wind blowing through their states both North Dakota and South Dakota added no new wind generation capacity this year over last. If North Dakota had as much wind capacity installed as Iowa, and South Dakota as much as Oklahoma, both would have their electricity needs covered entirely.

And then there are Nebraska and Missouri, pulling up the rear of the group. Now Missouri has decent, though not exceptional, wind and solar potential. (Better than New Jersey! Better than Germany!) However, it is moving forward on neither and burns large amounts of fossil fuels in order to be an energy exporter. Nebraska, on the other hand, has fabulous wind potential, just as good as Kansas and probably better than Iowa. (It also has pretty darn good solar potential.) And yet they’ve only installed one-fifth the wind capacity of Kansas, and one-tenth the wind capacity of Iowa. Why is all this beautiful, productive, cheap wind going to waste? Someone is asleep at the switch.

South Atlantic:  This is a region of the country that imports a lot of electricity. The only states that don’t are West Virginia, Florida and South Carolina. Except for little pockets of the Appalachia’s, these states don’t have great on shore wind potential, though offshore is a possibility for most. All, however, have good to very good solar potential. West Virginia has the best wind, and it’s installed a small amount of capacity but could have much more. It exports more energy than it consumes by burning coal. Sunny Florida is number 10 in the US in terms of total installed solar but seems to have flat-lined with little capacity being added. It wasn’t in the top ten states for solar installed in the 2nd quarter of 2013. Though Florida consumes more electricity than any state besides Texas and California, only 2% of its electricity comes from renewables.

North Carolina is doing the best on solar in this sunny region, increasing its utility/IPP produced solar electricity by a factor of six in the last year! They were fourth in the nation in solar capacity installed in Q2 of 2013, and fifth in the nation for total cumulative capacity installed. Adjacent South Carolina, in contrast, has had almost no solar installation activity. Nor has Georgia, even though that state has solar potential Ohio would give its right arm for. Maryland has added a teeny bit of wind but you would think they would want to do more since they are a large electricity importer. The District of Columbia produces almost no electricity of any kind, relying nearly entirely on imports.

Interestingly, per capita, Delaware has the 7th highest solar PV capacity installed of any state (mostly residential), but they are such a small state with so little population, it hardly shows up on the radar. Delaware imports roughly a third of its electricity. Virginia also imports nearly a third of its electricity, and since they are a much bigger state, this adds up to a rather massive amount. Surprisingly, they’ve installed little wind or solar to speak of.

East South CentralAlabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee
Basically a black hole for solar and wind. And yet all four have good to very good solar potential and all but Alabama have some wind potential where their states border the Mississippi river. All the states but Tennessee are electricity exporters; Tennessee is a very large importer.

(Photo: texastribune.org)
West South Central:  Arkansas and Louisiana are two more black holes for solar and wind, both nuclear states, both net energy exporters, both burning lots of fossil fuels. Both have excellent solar potential and even a little wind potential. Texas and Oklahoma are a different story. Texas has the most wind capacity installed of any state in the nation.  However, because it produces more electricity than any state in the nation, wind comes to only 9% of all electricity produced. But this year alone Texas has increased wind capacity 18% over last year, and they increased their--admittedly limited amount--of solar capacity by 25%. Texas exports a huge amount of electricity, second only to Pennsylvania.  They have excellent solar potential, especially in the western half of the state. Oklahoma is playing catch up to Texas, increasing its wind capacity by 38% in one year! They are producing 13% of their electricity via wind, and 20% of the electricity they actually consume.  (They are exporters as well.) Not much solar to speak of, although they, too, have excellent potential.

Feel the desert rays (photo: energy.gov)
Mountain:  These are states that have good to totally astonishing solar potential. Most have good to extremely good wind potential. Arizona is doing the best with solar, as it should because it is one of the best places on the planet for it. Arizona more than doubled its installed solar capacity last year and is second for utility/IPP generated solar only behind California. It also nearly doubled its wind capacity last year. Even after all this, renewables still only make up 2% of its electricity generation. However, it is a big nuclear state and a big electricity exporter. Renewables + hydro + nuclear could cover 56% of its internal electricity consumption if the state stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow. Nevada increased its utility/IPP solar generation of electricity by 68%, and its wind generation by ten fold! Renewables make up 11% of the electricity it consumes, and hydro + renewables makes up 19%. Nevada is fourth in the nation for total solar capacity installed (including residential) and second when considered per capita.

New Mexico eked out small increases in both solar and wind, and is now up to nearly 8% of their electricity generated coming from the two together. They are an energy exporter. Colorado and Idaho both made great strides with wind capacity this year, increasing by 15% and 43% respectively. Wind +solar makes up 14% of Colorado’s consumption, and 13% of Idaho’s. Throw in hydro and you get 18% for Colorado and 59% for Idaho! Idaho imports almost a third of its electricity. Colorado generates close to as much electricity as it consumes.

Montana and Wyoming are two more wind-rich states with good solar potential.  Montana increased wind capacity by 27% while Wyoming increased not at all. Neither state has much solar installed. Montana has a lot of hydro which allows hydro+renewables to supply 94% of its internal consumption. However, Montana still burns fossil fuels to make electricity to export to other states. Wyoming, being the preeminent coal state of the US, burns massive amounts of coal and exports that electricity to other states, including California. Wyoming also uses massive amounts of energy for their mining industry. If their mining industry ended tomorrow, their internal electricity needs would be covered by renewables + hydro, and they would have electricity left over to export.

Utah could and should be a very good wind and a great solar state. It is neither.

A day in California (Fun website to check out!)
Pacific Contiguous:  California continues its lead in solar and is working hard to pass Iowa to regain second place in the wind derby. It more than doubled its utility/IPP solar capacity and increased its wind by 42% over last year. This is on top of already having the third wind largest installation in the US. It also produces quite a bit of electricity by way of geothermal and biomass, so its renewables produce 20% of the electricity it generates. California is very energy efficient and has one of the lowest per person consumption of electricity in the US. However, California is a big, big state with many people, and over the past decades it did not increase its electric generation in proportion to its growing population. This has turned California into the nation’s greatest importer of electricity, snarfing up pretty much all the excess electricity that might be lurking in any of the western-most states. 23% of California’s electricity currently comes from out of state. Some of this is hydro from the Pacific Northwest, but much of it is electricity from coal burnt by our more easterly neighbors. Still, the installation of sun and wind capacity go on, and just last week, in a 24 hr period on an average day in September, California produced 22% of the electricity it consumed via renewables. (solar thermal + solar PV + wind + small hydro+ geothermal + biogas+ biomass) I will guess by next summer California will be up to 25% via renewables.

Oregon and Washington have very good wind potential and they are both ramping up wind capacity, though Oregon more so than Washington. Oregon increased wind generation over last year by 24%, pulling ahead of Washington who increased by only 3%. Renewables in Oregon make up 20% of electricity consumption, whereas in Washington they make up only 10%. But both states have lots of hydroelectric, and both export electricity (mostly to California.) If we just consider these states internal consumption, renewables + hydroelectric make up 99% of Oregon’s electricity and 103% of Washington’s.

Tropical wind (photo: beyondhonolulu.com)
Pacific Noncontinguous: Alaska and Hawaii are their own special cases with difficulty importing or exporting electricity to/from other states. I’m pretty sure both within a decade will be reliant entirely on renewables for electricity, and the quicker they do it, the better off they will be. Alaska has very good to excellent wind potential but minimal wind capacity installed. Solar is tough for them, but it might get to the point that solar in summer alone is worth it. Alaska has a certain amount of hydroelectric and a small population, so hydro + renewables right now makes up 23% of their electricity consumption. If they were to build out their wind capacity merely to the extent Indiana or Wyoming has, they would be self-sufficient in electricity (though they would probably need some pumped hydro storage.) Hawaii has excellent solar potential and very good wind. It increased its wind capacity by 25% this last year but it’s still very small—only 5% of what they consume. They have no utility/IPP solar at all, though they have quite a bit of residential solar and are third in the nation for per capita solar capacity installed. If they built out their wind to the level of Oklahoma and their utility/IPP solar to that of Nevada, they would be in very good shape, though they would perhaps need to have some pumped hydro storage as well.

So that concludes our tour solar and wind in the United States. Some states are leaping ahead; some are sitting on their hands. Who will be better off in ten year’s time? In the last year, the US has gone from 5.5% of its electricity generated from renewables to 6.4%, a much greater increase than ever before. I’m guessing we’ll be up to nearly 8% by next summer. Especially if Nebraska and South Dakota wake up and smell the kilowatts.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Why Everyone Who Loves San Francisco Should Clamor for Polk Street Bike Lanes

It’s the space.
Nearly half of San Francisco’s population lives in a quarter of the land, the northeast quadrant of the city. Between now and the end of 2015, San Francisco is likely to gain another 30,000 people, most of them to this sector. This area is already one of the densest in North America, parts of it second only to Manhattan. And it already holds 42% of all San Francisco’s cars (150,000!) If these new people own cars similar to the rates of current residents, they will bring 12,000 additional cars into this quadrant. Even if all these cars have off street parking, how will congested NE streets have room for 24,000 – 36,000 extra car trips each day? Congestion isn’t linear. 8% more cars doesn’t make already congested traffic 8% worse. It makes it impossible. More people in the same square footage means we need fewer cars and less driving. It means we need to encourage people to go car-lite or car-free.

12 shoppers or one?
Cars take up a lot of room. Parked curbside, a private car requires 200 square feet; in a garage 300 feet. The average car is parked 95% of the time. When actually in motion, the space that just two cars take up can fit twenty people on bikes or 30 people on a bus. When not in use, twelve bikes can park in the space of one car. Parked or moving, cars are a highly inefficient use of public real estate. In the middle of Nebraska this is perhaps not an issue. In San Francisco it is.

A modest 8% reduction in parking in the Polk Street area will affect few people. Already 85% of people come to Polk Street by modes other than car. Maybe this is because two-thirds of households in the neighborhoods adjoining Polk don’t own cars. (ACS data 2009.) Maybe this is because all of Polk Street is on or within a block of a bus line. Maybe this is because half of Polk is within a 15 minute walk of BART. Maybe this is because Polk Street is the geographic center of the NE quadrant, which means potentially half the population of the city can bike to Polk Street within 20 minutes.

It’s the topography.
Hilly SF (source: SFMTA)
San Francisco has hills. Main arterials and shopping neighborhoods are found in the flat parts between them for a reason. Currently there are no bike lanes that extend from Market to the north part of town between the Embarcadero and Arguello. This means there is no safe way for bicyclists to reach a huge chunk of the city. Gnarly hills mean Polk Street is the only north/south route for bicyclists to take for a mile in either direction. (Van Ness is flatter but it’s not an option because it’s part of US 101.) This is why Polk is already the street with the highest rate of biking north of Market between  the Embarcadero and the Wiggle. This is why Polk matters so much.

It’s the economics.
Cars are expensive. Median incomes for the bottom 93% of Americans are declining. Young people, especially new college graduates, have high student debt loads. Streets designed to make driving easy and any other mode of transport miserable mean that anyone who cannot afford a car in San Francisco is miserable, an active form of discrimination against the young and the poor. Biking for transportation is a fifth the cost of taking Muni, 3% the cost of owning and operating a junker car, and 1% the cost of owning any car under seven years old.

Cars don’t help city economics. Of the $9122 a year it takes to own and operate a newish car, 84% leaves the local economy. When people don’t own cars, it frees up their disposable income. People who don’t own cars are more likely to patronize businesses and restaurants close to home than people who drive.

Fears on the part of Polk Street merchants that business will drop if bike lanes are added are unfounded. A study by the SFMTA shows people on foot and on bike visit Polk Street more often and spend more per week at local merchants than those who arrive by car. Both in New York and San Francisco, added bike lanes have resulted in increased business for local merchants. In addition, when bike lanes are added to a street, property values are shown to increase.  Bike lanes help, not hurt, local business and property owners.

Bicycling is also far cheaper to the taxpayer’s pocketbook. Every Muni ride is subsidized by the taxpayer $.61 per passenger mile. Right now San Francisco can’t even come up with funds to keep our buses in adequate repair, and many Muni lines are at capacity. Where will the money come from to pay for extra buses and drivers to service the new people moving in?

On the other hand, encouraging people to drive also costs us. Car drivers cover less than 15% of the direct cost of their city driving via gasoline and vehicle taxes. 85% is paid for out of the general fund. Compared to buses, trucks and cars (that have 100 to 500 times the mass), bikes inflict a micro amount of damage on the road, necessitating little or no repair or maintenance. When cars cause accidents, emergency personnel response and the subsequent clean up are funded by taxpayers. Health and environmental damage inflicted by cars and not paid for by the driver (for example from uninsured motorists, toxic residue, and particulate matter from car emissions) are paid for by the individual injured, the city of San Francisco, or society at large.

What could be
Factoring in the direct costs of driving and the indirect cost of parking, land, crashes, congestion, and health damage due to air pollution (but not climate change or other environment-related costs), San Francisco subsidizes car driving $.53 every mile. Biking only costs $.01 for every mile.

Let’s repeat this. Cost to you, the taxpayer, per mile of passenger transport:
Muni: $.61
Private vehicle: $.53
Bicycle: $.01
Walk: $.00 (or very close. Mostly land costs for sidewalks.)

It’s the convenience.
Easy-peasy electric-assist kid shuttling
If we want people to go car-lite or car-free, it’s far easier for them to do this using a bike for transportation than relying on Muni. For trips under two miles, bikes are as fast as cars, twice as fast as Muni, and four times faster than walking. For trips under four miles, biking is just 5 to 10 minutes slower than driving and equal to Muni or faster. (It depends on how many transfers the particular Muni trip requires.) Though bicycles do get the occasional flat tire, they are far more reliable than Muni in getting you where you want to go. And if you live on a hill or have physical limitations, an ebike makes biking a breeze. (Hill + shuttling children? Electrified cargo bike!) In the Netherlands, bicycling is so safe and convenient most children bicycle to school and seniors bicycle well into their 70’s and even 80’s.

It’s the safety.
Cycling can be quite safe. (aviewfromthecyclepath.com)
Polk Street has one of the highest rates of cars injuring bicyclists of any street in the city. Bicyclists are injured on Polk Street at four times the rate of other streets with comparable numbers of bike riders (Harrison and Arguello.) In 2006, a young woman bicyclist was killed by a hit and run driver on Polk Street. Many, many others since then have had bones (arms, hips, legs, elbows) shattered, on average 20 or so injuries a year. Keeping Polk Street as it is ensures that more deaths and injuries will occur, often to young people under 30 who are sons and daughters of someone and are just trying to lead decent lives on not a whole lot of income. Streets with protected bike lanes are proven to have lower bicyclist injury rates. Surprisingly, streets with protected bike lanes have also shown to have lower pedestrian injury rates. Better-designed streets save lives and reduce our collective health care costs by not necessitating hospital stays, MRIs, blood transfusions, etc.

Data from the Twin Cities
Though most people enjoy bike riding, currently the vast majority of San Franciscans won’t ride bikes because they are unwilling to duke it out with cars in our stressful traffic. Safety is an issue, but it’s proven that stress is the bigger one. Studies show that creating a network of low-stress, connected bikeways (protected, separated bike lanes that cars and delivery trucks can’t continually double-park in) is the greatest single determinant in whether the average person will use a bicycle for transportation. Studies show that the more people bicycle, the more the rate of bicycle injury drops, partly because motorists grow to expect and watch for bicyclists and partly because on streets calmed by bike lanes and lots of bicyclists it's harder for motorists to speed. (Speed kills. The lower speeds are why the more people bicycle, the fewer pedestrian and car driver and car passenger injuries there are as well.) Encouraging bicyclists with their own low-stress space in and of itself produces safety for all road users.

Encouraging bicyclists to ride through a neighborhood also adds safety by deterring crime through more eyes on the street. Motorists speed through neighborhoods noticing little. Bicyclists have no obstructions or blind spots. They see everything.

It’s the health.
Car exhaust is a proven cause of asthma, heart disease, and cancer. Bike lanes provide a little extra room to allow the toxins of car exhaust to disperse before a cyclist must breathe them in. It makes a significant difference. (This is also one of the reasons why at red lights bicyclists wait at the front of your car, not near your tailpipe.)

The more people bike, the healthier they are. Studies show that people who bike to work have fewer sick days and are more productive when they are at work. They also are happier, live longer, have more years of healthy life, and require less dollars of medical treatment each year than people who drive to work. If companies have access to a healthy workforce, their health care costs are lower. This gives these companies a competitive advantage. (Health care costs account for nearly 10% of average employee compensation expense.) In addition, unless they are hit by cars, healthy people have much less reason to visit the SF General emergency room. When people can’t pay for their visit to the SF General ER, we all pay.

Though for half a century Americans have tried to arrange their lives to avoid all forms of physical exertion, it turns out that the human body becomes sickly if it doesn’t get 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day. (Studies also show that the more hours spent driving, the more unhealthy you are.) Incorporating this moderate exercise into one’s transportation is the most reliable and least costly way of obtaining it. Creating a physical environment where driving is encouraged while walking and bicycling are kept dangerous and miserable is a tragedy for human health. The city of Copenhagen goes out of its way to encourage its citizens to bicycle for transportation because they estimate they save 42 cents in health care costs for every mile biked.

It’s the energy.
This is so big, it’s hard to know where to begin. If you’re reading this on-line, check here, here and here. Suffice it to say that per capita oil consumption in the US has been dropping and will continue to drop whether we like it or not. This mostly won’t be through greater fuel efficiency, but rather from people going car-lite and car-free altogether. (It’s already happening.) In addition, total energy consumed per person is dropping in the US and will continue to drop whether we like it or not. San Francisco already consumes less total energy per person than almost anywhere in the US. The more San Francisco facilitates its citizens to use less energy, the more economically competitive our city will be and also the more resilient. Cars are huge energy-slurping machines, even electric ones. Making it possible for the average person to live well without a car will protect San Francisco from many of the negative impacts of world net energy decline. Car-intensive, high energy-consuming regions, in contrast, will find themselves mired in economic contraction. Be glad you live in San Francisco where there is some form of transit and people willing to walk and bicycle. (If you live within walking distance of a BART or Caltrain station, you are doubly blessed.) Our transit, biking, walking, and energy efficiency may very well be what allows San Francisco to prosper in the years shortly ahead.

It’s the planet.
This is real. Climate change due to humans burning fossil fuels is happening. Cars and coal are on their way to making much of the planet uninhabitable. The only ones denying it are those making a profit from the status quo or those who get their information from Fox News. If in ten years you don’t expect to be alive, nor any one you love, then, sure, you’ll skip most of the worst impacts. Why be inconvenienced? But if you have compassion for the folks who won’t escape the famine, the refugees, the heat waves, the disease, the extinction of most large mammal species, not to mention the potential utter collapse of civilization, you might feel a bit overwhelmed.

Here’s a deal. For 2013, you don’t need to buy carbon offsets or get rid of your car (unless you’d like to rid yourself of $9000/year of costs.) What you can do to lower your city’s carbon footprint is simply support others who are already trying to live carbon-free. Avoid driving high bicycle corridors like the Wiggle, drive gently around bicyclists when you pass them on side streets, and stop griping that they don’t stop at stop signs. (Yes, bicyclists should absolutely yield to pedestrians and other traffic that have the right of way! But the second you are on a bike you’ll see why it’s sensible and safe to slow down in order to yield rather than completely stop.) And, first and foremost, encourage bicyclists by having your city give them just a little space so that biking does not end up killing them and making their mothers bitter to the end of time. That’s all. Even if you can’t stop driving right now, that’s what you can do this year to contribute. It’s nuts that San Francisco has voted to divest its retirement funds from fossil fuel industries but won’t take the simplest of steps to support those trying to live fossil fuel-free lives.

It’s the future.
Car traffic does not help Polk Street, it hurts it. Bike lanes will bring bicyclists from all over the city to Polk who would not come otherwise. Bike lanes will bring tourists traversing between the Civic Center and Ghirardelli Square/Fort Mason. People like to shop and linger on streets that are pleasant, hospitable and safe, not ones filled with noise, pollution, filth, crime and danger. Because Polk Street is the geographic center of the NE quadrant of the city and a natural place for people to congregate, reduced car parking, car pollution and car noise could cause Polk to absolutely blossom both as a neighborhood and as a destination. 
City living doesn't have to be polluted, ugly and dangerous.

Pay attention to the hurricanes, the droughts, the fires, the floods, the food shortages this summer. Note the riots, the uprisings, and the revolutions. Realize what you do this year and next counts. Your children and grandchildren will remember it. Which side will you stand with, the one speaking for them, or the one that will, without a qualm, sacrifice the future for the sake of not walking two extra blocks? We need to design a Polk Street that will work for the reality close at hand in 2015, not fearfully preserve at all costs (and in the face of all reason) the Polk of 1995.

Protected bike lanes (in both directions) on Polk Street matter. Contact any or all of the following: the San Francisco Metro Transit Authority , the SFMTA Board of Directors, Mayor Ed Lee, Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, and/or your own city supervisor. Tell them you heartily support protected bike lanes on Polk Street and the city's fossil-free future. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Pluses and Minuses of Electric Bikes

Wild for e-bikes (The Economist)
Electric-assist bicycles are outselling electric cars. This is happening by a small margin in the US and by a huge margin in Europe, 62 to1. Worldwide last year (taking into the account the Chinese) the ratio of electric bikes sold to electric cars was 244 to 1. In China there are now more e-bikes on the road than all cars (electric or regular) put together.

I think this is great. E-bikes take far less energy and materials to produce than electric cars, they need far smaller batteries, and they consume far less energy per mile of travel. Of course the energy per mile required varies depending on how much the rider pedals, but even if the rider doesn’t pedal at all, the amount of mass being moved is roughly 7% of the mass of the same rider in a small car. Electric assist bikes require 40 – 70 BTUs of energy per mile while a small electric car requires 1200. (An average internal-combustion-powered car requires over 4000 BTUs per mile.)

Easier to bike in heels than walk in them. (Currietech.com)
Most states legally limit e-bikes to top speeds of 20 mph. Many e-bikes are limited through their electric controllers to 15 mph. Though some people worry about crazy, unlicensed e-bike riders, any two-wheeler that can go 30mph on flats without pedaling is not an e-bike—it’s an electric scooter. It is easy to create legislation that limits all e-bikes sold in a given state to top speeds of 15 mph, slower than your average twenty-something regular bicyclist. If your state hasn’t done this, your legislators should get to work.

My husband and I both have electric-assist bikes. They are great for zipping up and down the rather large hill we live on. We don’t ride them much because we enjoy riding our regular bikes more, but for grocery shopping my bike with an Xtracycle attachment cannot be beat. (It can carry five bags of groceries. Uphill. With no sweat.) It also on occasion transports children, even large, teen-sized ones.

Goddess-like SUV of bikes

My husband uses his electric bike to dash to the store or to pick up Chinese takeout on a day when he’s already biked a ton and wants to take it easy. (Again, we live on a big, big hill.) Having the two e-bikes and a membership in a carshare program gave us the confidence to drop down from two cars to one, a step that, at this point, has saved us tens of thousands of dollars. While access to carshare has proven handy, after four years we find we use our e-bikes a hundred times more.

An electric-assist fundamentally helps you fight gravity. Riding an electric-assist bike means you are guaranteed not to arrive sweaty at your destination. It makes transporting heavy things easy. It takes you up hills without panting. I find the boost in acceleration also allows me to spend less time in intersections, places bicyclists are most at risk. And when you’re just feeling tired and/or lazy, an electric-assist bike can keep you out of your car because, except in a full downpour, it’s truly as easy as driving. For short trips it’s usually faster. Plus, an e-bike is fun the same way riding a bike is fun, especially if you can ride on quiet streets away from car traffic.  When you have the motor on, it makes a quiet hum and you feel as if a gentle hand is pushing you along. On it you breathe fresh air, you see the sky, trees and birds, you experience your city or town in a different way. It offers a far richer sensory experience than being inside any car does.

But there are drawbacks. After four years riding an electric-assist bicycle, I think I’m qualified to enumerate them.

1)   Riding an electric-assist bike provides less exercise than a regular bike. This is why I began to ride mine less and less. Let’s be clear—an electric-assist bike provides way, way, way more exercise than driving a car (which basically requires zero.) And it does depend on how much you pedal. But I estimate on my electric bike I get two-thirds less exercise than on my regular one. I pedal constantly on my electric bike and use the motor only when I’m fighting gravity—going up a hill or accelerating from a stop. I can generally keep my quite heavy bike in motion on the flats without the motor at all. Still, it is fighting gravity on a bicycle that requires the effort and provides the exercise. So when you use a motor instead of your own effort for this, it just doesn’t have the same exercise effect.
Gorgeous but not cheap (Faraday Porteur)
An electric-assist bike is four to five times the cost of a regular bike. For $500 you can get a pretty nice regular bike. A decent electric bike that won’t fall apart in a year will cost more between $1500 and $3000. Both kinds of bikes will require yearly maintenance—a bicycle around $50 - 100, an e-bike around $100 -150? (Depends how many miles you put on your bike as to how much maintenance you will need.) On my bike, after the second year my controller shorted out and I needed a new one. (Part of this may be due to the fact that my bike was creatively created out of a kit and may have been more prone to shorting due to bad San Francisco pavement than a better-designed bike.) That cost me $300. After year 3, I needed a new battery. That cost me $800. The good news is in those three years, battery technology improved, and I got a bigger, more powerful battery that was roughly the same size and weight of my previous battery. My husband also had to replace the battery on his electric bike after three years. Better battery technology in the future may extend battery life, but I would say right now count on replacing the battery every three years. The good news is that brushless electric motors tend to have very little go wrong and should last a long, long time.
3)   Electric-assist bikes are heavier than regular bikes. My electric-assist is a whopping 80 lbs, but that’s because I have a heavier-than-average bicycle with an Xtracycle attachment on it. Most e-bikes are 40 to 50 lbs while regular bikes weigh 25 – 30 lbs. This means you cannot carry an e-bike easily up a set of stairs, onto trains, hoist it onto the top of a two-tier bike rack, or put it on a bike carrier on the back of your car. (My husband’s ebike does fold up and fits in the rear of our hatchback car.) Though I don’t like to carry my regular bike up and down flights of stairs, I can do it. With an e-bike there’s no way.
4)   The bigger the investment, the more worry about it being stolen. However, right now it is far easier to fence regular bikes than e-bikes, so I would say regular bikes are more vulnerable for the time being.
Bike that bridge
5)   You cannot go infinitely far on an electric bike before you run out of juice. My bike has a range of 10 – 11 miles. Most e-bikes have a range of 15 – 20. (Their published, theoretical ranges may be higher than what you experience in reality, and certainly higher than what you will experience after a year of use!) On a regular bike, I’ve been known to go 44 miles in a day, though this is certainly not usual for me. However, even if I just want to go from my house in San Francisco to Sausalito for brunch, taking an e-bike is not an option unless I want to also bring the charger and then go hunt/beg for an electrical outlet.
(Mark Markovich, BikePortland.org)
Some regular bike riders resent electric-assist bikes. (This is less true if you are older and they figure you have an excuse.) When I ride my regular bike, I have a twinge of this—just sheer envy as the person on an e-bike pulls away from the green light faster than me. Rather than feel grateful the person is not spitting out poisonous exhaust fumes or mashing me into a pulp as they turn right without looking, I feel resentment that the rider is cheating on the communal fight against gravity. This is silly. Anyone on a regular bike has much in common with someone an e-bike. Both are equally vulnerable to car traffic, both have every reason to want good bicycle infrastructure, and both are transporting themselves in ways that don’t damage the environment.

For us aging boomers
In general, if you are in decent health, under 65 and live somewhere without big hills, I would say an e-bike isn’t worth the extra cost and hassle. Regular bikes are very easy to ride except on steep hills, and, if you go slowly enough, take no more exertion (or sweat) than a pleasant walk. However, if right now you are limited from riding a bicycle due to health issues, hills, or you really cannot arrive at your destination with even a drop of perspiration, then an electric-assist bike might really be great for you. If balance or other issues prevent you from riding a bicycle, an electric-assist three-wheeler might open up the world in a way you never thought possible. Read this review from an amputee.

Forty percent of all trips made in the US are under two miles in length. Currently Americans drive 2/3rds of all trips under two miles. (American even drive 60% of trips under 1 mile!) Two miles on an e-bike takes ten minutes. Unless you live on a 55 mph highway, two miles in your car probably takes between eight minutes and twelve. Seriously. Time it next time from your house to the store and see how long it takes. (Include parking time.) For short trips, an e-bike is as fast and convenient as a car.

The world is changing. Gasoline will get more expensive, and energy in general will be getting more expensive per BTU for reasons I describe here. More and more communities are building bike lanes and bike paths. Cities are getting denser and so driving a car in them will only get more difficult (as I describe here.) Climate change means we can’t keep burning fossil fuels. An electric bicycle can be the way you address all these issues, get more exercise, and improve your health to boot. Plus, if you can replace car trips or even downsize a car by relying on an e-bike instead, you will save a great deal of money--$5000-$8000 per year (this is after factoring in e-bike costs). And if there is a gasoline shortage for any reason, you are home free.