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The Right Tool

There is an old experiment. You take a bunch of students one at a time and give a them two boards and a rope. You tell him/her to cross a room as fast as possible without their feet touching the floor. Most students tied the ends of the rope around the boards, held the rope in the middle, and shuffled across the room. Some tied the boards to their feet and walked across the room. The average time for these students was a little over two minutes. Then they performed the experiment again with a different set of students. This time the experimenters provided one board and a rope. Without exception these students tied one end of the rope around the board, grabbed the other end, and hopped across the room. These students averaged a bit over a minute and a half. Better. One last experiment and a fresh batch of students. The instructions were the same except this time no boards and no rope. These students crawled across the room on their hands and knees. Their average time was 23 seconds. I was in college twenty years ago when I read about this, but in made an indelible impression. The finding is that our thinking can be handicapped by the tools at our disposal. Sometimes the best solution is no tool at all.

Before I gave up my car I took the time to figure a bunch of stuff out. How to do the shopping, how to get to my hair cuts, and dentist, and doctor, and work, and how to cruise for sweet chicks who are into nerds. Actually I never figured that last part out, but I took the plunge anyway. A couple of things I hadn't figured out yet like how to get back to Iowa to visit my mom. Well it's been a little too long now so I need to figure out how to do it. In the interest of full disclosure I actually I did go back once a while back when my dad fell ill. I rented a car (mea culpa) and drove 14 hours each way (may the Sierra Club have mercy on my soul.) I am bound and determined to get to Iowa again this time without laying waste to the Midwest.

The solution is simple, slick, and actually way more convenient than flying or driving. Did I mention cheap? It's cheap, too. Amtrak! I'd heard about it before, but never ridden it. Get this, from 100 yards outside my front door I catch a little local bus. Five minutes later I'm in downtown. That's $1.50. There I catch the Denver bus to Union Station. That's $3.75. Then I catch the train to Iowa. Add another $83. It will actually be necessary to have a car at the other end, but only for 60 miles (mea maxima culpa) so add another $69. This is a grand total of $245.50! Not too shabby compared to an airfare of $560 plus the mysterious charges that get tacked on after you agree to the rate plus the usurious airport parking charges not to mention the date rape of the lower atmosphere. The other cool part is... remember I said a car takes 14 hours? Well so does the train. Except I don't have to drive. And they'll cook hot food for me. And it's over night so I can sleep away most of the trip without risking a head-on. And I can take my bike if I like. A friend of mine rides this train to Chicago six times a year or so and he says the seats are more comfortable than business class on an airplane. Totally sleepable. Did I forget anything? Oh, yeah. You don't have to strip naked and get probed before you get on a train. You just walk on.

Cars are tools to be sure (as well as some of the people who drive them), but so frequently they are the wrong tool. It's just the guys in the white coats handed us one so we feel obligated to use it for just about everything. Once deprived of this crutch so many more options open up and most of them are better. I may be crawling on my hands and knees, but I'm having the time of my life.

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Why I Ride

I make no secret about my feelings about internal combustion engines and other forms of conspicuous waste. This leads some folks to jump to conclusions about me like I am some sort of extreme tree-hugger or I watched "An Inconvenient Truth" and went off the deep end. I have meaning for a while to write down the reasons I have chosen this lifestyle so here goes.

1) Waste. Cars are the right tool for some jobs. I appreciate the speed of an ambulance ride. The problem is that most people view a car as the right tool for every job. My goal was to use the most efficient tool for getting around. It didn't take long to realize that I really don't need a car at all.

2) Patriotism. America's dependence on foreign oil makes us vulnerable to our enemies and tempts our leaders to make stupid decisions. Riding a bicycle does more to support the troops than putting a yellow sticker on anything. (I won't speak for others, but chances are unless you live in an oil exporting country the same probably holds true.)

3) Family. Oil is finite. At some point we will have used it all. Much sooner than that it is going to become very expensive and even more environmentally destructive to obtain. We need to start a transition towards a sustainable lifestyle as soon as possible. We owe it to our children, not only to address the problem of global warming while we might still be able to do something about it, but to prepare them for a future where there will be less energy available for everything.

4) Health. Most people do not get enough exercise. Getting everywhere under my own power goes a long way to solve this problem.

5) Time. Even though it takes longer to get places now, I have more free time. First of all I don't have to set aside extra time for exercise. More than that I think much more about the trips I take now and as a result make fewer of them. It's amazing how much time can be saved by not driving to the store for a quart of milk, or driving out to the dry cleaner, or driving to dinner. When you ride a bicycle, you learn to triple-check the shopping list and cooking suddenly doesn't sound like so much work after all.

6) Role Model. My dad rode a bike to work when he could up into his sixties. I learned from him to think more clearly about transportation and many other things. What are you role modeling for your children?

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Happy Second Anniversary to Me

It's been two years now since that fateful flight from Atlanta. I'm sure we've all been there. You're bored. There's a SkyMall magazine. You flip though it not really intending to buy anything. Some of that stuff sure looks neat though. What caught my eye this time was an electric scooter. Small, quiet, efficient, and cool looking. Further research showed that the Rietti scooter was probably a piece of flotsam, but the seed had been planted. By the end of summer I had acquired a couple of ebikes, sold my car, and started an adventure. I had purchased a lifestyle change from SkyMall magazine -- batteries and shipping not included. I bet American Airlines didn't know they were selling that. It was also one of the last airplane flights I'll ever take. I bet they didn't know they were selling that either.

The idea planted that day that I could not shake was my relationship to the environment. Here I was on a plane trip for no particularly good reason. The next day I was going to climb into my car and drive three miles to my job. It is certainly worthwhile to have a job, but the only reason I used a car to get there was habit and laziness. And that was the heart of it. It was not how I and most other Americans use the planet. It was how I and most other Americans casually waste the planet. We have rigged up everything to be so convenient we no longer have a moment to consider what we consume. What I wanted to change in myself was to become a more thoughtful consumer and by that process attempt as much as possible to minimize neglectful waste. As most good ideas are it was simple and has ramifications way beyond the obvious. Here are some of them.

Giving up the car. This was the biggie. Suddenly any excursion more than a mile or so away requires planning and forethought. I still do most everything I used to do but differently. Because riding after dark in most seasons is not very safe, I am much more likely to meet someone for lunch than for dinner. I patronize local stores and restaurants exclusively. Before I shop I have a very good idea of what I want, how big it is, and how much it weighs. This keeps impulse purchases to a minimum. I am now a compulsive list maker because running back to the store for the thing I forgot is usually not an option. All the services I use on a regular basis, hair cuts, dentist, doctor, and so forth have to be within a few miles of the house or at least on a bus line.

Paper or plastic? Neither. Whenever I buy something now I either carry it in my hands or a bring a bag to put it into. I don't think that disposable plastic bags are going to kill the planet, but they are a fairly revolting and pointless form of waste. Cloth bags not only do the job better, but you don't have to worry about them breaking. Putting greens into a plastic bag is pointless anyway because two days later they are going to be a disgusting, black, slime-wad in your fridge. The canonical advice is to wrap them in a paper towel and put that into a zip-top bag. If the greens are already in a mesh or cloth bag the paper towel is unnecessary. Just pop the whole thing into a reusable, zip-top bag and Bob's you're uncle. One plastic bag and two paper towels saved. Shopping now requires more planning than it did before, but that is exactly the point.

Ban the can I moved all trash and recycling cans away from where I sit. It's a small gesture, but it does give me a chance to think about the things I throw away. As a result I found a bunch of crap that I was throwing away that I should never have had in the first place. Another trick was taught to me by some Japanese visitors we have at my office now. Most bathrooms in Japan don't have paper towels. Folks carry a small cloth towel or handkerchief with them for wiping their hands. I have only their word for this, but I adopted the trick anyway. Towels work so much better than paper for hand drying . Also, if you're a germophobe, you can use it to open the door to the bathroom. Douglas Adams was right. A towel is a pretty gosh darn handy thing to have with you at all times.

Reduce recycling Don't get me wrong recycling is very good. I used to get a warm fuzzy when I filled up the bin with beer and wine bottles every other Monday without really thinking about all the beer and wine I was drinking. Recycling is good, but never cycling in the first place is better. I wonder if I am the first person to climb on the wagon for environmental reasons?

The ultimate relaxing vacation I used to dread vacations. I never have liked flying all that much, and I have grown to loathe airports. Get up at 4:30 am for an hour drive to the airport so I can stand in a security line that is only an hour long, to sit in an airline seat (that used to be comfortable when I was boy-sized) for a few hours (assuming we're not stuck on the tarmac for an additional few hours), to get to another airport and more lines, to get to another car... and I'm frustrated and exhausted all over again just writing this. Not only does this waste a day of precious vacation on either end, but I have to pay a couple of thousand dollars for the privilege. This is what I used to do to relax? I took some time to figure out what I liked most about vacations: no job, no chores, a change of scene, a chance to read a book, exercise, and eating way too much good food that I don't have to cook. How far do I have to go to accomplish this? Well, last weekend it was five miles. A lovely, late-summer bike ride, an excellent couple of meals, and 24 hours with my wife at a local bed and breakfast and no plans more elaborate than a dinner reservation. Best of all I only took off my shoes when I wanted to. Now that's relaxing!

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While this list may seem a little extreme and a little random, these are just the things that have popped up in my life over the last couple of years. I'm sure it will change and grow as time goes by. I'm also sure than a different person with a similar philosophy will have a different list. I always have to suppress a smile when friends mention the "sacrifices" I'm making. I have spent more hours actually vacationing and yet I have more vacation hours saved than ever before. I have lost weight and blood pressure and am in generally better health than I have been for the last 20 years. I am spending more time outside, reading, and with my wife than I used to. I also have much more money left over at the end of the month than I used to. This is not sacrifice. It is a gift. It is a gift courtesy of American Airlines and SkyMall magazine.

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I want to thank everyone here and at the old vforum for the advice and support to select my ebikes keep them on the road. Without your help an advice this whole project might have died before it got started. Thanks!

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Bikes and Boxes

I was at the post office yesterday and I noticed this guy. First I noticed him because he was parking his bike next to mine and then because he was schlepping this big package under one arm. That's not easy. I tried it myself last week with a bulky, heavy box that was too big for my panniers, and I was too lazy to hook up the cargo trailer. My arm got tired pretty quickly. Even if the box wasn't heavy it was big enough to be awkward. And it was heavy. Pedaling was cumbersome because my leg tended to collide with the package on each revolution. (And yes, I still mean the box.) I tried a few things to make it more comfortable. Eventually I had a brainstorm, switched the box to my left hand, stopped pedaling, and used the throttle. Yes, the throttle. I rarely use it so I almost forget it's there, but the Bionx system has a manual override. I could even get up to 20 mph, although my brain told me that this was unlikely to be a wise course of action. After that, and once I figured out that low-speed maneuvering with that much weight is best avoided, things went rather swimmingly. I even collected a very odd look from another biker that I passed. Collecting odd looks is one of my life passions.

Anyway the guy at the post office. He was riding an unpowered bike. Truly studly. I was about to congratulate him on his manliness when I noticed the walking cast on his left leg. Way more studly than I had previously imagined. I struck up a conversation.

Me: "Big box, small bike, broken leg. You are definitely the man."

Dude: "Yeah, thanks. My girlfriend says I always try to do more than I can handle though."

Me: "Such as."

Dude: "You noticed the cast, right? Well a couple of weeks back I was carrying another box and decided to stop off for a latte. I could get started and then ride along pretty well with the box in one hand and the latte in the other and letting the steering take care of itself."

Me: "What about stop signs?"

Dude: "What about 'em?"

Me: "Good point. So what happened?"

Dude: "Then my cell phone rang..."

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Circles


Here is a thought exercise. Draw a circle. You get to make the circle as big as you like, but you have to spend the rest of your life inside the circle. The vast majority of us would have absolutely no problem drawing a circle around the solar system, but I suspect a few NASA types would still reserve the right to send probes outside that would transmit back pictures of an extra-circle landscape. The vast majority of us would likewise have no problem trying to circle around the planet. It's a big planet and is always something new to do. Now for something a little harder.

Draw a circle around your continent. You can do anything you like, but you can't leave your continent. Pretend there's a plague on all the other continents and if you visit there you will be compelled to vote for Hillary Clinton. Now if you have a hankering to go to Venice, maybe you could be content with Vancouver. Want a beach adventure on the Great Barrier Reef? Perhaps Baja California will be adventurous enough for you. You absolutely must go to a place that requires you learn a foreign language? There is always Texas. How would it be if you do the circle around the country, your state, or perhaps even your county. How small could you draw a circle and still live a rich and happy existence?

Let me throw one other wrinkle into this thought experiment. The bigger you draw your circle the smaller your children will have to draw theirs. And not just you, if you and everybody else in your generation. And not just your children, but all the other children in their generation, and don't forget about their children. To make this little bit more realistic, you'd really need a series of concentric circles representing how far you go in the average day, week, month, and so forth. We humans consume vast resources just to shove our bodies around, and the only consideration is usually can I afford it. I think the better question is can we collectively afford it?

You might think the resource I am referring to is fossil fuels. While that is partially true you also have to take into consideration steel, copper, roads and rails, trains and airplanes. Nothing is without cost. A Toyota Prius driver might feel holier than a Ford pickup driver, but in reality they are only about 30% holier and the road they both drive on costs exactly the same. This is why I find the endless debates about CAFE standards, flex fuel cars, and even carpooling to be rather tiresome and largely pointless. Even the best of them only make our biggest problem slightly less bad. This is why I believe the circle is a more useful way to think about conservation. If your daily circle is 50 miles across, your travel options are very limited. If your circle is 5 miles across you have many more options.

The problem is most of us make decisions on where to live, where to work, where to send their children to school, and how to entertain ourselves based on the 50 mile circle. This is sad, but true. Sadder still many of these decisions, like buying a house, are difficult to undo.

The circles work both ways. The closer the things you buy are to you, the less energy it takes to bring them to you. By this scale, local beer is better than travelled beer. Local produce is better than that shipped in from California, Mexico, or China. It's not only better for the planet, but it is better for your local/state economy. Think of this as the tree-hugging equivalent of Buy American. Local water is better than shipped water. I view this as the worlds biggest "duh" yet the bottled water companies collectively make billions and waste vast amounts of energy shipping tap water all over the country. ("Tap water?" you ask? Yup. If you are curious google "aquafina tap water". If you now feel like a gullible prat remember true learning never comes without pain.)

If you can arrange to live most of your life within a five or ten mile circle the switch to more efficient transportation becomes a no-brainer. It's woth thinking about. Try it. The next time you feel like driving to dinner, a movie or some other diversion, don't. Think up something to do that doesn't require car. When is the last time you tossed a frisbee around? Or maybe dinner and a movie isn't out of the question. Most people I know live within walking distance of a local eatery, and if you don't consider this the next time you move. Maybe even, gasp, invite a neighbor over and shrink their circle a bit too.

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