An Einsteinian thought experiment about transport

Let’s remember how useful it can be to ask new questions, remembering how Albert Einstein asked himself questions that led to his discovery of the special and general theories of relativity.[1]
Are there not many questions we need to be asking about how to organise our transport — our systems and modes of transport? Our current system — globally — is massively destructive, killing millions every year, [2, 3] maiming tens of millions, [2, 3] and is a leading cause of catastrophic global warming. [4] That is just the start of the list: it also destroys space and natural life, kills tens of millions of animals every year, [5] pollutes air, water and land, requires gigantic money costs, etc. We ought to change our transport system. How?
Well, how can we think about transport? For example, what goals do we want to solve with transport? Simply put: where do we want transport to take us? Maybe there is an interesting physical relation to consider, and this brings us to a kind of Einsteinian thought experiment.
An Einsteinian thought experiment. Imagine, for example, a transport, like a jet-pack, that enables people to move in all directions at infinite speed. Then no one can move or even stand safely anywhere! One person on a jet pack — moving at infinite speed in any direction, prevents any other person from being safe wherever they may be.
That is to say, some people travelling fast and freely (e.g. by car) means that others are limited, in their ability to move or even stand anywhere! The Einsteinian thought-experiment leads to the idea that: One body moving more means other bodies must move less. I.e. when one body moves extremely fast in a range of directions, other bodies must limit their freedom of movement (speed / direction). There is a safety limit in terms of vector/speed.
This form or equation of the physical relation can describe the problems of cars, that combine (with roads) many vectors and high speed, and therefore, limit the speed/vector for other persons or bodies.
Let me try to apply this general relation to ordinary examples: A child playing in the street, is at danger when other objects/persons travel in that space at injurious speeds. The child’s range of movement (speed and vector), e.g. just bouncing a ball around, or painting on the pavement, is limited by these other moving bodies, to the extent that the child simply cannot play in the street safely. This is amazing: even extremely modest/limited movement by a child in the street is obviated (made impossible) by much more expansive (high speed/large vector range) movement by other objects. We see this historically in our societies, as children’s freedoms of movement have become extremely limited, by the spread of the car, for example, but really it is any high-speed/high-vector moving object (even a bicycle, I’m sad to have to say).
Gravity is an invisible force; and maybe what we’re working with in understanding the physical relationships of transport is also invisible, to some extent.
– The effective sphere for the imaginary jet pack I described is gigantic; as a result, the effective sphere for all other bodies (that are vulnerable to that jet-pack) shrinks to near-zero, or even zero (there is no safe place at all!).
– The effective sphere for a car-user is large — the car-user can move at high speeds along many vectors. As a result, the effective sphere for bodies that are vulnerable to the car, shrinks.
How can we use this physical relation understanding?
Movement is relative! One fast moving body means that other bodies must move slower or not at all — if they share space!
Vectors are important! If bodies don’t move in the same space (i.e. along the same vectors), then the relation is not so large. A mundane example: segregating bicycle traffic from pedestrians enables higher speed for bicyclists, and more speed/vector range for pedestrians.
We need to consider all movement in our world: it’s not just human beings who need to move around! Animals, birds, i.e. non-human life also needs to move around. And non-animate nature needs to move around too: water, for example, as considering the hydrological cycle confirms. Consider a situation where a human transport system destroyed the hydrological cycle (the movement/cycling of water through various stages and phases): it wouldn’t last long!
Walking is amazing! Perhaps the relational idea about movement helps us understand yet again (from a new standpoint) why walking is so amazingly good, and beneficial! Well, at the slower speeds of walking, one can preserve more vectors of movement. Walking down a city street, one can do a million things (and one preserves others’ freedoms also). Driving fast down that street, one cannot do much; and one limits others too. A city street only for walking (as transport) enables millions of activities — is “convivial”, lively, etc. A city street designed for moving at high speed, disables.
At a global level, we can see that new questions arise: what forms of movement (human, non-human, non-animate), are important, necessary, sacred?
Car-free is better:
(1) Given a certain amount of space, like a town of 10 km diameter, the freedom of movement is far greater without the car than with the car. The space is usable in more ways.
(2) When distances expand, and people wish to accomplish those distances rapidly, then the range of transport vectors should be limited. High-speed rail is an example of an extremely limited vector range (only the track), and so it can travel at high speeds, over large distances, without much impact on other people’s freedoms of movement. (Japan’s elevated high-speed rail tracks take it to another level!)
(3) In a sense, the car is our world’s real version of the imaginary jet-pack that I described above. It’s a technology for a person to “enjoy” transport at high speeds on a wide range of vectors. The results are there for everybody to see: the range (or freedom) of movement for others shrinks.
Cars have other wasteful/destructive qualities: among them, they have a very low density of passengers, relative to other forms of transport, like walking, cycling, buses and trains. One could have a car-free city of 50 km diameter, with high-speed motorised transport (bus, train), and be fairly safe, if the motorised transport forms were extremely segregated from other bodies.
References
[1] A nice summary of these processes of asking interesting questions by Albert Einstein is provided by the book from White and Gribbin, Albert Einstein, A life in science. (preview available here)
[2]  WHO (World Health Organization), Global status report on road safety, 2009, http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2009/9789241563840_eng.pdf
[3] WHO (World Health Organization), The global burden of disease: 2004 update, http://www.who.int/healthinfo/global_burden_disease/GBD_report_2004update_full.pdf
[4] “In 2004, transport was responsible for 23% of world energy-related GHG emissions with about three quarters coming from road vehicles. Over the past decade, transport’s GHG emissions have increased at a faster rate than any other energy using sector (high agreement, much evidence).” a quote from p. 325, of IPCC, 2007, “Transport and its infrastructure”, chapter 5 of the Fourth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2007: Mitigation of Climate Change. http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg3/ar4-wg3-chapter5.pdf
[5] One million animals killed every week globally was the figure cited in Natural Capitalism, the 1994 book by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins. The book is available free here: http://www.natcap.org/

This article was originally published on the blog of Aaron Thomas: http://aaronkmthomas.blogspot.com/
thank you for allowing us to publish this interesting post.

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A PlantLock on the road.

© Front Yard Company

© Front Yard Company

Recently appearing on UK streets are PlantLocks – muscling cars off the road. These are now available for delivery in Europe.

PlantLock is also great for keeping bicycles at home. It frees up cluttered hallways and stairwells by offering a solid planter to lock your bike to. As well as providing safe and tidy bike storage, it transforms the front yard to a green space.  It constitutes an “immovable object” to lock bicycles to, weighing 75+kg when planted up.

Bicycle frame and both wheels can be secured to the bar with the owner’s existing locks – ideally two quality locks. PlantLock requires minimum maintenance, being made from robust, durable materials. The locking bar is made from boron steel, case-hardened and tempered, to achieve robustness beyond most commercially available bicycle locks.

Dan Monck

Front Yard Company

You can find more information and pictures on the website of the company producing Plantlock: http://frontyardcompany.co.uk/index.php

© Front Yard Company

© Front Yard Company

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Bring on a Car Free Manhattan

A CarFree Light Rail Boulevard for 42nd Street © vision42 (http://www.vision42.org)

A CarFree Light Rail Boulevard for 42nd Street © vision42 (http://www.vision42.org)

My first visit to Manhattan appropriately enough was to attend on September 29th 2009, a memorial service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, for the ecologically minded theologian Father Thomas Berry. The combination of the moving service and the novel but positive shock of experiencing Manhattan, inspired me with a vision of an island based car free community that would help actualize Berry’s concept of the Ecozoic Age. This would be based on an understanding that human beings realize that we all must serve as guardians of creation.

After a long night bus trip from Toronto, my wife Mary Lou and I after a delightful breakfast near where we arrived at Penn Station were positively impressed by Manhattan, , especially the preservation of so much of its historic pre-World War Two architecture. Since it was a Saturday, we did not see the worst of automotive congestion and pollution, contributing to our overall impression of delight. We didn’t have to consult maps how to get around, but simply asked directions, and people were always friendly and displayed great love for their city.

Mary Lou and I were able to easily walk to the Cathedral through much of Central Park. Along the way, across the road from the New York Times, we viewed a compelling exhibit prepared by the Columbia University of the threat of global warming. Its most memorable feature are satellite images of Africa’s Lake Chad disappearing over the last thirty years from the impacts of climate change brought on through irresponsible human actions.

In walking the streets of Manhattan the only negative thought which crossed our minds was that this is a community that suffers from a nature deficit disorder. Except for designated city parks, we could not see one glimpse of green, apart from one solitary tree that was a beacon of the presence of a rare roof garden. Outside of vestiges in parks, all Manhattan’s interior streams were buried underground in storm sewers long ago, so there is not the usual forested ravines that are features of most cities. Plazas lack greenery, streets lack trees. skyscrapers tower up right from the sidewalk, and apart from paved roads, there are no spaces between buildings.

6th Avenue from 49th - (from Wikimedia Commons)

6th Avenue from 49th - (from Wikimedia Commons)

The lack of greenery appears to be the reason that until we entered Central Park, we did not see a single bird. Even in Central Park moreover, it was not till we left the more manicured and monumental southern section, and entered the wilder “Rambles”, in the middle, did we start to see some avian activity. For the first time in our lives it became a big thing to see a modest flock of English Sparrows and Rock Doves, and to hear the call of a singular native species, the Grackle. The only time we wished we had brought our binoculars was when veering over the vista of Belvedere Castle to the Turtle Pond, I wondered if a few Black Ducks might be interspersed with the Mallards.

Central Park, itself cut up by periodic east west roads, some of which appear to have been closed during our visit through environmental activism, is itself illustrative of the warnings of conservation biologists about island ecology. With its legions of polite and dedicated blue volunteers in blue shirts doing necessary tasks such as controlling exotic invasive species like English Ivy, we could understand that the ecology of Central Park was vigilantly protected. Still however, the surrounded sea of cement does not bode well for an island of green, especially one cut up by motor lanes.

While raccoons thrive in Central Park and I saw two enormous ones at night on are way to our hotel from the Cathedral, overall species diversity is declining. New York’s only rabbit, the Eastern cottontail, has vanished from the park altogether. The last held out in the wilder northern section of the park. Another mammal species, the woodchuck, once common, has also vanished. Bad news about species loss in Manhattan seems to be kept back for lack of research. No one has ever done for instance, a bat count of Central Park.

The frustrations felt by the dedicated ecologists who protect Central Park are just another example of how Manhattan more than any other large urban community in the western hemisphere, has been mugged by the car. It is here where the first fatal car accident took part in the western hemisphere on September 13, 1899. The city was victim of a massive terrorist attack financed from the oil rich Middle East on our era’s day of infamy, September 11, 2001. Nowhere else do automobiles make as less rationale sense, in a place of high population densities and land prices, than in Manhattan. Here only twenty-three percent of households own a car.

The only practical way that Manhattan could have solve its peculiar nature deficit disorder, is to ban cars and turn some of the space they gobble up in the form of parking lots and roads into trees, gardens and wildlife habitat. Transitional measures such as light rail transit with dedicated lanes on wide streets, such has been proposed through the 42nd Street Light Rail corridor can greatly help in this transition, the reality is that in Manhattan. The change however, is simply a matter of basic justice. In Manhattan, the car free majority are simply the victims of a motorized minority. Nowhere else in the world could simply banning cars be achieved with less disruption and more sheer happiness.

Carfree Mahattan © vision42

Carfree Mahattan © vision42

If the wealthy who don’t like rubbing shoulders with others in public transit dislike this approach, perhaps they can follow the examples of the Robber Barons of the late 19th century and return to carriages. Rather than the “revolution” of tired ideologues, the real festival of the oppressed would be a parties in the streets when all of Manhattan is a car free zone.

Foes of automobiles love photographs and old post cards of cities before mass motorization became the norm in the 1920s. Nowhere else is this basic reality as vivid as in New York City, where for instance, the Easter Parade became a wildly popular tune about the wonders of walking along Fifth Avenue. Whatever complaints can be made about the muck of horse manure, this seemed to have less impact on the showy Easter Bonnets of the 1890s than car exhaust and street spray today. The city’s subway system, opened in 1904 at a time when transportation planning still did not envisage mass motoring, shows that alternatives were being developed rapidly for alternatives to the horse power that oil executives use now to justify their plunder of the planet.

The whole basis of he notoriety of Robert Moses, “the Power Broker” of the biography of Robert Caro, is his determination to make Manhattan accessible to motorists. For this obsession, Moses, in his words was prepared to break more than a “few eggs” to an omelette. Before he embarked on a crusade to make Manhattan safe for automobiles, Moses was no different than the other reformers of the Progressive era, who believed in more parks and subsidized housing.

Caro reveals how New York newspapers in the late 1940s were deluged with proposals calling for Manhattan to be designated as a car free zone. While today proposals for extensive areas of car free streets are denounced as un-American, a prominent New Yorker, Lewis Mumford, denounced by Moses as the epitome of the “long haired planner”, was urging such actions in the 1950s, long before they became widespread in Europe.

While Mumford and even his critics such as Jane Jacobs were unable to create a single car free zone, success in bringing rationality to Manhattan has come from the twenty years of patient work by Auto-Free New York. One of is leading lights is George Haikalis, President of the appropriately named, Institute for Rational Urban Mobility. Its biggest success was to persuade New York City this year, to take its first baby steps in rationality, through the pedestrianization of parts of Broadway Avenue in Times and Herald Square.

New York’s first car free initiatives were products of the vision of the New York’s Transportation Commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, working in co-operation with Danish architect Jan Gehl, who helped developed the vast car free havens of central Copenhagen. Their first step is to be followed up in three days of August 2010 with the closure of Park Avenue. This was taken largely in response to the refusal of the New York State legislature to approve the New York City’s council’s plea for congestion pricing to reduce the impacts of automotive commuting on the city. That such steps were so long in coming epitomizes the grid lock of automotive totalitarianism that until recently dominated New York’s approach to transportation policy.

Banning cars in Manhattan would do more to reverse the threat of global warming that all the minutiae of international agreements such as the Kyoto Accords, whose provisions would likely not be enforceable in countries that are dictatorships. One of the benefits would be the message it would send to United Nations representatives in the city, that the biggest city in the world’s wealthiest nation, had freed itself from the illusion that automobiles are the basis for the pursuit of happiness.

"A systematic strategy to green the island" © vision42

"A systematic strategy to green the island" © vision42

Banning cars in Manhattan, more than complicated transportation alternatives however meritorious, needs to be combined with a systematic strategy to green the island. This is why Thomas Berry felt the notion of “sustainable” was inadequate, that our vision should be to be “regenerative”. Such an approach to greening would be powerful and realize the slogan of the popular song, “New York, New York,”, which promises if you can do in here, you “can do it anywhere.” It would have steps like roof gardens on every flat roof, living walls of green for skyscrapers and turning parking lots into gardens and wildlife habitat. Some of the reclaimed streets can be lined with constructed wetlands to purify water.

One of the most moving elements of Berry’s memorial service was the use of magnificent symbols of salmon, instead of the conventional images used on church banners. The flashing of the salmon through the vastness of the great Gothic Cathedral, brought alive Berry’s version of regeneration and successful ecological atonement for past human abuse of the planet. In her remarks Kenya’s Environment Minister, Wangari Maathai, said that it showed that “Even the fish praise him.” What more vivid regeneration of Berry’s vision could there be, than some stretch of Manhattan’s concrete jungle, such as the Henry Hudson Parkway, being dismantled, to serve as a new breeding ground for the restoration of the endangered Atlantic Salmon?

By Dr. John Bacher (PhD)- John Bacher is the author of Petrotyranny. It is book published by Dundurn Press and Science for Peace in 2001, which details the negative relationship between oil, war and dictatorship, and the positive synergies between peace, human rights and the protection of the environment.

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Carfree cyclists also uses more buses and cabs

A few months ago I hurted my ankle badly while I was doing a physical training. I didn’t feel much pain at the moment and went back home by bike. The next morning I had a tenis ball instead of an ankle and couldn’t even touch the floor with my foot. So I had to call a cab and go straight to the hospital.

ordinary bus line in Curitiba

ordinary bus line in Curitiba

In those kinds of situations I must find alternative means of transportation since I don’t own a car. Most of the time, the bus is my option, for instance:

  • When it’s pouring down rain and I am carrying something that can not get wet.
  • If it’s too late and the distance is too great (like 25km).
  • When I have visitors who are not crazy enough to face the streets by bike (like my mother).

But sometimes it has to be a cab. Walk almost 1km to the bus stop with a bad ankle wasn’t feasible at all. Another example is the  migraine my wife occasionally has. It also requires some urgency. But when that’s not the case, she can easily bike (or even walk) a few miles.

To promote a carfree lifestyle is beneficial to public transportation.

Not only because there will be more space on the streets. But there will be actually more people using it. After I sold my car, I started to use public transit a lot more. I also get a few rides with some carsharing friends but it doesn’t happen very often and as a last resource, I can take a cab.

Someone might ask: But if you are going to spend money, why don’t you just keep the car?

Well, those situations are exceptions, and it costs me about R$40.00 a month. Very different from the R$600.00 the car used to cost me. Not to mention that I don’t need to worry about parking, washing, paying taxes and fixing the car. BesidesI get a lot of extra space in my garage to do whatever I want to.


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Still a long way to go in Buenos Aires

In my last post I tried to reflect my views as a bike commuter here in Buenos Aires. I made just a brief comment on public transport but in this post I’d like to picture the scene in a broader way.

Biking is relatively comfortable and safe in Moreno, my hometown. The situation changes if you want to cycle beyond Moreno: on working days and especially at rush hours, travelling on the train with your bikes is almost a torture as companies seem unable to realise the one and only carriage they provide for bike commuters is not enough. Yes, they only provide one carriage for bike commuters. I don’t use the train to go to work because I work in the suburbs of my hometown but lots of people do use the train to commute and it’s chaotic. Below I’ll show you a shot of a carriage for bike commuters.

The picture shown is a carriage meant for bikes in my train line. Believe it or not, this carriage is packed with bike commuters during working days. I’d like this railway company to do something for us. We need it..

Cycling in Buenos Aires

Keep on cycling! © Alex Berry

Keep on cycling! © Alex Berry

Hi friends from World Car Free,

I’m Walter, a bike commuter from Buenos Aires in Argentina. This is my first post and to be honest, I feel delighted to be able to contribute to the blog giving you my views.

How does it feel to be a bike commuter in Argentina? Feels good but the trend has not already already spread massively. I work as a teacher, leaving home at 7 and still you can see lots of bike commuters using their bikes to make it to work. In my case, I started cycling seriously early this year. Reasons? Mainly two: as I was leading a sedentary life (as many of us do in this fast society) i thought biking could make it up. As a matter of fact, after 9 months as a bike commuter I have to say the aim has been accomplished: I’ve lost 7 kilos and what’s better, just for free. The other point to consider is transport dependency: I felt a bit uneasy depending on transport timetables. So, once day I said, no more buses nor minivans. I’d rather cycle instead.

Sometimes you need a bit of enthusiasm and encouragement, especially at first. I remember that in my case it was hard indeed. During the first two weeks of my trips were a real nightmare. I felt worn-out day after day for four or five days. Then my body got used to it and here I’m.. ready to go. In my next posts I’ll share some of my views after the hard winter we have battled here in Buenos Aires.

Keep on cycling!

Walter from Argentina

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An Open Letter to your Representatives

A good way to spread the carfree word: Send an open letter to your represntatives. It is what did Willie Weir (http://www.willieweir.com/) in Seattle, USA.

According to Weir, “We are a long way off in Seattle, WA to being carfree. But you have to dream.” We can share the same feeling in many other cities…

It is also nice to know that he already get some answers: http://www.yellowtentadventures.com/2009/07/30/give-it-up-responses/

"Now I’m asking you all to give up your car"

"Now I’m asking you all to give up your car"

Mayor Nichols–give it up. Seattle City Council members. You too. As well as King County Council members, Governor Gregoire, State representatives and ALL candidates for the above offices.

I’m talking about your car. For a week. Just a week.

You see, my wife and I answered the call to help the region and the planet by giving up our car over four years ago. With climate change upon us, it was imperative that we transition out of our auto-centric society. Get on the bus. Get on our bikes. Get out and walk.

There were plenty of incentive programs offered by our city and county governments, including the Way to Go Seattle–One Less Car Challenge. We took advantage of the Washington State Vehicle Redistribution Program … our car was stolen. We opted not to replace it.

We were in a good position to give up our car. We don’t have kids. We live on Beacon Hill with frequent bus service (and now Light Rail). We have stores, restaurants, a library, and a park all within a ten minute walking distance of our house. We both do most of our work from home.

Easy.

OK. Walking up the hill from the grocery store with a 20lb Thanksgiving turkey in an excursion-size backpack wasn’t easy. Waiting outside in a 40 degree drizzle for a bus that never came wasn’t fun. And taking 4 buses and a ferry to get to Sequim wasn’t convenient.

It didn’t take long to understand that for someone who owns a private vehicle, our city and region’s public transportation, bike paths and pedestrian corridors are top notch. Because when it isn’t easy, fun or convenient … you take your car.

When I joined the ranks of the carless, I began an education in how auto-centric our green little region is, and how far we have to go to get to be a truly livable place … for everyone.

How many of my neighbors park their cars across the sidewalk. How cracked and poorly maintained those sidewalks are. How fast the cars fly by on our residential streets. How few cars yield to me in a cross walk. How few bike racks there are outside the businesses I frequent. How poorly signed (or not at all) the bike routes are throughout the city. How terrifying biking can be in downtown Seattle. How little park space we have downtown and how much space we devote to parking.

So many issues and problems invisible to me while driving in my own personal vehicle.

Now I’m asking you all to give up your car. Not for four years. Just seven days.

For seven days live the life that few have chosen and many have no choice but to live.

Believe me, no matter how long you have lived in or served this region, you’ll learn things that will surprise you.

I know I did. And I’ve lived here for 25 years.

The best decisions about transit and neighborhood planning will be made by government officials who have taken the time to live a life without a car as an option.

Give it up.

We’ll all be glad you did.

Sincerely,

Willie Weir
Beacon Hill, Seattle

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