Monday, 30 June 2008

Is there a way to compare a human being to an engine in terms of efficiency?


It turns out that "biological engines" -- which is what the muscles in your body are -- are pretty amazing in terms of efficiency. To find out how efficient, let's look at how many calories a person burns while riding a bicycle.
If you look at a page like this calorie chart, you will find that a person riding a bicycle at 15 miles per hour (24 km per hour) burns 0.049 calories per pound per minute. So a 175-pound (77-kg) person burns 515 calories in an hour, or about 34 calories per mile (about 21 calories per km).

A gallon of gasoline (about 4 liters) contains about 31,000 calories. If a person could drink gasoline, then a person could ride about 912 miles on a gallon of gas (about 360 km per liter). Considering that a normal car gets about 30 miles per gallon, that's pretty impressive!

To be fair, keep in mind that a car generally weighs a ton or more, while a bicycle weighs only 30 pounds. Cars also travel a lot faster than 15 mph. But it is still an interesting comparison. Note also that people cannot drink gasoline. However, people can drink vegetable oil, which contains nearly the same number of calories per gallon (if you look at How Fats Work you can see that fat contains long hydrogen/carbon chains just like gasoline does).

The people riding in a race like the Tour de France are riding more like 25 mph. Because air resistance rises very quickly with speed, they are burning about three times more calories -- something like 100 calories per mile. In a 100-mile stage of the tour, a racer might burn something like 8,000 to 10,000 calories in one day! So they are getting only about 300 miles per gallon. The only way to replace those calories is to eat a lot of food (see How Dieting Works for details).

If People Could Run On Gasoline

Some interesting thoughts relating to the posting above.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Is Parking Being Subsidized?

It just so happens that I've worked in a landmark hotel here in San Francisco as a reception desk clerk for the past several years. Originally, I took this job as a stopgap, figuring I'd find work in my trade as a Lithographer at a later date. Two things happened. First of all, I found that the union benefits and seniority protections made my job quite enviable. Lastly, I discovered that my trade is all but a tattered remnant in the city where I wish to live, thanks to outsourcing and other things.

On top of everything else, I have found that I really like what I do for a living. I have many opportunities daily to talk to all sorts of people from all sorts of socioeconomic backgrounds, and varied cultures. The more I get to meet all these people, the more I've begun to realize that we all share the same concerns, hold the same values, and essentially we share much more in common than what might separate us. It also gives me an opportunity to plant seeds of change. I started this blog with the hopes that some of my ideas (those seeds of change) would get picked up and discussed, and people would begin to see some of the things I have noticed, and begin to reach their own conclusions. Right now, this blog has yet to gain any real readership or recognition, but it is a place where I am free to write down my insights and formulate ideas. Perhaps one day it will take off, but even if it simply inspires a few individuals to do something, then it has served a purpose greater than what I could ever do by myself.

Words – or better said, the ideas which words represent are powerful forces that can manifest themselves as physical realities. This is why we are wise to pick our words carefully. We are wise to refrain from immediately reacting to a given situation. Silence can be one's best defense. More often than not, we are generally unconscious to our words, and we tend to parrot everything we hear. At some point we can believe our own lies, and then those lies, or distortions, or exaggerations become manifest in the physical world in all sorts of ways.

My job in particular, is one of those jobs where diplomacy is paramount. But that does not mean I'm not free to express myself. I just have to choose my words with extreme care. Once a guest inquired as to whether or not I supported trade unions. It was apparent to me that our guest was not a fan of organized labor. My response to her was "Yes, I support organized labor. I am actually one of the representatives of my union here at this hotel, and it is my duty to ensure that our negotiated contract is followed and to make sure that our members are treated equitably. I don't believe that unions are free from corruption, or that they never make grave mistakes, or even that there have not been times unions have worked against their best economic interests. I keep an open mind, and many detractors of organized labor have made some valid arguments against them. Ideally, labor would represent all working people – not just those who are able to organize. But in the end, I believe there needs to be a balance of power for a democratic process to function, and in this country, the only true representatives of labor have been trade unions, and when it comes right down to the nitty-gritty, I know that my union has my best interests at heart." Our guest was dumbstruck, and realized that in my summary there was no way she could argue with me, because I had made a concession to her, and confessed that I did not have the perfect answer, but I made it clear that I would support the organization that had my best interests first and foremost. And why would I or anyone else for that matter, vote against our interests? I'm sure that this lady walked away with a different perspective, and perhaps more open to other ideas. If anything, I was at least successful in explaining why there are people who support unions. Had I been afraid to express myself, or worse yet, had I come across as defensive and argumentative, no transformation would take place – to the contrary, this individual would likely become more entrenched in her world view.

A few months ago, we raised our parking rates from $45 to $50 overnight. It is incredible how many of our guest's are up in arms over this. My strategy initially was to avert the blame by stating that the hotel does not manage the garage, and we have no control over their parking rates, which is generally correct. After seeing that averting the blame did little to quell our guest's ire, I tried another tactic, which was one of comparison. Stating that our parking rates were within the going rate in the area, seemed to work a little better. But I've found that my best tactic is simply to side with the guest and say something to the effect of, "isn't it crazy?". The problem with this tactic is that it is disingenuous. Let me explain why this is so.

There are things that have inherent value. A thing becomes more valuable as its scarcity rises. Space is one of those things. If you think about it, you'll realize that space is indeed limited on this planet. In fact, the oceans cover two thirds of the surface – so you can immediately count that out until we start building floating cities! But the truth of the matter is that space, especially in urban areas, is at a premium. And when you begin to realize that the auto-centric urban environments have dedicated a surprising amount of space to the personal motorcar, you'll also begin to realize how amazingly subsidized that space is when compared to everything else. I have made the same point repeatedly regarding fuel costs. The real price of gas is conservatively estimated at $20 per gallon. If the consumer were to see this reality at the pump, he would sell his car, buy a bicycle, move closer to work, or take public transit (or do all the aforementioned).

So let's get back to the idea of a privately owned car, and the ability to park it at will on open public space, or within a garage. One of my mental exercises involves taking a stroll through one's neighborhood and imagining personal, and privately owned objects, preferably of value, in place of the cars that are parked on the street. If you spot a new Mercedes Benz, then you can imagine a fine Persian carpet with a very expensive leather sofa, and perhaps an antique end table with a lovely art nouveau lamp on it, since that would essentially equate the value of the car in that space. Now let's say we come across a compact economy car, like a Toyota. Now we can imagine a large plasma screen television set and high-fidelity stereo system and a nice modern recliner in its place. Lastly, imagine a smog-belching junk heap of an automobile that might be worth five hundred dollars on a good day. You've just imagined my entire apartment's furnishings! Isn't this a fun exercise? This is exactly what personal transport is with a few important differences. First of all, it is arguably more of an eyesore, and it is noisier, it emits toxic fumes (and people get upset with cigarette smokers!), and it is only available to its owner. Presumably, if one were to park a sofa on the street, people tired from walking could take a break and sit upon it.

Most importantly, the car is designed to be mobile, although ironically, it spends over ninety percent of its time resting. That means that wherever I drive my car to, I need a space to park it once I get there. If you figure conservatively that the average parking space takes up 275 square feet, and every car owner needs an average of six parking spaces throughout the city at their disposal, then each car needs roughly 1,650 square feet of space for its intended operation, not including roadways. Now if you figure your average apartment is 700 square feet, and the average rent in this city is $1500 per month, you'll see that the residential rate is roughly $2 per square foot. If you figure that each car requires 1650 square feet of space throughout the city, then would it not be equitable to charge $3000 per month for its parking requirements? Can you begin to see how car owners are subsidized? Even if you were to charge for a single residential space, the equitable amount would be $550 per month, and our parking rates are not anywhere near that. You can buy a residential permit in my crowded neighborhood and park your heap of junk for $60 annually, or quite frankly next to nothing. Why is such valuable space considered so exclusive to the private use of car owners?

By now, you can probably see where I'm going here. Could it be then that parking is also subsidized by our hotel guests? Our hotel's average daily rate for a room is about $250 per night. Our average room is about 450 square feet. That equates to 55 cents per square foot. So you can see right off that $50 per night for a parking space is one third the going rate. Albeit, there is minimal maintenance, no maid service, and little in the way of utilities involved in keeping a parking space. However, there is overhead involved – there are parking attendants and there is a valet parking service. I dare say, a more equitable rate would be $80 per night, and I figure that conservatively. So to a certain degree, our guests who choose not to use our parking facility are subsidizing our guests who do utilize the parking facility.

As long as car ownership is considered a right in this country, and as long as we continue to subsidize its use, attitudes will likely never change. Yet when you begin to consider the actual cost of the automobile, the alternatives begin to look quite appealing indeed. The less we rely on our cars within urban environments, the more we can begin to invest in attractive alternatives. There are infinite possibilities out there. There is no particular reason why we cannot fathom cities with carfree zones, or carfree cities, for that matter. I for one, hope that someday I will be able to live in my city as a free citizen, stripped from the burdens of autocentric culture, where children are free to play in the streets, where citizens can gather in public spaces without fear of being hit by a car, and where there is less noise and pollution.

Now its your turn to imagine the possibilities.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Ivan Illich: Social effects of motorized transport

This man is the one who got me thinking about alternatives to the automobile:

The United States puts between 25 and 45 per cent of its total energy (depending upon how one calculates this) into vehicles: to make them, run them, and clear a right of way for them when they roll, when they fly, and when they park. For the sole purpose of transporting people, 250 million Americans allocate more fuel than is used by 1.3 billion Chinese and Indians for all purposes.

The model American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes, and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. And this figure does not take into account the time consumed by other activities dictated by transport: time spent in hospitals, traffic courts, and garages; time spent watching automobile commercials or attending consumer education meetings to improve the quality of the next buy.

The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour. In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people manage to do the same, walking wherever they want to go, and they allocate only 3 to 8 per cent of their society's time budget to traffic instead of 28 per cent. What distinguishes the traffic in rich countries from the traffic in poor countries is not more mileage per hour of life-time for the majority, but more hours of compulsory consumption of high doses of energy, packaged and unequally distributed by the transportation industry.
Man, unaided by any tool, gets around quite efficiently. He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometer in ten minutes by expending 0.75 calories. Man on his feet is thermodynamically more efficient than any motorized vehicle and most animals. For his weight, he performs more work in locomotion than rats or oxen, less than horses or sturgeon. At this rate of efficiency man settled the world and made its history. At this rate peasant societies spend less than 5 per cent and nomads less than 8 per cent of their respective social time budgets outside the home or the encampment.
Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometer of flat road at an expense of only 0.15 calories. The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man's metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion. Equipped with this tool, man outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines but all other animals as well.

Bicycles are not only thermodynamically efficient, they are also cheap. With his much lower salary, the Chinese acquires his durable bicycle in a fraction of the working hours an American devotes to the purchase of his obsolescent car. The cost of public utilities needed to facilitate bicycle traffic versus the price of an infrastructure tailored to high speeds is proportionately even less than the price differential of the vehicles used in the two systems. In the bicycle system, engineered roads are necessary only at certain points of dense traffic, and people who live far from the surfaced path are not thereby automatically isolated as they would be if they depended on cars or trains. The bicycle has extended man's radius without shunting him onto roads he cannot walk. Where he cannot ride his bike, he can usually push it.

The bicycle also uses little space. Eighteen bikes can be parked in the place of one car, thirty of them can move along in the space devoured by a single automobile. It takes three lanes of a given size to move 40,000 people across a bridge in one hour by using automated trains, four to move them on buses, twelve to move them in their cars, and only two lanes for them to pedal across on bicycles. Of all these vehicles, only the bicycle really allows people to go from door to door without walking. The cyclist can reach new destinations of his choice without his tool creating new locations from which he is barred.

Bicycles let people move with greater speed without taking up significant amounts of scarce space, energy, or time. They can spend fewer hours on each mile and still travel more miles in a year. They can get the benefit of technological breakthroughs without putting undue claims on the schedules, energy, or space of others. They become masters of their own movements without blocking those of their fellows. Their new tool creates only those demands which it can also satisfy. Every increase in motorized speed creates new demands on space and time. The use of the bicycle is self-limiting. It allows people to create a new relationship between their life-space and their life-time, between their territory and the pulse of their being, without destroying their inherited balance. The advantages of modern self-powered traffic are obvious, and ignored. That better traffic runs faster is asserted, but never proved. Before they ask people to pay for it, those who propose acceleration should try to display the evidence for their claim.

[from: Energy and Equity. In Ivan Illich: Toward a History of Needs. New York: Pantheon, 1978.]