Sunday, May 29, 2011

Air pollution in Sri Lanka - a rant

Posted by Picasa

Something burning, 24 hours a day.

I need to get something off my chest. Haha. We all do, even if we don't know it yet.

It's hard to know where to start - there are so many things wrong in this picture. But let's start with those chimneys.

Sri Lanka has a few things to sort out, and the air people breathe in Colombo is a good place to start.

Did you know this country has emissions rules? And vehicles get emissions-tested? Hard to believe, when you see the exhaust from the average minivan. I've heard that vehicles sold here constitute "Japan's dumping ground".

This country needs nuclear power. The whole world does. We have to stop burning diesel and all other sorts of lazy polluting fuels, not just for the biosphere but - being purely self interested - for us, for people.

I say nuclear because i think it's the feasible option. Renewables could do the job too if we can get enough of them. Whatever, we need electricity to replace petrol, diesel etc, and we have to get it without burning hydrocarbons. No-one wants to be energy-poor again (people haven't listened to Illich). Fossil fuels have been fantastically cheap, easy energy - just try to cycle at 20mph, then do the same in a car or on a motorbike - and we need to make sure electricity is there to take their place).

I cycled home from Colombo tonight, and my snot is blackened by all the god-knows-what in the air. (I'm almost the fastest thing on the main road, because the traffic is so bad, at standstill mostly, but confident motorbikes - and me - can go up the inside, where the tarmac stops. Dirt surface, no pavements, somehow they can afford 4 or 6 lane highways, but no pavements, it's appalling. Yay for suspension though).

Why do we put up with this? The black stuff in one's snot at the end of the day, i mean. We wouldn't put up with someone pissing all over us, and that might be healthier. Or do rich people who matter just hang out only where the air is clear?

They have some Thorium here, but not the skill or commitment to use it yet. I saw a newspaper headline (one of the english ones) that was effectively "Government rethinking nuclear due to OH NOES NUCLEAR GONE WRONG IN JAPAN". Not v encouraging.

On that subject - the way I see Japan is:

OK, bit silly putting a power plant in earthquake area, and right on the coast. But all of japan fits that description (or is mountains) so they had little choice.

And then, what happened is actually a great ad for how safe nuclear is. Plant runs merrily for decades, then is hit by a R9 earthquake and tsunami, and just about melts. There's time to get out. Some deaths, workers at the plant, which is thankfully mostly automated.

Take any other power plant, most of all coal, and you'd have more deaths over those decades (from massive piles of coal falling on people etc), then more deaths on the day in March. Plus deaths at the coal mine. (I know uranium mines aren't safe either, but they're smaller).

So why the resistance? is it the cognitive bias, to avoid the possibility of "dread" events - rare terrible catastrophes - even if it means being subject to more everyday harms that far outweigh the dread possibility?

Yes, nuclear can be a catastrophe if it goes wrong. But burning fossil fuels is a catastrophe even when it goes right - it's just a fundamental component of doing it. When we grow up, we have to get past our irrational fears - of the dark, of spiders - and it's time we do the same about nuclear.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Cargo bikes, trikes... Why not a trailer?

I’m a medical student, about to be a doctor. I move house annually, I don't have a spare £1000 and have no garage – so a dedicated cargo bike or trike is out of the question.

Last summer, I remember being asked, by a local cyclist of a certain age, “what’s a student doing with a bike trailer”?

However, a simple trailer (one of those £80 jobs) works fantastically for me. At the risk of sounding clich├ęd, it just fits my lifestyle right now.

It cost the same as filling a 4×4’s tank, but it’s lasted me 3 years now, and still going strong.

I do the weekly shop with it. I’ve moved furniture (a butcher’s block) with it. I’ve transported nearly 40kg of commercial espresso machine and grinder with it. I’ve shifted gym weights with it. When my partner arranged a medical student event in Oxford and needed to transport refreshments (crisps, snacks, fruit, and at least 20l of drinks), she took the trailer.

When it’s not being used, it folds up and lives on top of the big freezer in our utility room.

I find it’s quite welcome on the roads – maybe Oxford’s drivers are used to this sort of thing, or maybe the yellow tarp over the top is a help. People tend to give me plenty of room! There’s the odd cycle path that clearly hasn’t thought about people with more than two wheels, but you can manage.

My point is – doing this is entirely normal, not extraordinary. I don’t have room for a car, nor do I feel like spending thousands of pounds, just to move me and my stuff around.

For exactly those same reasons – space, and a lack of a few thousand quid or so – I don’t have a cargo bike (or trike). It’s just not practical.

But a trailer – now that just does the job, and tidies away when it’s not needed. So, why not have one?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Vehicular Cycling, the Right to Ride: who is the CTC for?

I've just read Freewheeler's post, "Lorries killing cyclists: what is to be done?"

This is a great summary of the situation - there's a real sense of energy, and understandable frustration, from his writing, and it really pins down the issues.

I wish I was in the UK at the moment, to help with the good work of the Cycling Embassy. As it is, I'm out of the UK until June - I hope to get involved once I'm back.

I say this as someone who rides a bike, who loves to ride, who feels like the world is a better place when people can get from A to B by bike. That it should be one of the most obvious choices in the world. And that the bicycle, although not the whole solution, is a necessary element in any better world.

I'm also a card-carrying CTC member. To ride a bike in the UK, I've become a "cyclist".

After 6 years of riding the bike, I'm now a fully-fledged vehicular cyclist - out of necessity rather than by choice. With my helmet and my Saturn yellow coat, I can get out there and "share the road", even when other road users aren't too keen to share it with me. My lifestyle has adapted to include VC.

I've had my near misses. One collision, where I was rear-ended by a motorist on a country road. So far, nothing serious, nothing to stop me cycling, or worse.

But VC is a choice, however forced, that I am able to make. Most others, not so young or fit or brave (or foolhardy), can't begin to choose this way of life. And why should they have to? I wouldn't wish VC on my worst enemy, let alone family or friends.

When both my partner and my parents started cycling to work, I felt an immense sense of happiness, joy, even pride. Actions speak louder than words, I thought. I'd set a good example. It wasn't cheery comments, along the lines of "you'd have to cycle for 3000 years, on average, before you'd be hit by a car!" that had made the difference. Instead, all they'd needed was to see that it was possible, and they made the "right" choice for themselves.

Once your loved ones take up cycling, a funny thing happens. They're exposed to the world of crap, the indifference, the utter criminal negligence on the roads that you've been weathering for years. They can drive, they know the rules of the road, yet they're shaken by their experience. They come home and tell you about it.

Suddenly, VC doesn't seem as much of a solution as it did before, when it was only your life on the line. Another day, and another cyclist - someone's sister, or son, or father - is killed while riding their bike. And the world goes on.

I like to think I've done my family a good deed, helping them get on their bikes. The cheery statistics do tell me it's a net benefit to their health. But the thought that they could be next, that VC is putting them at risk every time they're out on their bike, makes me more than a little uneasy.

So, what is the CTC for? Is it for radical change, for everyday cycling, for everyone, and for the conditions to make that happen? If so - why so little mention of The Netherlands, Denmark and the rest? Except to suggest that we can't ever have what they have, and that it'd be wrong even to start, even to try.

The denialism, the head-in-the-sand to what is happening in the UK, is breathtaking. Statistics manipulated, presented in relative terms to inflate the numbers. "50% more cyclists in London", for example. Gaudy saturn yellow press releases on cycle training, lorry driver "awareness", the endless helmet issue etc. And meanwhile, cycling in the UK flatlines.

CTC, LCC, Sustrans - all have collaborated in preserving the status quo.

CTC and LCC - One road for all, shared - but not equally of course. Understandably - it's hard to share with vehicles several orders of magnitude larger or smaller than yours.

Sustrans, of course, has taken a slightly different approach, at best seeking out excellent off-road routes. At worst, they have conspired to tidy cyclists out of sight, out of mind, dumping them onto inadequate towpaths or old railways. These may not be direct, but at least they're scenic.

In the 1950's, the British Medical Association was strongly opposed to the creation of the NHS. Doctors felt the status quo served their interests quite nicely. But the change was not intended to benefit them - it was for everyone else in British society. In time, the BMA realized that medicine was bigger than their members' interests.

The CTC has been protecting its members' interests since its inception. It bitterly opposed the introduction of segregated cycling facilities almost 100 years ago, suggesting that cyclists might lose the "right to ride" on the road.

Over the following century, it backed itself into a corner, still defending that same right. Except that fewer and fewer people want to ride on those roads, such as they are. What works for me, and other cyclists, on a fast Sunday ride or Tuesday evening training session, does not work for the vast majority of the population. "Cyclists" are now a much derided, pitied, ridiculed minority, and most adults never ride a bike.

Does the CTC wish to see this change?

Or will it watch, as its members add Hi-viz to their wardrobes, lights to their helmets, air horns to their bikes, cameras to their handlebars, and decide that it knows which products to review for this year's Xmas Cycle magazine?