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My Wednesday consisted mostly of running around and moving things. I used five transport modes and now I can’t not think about environmental impact and practicality and urban futures. Hop on board the car-share, boat, electric car, bus, and bike, and come along for the ride.

Background · What happened was, on Wednesday morning our boat was at the boatyard for a minor repair. They’d squeezed me in on the condition that I show up at 8AM to sail it away — they’re pretty well maxed out this time of year when everyone wants to get back on the water. Simultaneously, following on my recent bike accident, my bike was stuck in the repair shop — also maxed out in spring — because the replacement pedals they’d ordered were defective and the nearest available pair were in an indie bike shop in a distant suburb.

So, here’s what I did.

  1. Got up early and took a car-share which was just outside my house down to Granville Island, where the boatyard is.

  2. Putt-putted the boat over to my spot at the marina, hung out there for a while while I cleaned up the boat, put it into office mode, and did a bit of work.

  3. Walked twenty minutes to the nearest car-share and took that home.

  4. Took the electric car 32km from central Vancouver to Cap’s South Shore Cycle in Delta, picked up the necessary bike part, came back to Vancouver to drop it off at the local bike repair that was working on my bike, then went home for lunch.

  5. When the shop texted me that they were done, took a handy local bus eight stops or so starting four blocks from my house and getting off around the corner from the bike shop.

  6. Biked home!

Now let’s consider the experience and the economics.

Car Share · There’s been a lot of churn in this market over the years, with Zipcar and Car2Go and so on; it may or may not be a thing where you are. Here in Vancouver it’s alive and well under the Evo brand. You pick up the one that’s nearest and drop it off at your destination. There’s a mobile app, obviously.

An Evo car-share

They’re all Toyota Prii and thus pretty energy-efficient. Also, since a significant part of an automobile’s carbon load comes from manufacturing, when you provide more trips with fewer cars, that should be a win.

Having said that, the carbon-load impact story is mixed. The reason is that they’re so damn convenient that they end up replacing, not solo car trips, but public-transit and bike trips. I can testify to that; when I was working downtown at Amazon, mornings when the weather was crappy or I wasn’t feeling 100%, I regularly yielded to the temptation to car-share rather than bike or take the train. On the other hand, we have friends who don’t own a car but probably would were it not for car-share availability.

Anyhow, it’s beastly complicated. Does car sharing reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Assessing the modal shift and lifetime shift rebound effects from a life cycle perspective dives deep on this. Big questions: What kind of trips is the car-share displacing, and do the vehicles wear out faster than individually-owned cars? The image is from that paper linked above.

Transport modes emission factors

Emission factors for three car-share scenarios. The Y access is equivalent grams of CO2 per passenger-kilometre travelled.

My big gripe with the study is that in my experience, the kind of car offered by car-shares is quite a bit more efficient than the average proprietary car on the road. I’m also puzzled at the low carbon cost assigned to manufacturing; I had thought it closer to 50% from previous readings. No matter how you cut it, though, it’s not simple.

Boating · OMG forgive me, Mother Earth, for I have sinned. When we’re trundling along at 20+ knots to the cabin with weekend supplies, we get 1 km/litre, maybe 1.1. (It’s only 30km.) On the other hand, there’s this.

False Creek from a small boat

Shot while heading over to the boatyard a couple of days ago. It’s awfully nice to be out in a boat.

I console myself with the fact that this is the only petroleum-burning object in our possession; even our house heating and cooking is electric now. But still. There is hope; innovators all over the world are trying to figure out how to make boating less egregiously wasteful. For example, consider the lovely Candela boats, which combine modern battery technology with hydrofoils to get all that fiberglass up out of the water. They’re not the only ones; other manufacturers, mostly in Europe, are trying to get the right combination of range, performance, and carrying capacity. I sincerely hope to be able to buy such a thing in the boating years that remain to me.

But in my actual boat in the year 2021, it’s not good.

Driving (e-car) · I took another car-share Prius home (a long walk to get it, this time) and had time for a coffee before I fired up the electric car to go get bike parts.

Jaguar I-Pace in the rain

I confess to having been all excited about this trip; it’s been a year or more since I’ve had the Jag out on the highway. Traffic was light and I may have driven a little too fast; actually cried out with joy as I vectored into the approaches to one of the Annacis Island bridges. The contrast to the friendly-but-frumpy little Prius is stark.

Let’s look at another graph, from Which form of transport has the smallest carbon footprint?.

carbon footprint for various travel modes

I encourage visiting the paper because this graphic is interactive, you can add lots more different travel modes.

Where I live the electricity is very green, but even with dirty coal-based power, battery cars are still way more carbon-efficient than the gas-driven flavor simply because turning fossil fuels into forward motion is so beastly inefficient. Still, considering manufacturing carbon cost, a single human in a heavy metal box is never going to be a really great choice, environmentally.

But wait: This is exactly the kind of errand cars exist for. There’s no good argument for decent public-transit service between residential Vancouver and a small store in a strip mall in a remote suburb. It’s too far to bike. The advantages of car-share, as we’ve seen, aren’t that overwhelming.

I once read a piece of analysis — sorry, can’t remember where — that suggested a future where lots of people still have cars, but that they are rarely used, mostly just sit there. Until, for example, you have to head off to fetch something from a distant suburb. That sounds plausible to me, partly because it describes our situation: We regularly get plaintive complaints from the Jag’s remote-control app saying that since we haven’t gone near it in days, it’s going into deep-sleep mode.

Busing · I generally don’t mind taking public transit, if only for the people-watching, except when there’s rush-hour compression.

Unfortunately, the carbon economics depend really a lot on how full your buses and trains are. To the extent that fossil-fuel shills have written deeply dishonest studies that I’m not gonna link to arguing that cars are more planet-friendly than buses unless the buses are really full all the time. In fact, in most places they’re full enough to make the carbon arithmetic come out ahead on carbon loading.

And there’s another subtle point: A successful public-transit system has to run some trains and buses at suboptimal loads because otherwise people won’t be able to depend on it to get around and will just go ahead and buy a car and then start driving everywhere.

And having said that, Covid is definitely not not helping; check out this picture I took on the bus today.

On Vancouver’s #3 bus, May 5, 2021

Vancouver’s #3 Main Street bus on a Wednesday afternoon in May 2021.

Biking · Anyhow, I finally, weeks after my accident, found myself back on my wonderful e-bike, heading home.

Trek e-bike at Vancouver’s False Creek

So far on this journey there’s been a whole lot of “It’s complicated.” No longer. Bikes’ carbon load is vanishingly small compared to any other way of traveling further than you want to walk. Plus they’re fun. Plus riding them is good for you. E-bikes hugely expand the range of situations where biking is an option for a non-young non-athletic person.

It’s not complicated. We need more bikes generally and more e-bikes specifically on the road, which means your city needs to invest in bike-lane infrastructure to make people safe and comfortable on two wheels.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Andrew Reilly (May 06 2021, at 01:37)

The manufacturing footprint costs could depend on whether or not they include any or all of mining, transport, refining or just the manufacturing bit. Pressing mild steel into shapes isn't very energy expensive. Converting iron ore into steel is pretty expensive, but nowhere near as expensive as aluminium or concrete. Digging it out of the ground with diesel-powered machines and lugging it across countries and oceans by diesel-powered devices is pretty carbon expensive too.

I'm a bit disappointed that you find uses for share-cars over and above your own e-car: it's so shiny. For the odd one-way trip, are they really a better option than a taxi?


From: Jacek Kopecky (May 06 2021, at 07:22)

Are electric scooters a thing in Vancouver? They increasingly are in Portsmouth, UK - a very dense flat city that would be great for cycling were it not optimised for the private car. I think I now see more e-scooters (the little ones you stand on, not like Vespa) than bicycles.


From: Doug K (May 06 2021, at 09:21)

"We need more bikes generally and more e-bikes specifically on the road, which means your city needs to invest in bike-lane infrastructure to make people safe and comfortable on two wheels."

exactly this.

I'm eying an ebike in case we ever go back to the office and I have to commute again. But, it's nearly useless for anything other than my commute. That I can do by patching together a fragmented set of trails. Anything else requires either riding on the sidewalk, or taking my chances on four-lane suburban highways, where the luxury truck drivers are doing 60mph in a 45 zone while looking at their phones. The older I get the more I value the few years left to me.. which translates to unwillingness to joust with SUVs..


From: Sophie (May 06 2021, at 13:05)

As for the boat, now that you’ve got more time on your hands, did you consider sailing? It’s a really pleasant way of decarbonising boat trips. But it takes time to learn.


From: Graham (May 06 2021, at 13:14)

The lowest carbon trip is one not done, which might apply to your trip out to bike shop. Bike pedals are one of the few parts where every single bike of every kind uses exactly the same fitting*.

One unmeasurable problem with cars (including taxis and shares) is the congestion and danger they cause, which slows down buses and scares people away from cycling towards getting their own car.

(* there's always an exception. I own a French bike from ca. 1980 that uses extremely rare metric pedal threads. But everything since then)


From: Tim (May 06 2021, at 15:45)

To @Graham: When I said "pedals" I meant the cranks and fittings and everything, the whole apparatus was hopelessly bent out of shape. I hadn't realized that some bikes are fussy about the specifics of the pedal cranks you attach to them. They are Bosch Gen 2 W542094's.


From: David Magda (May 06 2021, at 18:28)

The dud who runs the "Rebuilding Tally Ho" sailboat channel outlines (Ep. 87) his choice for the new engine: a Beta Marin Hybrid.

* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xohxmwPfctg

It's starts with a standard Beta Marine diesel (which is just a nasalized Kubota), but between the engine and the propeller they put an (reversible) "alternator".

When the diesel is running it runs the prop and can optionally charge the 48V batteries (he's going lithium). However the alternator can run as an engine as well so that the 48V can then move the boat without using fossil fuels. If either component, diesel or electric, fails he can use the other.

Most of the time, for getting in and out of the harbour, he can simply use electric, but for longer voyages there's diesel. Also, when he's sailing, he can do re-gen with the proper to charge up the batteries as well.


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May 05, 2021
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