Monday, September 22, 2008

Car-Free Day in Montreal 2008

Today, September 22th was the Car-Free Day. It is a world-wide event but was not that big in Montreal. Here on a 7-blocks section of Ste. Catherine and surrounding streets car traffic was banned - but only from 9:30am-3:30pm, so the 9-5 working masses probably didn't notice it. Delivery to Complexe Desjardins and the car rentals in the area were not affected either. Here is an impressive picture of the event in Berlin.

In the closed area, a number of organizations and companies had booths. I talked a bit with Transport Durable, who had photos from tramways all over the world and some very profound articles on their website.

I enquired at the Transport booth of the City about the state of the tramway realization in Montreal - the first loop (downtown, Berri-Uqam to Griffintown) is planned for 2013 but the financing is not ensured yet. Consultations will go on until 2011, only then construction can start. The person I spoke with was favorable of converting Ste. Catherine to a pedestrian street after this summer's experience, since the merchants realized that it was an opportunity to generate business rather than diverting their customers.

This project reminds me of the closing of Kaerntner Strasse in Vienna: Once one of the most busy streets in that city, the merchants were blocking pedestrianization. Only when the metro was constructed that street had to be closed and voila - there were no traffic problems as feared. Since then it has been closed to traffic (that was in the sixties) and today it makes Vienna a major tourist attraction with many flagship stores. Many other streets have followed its example.

Oddly enough in a car-free event, in a part of the closed-off section many (electric) cars could be found, along the electric bicycles and Segways. I asked to try both Segway and electric bicycle, but my request was declined, reasons given were insurance issues and that the city would not allow it.

Finally at 6pm I returned to do my part in this street theater: Die-In Montreal 2008. Around 40-50 cyclists pretended to lie dead on the street on a downtown intersection. The resulting photos illustrate how many cyclists are killed every 2 years by car 'accidents' in Quebec, according to SAAQ statistics.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Trolleybuses - The future of electric vehicles

2 Trolleybuses in Kiev.

Trolleybuses are electric buses that are powered by overhead wires, along which they travel. In terms of urban transport they are classified between tramways (light rail) with fixed tracks and independent diesel buses.

Invented 1882 in Berlin, they have been used since all over the world.
They have become somewhat rare in North America over the last decades (still in use in San Francisco, Edmonton, Vancouver) but are heavily used in most European countries, China and especially in the countries of the former Sovietunion, totalling 350 large cities.

However, in the last decade they have become increasingly popular again, with existing systems expanded and 37 new systems have opened. How to explain this trend reversal?

Trolleybuses have all the advantages of an electric vehicle: being green due to zero emissions, noiseless and very energy efficient operation.

The only emissions come from rubber wear of the tires, noise output is less than the average street level and the electric engine enables the bus to climb hills more rapidly, recover brake energy (as in the new car hybrids) and accelerate and brake more quickly than combustion-based engines, therefore they are ideal for inner city stop-and-go traffic.

Disadvantages compared to diesel buses are a fixed route (required by the overhead wire), however the wire allows for a certain flexibility, ie. to change lane if blocked, and higher construction costs for the overhead system - but not necessarily when comparing the whole system, since electric vehicles have much lower maintenance costs.

Advantages to trains are obvious - no costly construction of dedicated tracks needed.

Drawing of a trolley bus showing its flexible attachment to power lines.

The motivation for the trolley bus revival comes from the desire to enhance public transport and at the same time looking at costs for the comparable systems (train, fossil fuel-based buses).
Oil price levels have been rising in leaps and bounds. The environmental impact of pollution from carbohydrate combustion in terms of health care costs is increasingly considered. Also countries which have ratified the Kyoto protocol and have to reduce greenhouse gases, are obliged (and indeed, under great pressure) to implement measures to reduce emissions, or offset them by payments to 'greener' countries. Of all developed countries, the United States is the only one not to ratify it and Canada, while having ratified, does not respect it under its current administration.

I looked at three different studies that compare trolley bus systems to diesel bus and trains:

A UK study found that trolley buses are cheaper to operate than any other forms of public transport - note that a litre of fuel there costs around CAN$2.50 (August 2008).

An report about the Edmonton system gives actual costs $0.60/km for diesel bus as compared to $0.90/km for trolley bus. It further adds that as its trolley buses operate in the city core and therefore have more stop & go traffic (which decreases combustion engine energy usage alot) and also travel less kilometres than the diesel buses, which makes cost/km go down, the trolley buses might actually be cheaper. When including health care costs of pollution they arrive at $2.46/km for diesel bus (not even counting negative effects on the quality of life: noise pollution, being sick and or economic effects following thereof) and conclude the trolley bus a clear winner.

This Vancouver study shows that their trolley bus system consumes only half the energy/km than their diesel buses fleet. They emphasize also that the comparison is unfair against the trolley bus, since they operate on inner city routes with frequent stops and should therefore be rated even better.

In Quebec there are no trolley buses at the moment, but the very cheap electricity of the province (and trolley buses are 80% energy-efficient, while conventional engines are only 25%) give ideal conditions for it.

The cost of construction is one disadvantage over existing diesel bus fleets, but when comparing to light rail train or metro lines it is extremely cheap:
A trolley bus overhead system costs $0.75-1M/km, while light rail train costs $17M/km (double that with building the train stations) as found in this study. The new Montreal metro extension to Laval cost $150M/km, CBC reported on its website. The tram system proposed in the 2008 Transportation Plan of Montreal will cost $260M for the 20km downtown loop, costing $13M/km. Another article from Radio-Canada quotes its cost at $50M/km.

To give an idea, the cost of this recent metro extension is probably in the same order of magnitude of converting the bus fleet of the whole Island of Montreal to trolley buses. It also would not be far from the cost of the total of three proposed tramways that would cover only a small downtown area and could be implemented far more quickly.

There are developments to overcome the disadvantage of being bound to wires. Several cities are experimenting with trolley buses, that can for a shorter or longer distance go off the wire, running battery-powered. Shanghai (China) is forefront by experimenting with supercapacitors that are quickly recharged in stations, so no more wires needed. The government of China is subsidizing petrol prices in addition to being heavily dependent on oil imports and they therefore has a strong incentive to rapidly deploy alternative technologies.

From polls and petitions (Vancouver, Edmonton, ...) it can be seen clearly that people living in these cities are opposed to plans of shutting down existing trolley bus systems and would like to see primarily expansions of those systems over any other form of public transport.

The individual electric car is still very much in the future and has unresolved problems such as: relatively short range, very expensive batteries (and where will all the materials for them come from, if everyone wants to buy one?), delays to unknown reasons, fake 'safety concerns' (the car industry lobbying? the cowardice of our politicians not to be able to take a responsible decision?) and not enough electricity being available to replace the fossil fuels used as of now.

Collective electric transport in the form of a trolley bus used in medium to large cities does not expose the above problems.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Cyclist killed by truck - no charges laid, as usual

Today reported that a 7-year-old girl was killed by a truck on St. Laurent near Cremazie Boulevard. She was cycling with her mother on the sidewalk, fell down and onto the street where she was run over by a truck and pronounced dead on the scene.

No charges will be laid against the truck driver because it was an accident. It is the 5th cyclist to be killed in traffic accidents in Montreal this year, among them other truck incidents.

This is a terrible thing to happen, and even more so as I feel it is preventable. Whenever I hear a truck coming behind me, I try to get out of the way as I know that those heavy vehicles can not stop fast. They pass by our apartment on Masson, which is a residential street, going 50km/h, sometimes up to 70km/h (my estimates). I have always been scared, because if something comes in their way, people, cyclists or cars, they will be crushed and have few chances of survival.

One bad experience I have is driving in a car on a countryside road, at the limit speed of 90km/h, slightly downhill. I heard a truck honking behind me and approaching at what seemed at least 30km/h faster. I had no choice than to hit the gas pedal to the bottom without considering anything else.

It seems that most drivers here do not care. Since they never had an accident, they believe that they are driving 'safely' and there is no motivation to change their habits. There is no enforcement by the police as far as I can see, or any sanctions if somebody gets killed. The driver was pronounced not guilty the same day.

When I was studying for my driving license in Austria, one very important thing I learned is that if you drive a vehicle you have always be able to stop, never to trust the other participants, especially children. I have never been scared of trucks there either. Apparently here in Montreal these rules do not apply - with deadly consequences.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

First ride in an electric car

Renault Scénic - unconverted vehicle but lookalike.

Today I enjoyed my first ride in an electric car. The word "enjoy" here is not meant as in the typical phrase, but as being intensely "enjoyable". Being in car and not hearing the usual loud noise of a gasoline engine is completely astonishing, wow! What comes in mind at once is that the engine has been killed and the vehicle is just rolling. It is a very calming experience. The sound that then becomes most apparent is the wind and the rolling of the tires but also the bumping on the road. There is also no pollution (except for tire abrasion).

A relative of mine (Francois Messier) who works for TM4 Inc. (a member of Hydro-Quebec group) as a mechanical engineer took us for a tour. The company is testing their electric motors in cars that have been converted for this purpose by SVE (a member of Groupe Dassault) - in this case a Renault Scénic, imported from France. More information about their conversion process is here.

Other than the ZENN cars that have a 50km/h maximum speed which are currently being tested as a pilot project on Quebec's roads and will be manufactured in Saint-Jerome, the car we were driving in, can go up to 130km/h and is fully authorized in Quebec and can go on the highway without problems. Actually the acceleration of an electric engine is much better than a combustion engine.

Alas, it is not possible to buy one yet in Quebec. I did not fully understand the reason behind it, but it seems that the company wants to enhance the engine/electric system and to do more testing. It can be driven for 150 kilometres before it has to be recharged at 220V for 6 hours. A full recharge costs about $1.68 (24kWh at 7 cent per kWh), costing 1c/km compared to 10c/km for gas. How long the batteries will last is not known yet.

In Europe many electric cars were produced in small series, from Peugeot, Renault, Smart, Fiat, VW and several small manufactorers, but no cars were successful in the consumer market. In Austria a car called "Hotzenblitz" (link is in german) has been developed since the nineties and is currently manufactured in its second generation, 120 cars have been produced so far. It is a small two-seater, but nevertheless fulfills the strict security requirements, can be driven between 70 and 200km before recharging 5 hours, and has 120km/h maximum speed.
It costs between $20,000 and $30,000 depending on the before-mentioned range and is currently back-ordered for 9 months.
Another car, the G-Wiz, which is made in India, is offered in London for approx. $20,000. With 80km/h and 80 kilometers range it is only suited for urban traffic. It seems to be a very attractive alternative there because Londoners don't have to pay for the congestion charge or parking with this car. It is also in the lowest insurance class and owners will receive tax benefits. With all these financial advantages the company boasts that the total cost of ownership can be recuperated after the first year(!).

I also heard from a friend that his brother-in-law converted his conventional car to run with electricity. There are also companies that offer a services for conversion to electricity.
Different kinds of custom-made electric cars can be spotted in several places, for example Zermatt is one of several villages in Switzerland, where cars with combustion engines are banned. Electricity in Switzerland is 80% hydro-generated, so it is quite a clean way of transport.

The city of Paris plans to offer a rental system for electric cars, modeled after its successful bicycle rental system Velib. It is called Autolib and will be available at the end of 2009 with 4,000 cars. Reactions to this plan are mixed however. Environmental groups and parties think that individual transport has to be reduced in favor of collective transport wherever possible, something with which I totally agree. It will not be possible to produce enough electricity to replace the energy from gas, just for use in cars, on the scale of the planet. Also I doubt that at the current state of battery technology, enough batteries can be produced for that, give supply of required metals (the batteries weigh several hundred kg).

Saturday, July 5, 2008

An outing in the quest of nature accessible without a car

This saturday my girl-friend and I intended to find a spot in the "nature", easily accessible without a car from the Plateau, being bored by the well-groomed parks of Montreal. Oka beach was out, since there are no buses running on weekends and while we once went together with a group, it's quite a journey to go to Canora train station (you can not bring bicycles in the downtown Bonaventure station) and go by bike 1 hour from Deux-Montagnes to the park.

So we chose to cross Pont Jacques-Cartier to Isle St. Helene and then Isle Notre-Dame, where after a lot of fences restricting access to the riverside I discovered some cozy places where nature has been permitted to run its course sufficiently long to appear more original on this artifically created island. The place I found was not too crowded, although it seems better to go early if you want a real private spot. Swimming is possible although I would not be surprised if it was forbidden there. Most of the people pass by only remotely, as it's off the main cycle road but a initiated photographer passed shortly with the to-be-married couple from a nearby wedding in front of a large weeping willow.

There were also a number of fruit trees (apples, pears, mulberry and elder) which were not ripe yet, although I'm looking forward to pick some there later in the season. Right now I had to satisfy myself with some raspberries.

Going back, there was an unpleasant experience, considering our bicycles. I had already been asked when entering the Festival Les Weekends du monde area earlier on to remove myself from the bike seat, and was not given a conclusive answer (other than: 'c'est le reglement') why it was not possible to ride around when there were almost no people in the place.

At the Pont Jacques Cartier, police told us that the pedestrian/cycling path was blocked from 8:00-11:30pm (for the fireworks, starting at around 10pm), for security reasons. An officer agreed with us that it was unreasonable but it was her job etc. and told us we could either go into the metro or on Pont de la Concorde. So we went to the metro station and (different) police told us that we were not allowed to enter the metro with our bikes. After some discussion they acknowledged that they were not in contact with the other group, and the whole thing was not well organised, but were not cooperative. We concluded that the other bridge would probably also be closed and anyway it would be a long detour, so we had to leave our bicycles on the island and to come back by metro (in which finally would have been plenty of space for our bicycles).

The feeling I get from this and past experiences is that the responsibles for these events and places make it easy for themselves and don't do any effort to accommodate people, like us cyclists, outside the car-driver (and sometimes pedestrian) metaphor. Lots of security persons are employed to block anybody violating the 'rules' (without questioning their sense) and block any constructive discussion about the validity or cooperation with the argument of 'security'. If people here let themselves be herded like sheep by the authorities, they don't deserve anything else.
On the contrary, the picknickers that arrived by car to the earlier mentioned spot (passing through a bicycle road explicitly restricting car access) surely had no problem getting their vehicle out of the island.

So, while it is laudable that people who are living in the densest areas in Montreal can enjoy some very natural areas not too far away, the city should give more incentive for people to abandon their cars, instead making it such a pain to choose an ecological, healthy and sustainable way of transportation as the bicycle.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Winter Night on the Mont-Royal

Last sunday I went again the the Beaver Lake on the Mont-Royal to attempt the construction of a new igloo. The old ones have melted away without any traces left. The snow was a bit disappointing - since the temperature went several times above zero, its structure was not homogeneous and the blocks tended to break at first. What I finally did, was to cut the blocks larger along the surface, since I would only get 10cm in depth, that worked better.

I was getting quite hot when I started out in the afternoon but when I finished the sun was already setting and it got much colder. I tried to make photos in the extraordinarily beautiful sunset, but unfortunately after this first one, where the igloo is a mere shadow in the background, the battery went dead (it seems not to work well in sub-zero temperature). If you happen to pass the igloo, please send me a photo if you can :-)

So when it got dark, I got some hot wine and take-out from the chalet, went back inside the igloo, lit the candles and called my girl-friend to come for dinner. It was incredibly romantic and cozy with the storm coming up outside and after an hour it was getting relatively warm, the snow walls were already getting soft and transforming into ice.

I noticed that it's good to bring something to isolate the floor properly though (sleeping mats, although fur would be ideal and more appropriate) and wet clothes (from the construction) are not the best thing to wear when it's warming up due to the cooling effect from evaporation

Since this time nobody was able to join me, I'd like to go back another time to build a bigger one together with other people (this one has 1.5m diameter and height, and is very comfortable for two people).

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Igloos in Austria

It looks like the recent snow storm dumped enough on Montréal to make it possible to try building a new igloo, once the snow has settled down, probably next week-end?

In the meantime I found some links to sort-of-igloos in Austria:

There is an Ice Camp in Tyrol, at 2500m above sea-level on a glacier. You can stay over night in the pre-erected buildings with a shape similar to igloos, but constructed in a different way. The construction and maintenance crew publish their own blog from up there (it is quite heavily corporate sponsored).

A secondary school in Mauthausen, Upper Austria decided to let students choose if they go to the usual ski sports week or do alternative activities like igloo constructing instead. The rising costs of skiing (rental or purchase of gear, chairlift passes) apparently forces parents to consider letting their kids go skiing, even if there are some subventions from the government. I remember learning downhill skiing off a little hill in the neighborhood and then had a proper class when I was six years old. I then went for ski sports week three times, from age 12. Two or three people from our class had to take classes but the rest already knew how to ski.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

My igloo makes the headline!

During my winter vacation I had some fun messing around in the snow, near Beaver Lake on the Mount-Royal: people asked me what I was building, some knew already, made funny and encouraging comments, but I was unaware of the consequences it would have ...

The Journal de Montréal, Quebec's biggest tabloid, published a full-page story on igloos they 'discovered' on the Mont-Royal mountain. I came across the story on the Spacing Montreal blog that I check occasionally. Here's the blog article with some comments from Inuit people making fun of Southerners' construction techniques :-).

Here's a scan of the article (in French) that I re-recycled from a Green Bin (not being a regular reader). They asked to be contacted about this matter, so I sent them a little note, being interested what would happen. They tried to reach me immediately and wanted to do an interview and send their photographer over. So here's the resulting interview (I should not have agreed to do this ridiculous pose though!). The photographer told me that they have even been watching out at night for the mysterious creator of the igloo, ahahaha!

The inspiration mentioned in the newspaper is actually not from the TV (which I don't watch), but from the excellent archives of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB): Video of Inuit constructing an igloo (10 min., 1949). The perfection with which they are sculpting the snow blocks is something to see. I used a saw instead of a bone knife, and glued the blocks with wet snow when the weather permitted. As soon as the temperature drops below zero again and there is enough snow, I want to try again (it's been very fun!).

I have been wondering if the homeless Inuit in Montréal are building igloos during the winter? Many people in this city do not seem to know that there are several hundred Inuit living here and that their situation is often very precarious. The Native Friendship Centre Montreal has some documentation about it. In 2007 Concordia's Cinema Politica screened a controversial documentary about two homeless Inuit, Be Smile. In the newspaper article the amis de la montagne (who are in charge of activities on the mountain park) were quoted with saying that building an igloo on the mountain is illegal - how aware are they of the history of their country?

Here is a paper I found demonstrating the heat distribution in an igloo. It seems that one can stay inside comfortably, even naked, if the floor is properly insulated (skin, fur).

Another reason for constructing an igloo it is fun for children to play! Passing children who perceived the igloo immediately tugged on their parents to let them go inside and play. I saw later that somebody had even made some window holes in one of the igloos. I think that children want and need to play to encounter different materials, explore what they can construct with their hands (and also destruction is an important part of this learning), they should not be forced into doing only activities with limited potential to explore, such as the ones advertised in the park. I remember that when I was maybe 6 or 8 years old I went skiing with my family in the mountains in Austria and I had the most fun when I discovered the backyard snow cave system with many interloping tunnels that our host family's children had built in the 2 metres deep packed snow.

So I'm looking forward to colder weather and more snow to make further attempts to improve my igloo building skills. Maybe there are other people out there interested in that? Even if many young Inuit don't seem to have those skill anymore I would really like to learn from someone who still does ...