Why We Can’t Have Nice Things


Private companies have been making their electric scooters available for riders to share in cities around the United States and in Europe over the past two years, and the results are a mixed bag. Riders appear to appreciate the service, even if some of them don’t show that appreciation in how they ride or park the e-scooters. City governments appear to like that the service fills gaps in their often inadequate public mass transit services, even though they are learning that more regulation is required of e-scooter companies to rein in their sometimes arrogant disregard for city ordinances and of inconsiderate riders whose behavior can be a public nuisance. Members of the public who have no personal need for the e-scooters are largely tolerant of their presence in their cities, but in many places they are finding their patience tested by the problems mentioned above.


The technology behind e-scooters and smartphones or, in some places, simple cellular phones, makes the business model of sharing e-scooters in a city possible. An e-scooter rigged for sharing has a Global Positioning System (GPS) module and an inexpensive, basic cellular connection for small amounts of data transfer to communicate its exact position and condition. A lithium ion battery provides power. A rider needs to use the internet application provided by the company for use on a smartphone to unlock the e-scooter and provide for payment for the service. Some localities insist as a condition for operating in their city that e-scooter companies make the service available to people without a data connection on a simple cellular phone. One of the ideas behind the service, after all, is to provide a low cost transportation option for poor people.

Lime e-scooters, Masarykovo nádraží
Lime e-scooters parked next to a subway entrance at Masaryk train station in Prague, Czech Republic. Photo by Martin2035.

The problems arise because, like all private services which take advantage of the public commons, there are abuses. The private companies either do not seek out and pay for permission to park their e-scooters on public property or they may not hold up their end of agreements they have with cities that allow their operations. Since the e-scooters do not belong to them, some riders are unconcerned about how they use them or park them. Equipment abuse is the lookout of the company operating the service, but the abuse of the commons caused by careless parking is a public nuisance at best, a menace at worst. Crime problems have arisen mostly from overnight vandalism of the equipment and from the dangers to workers who must go out at night to find and maintain the equipment.

Bringing e-scooters into cities is a good idea on its surface, and they solve a mobility problem for some poor people or for commuters without cars who find using them more appealing than walking or biking. But with the problems their presence and use are causing by abuse of the commons, it would be better if cities improved their mass transit systems instead. For one thing, e-scooters are not as ecologically benign overall as people may assume, and certainly not in comparison to mass transit options. For another, solving the problems encountered during the initial rollout of e-scooter sharing programs would appear to take up public resources in the form of tighter regulation and consequent enforcement. Wouldn’t it be easier in that case to regulate a comparatively smaller number of mass transit units and operators rather than thousands or tens of thousands of e-scooter units and operators strewn all over a city?

E-scooter sharing programs may last only a year or two more if the current abuses continue, and that’s a shame because many decent people who appreciate the services and have a dearth of other options would probably like to see them continue. Unfortunately this business model appears to go against human nature in that where the commons are concerned, there are always enough bad faith users around to take unfair or inconsiderate advantage of the situation and eventually push the public at large to demand an end to it for everyone. In the words of James Madison, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
— Techly


The Conspiracy Line


By the 1960s, of the hundreds of streetcar lines that had once been a primary mode of transportation in cities and suburbs across the United States in the first half of the 20th century, only a small fraction still operated, and usually only in city centers. Competition from automobiles and buses was one cause for declining ridership of streetcars, and supposedly the costs of installing and maintaining lines was higher than costs associated with infrastructure for cars and buses. The history of what happened in the major mid-century makeover of American urban mass transit is muddled, and one explanation for it that keeps popping up has to do with the machinations of the automobile manufacturers, chiefly General Motors (GM).


The idea springs from how GM bought out streetcar lines around the country, and then dismantled the lines, junked the streetcars, and signed city governments to contracts for purchase and ongoing use of the buses GM manufactured. GM also sold cars to urban and suburban commuters who found themselves with fewer alternatives than they had before the 1920s, when the streetcar lines were still thriving. That’s a neat story, and it certainly fits in with the behavior we have come to expect of large corporations and the executives who run them, but in this case it turns out to be a little too neat and only partially true.

Purchase Street, New Bedford, Mass (68412)
A postcard circa 1930-1945 depicts Purchase Street in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Photo from the Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection.

Market forces generated by consumer preferences played the greatest part in the decline of ridership on streetcar lines starting in the 1920s and accelerating through the next quarter century. The streetcar lines were privately owned and the companies bore the costs of maintaining the tracks they operated on and other infrastructure costs, even though they used the same publicly maintained roads as buses and cars. The streetcar lines were more and more at a competitive disadvantage as public money benefited those other modes of transportation and as consumers came to prefer the relative freedom of driving their own cars or taking buses that weren’t restricted to tracks.

Comforting as it might be to blame the automobile and gasoline industries for ripping up streetcar tracks around the nation, depriving commuters of a useful commuting option, the truth in this case is that the public shoulders the greater responsibility. Individual consumers operating in their own self-interest took advantage of cheap gasoline and publicly financed road building, such as the interstate highway system started in the 1950s, to buy at least one car for every household. In most cities, taxpayers balked at public ownership of the streetcar lines, a move which would have saved many of the lines from the corporate scavenging that ultimately killed them off. In other words, GM and other auto and gas corporate interests didn’t precipitate the demise of the streetcar lines, but neither did they mourn their loss, and ultimately, of course, GM and the others profited greatly from the makeover of the American transportation system.

By the time of the 1959 release of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, the streets of Manhattan were dominated by vehicular traffic, and mass transit options for New Yorkers were limited to subways and buses. Bernard Herrmann composed the music for the film, and Saul Bass designed the titles. The director makes his cameo appearance at the end of the title sequence.

More than a half century after streetcars were all but wiped off the map in America, they are coming back in spots like Brooklyn, driven by the desire of some people to get around town without the hassles of car ownership, the pollution of cars and buses, the blight of enormous parking lots, and the swallowing up of green spaces for more roads to alleviate the congestion on existing roads, only to have the new roads fill up as well. Streetcars powered by electricity generate pollution at a remove, to be sure, but as more power plants use renewable energy sources, that problem should lessen. Meanwhile, building out more mass transit infrastructure should take off the road some of the oversized vehicles too many Americans appear to love, and which the automobile makers and the fossil fuel industry love turning out for them since they are highly profitable. It has taken a century for Americans to learn anew the value of mass transit options like streetcars, and perhaps soon, before we reach the end of the line, gridlock on the roads will clear, and so will the air everywhere.
— Vita


10 Questions for Today’s Driver


Driverless cars will be ready for the mass market within a few years, though the question remains whether the mass market will be ready for driverless cars. There’s an incredible amount for the Artificial Intelligence (AI) behind driverless cars to learn, and for years Google has enlisted the help of internet users who train Google’s (now Waymo’s) driverless car AI whenever they tick the boxes on a reCAPTCHA relating to things seen on or around roads. Google owns reCAPTCHA, and for years has been using it for double duty as a security measure and as an AI trainer for its various projects.

Students at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, take final exams in the 1930s. Photo from the archives of Hamline University. Surely this driving test, which calls on knowledge affecting the safe passage of millions of people on the nations’ roads every day, can be taken as seriously.


What follows is a test to help you determine if you’re ready for a driverless car.

1. The rules of the road are for –
A) Lesser mortals
B) Drivers paying attention to such things
C) Sticklers and fussbudgets
D) All of the above

2. Using your turn signal is –
A) An inconvenience because your hands are otherwise occupied
B) Unnecessary because other drivers can divine your intentions
C) For losers, not an important person like you
D) All of the above

3. Using a phone while driving is –
A) Compulsory
B) The best way to update friends and family on every detail of your life
C) A good way to multitask for a superior driver like you
D) All of the above

4. Proper procedure when merging is to –
A) Come to a complete stop and wait for clear sailing on the main thoroughfare
B) Tootle along at your own speed and trust other drivers will make way for you
C) Use the opportunity to demonstrate your aggressive driving skills
D) All of the above

5. Waiting at a red light is a good time to –
A) Become engrossed in your phone and oblivious to the light turning green
B) Fiddle with your belongings and not notice when the light turns green
C) Creep forward every few seconds because you can’t wait for the green light
D) All of the above

6. When following another vehicle, be sure to –
A) Get as close as possible no matter how fast the other vehicle is traveling
B) Tap your brakes often because you’re following too closely to slow down using the gas pedal
C) Make impatient gestures to inform the driver in front of you of your displeasure
D) All of the above

7. Staying within your lane is –
A) Not interesting because there is no element of danger
B) Hard to do when you’re texting
C) A boring way to go around blind curves
D) All of the above

8. The speed limit is a –
A) Suggestion
B) Lower limit to speed
C) Thing only for old fogies
D) All of the above

9. Continuing to drive when very old –
A) Tests your deteriorating reflexes
B) Gives your clouded judgment a workout
C) Maintains your independence at the cost of everyone’s safety
D) All of the above

10. Driving defensively is –
A) A sign of weakness
B) Something requiring more attention than you have time for
C) Hitting the brakes frequently rather than modulating speed using the gas pedal
D) All of the above

English comic actor Rowan Atkinson as the selfish Mr. Bean.

There is only one right answer to all of the above, and if you checked it off for every question then you are ready for a driverless car, and everyone else on the road is ready for you to have one, too. Congratulations! At least our good friend AI doesn’t feel it necessary to eat a burrito and text a friend about it, all while piloting one or more tons of metal hurtling down the road.
— Techly


Crossing the Threshold


The latest United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report lays out a stark timeline for how long we have to reduce our carbon emissions to avoid crossing the threshold of a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in global temperature leading to catastrophic effects for life on Earth. Paraphrasing the report, at present levels of emissions we have until 2030, or 2050 at the very latest. To avoid the worst case scenario, we will need to cut emissions in half by 2030, and cut them entirely by 2050. Given the conservative political and capitalist landscape prevalent today, meeting those targets does not seem likely.

Siberian wedding
A wedding party crosses a street in 2006 in Oulan-Oudé, Republic of Bouriatia, Siberia, Russia. Photo by Cyrille (Suleiman) Romier.

Since national governmental and business leaders will not take the initiative on this issue because it conflicts with the greed of the status quo, it will be up to local leaders and citizens to address the problem. There will be calls to use technology, such as geoengineering, and wholesale adoption of driverless cars and electric vehicles. Those are attempts at a fix that are best implemented by national organizations on a large scale, and cannot be relied on considering the need for national consensus and funding. Geoengineering may work to a limited degree, though it would certainly be subject to the law of unintended consequences. Tweaking the worldwide car culture would have more limited effects since improving the efficiency of how cars are driven and shifting their emissions from the tailpipe to the smokestack would ultimately amount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

A scene in the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy, directed by John Schlesinger and starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, depicts New York City’s thriving pedestrian culture. Warning: foul language.

What’s needed is a wholesale change in the approach to daily living, particularly among the citizens of the world’s wealthier countries. Start with walking. Every day, everywhere. Build sidewalks. Get cars, driverless, electric, or otherwise, off the roads entirely. Bring back public transportation for trips that are impractical for walking. People will have to demand improvements in public transportation and pedestrian infrastructure through their votes and their dollars, rather than waiting on public officials and corporate executives to make the necessary changes. As a quote popularly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi has it, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” And as he did, walk if you can, for yourself and for change in the world.
— Techly


Breezin’ Along


Editor’s note: This post was scheduled to appear yesterday, April 15, but a severe weather outbreak in the eastern part of the country knocked out internet service in our vicinity, delaying it’s appearance until today.


Sales of recreational vehicles have been setting records in the past several years as the economy continues to rebound from the Great Recession of 2008, and as Baby Boomers retire and adopt the RV lifestyle either full or part time. It is considered a lifestyle by the people who live it, people who read magazines and websites devoted to their concerns, and who share information with each other concerning their rigs and travels, both in person when they meet at campsites and on internet forums. Really it has developed beyond a lifestyle to a subculture, ever since Wally Byam introduced the Airstream trailer in the 1930s, and especially so since after World War II.

The subculture of RVers should not be confused with people who dwell in mobile homes, the majority of which are mobile in name only. Recreational vehicles as a category include teardrop trailers, pop-up campers, and self-contained vehicles with all the amenities of a complete home except a permanent yard. They range in price from $10,000 to $1 million. Most of all, unlike their cousins the mobile homes, recreational vehicles stay on the move. RVers tour the country and stop for visits that are only temporary, even if they may stretch to months.

DROPLET - beautiful
A modern teardrop camper trailer. Photo by PPILLON.

One rather surprising statistic about the recent boom in RV sales is how many of the vehicles are being bought by Millennials, the generation now in its teens, twenties, and thirties. RV ownership has typically been associated with retirees with a desire to travel, and it’s therefore not surprising that RV sales have increased as Baby Boomers, the largest generational share of the population, have reached retirement age since about 2010. There appears to be a different dynamic driving RV sales among Millennials, perhaps relating to the new fluidity in the service and internet economy, where jobs either are low paying and do not generate loyalty one way or the other, or the jobs are better paying in the technology sector and the workers can work from home, wherever that may be, whether near or far from corporate offices. In either case, for young people starting out and without a lot of funds, an inexpensive RV is adaptive to the modern economy while allowing them to travel and explore before settling down, if indeed they ever find the need to do so in the traditional sense of a house with a mortgage.

A montage of highlights from the 1953 film The Long, Long Trailer, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, with music for the montage provided by Perry Como singing “Breezin’ Along with the Breeze”.

There are RVers, young and old, who pick up extra income by traveling to seasonal work such as at Amazon.com warehouses, and that kind of thing will probably increase as more people take to the lifestyle and require some funds beyond Social Security, pensions, or other temporary service sector work. The employers like the arrangement, particularly as applications outnumber positions, allowing them to keep wages low, and because they are typically hiring responsible individuals with a good work ethic, even if they are in many cases unprepared for extended physical labor. Once the work is ended, both parties cut loose from each other without any further commitments, and in this case that is probably salutary for all concerned. One last thing the curious may wonder about the RV lifestyle, and that is about the relative safety of being in a RV during a lightning storm, and the answer is that a recreational vehicle constructed largely of metal top to bottom will most likely conduct a lightning strike safely to ground, though it is perhaps not wise to invite disaster by parking on the highest, loneliest spot in the countryside, or near a tree that qualifies.
— Ed.

“Gypsy”, a 1982 song by Fleetwood Mac, written and sung by Stevie Nicks, may represent different things to Baby Boomers as they age. It certainly represented several things to Ms. Nicks over the years as she progressed from initial idea to performance.


Racing Ahead


In the 1965 comedy film The Great Race, loosely based on a 1908 race around the world, the lead characters drive racing versions of gasoline powered internal combustion engines. That the earliest cars used gasoline would seem to be without question considering how things developed through the rest of the twentieth century. It comes as something of a surprise then to learn that electric cars were quite popular in the early years of motor vehicle development, and it was an electric car that won the first closed circuit automobile race in the United States, in 1896.

Halfway in their race around the world, the characters portrayed by Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk, Tony Curtis, and Natalie Wood are marooned on a melting ice floe in the Bering Strait. Though certainly unintentional in 1965 when the film was made, there is some irony to their situation given the perspective of today’s warming climate.

As anyone can tell, electric cars all but disappeared until recently, as infrastructure and cost improved for gasoline engines in the early twentieth century, overtaking the electric option by 1920. The price of oil went down, giving a boost to the market for gasoline engines, while the crude state of battery technology limited the appeal of electric cars. Environmental impacts were not even a factor in the equation for most consumers or manufacturers until late in the twentieth century. Even then, the initial assessments of the impact of vehicular pollution was limited to local problems such as smog. It wasn’t until the last decades of the twentieth century that at first scientists, and then the public, looked at the larger impact of tailpipe emissions on the global climate.

Now, in the early twenty-first century, after some halting steps by manufacturers to reintroduce electric cars, it appears they are gaining in popularity, particularly in places like China which face deadly levels of air pollution. Battery technology, the Achilles heel of electric cars, has made great strides lately. A question that doesn’t crop up often enough, however, is whether electric cars are as environmentally friendly as the manufacturers would have the public believe they are. In many cases, electric cars still run on power generated by burning fossil fuels, it’s just that they give an illusion of green running because they’re not emitting noxious fumes. The noxious fumes are instead displaced to a coal or natural gas fired power plant more or less many miles away. Out of sight, out of mind.

Kintigh Generating Station - Somerset, New York
The coal fired Kintigh Generating Station in Somerset, New York, in 2007; photo by Matthew D. Wilson.

The batteries in electric cars don’t present as big a problem from an environmental standpoint as they used to, now that up to 98 percent of the materials are recycled. To make an electric car run truly green, the power source used to charge its batteries needs to come from renewable generators like wind and solar. Since most air pollution comes from gasoline internal combustion engine exhausts, it stands to reason that a major switch over to electrically powered vehicles running on renewable energy will make the single greatest impact on reducing air pollution, and with it the particulates and gases that are contributing to global warming.

Organizations like NASCAR and Formula One racing could do their part in flipping the switch by turning all or part of their circuits over to electric cars. Besides being a spectator sport, car racing has always served as a proving ground for manufacturers. The big racing organizations are still clinging to the old technology, which may be popular with fans who enjoy the noise and familiar smells produced by internal combustion engines, characteristics evocative by long association with high horsepower. To continue glorifying this outmoded technology means that well-known racing organizations have abandoned any meaningful proving ground aspect of their sport for the sake of pleasing the crowd with loud noise, fumes, and ludicrously low miles per gallon of fuel efficiency. Never mind tomorrow, they’re living for today, come what may.

Younicos Solar Filling Station at Solon SE Headquarters in Berlin, Germany in 2009; photo by Busso V. Bismarck.

Newer racing organizations are stepping forward with their own electric car circuits. As drivers test and prove the newer technology on the race track, manufacturers should be able to improve efficiency of the batteries and perhaps drop the price of consumer models to be on a par with, or even cheaper than, comparably equipped gasoline powered cars. When that happens, electric cars will start to overtake the old technology, the same way they were overtaken in their earliest form by the internal combustion engine in the early twentieth century.

The crucial piece of the puzzle needed to solve pollution problems comes from the power generating source, not the cars. That may happen on a more individual level than on a corporate or government level, as people will find it convenient to do most of their car charging at home, where they can be assured of a cleaner source by installing their own solar panels or wind turbines. Waiting for government to promote the necessary infrastructure changes to ensure cleaner power generation will not push improvements in transportation, decrease pollution, and ultimately limit the effects of global warming, not with the government currently in power.
― Techly