Greater Greater Washington

Silly car company antics of the day

Prince of Petworth noticed this "green" truck:

Using ethanol to power a big Chevy pickup is far from green in many ways: a big car uses a lot of energy, and ethanol isn't any better for the environment anyway.

Meanwhile, Streetsblog discoverd a "Bizarre News" article on a Flint, Michigan news station's Web site. What's bizarre? Bike sharing in DC. In Michigan, that really is bizarre. The more ironic part? The story carries a Chrysler ad.

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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While the idea of having bikes available to share sounds like a good one on the surface, the more you think about it ... it really is bizarre. Why would people want to share bikes for a fee that over a short time amounts to what they would spend to buy a bike outright? Why would you want to put a tempting target out there for thieves to steal? Why do you need a corporate sponsor to kick it off with a "donation" if it's an economically feasible idea to begin with? Why do you want to flood the roads with more bikes when we haven't yet figured out a way for bikes to circulate in harmony with vehicular traffic and pedestrians. I guess the test will be will this operation survive the test of time. My bet is that it once the bikes start getting stolen and breaking down, and the fees for their use start to rise, people who really want a bike will just buy their own and not depend on a bureaucracy to organize a sharing program.

by Lance on Aug 27, 2008 6:44 pm • linkreport

The kickass part about the massive ethanol truck is that up until recently, when calculating efficiency for CAFE standards, the car company got to treat the truck as if it burned half gasoline, half E85, and then ignore the ethanol part of the E85 (i.e., multiply the MPG by about 7).

But in any case it didn't apply to that truck since it's over 6000 lbs GVWR, and we all know that anything that big has to be a "Farm Vehicle" and thus is exempt from any fuel efficiency standard.

by Michael on Aug 27, 2008 6:50 pm • linkreport

Michiganders aren't the only ones who think that not using cars is bizarre. Angelenos are similar. I went to Caltech in Pasadena, CA before Metrorail. I took a bus to return to my place after a 3 mile walking excursion (I know, very bizarre, but I did want to see what Pasadena looked like.) The bus back was diverted a few blocks from its usual route. People thought I was crazy for not minding the extra walk. I received advice to transfer buses at a stop 2 blocks beyond where I got off. The irony of this is that if I had done that, I probably would have gotten home later. In any case, the extra walk from the diversion gave the opportunity to see more of Pasadena.

A few years ago, I had a conference in LA. I took the Metrorail to Pasadena and found the view to be far more scenic than from the freeway. The freeway really made me miss out on a lot. (I also enjoyed going faster than the early afternoon traffic on the Foothill Freeway.) Moreover, I didn't have to fight traffic. One of my friends was 2 hours late when he came to see me in Pasadena because of the traffic. He quit coming, instead we arranged to meet in downtown LA. He drove, while I took a bus.

by Chuck Coleman on Aug 27, 2008 7:26 pm • linkreport

Lance,

Get yourself a plane ticket when you have the chance and try out Germany's Call-a-Bike system and Paris's Velib. That'll answer all your questions about why people would want to integrate bicycles as part of a city's public transportation system. It's often just an incredibly convenient way to get from point to point in a city during the busy part of the day.

by A on Aug 27, 2008 8:34 pm • linkreport

Greenwashing from the worst of GM's ad agencies.

No surprise Flint (yuck) is shocked by sharing bikes. If you don't have a big pickup or SUV, you just don't go out on the roads (which are all big, flat, and in a grid).

by pworules on Aug 27, 2008 9:00 pm • linkreport

Lance:

I think you misunderstand/underestimate SmartBike.

1:

$40/year is a very small price compared to owning a bike. You could buy a used one, but a good quality new bike starts at about $300-400. Then you have repairs/ tune-ups. And then if your front tire gets stolen you need to buy a new one. And then if you need a serious repair you're out of a bike for 1-5 days. By the time fees in annual membership equal that of ownership, it would be time to get a new bike anyway. And you don't have to deal with the stress/loss of time of repairs, etc.

2:

Smartbikes are incredibly hard to steal. Check out this post on WTOP via WeLoveDC. Two words: Epic Fail.

3.

Who cares if it's "economically feasible" if it works and is useful. There are many things that aren't "economically feasible" like Metro, which is mostly paid for by taxes (A better example might be something like the ICC... which is another discussion).

4.

We want to "flood" the streets with bikes because its better for the global environment, better for the city's air quality, and slows down speeding cars. There's a great way to deal with it: bike lanes and cycle tracks (and better educated drivers that don't park in bike lanes).

In addition to all of this, it provides something amazing in addition to access to bikes, virtualization of transport.

An example: You can grab a smartbike, and ride from point A to point B. If you decide to meet up with friends that aren't cycling, you can walk/metro with them without having to lug around a bike or having to return later to pick up your bike.

Or if you ride somewhere and then it rains, you can easily choose another mode of transport without having to haul your bike.

I own a bike and I still purchased a subcription. If I ever have to put my bike in the shop, I'll still have a bike. Or if I'm somewhere without my bike and biking is the quickest way to my next destination, I can grab a SmartBike and go.

The only shortfall currently is the number of locations, but the program is already set to expand soon since so many have already subscribed. The plan is to have stations at most 5-8 blocks apart, so that you are easily always a 2.5-4 block walk or less from a kiosk.

Like A commented, go to Paris and answer your own question.

by Justin on Aug 27, 2008 9:20 pm • linkreport

Ok, easy on the Michigan rust-belt denigration please. Some of us are from there and still have friends and family there.

Michigan has a long history of bike sharing of its own - on Mackinac Island (pronounced "mack-i-naw"). The only motor vehicles on the island are an ambulance and fire truck (snowmobiles in winter). Visitors, including myself on many occassions, either bring their own or rent a bike. But one summer in H.S. I visited a friend who was working there and she introduced me to the "bike-share" program on Mackinac Island. It was time for her to leave for work and she couldn't find her bike on a crowded bike rack. So she just took another one - none were locked - and suggested I do the same. She assured me it wasn't stealing. At the end of the night we went to where we'd left our bikes (unlocked). Hers was there! So she took it. I took yet another one becaue the first bike I'd borrowed wasn't there. And that's how we got around the island for the entire visit. Everyone in MI knows about Mackinac Island so the idea (of biking) is not really new. Plus, you know, Flint is peopled by a bunch of people who do regular things like many other people including learning how to ride bikes as kids and using that transportation "alternative" for much of childhood. Some even do it as adults! I know, Bizarre!

The other thing the DC bike share is good for is when you have out of town guests and want to ride somewhere, you can get an extra bike easily.

by Bianchi on Aug 27, 2008 10:56 pm • linkreport

The whole bike sharing scheme is bizarre, & will never work in DC. Any problem that arises with a bike you own is doubly worse with a rented bike - you don't fix it, the company does, & charges you [double or triple] for it. Anyone who wants to ride a bike buys one - or steals one. The rental bikes are only going to get stolen, broken, or not used.

In my travels in Europe, only tourists use the rental bikes. Just like here, anyone who want to ride a bike buys a bike. The only people riding the bikes with ads are tourists, & the locals make fun of them.

Maybe bike renting would work in a poor part of the world, but in the USA or Western Europe, no way. We'll be lucky if we can persuade some people to use car rentals instead of owning a car - but even there, so far no company has made a profit with short / hourly rentals - not Zipcar, not Flexcar.

by freddie mick on Aug 27, 2008 10:57 pm • linkreport

Even if the bike-share were only used by tourists (and it is absolutely incorrect that "only tourists use the rental bikes" in European bike-shares) D.C. certainly has plenty of tourists, doesn't it?

Every time I've visited the National Mall I've wished that I had a bicycle. The area bounded by the Capitol, the Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial and White House always feels a bit too big to walk the whole thing. It is, however, just the right size, scale and grade for a very nice bike ride, even for a novice rider.

The first time I saw and used the bike-share system in Berlin my immediate thought was, "Wow, this would be great for the touristy part of D.C.

by Aaron on Aug 27, 2008 11:50 pm • linkreport

Could someone educate me into why ethanol isn't any better for the environment? I'm a greenhorn in that area. Thanks.

by Zac on Aug 28, 2008 3:46 am • linkreport

Ethanol from corn (the most economical way of making it in the US) requires corn, fresh water and energy. Since growing corn in the US usually requires a large amount of irrigation, fertilizer input, pesticide input, etc., It's generally thought of as not particularly great for the environment.

From the energy side, the corn needs to be transported, turned into ethanol (requires heating for distillation), and then further transportation to the refinery for blending. I've seen calculations that range from about 1.33 to 0.8 in terms of how much energy you have to put in compared to how much energy you end up with in the ethanol. The calculation assumptions vary a little based on how you treat the byproduct, which in limited quantities can be used as animal feed. Note that in some calculations you end up with less energy in the ethanol than it took to make the ethanol.

The energy used to produce ethanol is usually coal or natural gas, and the energy needed to produce the fertilizers and pesticides is natural gas or petroleum.

Basically the way I look at ethanol is as a way to launder US fossil fuel energy and farm inputs into a liquid fuel form.

by Michael P on Aug 28, 2008 6:21 am • linkreport

Another part of the reason that corn ethanol is such a bad idea is the fact that so much of the world depends on corn for food. What's been happening lately is that along with the price of oil spiking, some countries are trying to replace oil with corn ethanol, which significantly increases the demand for corn, causing producers to raise their prices. The result? Food riots in nations such as Egypt because people can no longer afford a basic staple.

by Adam on Aug 28, 2008 8:10 am • linkreport

There are many sources of ethanol besides corn. Brazil does great with ethanol from sugar cane. Ethanol potential lies in grass clippings, sawdust, other botanical-byproducts as well. Again it's only fuel saving if the process to make in into fuel does not end up using more energy then is in the end-product. The Brazillians seem to have figured it out.

by Bianchi on Aug 28, 2008 8:24 am • linkreport

Bianchi: Agreed, but in the US we make ethanol from corn, there is an import tariff on ethanol to prevent Brazilian ethanol from competing.

Cellulosic ethanol (as you mentioned from grass, wood chips, etc.) is not commercially viable, though there is a lot of money working in research right now. Even if cellulosic ethanol takes off, there will still be some issues because you will have to collect and transport low-energy cellulose, and ethanol cannot be transported cheaply by pipeline because of its chemical properties (I believe the most important is that it absorbs water readily).

The other important aspect is that there isn't enough farmland to grow enough ethanol for current US consumption patterns.

by Michael on Aug 28, 2008 9:17 am • linkreport

I think ethanol gets a bad rap.

First, people have a hard time distinguishing the product (ethanol) with the source (which can be corn, sugarcane, and with the development of cellulosic ethanol, just about any sort of biomass). That's an important distinction.

For corn-based ethanol in the US, it's certainly no silver bullet, but it is a step in the right direction (along with other agricultural reforms). The food argument is overblown - the US had a bumper crop last year, and most of the feed corn grown in the US is not the same as the white corn grown elsewhere for tortillas and the like. The issues are not nearly as simply linked as many would like to believe.

Ethanol and other biofuels will play a key role in our energy future. No matter what, we're going to need some liquid fuel, and these offer domestic alternatives.

by Alex B. on Aug 28, 2008 9:59 am • linkreport

Bianchi's excellent point about different types of ethanol does not change the fact that Happy Motoring (borrowing a term from Kunstler) will be over. Sugar cane ethanol can work in Brazil because they have a much lower demand for car fuels. We will still need to promote urbanism and create rules and infrastructure so that a car is a luxury, not a necessity.

Just like with petroleum, there are limits to how much of any kind of fuel can be produced/extracted in a give time frame.

by Cavan on Aug 28, 2008 10:14 am • linkreport

The reasons tourists won't rent the bikes:

1. The $40 registration fee - you can rent a bike for the day for less money.

2. No locks - so the bikes will get stolen if they are left anywhere.

3. No helmets - & in modern America, almost everyone wears a helmet while biking, which is funny, because other than the bike teams riding on the weekend, hardly anyone in Europe wears a helmet.

Biking on the mall is wonderful. Maybe if there were bike racks for these bikes in front of all of the museums, that would help, but there's still the problem of not having helmets. I think it's a law in DC that people under 16 or 18 have to wear a helmet - so that stops the kids from riding, although most super-protective parents today insist on helmets for kids anyway.

It would be great if the program would work, but I just don't see that happening. In the end, it's probably just another giveaway to a mega-corporation - Clear Channel gets free ads on city property, so once again the District throws away taxpayer money.

Again - short term car rental companies [Zipcar, Flexcar] are still not commercially viable. If people won't use those services enough to make them profitable, the bike program is likewise doomed to failure - after all, a car costs thousands of dollars, a bike only a few hundred dollars [or less].

It's a great idea, just not a practical idea. Human nature is an odd beast.

by freddie mick on Aug 28, 2008 11:12 am • linkreport

Corn-based Ethanol gets trashed in the news, although it isn't that great from any perspective. Corn ethanol is made from the starch, leaving the majority, by volume, of the corn still intact. Interestingly, livestock, except pigs and fowl, are healthier eating only the husks, which are made from cellulose. In fact, one consequence of cows eating full corncobs is that the starch floats in their stomachs and they become sick, and their poop is much more bioactive. I don't know what percentage of husks can be recovered from a ethanol plant, but I can't imagine it's that small. The solutions are there, but it'll take investment in localized farms to fix it. The other option, seeing as 85-90% of corn goes to feeding livestock, is to simply cut down your meat consumption.

As far as I can tell, the best way to make fuel (biodiesel) is from algae, with grows fast and yields non-cellulose products quickly. As long as you have a little waste, you can grow it in tubes in the desert, distill it with solar power, the system is so versatile, I think everyone should look into the technology.

To the matter of the post...

These bikes aren't the greatest solution, but it's good pilot. If Americans can wrap their heads about not speeding on bikes and using them for transportation, then being able to borrow a bike for a few hours every couple of days sounds great. I think a 5-day tourist pass would be an even greater idea.

by The King of Spain on Aug 28, 2008 3:23 pm • linkreport

Zac:

http://www.nanosolar.com/blog3/?p=93 has an excellent graphic about the folly of biofuels. Even if you admit that the return to photovoltaics is exagerated, the simple fact is that photosythesis is only about 1% efficient at converting sunlight to stored energy. Photovoltaics routinely exceed 15% efficiency.

This does not mean there's no role for biofuels. Fuels produced from organic waste (agriculture, sewage, municipal solid waste) turn a bad into a good. Algaculture can capture CO2 emissions from a fossil power plant. Biofuels can also be produced in the course of replenishing prairies, a bonus situation.

Whatever course (farmed biofuels, solar, wind, geothermal, fossil power) is chosen can increase food prices by competing for land. Farmed biofuels are the worst because they use the most land per unit of energy captured.

by Chuck Coleman on Aug 28, 2008 7:03 pm • linkreport

I should add that farmed biofuels also compete directly (except in rare situations) with food crops. Just look at corn. This is the worst biofuel scenario of all.

by Chuck Coleman on Aug 28, 2008 7:09 pm • linkreport

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