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A friend has asked for ideas on ‘how to start cycling’ for someone who owns a car but wants to cycle more for transport, especially commuting. Now, I’m not terribly well qualified for this as I never owned a car and only got my driving licence when I was twenty six because we were in a rural area and I mistakenly believed I ‘needed a car’. Here are my paltry suggestions, I hope more experienced people can add others:

  • Don’t panic: the streets look scary, but they looked pretty scary on your first driving lesson too, and you made it.
  • Get a decent bike: Yes, I know supermarkets are selling ‘bargain’ bicycles, but how much are you really going to use a bike to get around if you have to pedal to get downhill with a following wind? Especially if it doesn’t have lights/mudguards/luggage rack. And your ‘expensive’ bike will still work in ten years time: your car won’t.
  • Get at least one good lock.
  • Freeze your car keys: put them in a margarine tub full of water and put it in the freezer: that way you can get at them if you need to, but it’s a lot less convenient than having them by the door.*
  • Put your bike keys by the door.
  • If you feel the need for a helmet, get one, if the idea (or cost) of a polystyrene lid puts you off, don’t.
  • Explore: bikes can go places cars only dream of. Find regular routes you are happy with. In six months your mental map of the town will look different to a motorists, so you’ll send drivers down dead end streets.
  • Always hide after giving drivers directions.
  • Learn how to ride safely. learn about blind spots, door zones et c.
  • Please, stop at red traffic signals.
  • Wave at other cyclists.
  • Learn which sort of car to watch. Locally it is Taxis, old men in big cars (especially Mercedes) and young women. Other places are different. I don’t know why.

And of course:

  • Enjoy yourself, smile and wave at drivers, even when they are swearing at you. It’s nicer than shouting back and it makes them madder than anything else you could do.

*maybe not if they’re one of those new-fangled electronic keys…

Water supply in the garden, with the all-important privvy in the distance.

The dustbin lid-like object under the tap is apparently a steriliser for use with an open fire. I’ll experiment with that later. I need to get the privvy working first. To do that I need to make a compost bin, for which I need wood, which I’ll salvage when I clear out the shed. After I’ve emptied the Shed of Asbestos…

Some people manage to do all this and keep livestock. I can’t even find my tools.

Much physical and mental activity this week was concerned with digging a potato bed in the garden (so we at least have something growing, even if it’s a bit late) and getting the area around the slowly collapsing summer house in our newly available garden from this:

To a slightly more organised state, without the ancient kitchen appliances which were colonising it:

This involved digging out the patio, removing all the logs, and hauling several bucket loads of rubble and concrete, a dodgy gas cooker, the rotting remains of a kitchen unit, the oldest fridge I’ve ever seen and assorted large and useless items of broken garden furniture to the recycling centre. I also spent a rather unpleasant afternoon in a protective suit with face mask and gloves sorting a lot of broken asbestos sheets. I could have done this somewhat faster except that with my usual brilliance I carefully placed half the asbestos into the bag provided before realising that the bag was too heavy to carry to the road.

This has not left much energy for things like blogging.

I’ll be back next week, after some sleep…

I got an email from a friend this Monday saying they knew of a ‘very overgrown’ piece of land whose owner was desperate for someone to look after it; by Tuesday I had an appointment to go and look at the land, and by Thursday evening I was in. Considering you usually don’t get any information about land unless your great grandfather lived in the village, this is quite a shock.

The land is 13 Are, about 1300 square metres, which isn’t quite as massive as it sounds, but it’s still pretty big compared to a balcony.

It’s about 50% brambles and 100% south-west facing hill. The brambles are so rampant that I can’t get within about ten metres of the bottom edge of the property. But it isn’t overlooked by too many houses so I shouldn’t get into too much trouble with nosy neighbours with my strange permacultural ways.

Pictured is the all important privvy/outhouse. At least I think that’s what it was: at the moment it’s full of windows and shutters from some long-forgotten building project.

So this is where all my fancy talk about ecology and self sufficiency will hopefully become reality, and blog material.

Observant readers will have probably noticed that the bike repair apprenticeship I was applying for didn’t work out. This was partly because the shop had a bad summer (it rained through August) and partly because of the inflexibility of the trade guilds.

This was… somewhat disappointing.

Mind you, when you don’t know what you’re going to do, you can try anything. So we started looking around, and after much research we found the discipline of Permaculture.

Permaculture started in the seventies, and originally the word was a fusion of the words ‘Permanent and Agriculture’. The basic idea is that if you design your farm/garden/line of buckets on the balcony carefully, you can recreate a small ecosystem where plants and insects can work together and help each other to grow, without needing extra energy from oil. You just help it along a bit, and make sure some of these plants are edible. Over the years the name has developed since to mean ‘Permanent’ and ‘Culture’. It’s been described as a ‘toolbox’ which connects many of the skills we need for sustainable living.

What made us sit up and take notice is that there are lots of people running theatres within the movement. As our dream is a community theatre, this seems a sensible way to go: rightly or wrongly I’ll feel a lot more confident taking further steps when we’ve got a little training. With a family, just jumping in the deep end doesn’t seem such a good idea as it did when I was a fresh 20 year old.

So, next year I’ll be taking the Xtracycle off on the train for four weekends in Vauban, the sustainable part of Freiburg-im-Breisgau that featured in this blog before, to go and find out how to do all this, which I’ll naturally blog about. So far impressions of the course and people running same are pretty good. I’ve even been offered a safe, covered parking space for the Xtracycle.

As Freiburg is one of the most cycle-friendly cities in Germany this should also give me lots of opportunities to whine about how bog-awful Ostfildern/Stuttgart are in comparison.

From the Post Carbon institute: a great five minute animation about fossil fuels, environmental problems and peak oil with a positive message…

The carrot harvest from the mayonnaise buckets. Considering that I did just about everything wrong, I’m pretty happy with how things came out. They taste good too. I didn’t carry them on the bike because even I’d be pushed to find an excuse to cycle from the back balcony to the kitchen. Especially on the second floor.

I’m wondering about some kind of Permaculture course to avoid making the same mistakes again. Does Anyone else have experience of one of these?

Electric cars have become the next big thing in Germany, partly in response to the problem of Peak Oil. There’s a huge amount of money going into a new infrastructure, and much investment in advertising about PR about how these are the eco-friendly, low impact future of personal transport.

Like Hydrogen was a few years ago.

Anyway, I came across this web page from a German power company which makes a few interesting statements, such as:

“Did you know that…

…The total CO2 output of an E-car from energy production to using the energy in driving, is 50% better than a normal car, on average?

… E-cars have already reached a range of 150km (Just under 100 miles) and in the near future will soon reach 350km?

And the the jewel in the crown:

… Even if 25 percent of the German car fleet was E-cars, electricity consumption in Germany would only increase by 4%?

That’s a selection fromn this page (In German)

That 4% somehow stuck out. It looks a bit like a “€0.99” price tag, designed to look less than it is, and to reassure us that all is well: it’s business as usual and we only need to get an electric car to join the magical expedition to electrically powered Nirvarna, and don’t look too closely or you may notice that we’re not even taking buses or large goods vehicles into account. And this is only one in four cars, so what will the other three use?

But lets follow the rabbit hole. How much is 4% of German energy usage? Based on this English language report, which uses figures from 2007, German power demand is an average of 122.3 gigawatts. A 4% increase on that is a mere 4.892 gigawatts giving a total demand of just under 127.2 gigawatts if we swap 1 in 4 cars to pure electricity. Great, let’s all go and get an electric car.

Except that on page 27 of the same report, something else crops up. What with phasing out nuclear, shutting down aging power stations, the inevitable delay in building new power stations and a possible shortage of skills and parts to make these power stations come on stream, Germany is going to have a shortfall of 45-50 gigawatts in the next ten years. Add the 4.8 gigawatts for those extra electric cars and…

Not so good then.

So why is our Government pouring billions into keeping this unpleasant, antisocial, and downright dangerous transport form going? Because Germany has too many big powerful car companies to let it die.

When I was a small person, (or at least shorter than I am now), summer evenings meant raspberry picking from the giant bush in our garden. At first it was easy: I’d go to the nearest corner of the bush, and pick the nicest fattest raspberries in reach. Of course those were soon gone so I’d move along further from the house, picking as I went. After those were picked I’d start looking under leaves or down by the roots, and eventually either my mum would have to come along or I’d fetch a step and we’d work on the higher parts of the bush. At first this would give us loads of raspberries, and then gradually we’d find less and less, and we’d be standing on tiptoe on a box to get those. The Last Raspberries -the ones on the highest branches- were impossible to get at without a step ladder so we’d leave them for the birds.

The reason I’m delighting you all with this anecdote is that I keep coming across very intelligent people far more learned than I, who are suggesting that the Deepwater Horizon rig was trying to do the oil equivalent of getting The Last Raspberries: just as you don’t get a ladder and start at the top of a raspberry bush when there’s lots of raspberries at eye-level, you don’t drill through 13 000 feet of rock under 5000 vertical feet of ocean when there’s lots of oil to be found in your back yard, or friendly governments willing to sell it to you. Their conclusion: we aren’t running out of oil: but what’s left is very hard to get at.

This is ‘Peak Oil Theory’. A quick look at the Wikipedia page reveals this dates back to 1956 when M.King Hubbert noticed that oil fields reach a peak when about half the oil is removed, and start to decline pretty quickly. He also noticed that oil producing regions follow the same pattern. After the peak, it gets harder and harder to get the last half of the oil out: you need more and more energy for less return.

Hubbert suggested that worldwide oil discovery would peak then decrease every year, and this would be followed by a peak in production, and that we’d have to look further up the raspberry bush, I mean further out under the earth to keep digging out more oil. Hubbert then accurately predicted American peak production would be in the early 1970s,. He also said global peak production would be about forty years later (Work it out: 1970 plus forty makes…)

More and more people have been suggesting that Hubbert’s sums add up better than the oil industries, and as many of these people can talk about things like “pro-capita oil drilling and consumption on a macro scale using inverted twanging theory in Russia during 1977” and understand it, I’m guessing they know what they are talking about. Fortunately some of them are also able to speak in normal sentences. See here, here (TED video, 20min). Academic types can look at a very long video here.

The oil industry of course, says Peak Oil won’t happen for gosh, ages yet: it’s all  lies from unwashed environmentalists trying to scare us, but the International Energy Agency (hardly yurt-dwelling hippy types) “World energy outlook 2009” suggested that demand will become greater than supply by 2020, while those well-known tree-huggers at Lloyds Insurers recently published a report with Chatham house on ‘energy security’. Their main point: assuming oil wil last forever we will land us in big trouble, very soon. The US Defence Ministry have been making worried noises as well, although you never know: some of them may have a yurt or two.

So could change be coming, and soon? please add your thoughts, links to anything I may have missed etc. Especially if you think I’m dead wrong.

Strawberries, anyone?

There’s an unusual amount of back-slapping at the moment in the hallowed halls of Ostfildern’s local government: the newest part of the town has been included in a video about sustainable development to be shown as part of the ‘Germany’ stand on the Expo exhibition in Beijing. Apparently it’s a ‘showcase town’. Wow, and I get to live here: well, in the next village, anyway.

Baden-Württemberg (a federal state of Germany) is desperate to look ecologically progressive, which is pretty hard to achieve when you’re landed with the main factories for Audi, Mercedes, Porsche, and Smart, so they are trying to show a different picture in Beijing, showing off their new kind of sustainable town, with wonderful high-density development, new insulation and heating with wood pellets using hyper-efficient furnaces. It’s so ecologically sound that the designers won a prize, and it’s part of a European-wide research project. Yes folks, just by living here you are green, green, green.

Until you try to go somewhere, that is.

Unfortunately no-one told the transport planners this was supposed to be a green development. Actually, no-one told them it wasn’t 1960 any more.

I know what you’re going to say: you can’t just close a road and expect people to suddenly change how they travel. Except that before 1992 this whole area was a military base used by the US Government, closed off, surrounded by barbed wire and technically part of America. Between 1951 and 1992 these roads didn’t exist, and we somehow survived.

Here’s the town centre, which has some public transport links at least.

These routes run north-south and east-west through the former base, and together they make a superb new route to drive your Audi, Mercedes, Porsche, and Smart to the Autobahn to the fast road into Stuttgart in the Neckar valley. If you’re commuting (by car) to many large employers around Stuttgart, it’s a great place to live because  you’re linked into this fast, effecient road network. And you get to live in ‘sustainable’ housing where cars are controlled and you can go cycling on the weekend, because then you don’t mind wriggling around the back roads and waiting a while at pedestrian crossings.

It would have been so easy to make the town pedestrian friendly and keep cars at bay, but of course that would slow down the Audi, Mercedes, Porsche, and Smart drivers, and we can’t have that. Better to  tinker around the edges with flashy technology and keep the myth of ‘business as usual’ going, than risk doing something that might upset the motorists.

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