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We’re trying to organise ourselves to fly to Japan so my wife’s family can be reminded what she and the boys look like. I appreciate this won’t make us very popular in ecological circles, but I wasn’t thinking about carbon footprints when we met on account of her being so darn beautiful.

We checked out alternative ways to travel: eight days on the Trans Siberian railway sounds like fun but costs even more than the plane just between Moscow and Vladivostok and isn’t something to contemplate with three small boys, while cargo ships take about two months.

After listening to my whining for a bit a friend suggested we should go by bike, so I looked it up.

Google thought it would be a good idea to ride over the Alps and then take a ferry across the Mediterranean and Black Sea*. Google clearly thinks I’m fitter than I am. I told it to stop messing about and it came up with this one instead along the Donau/Danube to the Black Sea and then by ferry to Odessa, and across to the eastern end of the Ukraine. After that Google gives up: we’d be on our own through southern Russia, and Kazakhstan -Two places where I’m guessing there isn’t much cycling infrastructure- and then we’re almost there, just three thousand kilometres of China and a ferry to Korea and Japan.

Of course, we’d need a tent, and cooking things, and bags for the bikes, and bookings for the ferry, and several trains, half a dozen guidebooks, several hundred maps, and to learn the Hungarian, Romanian, Russian, Kasak and Chinese for how to say things like “Please” “Thank you”; and for that matter “Puncture (repair)” or “Bike Shop”

On the other hand it’d give us the ultimate answer to “what did you do in the summer?”, and given the length of school holidays we’d reach Japan in plenty of time for a cup of tea with Beautiful Wife’s family before starting off home.

Or we could just take the plane.

*Which it won’t embed, so you’ll have to follow the link.

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…

The Xtracycle at our local ‘packstation’: these automated postboxes are being introduced as an ‘environmental’ way to get parcels, because they’re supposed to reduce truck movements. Of course they are often in places where you need a car to get to which rather spoils it, but at least I can be sure that at the 1.5 kilometres from here to our apartment are carbon free, thus maintaining my personal smug green glow.

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.

Thanks to the horrendously complex German electoral system the Green Party have managed, via an coalition with the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP), to get themselves into the driving seat in our state of Baden-Württemberg. It’s not a great surprise: the natives have been getting thoroughly restless of late, mostly over a project called ‘Stuttgart 21′ to rebuild Stuttgart main railway station. The project briefly flashed into international news on September the 30th last year when police sprayed a peaceful demonstration with water cannon. This didn’t exactly get the population behind the project.

Stuttgart central station is a Terminus, so trains have to come in and reverse out. German Railways (Deutsche Bahn or DB) thinks this is so very last century. The track to the station also takes up a very large area of Stuttgart city centre, which just happens to be very wealthy, very popular with businesses, and very short on prime building land. DB’s idea was to build a groovy new underground through station so trains could arrive under the city, stop briefly to drop off passengers, and whiz off to exciting other European places with none of that annoying reversing business. By pure coincidence this would free up a very large area of prime development land right in the centre of Stuttgart.(I wrote an even more detailed post about this here)

Building a whole new station and several kilometres of tunnel would be a tad expensive, of course, but Deutsche Bahn (German railways) and the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) came up with a nifty equation: the current terminus station has 17 platforms, so when that becomes a through station it will only need eight platforms because trains won’t reverse. And that’s obviously far cheaper. Sort of. If you say it quickly is sounds almost feasable.

Now the CDU is out, the Greens are in, German Railways (Deutsche Bahn or DB)paused in their attempts to turn the station into a hole in the ground, and everyone is expecting the Greens to stop them permanently. The question is how they’ll manage this when their coalition partners are cheer leading for the project, but there are a couple of possibilities. One is a referendum, if they can get enough signatures to make it legal. The other is the sleight of hand DB tried to pull a couple of years ago, which at the time I referred to as a POSAD: A Politically Over Simplified Accountants Dream.

After the water cannon episode last year news got out that where old people and children were injured and things were getting out of hand, so a mediator was called in before people started turning cars over. He told Deutsche Bahn to go and find check their shiny new station really could work with eight platforms at peak times. This looks very unlikely, so they’ll be told to go and redesign the station with ten platforms, at which point the whole business case falls to pieces. The report is expected in May.

I can keep you posted if you aren’t bored already.

Normal ramblings to continue next week.

I’m in Freiburg again this weekend but I’ll reply to comments next week.

One of the ironies of living in a car obsessed world is that you still need a car seat for your kids, just in case you need to travel in a tin tank. As we use them but occasionally we sometimes lend them out to other people, as in this case.

The recepient was all set to drive 1 km over to pick it up, but a Bakfiets delivery was far faster, and gave me a great photo opportunity.

One of the more memorable events in the UK was Youngest Son breaking his leg. He’s doing fine but we found we had to take him to the next town but three for the nearest doctor: the Bakfiets turned out to be marginally faster than the tram/bus, even with stops to see rabbits and cows, etc.

Somehow Youngest Son even manages to draw pictures in a moving Bakfiets.

Detail from a mural about climate change.

Woman climbing into SUV: “It’s Practical… In the city!”

The SUV engine is saying “”Töten, Töten, Töten. (Kill, kill, kill)

[Edit: changed the title as the original seemed a bit grumpy on reflection]

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work out how not to get wet feet when I use the Xtracycle in the rain: I guess that’s one result of not having a television.

I could just go out and get a nice Brooks mud flap, but I figured that if other people can do stuff like make mushing belts from inner tubes I can at least try a mud flap,  so a couple of weeks ago I spent a half hour in the garage and came up with this low- cost version using a mountain-bike sized inner tube, some tyre repair glue, and a couple of odds and ends.

To make it a bit tougher and stop it curling, I used two pieces of inner tube back to back with puncture repair glue: since getting puncture-proof tyres I hardly use this for it’s intended purpose anyway. I’m not sure how well that’ll work long term, but I can always try again with a different glue if it falls to bits. I drew the outline with a pen on the glued-together tubes and cut it out.

So far it’s holding up to the rough treatment I give it. In service it is about 6 cm/2 inches above the road which is low enough to keep me from getting spattered. I didn’t get it quite level and there’s a gap at the top so some water runs down the back. Maybe I’ll do something about that one day.

Last week I got the chance to test drive a new city bike for a customer, It’s not quite a dutch bike but it rides well and it’s a sensible design -with the oddity that the rear wheel has a back-pedal and V-brake.

A proper full chainguard would be nice.

(It’s a Victoria Malta,if you’re wondering)

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