Category Archives: Public Transport

Talking Surface Travel with KPFA

I was on KPFA’s Terra Verde show hosted by Adam Greenfield last Friday. talking about surface travel, the Arco/BP protests, and what regular people can do in the face of environmental collapse.  Listen here:

If anyone finds out what the past tense of ‘dive’ is, please let me know 😉

Plug the Holes or We Won’t Go


We will return to the Arco station every week to peacefully block the Fell St. entrances until BP plugs the holes in the Gulf and until the City plugs the dangerous driveways on Fell and makes it safe for people to live less oil dependent lives.

Fridays 5:30pm-8:30pm Fell and Divisadero San Francisco

Special thanks to Janel Sterbentz for producing this video- if the BABC won’t put her talents to use then we certainly will!

Full text of speech available here.

“Duckling Delay” on Caltrain

With all the terrible news coming out of the Gulf and the distressing dysfunctionality with which humans are relating to other species on the planet, here is a nice respite.

I was on Caltrain yesterday travelling with my bicycle from San Francisco to San Jose and overheard a conductor telling this story.

A few days ago, the train was stopped at Hayward Park in San Mateo, and the engineer gets out of his compartment- extremely rare for them to do- walks down the stairs, and tells the conductor that he needs his help- something unusual had arisen.

They open the doors, walk out in front of the train and there are a handful of ducklings stuck between the rails.   They can’t get over the other rail by themselves and the mother duck is quacking with great alarm as this huge diesel train is stopped right above them.

The engineer, refusing to proceed over the ducklings, lifts the beleaguered ducklings across the other rail with the help of the conductor and the ducklings waddle away to freedom following the grateful mother duck.

They radio to central rail control in San Jose and report that they have experienced a ten minute “duckling delay.”

Holier than You

OK well there have been rumors, and you might have had a sneaking suspicion.   But now it’s official.   I am in fact “holier than you.”  This is according to the Holier Than You Blog which featured this photo of me from the other day waiting for the Caltrain at San Jose station in my new orange rain pants.    So saddle up for sanctimony!  Amp up the attitude.   Prepare for piousness!   My cycle pants have been known to blind a man at forty paces.  It’s not going to be pretty.

Joking very much aside, I was trapped on a Highway 17 ‘express’ bus the other morning that broke down near the Summit for an hour.  (thank you Arnold Schwarzenegger for cutting transit funds drastically while leaving highway funding totally intact!  sweeet.)  Anyway, silver lining is that I got to meet Richard Masoner who runs the famous and well respected blog.  A fascinating guy- he works at a software company by day and maintains his blog a lot more frequently than I do.   He also does product reviews for Momentum Magazine, the magazine for self-propelled people.

If you’re in the Bay Area this Friday I will be talking at a SPUR brown bag lunch with Bruce Appleyard so come by and be blinded by my dazzling wit, or *far* more likely by my eye piercing rainpants.

Amtrak to San Francisco: Community on the Rails

I got back to Union Station from my walk around Chicago with about 15 minutes to spare, and for the next 14 minutes struggled to liberate my luggage from the electronic lockers, which maddeningly refused to recognise my fingerprint.   At the very last moment as they were closing the gate, the locker popped opened. I dashed for the train, found a seat, and settled in for the next 48 hours, ready to update my blog and read David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries cover to cover.

Of course things rarely work out the way you think they will.   After meeting my seat mate Alexei, a Russian-Canadian medical student from Pennsylvania, I walked around the train and met a number of other interesting people- people I ended up having long conversations with over the next couple of days.  And, as a result neglecting David Byrne and my laptop (as you might have guessed as this trip took place a month ago now!)

The Rocky Mountains

Nice Japanese guys we met, enjoying the view

Writing my Masters dissertation about the prerequisite conditions that humans need to develop healthy social networks has made me notice when these circumstances exist- and when they don’t.  In the midst of a red wine- fuelled late night conversation in the observation car with new friends, I realised (again) that long distance trains provide the ideal circumstances for community to flourish.   Such community as was never seen in the rushed, kerosene fuelled world of aviation.  From the cornfields west of Chicago, to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, we stared out the window and talked about what we saw.

It’s a slow ride, but the view is fascinating, and everyone seems to have the time to talk.  A woman named Amanda boarded the train in Denver- Alexei and I started to chat to her and the conversation inevitably turned to climate change (the coal trains rolling by must have had something to do with it).  It’s incredible that people still parrot the fossil fuel industry line on climate change, in spite of international scientific consensus.  I suspect that the emotional pain of accepting that we are currently destroying this beautiful planet is too great to bear.  Plus, the psychological mechanisms that perpetuate denial around our addictive relationships with energy are easily accessible- just switch on Fox “News”!!


Other highlights of the trip included a staggering sunrise over the Nevada desert, crossing into California as an early season snowstorm hit the Sierras, and a nice chap from Tahoe sharing his special chocolate chip cookies with us.  Welcome to California!

Watching the wreckage of a freight train derailment that had occurred a few weeks back  (Glenwood Canyon, Colorado)

Fall colours- (Glenwood Canyon)

Sunrise over the Nevada Desert

An October Blizzard in the Sierra Nevada- welcome to California

Passing time watching DVD’s and offending everyone in the observation car with the naughty language in ‘Stepbrothers.’  I blame Kate, who got on at Reno and led us astray!

As we crossed the Bay Bridge with the City’s skyline in the background, reflecting off the puddles left by the recent storm, I realised how much I had missed San Francisco over the last three years, and how much I was going to appreciate re-acquainting.


Downtown Chicago

I left the green shoots and corporate doublespeak behind in New York City, and hopped on the Lakeshore Limited to Chicago.   As you can see from the video below, a journey of contrasts- from the stunning Hudson River Valley to the industrial estates of Gary Indiana- sprawling complexes of chemical processing units- manufacturing bipolyphenals or engine lubricant or sink cleaner or twinkies or something you probably use every day.  So stop buying it already.  You don’t want to be be responsible for this mess believe me.   Note the school buses parked right at the end of the complex.

This very strange fountain was actually a video screen. I guess this is art or something

When foraging for wild food, consider downtown Chicago as your source for fresh (though slightly polluted) dino kale

Arrest- really? I mean I can understand maybe...a ticket, but arrest? Imagine putting your grandmother in cuffs cause she's afraid of the SUV's on the road. Maybe someone's grandma got mowed down by a cyclist on the pavement- er sidewalk. If only the response to car deaths were as forthright.

I thought I was back in the UK for a minute. They even got the patio heaters in there- very authentic!

A productive community garden growing out of a formerly vacant lot provided Chicagoans with an alternative to tasteless supermarket produce.

Our four wheeled friends were treated to prime residential space in these buildings- in fact the first 15 floors!

I found this crazy looking fungi in a planting strip in the Lincoln Park neighbourhood- showing that nature can thrive even in a large city- if given half a chance.

The Not-so-Shiny Jewel: An Investigation into the Environmental Impacts of the Cruise Industry

An endangered fin whale was impaled on the bow of a Princess cruise ship in Vancouver in July, raising the issue of the tragic impacts of large ships on marine mammals

An endangered fin whale was impaled on the bow of a Princess cruise ship in Vancouver in July, highlighting the damage that large ships cause to marine mammals

Norwegian Cruise Lines tried to charge me $55 for the “Behind the Scenes” tour of the Jewel, but when I mentioned that I wrote a ‘travel blog’, they made an exception and let me join the tour free of charge.

The tour included meeting the captain on the bridge, touring the laundry room, garbage and recycling area, theatre, galley, and food storage facilities and gave me a deeper insight into the inner workings of the ship.  Even though I’m sure they made sure everything was ‘ship shape’ in advance, I was still able to discover some things about the cruise industry that weren’t so pure.

I cover this stuff on my blog not just to take a swipe at Norwegian Cruise Lines, but to increase pressure on the entire industry to prioritise environmental considerations in their operations.   Similar coverage has led to improvements in discharges at sea and recycling among other things.

To be fair to NCL, according to Friends of the Earth’s Cruise Ship Environmental Report Card the company rates among the most environmentally friendly cruise lines, getting a “B-” overall.  Of course this grade is relative, and it is staggering to think that most cruise lines perform worse than the Jewel, given what I saw and heard during my 11 days at sea.

During the tour I had a chance to interview the captain and the environmental officer on board about issues such as whale strikes and carbon emissions, two of the many unsavory aspects of the cruise industry.  Indeed I detected not a little bit of discomfort when I brought up these touchy subjects.

The Captain had some interesting opinions on climate change...

The Captain had some interesting opinions on climate change...

First up was a chance to meet the captain on the bridge.   After a presentation of the instrument and navigation equipment, we had a chance to ask questions.    I asked, “Captain, surely you are aware of the recent unfortunate incident where a cruise ship arrived in Vancouver harbour with a dead endangered whale impaled on its bow.   What do you do to avoid killing or injuring marine mammals while at sea?”  He admitted that radar was powerless to detect whales, and a visual scan of the sea, together with last minute attempts at course changes were all they could do to avoid the carnage.  You can imagine it’s not easy to change the course of a massive ship, and he acknowledged whale strikes were probably quite common and “really unfortunate.”  Even aside from the discharges, emissions, and waste inherent in cruising, there is no doubt that, unseen beneath the waves, the hull of a cruise ship the size of the Jewel is striking and its propellers are mutilating a large number of whales, porpoises, and other marine life. If fishing fleets are equipped with sonar to detect schools of fish, I don’t see why cruise ships can’t use the same technology to detect marine mammals and avoid them.

Where the reality struggles to meet the rhetoric: Port of Halifax

Where the reality struggles to meet the rhetoric: Port of Halifax

I also asked the Captain about carbon emissions, about the fact that the Jewel emits more than one tonne of carbon into the atmosphere every minute. His answers were very revealing.   I asked him what NCL was doing to reduce this major climate impact, and he replied “that it was up to the oil companies to produce fuel with less carbon” and “the government should reduce taxes on fuel” which- to anyone who understands the nature of the climate crisis- represents a significant and dangerous misunderstanding of the nature of the problem.   Clearly he was confusing carbon dioxide with carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide or particulate pollution.  The only thing that would help reduce emissions of carbon dioxide would be to use less fuel, to make the engines and on board energy use more efficient.  Or perhaps use natural gas to power the engines, though they were not built to burn CH4.  And of course lowering taxes on fuel would just reduce any incentive to conserve.

A floating Las Vegas, courtesy of cheap bunker oil...

A floating Las Vegas, courtesy of cheap bunker oil...

The waste of energy on board is staggering.  When in port at Halifax, we were walking back to the ship at night and the Jewel was lit up like a Christmas tree, her smokestacks belching burnt bunker fuel smoke, doing nothing good for the lungs of the residents of Halifax nor the global climate.  Some ports have now installed electrical hook ups so that cruise ships need not run their engines for power while at port, but of course the emissions are just being transferred from the ship’s engines to a power plant, most likely in some deprived neighborhood nearby.

It’s scary that ignorance of the nature of climate change still permeates senior staff of companies like NCL.  In the year 2009 there is no excuse for this.

It’s not just energy that is wasted aboard cruise ships.  According to the environmental officer on board, the Jewel disposes over 2500 gallons of food overboard per day– more than one gallon of food waste per day going to “feed the fishes” as their glib environmental program proclaims.

Roughly one gallon of food per day is tossed overboard for every passenger aboard the Jewel, an incredible waste

Roughly one gallon of food per day is tossed overboard for every passenger aboard the Jewel, an incredible waste

Most of this doesn’t come from plate scrapings but from the inherent waste from ‘freestyle’ buffet dining.  After four hours, everything is thrown away.   This lack of respect for the true value of food is only possible because of bargain basement oil making food production artificially cheap.  The whole enterprise is based on cheap oil and unconstrained carbon emissions.  NCL, like many other industries, has its head buried in the sand, and is particularly vulnerable to rises in oil prices and limits on carbon.  It not only serves the environment for passenger ship companies to make significant changes in their operations to reduce waste, it’s also sensible from an economic perspective.

As far as solid waste is concerned, it appears that NCL does a decent job recycling the ‘easy’ stuff like cans and bottles, but chooses to incinerate quite a bit that could be recycled, like cardboard and paper- even 10% of plastic waste, which leads to some pretty nasty emissions like dioxins.

The chemicals produced on board are pretty shocking too.   They have a huge photography business on board the ship, with staffers snapping photos of you many times during the cruise.  All of these shots are printed out and displayed for sale, whether you buy them or not.   According to the photo staff, only about 2% of the photos are ever bought, with 98% being thrown away.   This causes a huge amount of unnecessary photochemical and paper waste.

When Leah and I were standing in the queue to disembark at Lerwick, we overheard a woman who mentioned that there was a bad smell coming from her drain.   She had reported this to the staff, who came and poured a large amount of bleach in a vain attempt to eliminate the smell.  The outlet of the sinks goes to the grey water systems, and it is very likely that chlorine bleach is making its way directly into the ocean.  I asked the environmental officer about this incident and ‘whether it was NCL policy to dump bleach down the drains.’  He said no it wasn’t and that he would investigate.

Is it the 'end of the line' for seafood within a generation or two if we continue on as we are?

Is it the 'end of the line' for seafood within a generation or two if we continue on as we are?

There is no doubt that our poisoned, over-fished oceans are in serious trouble.  I keep meaning to see the film “End of the Line,” a wake up call about this growing crisis.  According to the film, the oceans will essentially be devoid of most edible fish within about forty years if we continue overfishing and abusing our oceans.  NCL claims to ‘meet or beat’ environmental regulations, but clearly the reality is failing to meet the rhetoric.

The tactics that NCL (and most other cruise lines) use to extract money from their passengers are pretty revolting. It was clear that they depend heavily on the extras charged on board: drinks, gambling, specialty restaurants, shore excursions, and bingo.   Especially Bingo.   A Dutch guy who I met calculated that they take in about $10,000 from retirees hoping to win big, but award only 4 prizes of $250.  A tidy profit of nearly $9000 per game.

I am proud to say that my total onboard bill came to the tidy sum of $0.   I figure I probably cost NCL money.   So, if that’s true, according to Chris Hutt’s comment on my earlier post about being responsible for carbon emissions in direct proportion to how much profit a company makes off of you, does that mean I have a negative carbon footprint?

The 1100 staff aboard the Jewel are paid slave wages and have virtually no job security

The 1100 staff aboard the Jewel are paid slave wages and have virtually no job security

According to the Dutch guy who spoke confidentially with several of the staff, the junior stewards make only about $500/ month (less than $6000/ year) including tips, work at least ten hours per day, and have to share a small cabin with 3 others.   Most are from the Philippines.   Once they finish 10 months with NCL, they have to go to a different company.   This is a fairly obvious way to avoid their employees unionising and demanding better pay and working conditions.   Most cruise ships, including the Jewel, are based in the Bahamas because of the country’s lax labor and environmental standards.

A metaphor for the cruise industry: an apple that we got from the 'Chocaholic Buffet' was beautifully dipped in chocolate, but when we cut it open it was rotten inside.

A metaphor for the cruise industry? An apple that we got from the 'Chocaholic Buffet' was beautifully dipped in chocolate, but when we cut it open it was rotten inside.

Overall, we were more nauseated on board the ship from the conspicuous consumption, waste, and the overt sense of entitlement from many of the passengers than we were from the rough seas.  Yet there remains the possibility of a future of ocean travel that places sustainability at the forefront, that recognizes the growing demand for alternatives to aviation, and provides a higher quality of travel experience, based on respect for local cultures, the ocean environment, and the proud history of seagoing.

It is this promise of a different kind of transatlantic voyage that will keep me using boats to get across the Atlantic, even if they’re not perfect environmentally, to speak out where I see abuse, and encourage others to ramp up pressure on the industry, to bring about the kind of low carbon, high quality voyages that we deserve.


Passengers Aboard the Jewel

The Garden Cafe, colloquially known as the "Feeding Trough"

The Garden Cafe, colloquially known as the "Feeding Trough"

I’ve met some interesting people on board over the past few days, several of whom are using the cruise ship as ‘alternative transport’ across the Atlantic.  Of course they are vastly outnumbered by Americans who flew to Heathrow specifically for a cruise experience, but still it’s interesting to hear their stories.  I’ve asked the cruise director, a rather cheesy Canadian named Darin, if I can host a discussion on the 29th of people who don’t fly for various reasons which he has termed, rather uncontroversially, “Fear of Flying.”

Here are some of the people I’ve met over the course of the last ten days at sea:

Jo Jo from Nashville I met during lunch in the buffet.  She was frustrated that she can’t walk to the shops where she lives- she says she waits until she’s really hungry to get into her car and suffer through the terrible Nashville gridlock just to get to the supermarket.  She mentioned that there was a nice cycle path by the river in Nashville, but it didn’t go anywhere near where she lives.   She was scared to cycle in her neighbourhood because of a few speeding drivers.  She wants to live somewhere with a higher quality of life, where she can walk to the shops but says it’s too expensive to move to a place like Portland.  She wishes politicians in Nashville would do something about the traffic and lack of transportation options.


Grant expressing his feelings about the NCL Jewel

Grant from Vancouver who was afraid of flying after a nasty experience in an airplane flying through a typhoon over Taiwan.  He’s accompanied by his Swiss girlfriend Sophie, a goldsmith who lives with him in Vancouver.  A couple of years back he took a cargo ship from Sydney to Los Angeles, which he said was ‘painfully boring.’  He left the cruise ship early in Halifax because he ‘just couldn’t take it any more.’

Leah and I with Klaus and Eve, rare 'kindred spirits' on the Cruise

Leah and I with Klaus and Eve, rare 'kindred spirits' on the Cruise

Klaus, a German living in London with his English wife Eve. He is a refugee from the City, London’s financial district, and disgusted at the excesses that led to last year’s crash.  He was appalled with his friends for suggesting that Ian Tomlinson ‘deserved what he got’ when he was killed at the hands of the Metropolitan Police on April 1st during the G20 protests.   They live in Greenwich, visited the Climate Camp on Black Heath in August, and were really inspired by what they saw.  They were on our bike tour in Reykjavik and we’ve been hanging out with them since then.   They even came to my Driven to Excess presentation in Halifax.

Hannah (also from Nashville) is staying in one of the Jewel’s massive suites with her parents, country music stars. Apparently they go cruising several times a year, and they’ve adapted well to life on a cruise ship, not bad when you have your own private hot tub in your stateroom.

Elizabeth, an art student who’s been studying in Edinburgh, returning home to Massachusetts, who chose to take the Jewel so that she could carry her large number of canvasses that would have been costly to bring aboard an aircraft.

Wishing safe and pleasant travels to all those we met on board the Jewel!

We’ve been taken for a ride…

Happy 2009 everyone.   In light of Bristol’s apparent failure (yet again) to provide a light rail/ tram system for the city, I thought it would be good to take a look at the historical perspective.  The film above, Taken for a Ride, is one of the most important independent films ever produced about the proven conspiracy by corporate interests to destroy public transport infrastructure.  Take an hour and watch it– it demonstrates that our current car dependence didn’t come about because people wanted motorcars- the alternatives were systematically bought up and dismantled so people were forced to drive.  What’s good for General Motors was most definitely not good for America (or the rest of the world…)


Bristol’s trams were a vital part of the city’s transport infrastructure until 1941…in the 1990’s there was hope of a new tram, but mismanagement and a dispute between South Gloucestershire and Bristol dashed those hopes.   This website outlines the history of the tram to north Bristol that was killed in 2004.


Here they are lined up in the city centre- how is it possible that with all the wealth in Bristol, our political leaders tell us we “can’t afford” a tram in 2009?  Is this progress? Something doesn’t add up here…

While smaller cities than Bristol (pop. 411,000)  such as Newcastle-upon-Tyne (pop. 260,000) and Nottingham (pop. 289,000) boast extensive urban rail systems, Bristol is left floundering with overpriced diesel buses and dangerous, polluted streets.  In Germany and other places on the continent, often cities with only 50,000 population have tram systems.  Why are we so backward in the UK?

Could it be the same reason why the trams were destroyed in the first place- to eliminate competition and boost the corporate profits of the oil and auto interests?  Instead of Standard Oil, General Motors, and National City Lines, today in the UK we have BP, Vauxhall, and First.

The names have changed but the formula hasn’t.   This corporate greed and government complicity has led us to where we are today- incessant gridlock, harmful chemicals in our air, deaths on our roads, and skyrocketing obesity.

The question is, when do we stop this mad hatter’s tea party ride and get our transport systems back where they should be– serving the public rather than corporate profits and the worst selfish instincts in ourselves?

“Modally Agnostic”


Yesterday I attended the unfortunately named “Driving Change” seminar at London’s City Hall, a “half day seminar exploring solutions to traffic congestion in London.” Jacqui Wilkinson, head of sustainable travel initiatives at the Department for Transport, spoke about all the trial cycling and walking initiatives they are pursuing (important programs to be sure, but which put together amount to only about the cost of one mile of motorway construction). In other words, crumbs off the table of the petrol fueled banquet.

She then said something that was extraordinary, considering the UK government’s urgent statements about climate change. Considering the fact that cars and planes are the fastest growing sources of carbon dioxide in the UK. Considering the potential for public transport, cycling and walking to reduce this atmospheric dumping.

She said that when it comes to transport, the UK government is “modally agnostic” — meaning that they treat all travel modes equally. Wouldn’t do to express a preference in favour of non-motorized modes and public transport. You might offend drivers and frequent flyers, god forbid. No matter if the capital is threatened with inundation from rising sea levels in part due to our incessant and increasing flying and driving.  Modal agnosticism in the face of climate chaos, it seems to me, is giving up the battle before we’ve even started fighting.

I was beginning to despair for the future of the country and its capital on the Thames, when a man named Christian Wolmar gave an upbeat speech in which he decried making lists of transport improvements and instead called for an overall vision in transport planning, and tore to pieces the government’s “modal agnosticism.” Thank god for people like him.

I tried to ask a question after the session, but they didn’t call on me, so I went up to Jacqui afterwards at the reception, and asked her about the wisdom of “modal agnosticism”: “When the scientific evidence for human induced climate change is now cemented, how can we continue to pretend that the rapid growth in driving and flying are acceptable? The government is certainly not agnostic on the issue of cigarette smoking and lung cancer.” She replied, “well changes in attitude take time– it took 40 years for action to be taken on smoking.” I replied, “yes but we don’t have 40 years to deal with this issue….” I was met with uncomfortable looks all around. This is the achilles heal of their transport policy, the elephant in the room.

This government is clearly unable to show any kind of real leadership on this issue, instead content to offer crumbs, platitudes, and excuses for real action. By hiding behind a veil of “modal agnosticism” while pretending to be leaders on the issue of climate change, they are guilty of a dangerous kind of doublespeak- paying lip service to the greener modes and action on climate change while mollycoddling widespread denial about the true nature of global warming, and allowing our fossil fueled habits to continue unchecked.

We need leadership and we need a new vision for transport, one that represents a radical departure from the old stale 20th century petrol dependent status quo. If that means the government getting a little religion around the issue of the climate, and promoting car and plane-free lifestyles, then hallelujah- bring it on! I wouldn’t hold your breath though. The likes of British Airways and Shell will ensure that the corporate profits keep rolling in as long as possible come hell or high water….