Energy efficient vehicles
Save energy when you leave your home too!
I struggled for some time over whether to discuss energy efficient vehicles on a site covering home energy efficiency. But since my main motivation in creating this site is to help people save energy and reduce their carbon footprint, and since transportation accounts for a big chunk of most household energy budgets, I thought I should at least discuss some basic topics related to energy efficient transportation.
On this page I provide tips on using a bicycle as your main means of transportation, since I'm an experienced cyclist and use my bicycle for much of my in-town travelling. I also cover scooters (a great tool for really short errands where getting the bicycle out of the garage takes too long), and electric bicycles and scooters (I've owned two different electric bicycles and know a thing or two about them! Finally, some thoughts on commuting efficiently - through car pooling/ride sharing, or better yet, working from home.
I've also covered other topics on energy efficient vehicles on the following pages:
- Chrysler electric cars - lots of hope, lots of hype, and in the end, little substance. Were these just a way to grab government grants?
- What is the best electric car available as of 2012 (or thereabouts)?
- Hypermiling - getting the highest mileage out of any car. There's no magic here - just driving a little more carefully and understanding where the savings are.
- Living without a car - tips for surviving without what some consider a necessity. Hard to do in the countryside, but in most cities it's not hard at all.
- Hybrid cars - sales statistics, what are they, best hybrids
- Advantages of electric car - find out whether - or why - you should own one
- Electric car conversions - turn your fossil-fuel-powered car into an all-electric model
- Save energy by walking - and stay healthy while you're at it
Here are some quick ideas to get you started saving energy on your commute or your trips about town:
Making a bike work for you: I have been biking to work for most of the last 17 years (except for July 2008-June 2009, since I took that year off!). My commute has ranged from 25 minutes (10 km) to over an hour (22 km). Many of my office colleagues keep saying they really ought to try biking to work, but none of them do. The main reason they give is that they fear for their lives when they ride their bicycle.
I can understand their fear. I don't bike in the winter, because Toronto winters are too cold, snowy, and salty for a 22 km commute (at least for me, pushing fifty), and with the sun setting before I leave work, I don't relish riding in the dark. When I get back on my bike in April, those first few days on busy arterial roads are nerve racking. But...
You have to consider the risks to your health and life of riding against those of not riding. A study done on cyclists and motorists in London, England, found that the life expectancy of a regular commuting cyclist was reduced by a grand total of four days compared to that of a motorist, due to the risk of the cyclist being killed in a traffic accident. Meanwhile, the life expectancy of a cyclist is increased by up to two years because of the health benefits of cycling. That's one year, eleven months, and twenty-eight days of extra life on average! Another study showed that on average in England there are 3.34 deaths per 100 million kilometers traveled by bicycle. That means that if 10,000 of your friends were to bike 1,000 km a year each, after ten years only three or four of your 10,000 friends would have been killed while biking.
I deal with the safety aspect of cycling in my own daily commute, by being fully prepared and highly visible and audible. I find that motorists give me a wide berth, because they see I am a serious cyclist with all the 'bells and whistles'. That means:
- Always wear an approved bicycle helmet, whether it's required by law or not. And make sure you strap it on - a helmet that's just sitting on your head won't protect you at all when you get knocked off the bike.
- Always wear a highly visible safety vest. Mine is fluorescent yellow with reflective orange tape running down the back. When I started wearing this vest I noticed a dramatic increase in the amount of space motorists gave me. Why? They could see me, and they could tell I was serious about biking. They weren't about to try forcing me off the road!
- Always have a loud bell or horn on your bike, or carry a whistle around your neck. Make a loud noise whenever a motorist threatens to break traffic laws and cut you off.
- Make eye contact with motorists who might be a risk to you. Whenever I come to a stop light and have to wait, I look around at the drivers near me. This lets them know I'm a real person, not just an obstacle between them and their destination.
- Obey the law! Don't breeze through a stop sign without stopping, or look for cops and then run a red light if you don't see any. Motorists who see you breaking traffic laws are likely to feel resentful of you. Motorists who see you setting a good example, are more likely to follow it.
- Always have both rear and front head lights for twilight or night-time riding. Whether they are required by law or not, you want these lights so people can see you from a long way off. And take them with you any time your trip might conceivably not end until evening.
- Keep your bike well tuned. Carry a maintenance kit and tire patch kit with you at all times, so you can get your bike back in working order quickly when it breaks down. Biking with a damaged bike distracts you from focusing on the traffic around you, slows you down (see next point), and risks an accident if the bicycle breaks down further, for example if it flips you, or your brakes fail.
- Bike fast! Remember that the faster you bike, the less difference in speed there is between you and other vehicles. That gives cars coming up behind you more time to notice you and react to your presence before they reach you. If you are not a fast cyclist, you should consider an electric bicycle, which can boost your speed considerably, and get you to work at a fraction of the cost of driving.
- Choose the safer route over the faster route. You'll live longer, and enjoy life more, if you take the odd five-minute detour to get to a safer route.
That first bicycle commute of the spring can be nerve-wracking, but with my glaring set-up and my street-smart strategies, I get used to the traffic quickly, and soon look forward to my daily commute by bicycle.
In fact, my first bicycle commute in 2011 was my first real bicycle accident. I had an errand on the way to work so took a diferent route. As I turned down a hill on a twisted single-lane road, I was struck by the trailer of a landscaping truck, and knocked to the ground flat on my chest. My bike landed right on top of me. Amazingly, I was not seriously injured. The landscape truck kept on going. The driver behind me stopped the traffic, called 911, and stayed with me until the ambulance arrived. After being declared free of life-threatening injuries by the paramedics, I was driven home in a police cruiser, damaged bike in the trunk. The bike needed about $150 of repairs. I've had some pain in my thigh muscles since then but six months later I am pretty much back to normal.
This accident made me realize that while visibility matters, so does avoiding obviously dangerous spots. The road I was hit on is one of the worst in Toronto for accidents (for fellow Torontonions, it was Don Mills Road northbound from O'Connor), and as someone who often drives my car that way, I should have known it's a dumb place to be on a bike.
Good old fashioned scooters for short errands: My kids both have Razor scooters, which they use to zip up and down our street with their friends. I've discovered these scooters are great for running a quick errand to the grocery store. It's a ten minute walk to the local supermarket, and I don't like going there except to do a big shop because the walk is on not particularly pleasant streets and takes so much time (twenty minutes round trip).
I don't like to go by bike either, because by the time I've got my bike out of the back yard shed, found the lock, biked to the store, and locked the bike up, I've used up just about as much time as walking would take.
But I hop on a scooter, and I'm there in 3-4 minutes. The scooter folds up and I can plop it in my backpack while in the store, so I don't have to stop and lock it up.
Scooters are also great for an occasional trip to the local British pub. The pub's a 15 minute walk downhill from home, so I get most of the way there on gravity, and arrive smelling fresh as an Irish spring. I only break a sweat on the way home, and get to burn off some of those beer calories while I'm at it!
Electric bicycles and scooters: These are great gadgets for getting around if you don't have the stamina, motivation, or extra-strength deodorant required to bike or scooter from A to B. As I mentioned above, I have a 22 km one-way commute to work by bike, and I just can't do it every day without falling into bed exchausted by 9pm each night (and then finding myself wide awake with insomnia a few hours later). I bought a Bionx electric bicycle kit in 2006, and had my local bike shop install it on my bicycle. It consists of a back wheel with built-in electric hub motor (you can put any standard gear cassette on the wheel); a Lithium Ion battery that gets me the full 22km with moderate pedalling contributions from me; a charger; a controller kit; and cabling.
This kit has turned biking to work back into a pleasure for me. For one thing, I can get to work about 10 minutes faster, and a lot less worn out, than with a regular, human powered bicycle. For another, because I very quickly reach the motor's top speed of 32 km/h (20 MPH) after a stop light, my speed stays closer to that of the cars, so they have more time to react to my presence. And the cost of my commute, in electricity, is a mere 4 cents each way!
The Bionx kit is quite costly, but of very high quality and with lots of power. You might want to start out with a cheaper alternative, such as the kit pictured above at right. I would recommend using such a kit, along with a bicycle you already enjoy riding, rather than buying one of the cheap electric bicycles available from Asia. I just haven't been impressed with their performance or the quality of their components.
Car pooling and ride sharing: I'm a bit ambivalent about car pooling or ride sharing. On the one hand, I think it's better for two or more people to share one car on their drive in to work. On the other hand, I've seen too many cases where the extra people were using public transit before they started car pooling. Carpools are great if they get people from several cars into one, but they really don't help if they just take people off public transit and put them into cars.
There's a high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lane on the expressway from my work to downtown Toronto. When I take the bus to work in winter, many of my colleagues offer me a ride partway home in the afternoon, since it cuts my journey short by a few minutes, and cuts theirs short by a half hour of bumper-to-bumper traffic. But I sometimes feel that, by taking a ride with them, I'm making it harder for them to break free from their cars. Or am I being naive thinking that the people I work with will ever convert to public transit?
Save energy - work from home: Some employers give you the option to work from home one or more days a week. (My employer lets some of its employees work from home all the time - and some of my colleagues live in another province and only come into the office once every year or so!) This is an obvious way to cut your commuting costs, and comes with several other benefits: a more relaxed working atmosphere, less money spent on work attire, and less time spent commuting. But it has its downsides: isolation, lack of motivation for work, distractions if you're not alone at home, and less collaboration with your colleagues. In fact my workplace recently did away with its work from home policy, and while some grumbled I believe this was a smart decision. People I barely ever saw before are now in the office daily, and we stop and chat, and come up with great ideas that might never have come up via e-mail or instant messaging or the general silence that prevails with work at home employees.