Thursday, October 8, 2015

Whodathunkit? Removing cars from streets reduces pollution

November 2012, I mounted one of GASP's (Group Against Smog and Pollution) smoke monitors and rode it 40 miles around metro Pittsburgh. They are still in use, and made an appearance during Open Streets this summer. Here is GASP's story about that.

What I find notable is that the story very nearly quotes the title of this blog, "anything but cars".

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Coffeeneuring 2015, week #1: Lawrenceville via McKnight Road

For those unfamiliar with the concept, coffeeneuring is a neologism of randonneuring, the hobby or practice or obsession with going on long bike rides just because. The coffeeneuring variant is a game of sorts, the taking of a non-trivial bike ride (at least two miles) to get a cup of coffee. The rules are simple: Once a week, on what amounts to your weekend, go someplace on your bicycle and get a cup of coffee. Might be a coffee shop in a nearby town, might be a friend's house, might be a church service with fellowship afterwards, you can even bring your own thermos and sit along a trail somewhere and imbibe. The point is, get off your butt on a weekend you might just sit around the house, and actually go somewhere, via bicycle. Do this for seven weeks running, to a different place each time, and you've completed the challenge, i.e., you've "won".

For week #1, I had a series of unfortunate events on Saturday, but Sunday's weather was better anyway, a nice crisp early autumn day, so I decided to make a small shopping trip. The house's two portable phones were both becoming difficult to use because of dying batteries, so I popped one of them in my shirt pocket and headed for McKnight Road. I also brought along a pen and notepad (I feel more naked without them in hand than I feel when actually naked, OK sorry, too much information), as well as the cell phone. One additional coffeeneuring detail is that you have to tweet your travel, preferably with a photo of your beverage. Pumped up the tires, oiled the chain, fixed the mispositioned headlight, and headed off down the road.

McKnight Road, also known as Truck 19, Business 19, McKnightmare Road, Neon Boulevard, and a few things we won't repeat here, is a six-lane suburban arterial with ambient traffic speeds well above the posted 40 mph, as well as a plethora of curb cuts for strip malls, restaurants, gas stations, car dealers, and the like. Easily a dozen traffic lights in a four-mile stretch. Not exactly a serene spot to take a bike ride. I have no fear riding McKnight, though. I place myself in the left of center in the lane, and cede it to nobody. Dressed visibly, usually nobody gives me any trouble, only the occasional honk from an ignorant motorist who can't understand the concept of using a bicycle as transportation.

I got to the store at opening time. Actually a little before. The employee was dropped off just after I got there. When I got inside, made my selections and was checking out, I mentioned that I got there by bike. I don't think I won any converts, though.

Getting out of the place proved difficult. By car, you can only make a right and go north. I was going south, and didn't feel like dashing across three to five lanes of 45 mph traffic. Thus I was reduced to jumping partitions between parking lots down to the next intersection. It wasn't all that difficult, but I did need to think outside the box a bit, as there are no sidewalks, and adjacent properties were not necessarily at the same elevation. Once I got to an actual side street, though, I got the green, peeled onto Babcock Blvd, and had a pleasant ride into Millvale.

My plan was to have my caffeinated beverage at one of the two diners in town. However, both are cash only, I only had $6 (so figure five and a tip), which wouldn't go far. I walked around looking for other options. There really weren't any, so over the 40th Street Bridge I went into the city.

PennDOT in its infinite wisdom last year added a bike climbing lane from Millvale up to the bridge. This is actually pretty handy, but the top of the lane is difficult. The bike lane is on the left of moving traffic, but cyclists need to get to the right as they turn onto the bridge. There is a green "bike box", but this is both universally ignored by motorists, and almost useless to cyclists anyway. Using it would force cyclists out in front of a pack of motorists, and half the time it is only one lane inbound across the bridge, causing cyclists to either take the lane like a sheep running from an angry pack of wolves, or forced to the right edge of that lane and forced to endure repeated close passes until the pack has passed. To make matters worse, the first 150 yards of the bridge southbound is uphill, so even a strong cyclist is not going to be moving very quickly. For myself, I have found it better to wait in the uphill bike lane until most of the traffic has passed, then work my way over (one or two lanes) to the outside turning lane, thereby having to deal with only a couple of cars rather than perhaps a dozen.

That done, I make the left onto Butler, and a block later appears the Lawrenceville Crazy Mocha. Here, for me, cash is not a problem, as I keep a store card loaded with a few dollars in advance. The flavor of the day is "Jamaican me crazy", so I go with that and one of their giant cookies. This will also have to serve as lunch. I sit down, arrange my gear on a nearby table, and tweet this photo.

A few scribbles in my notebook later, along with a tweet and cross-post to Facebook, I pack up and head back home. I again take the 40th St Bridge, but use the right traffic lane, as it is two lanes northbound. Usually I take the sidewalk but today I felt brave and daring. Despite that, I still got one unnecessarily close pass. And that was the bulk of the issues on the eight-mile return trip. No, one more incident. Just as Babcock splits at the corner with Three Degree Road, a white pickup lays on the horn, apparently upset that I didn't accelerate to 35 through the intersection, which involves a sharp left turn, and I was also following another car. As if I had any choice in where to go? There is only one lane approaching the corner. Once around it, he could easily have passed me, which he did, and my non-jackrabbit start possibly slowed him three seconds, poor baby.

From there to home was only a mile and a half. No further issues. Once home, I installed my batteries, got my shower, and chalked up Week #1 coffeeneuring to the history books.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Why you should join Toastmasters

Today's Dawn Patrol Toastmasters meeting was one for the ages! Near record attendance, first-time speeches from two new people, and multiple people spoke about how attending Toastmasters meetings had improved their quality of life: better work habits, better communication with spouses and significant others, keeping calm in tough situations, and overcoming obstacles (the theme of the meeting).

The kicker was, five minutes from the end, Karen Rossi, manager of the Smithfield St library, popped in unexpectedly to say goodbye, as she is retiring. She joined Dawn Patrol when I did in 2008, and said it really helped her with her job performance and speaking with the upper management of the Carnegie Library system.

Myself, I gave a "pocket speech", an extemporaneous speech I thought of while walking to the bus this morning (as opposed to one I researched, prepared and practiced). I used the example of President Obama's speech last night about the Oregon story to show how he applied each of the 10 speech projects in the Toastmasters CC manual. (CC=Competent Communicator, the first level.) Never mind what the president said or whether you agree with him or even like him. Watch how he talks, watch how he keeps calm though he is clearly angry, yet he expresses that anger through facial expressions and body language. And how that makes for a powerful speech and a call to action. All of those are straight out of the CC book.

Dawn Patrol is only one of a couple dozen Toastmasters clubs downtown and nearby. What makes us different is that we meet in the early morning (hence the name), 7:15 on Fridays (1st, 3rd, 5th Fridays of each month). If you cannot make any other Toastmasters club because of conflicts, join Dawn Patrol. We also have a good mix of veteran, new-ish (a year maybe two), and brand-new members, so you can see the distinct manner of progress in how well people speak. We're all still learning.

Club website:

Put us on your calendar. The doors are open at 7, but be sure to be in the room by 7:15 as the library itself isn't open until 8:30. We will have you on your way by then to continue the rest of your day. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Labor History Sites bike ride, Year #1

What started with a Facebook post in 2012, and three years of tossing the idea around on the Bike-Pgh message board, took form at long last: a bike ride to visit some of Pittsburgh's labor history sites.

While this was taking place, some 70,000 gathered to march in Pittsburgh's Labor Day parade, one of the nation's largest, including Vice President Joe Biden. Parades are important, marching is important, but IMHO, it's also valuable to know what we evolved from.

Attending: me, Joyce, Jonathon, Paul, Jon; later joined by Yale, Ray, Geoffrey, Rich; Colleen intended to join us en route, and actually got to one of the sites before we did, but had to leave.

The weather was sunny and hot, more typical of July 4 than September 7, into the 90s by noon. For this reason alone, I might move next year's start time back to 9 instead of 10. It got hot after a couple of hours.

The plan was to start in McKees Rocks, then hit a couple of sites on the North Side, loop downtown, then visit some sites in the Strip District and Lawrenceville. From there, we could go in several directions. As it turned out, the still running parade kept us away from Downtown, and the heat and elapsed time cut the plan short at Lawrenceville.

The short version is that there is too much to see in a single ride. I don't think you can properly do it in two, even three. At Lawrenceville, we could have continue to East Liberty, or up to the Hill District, or out to Homestead and McKeesport. We didn't even consider anything south of the Mon. And as it turned out, we missed all of downtown anyway.

What we did see:
* Presston Pressed Steel Car strike site of 1909
* Discussed the 2007 Pepsi bottling works almost-strike
* Thomas Armstrong statue in West Park by the Aviary
* Cotton mill marker on the North Shore by 7th St Bridge, notable for women striking and near-rioting in the 1840s.
* Various sites commemorating the 1877 railroad strike, notably markers erected by the Howling Mob Society

For each of these sites, it is useful to know:
* What conditions led to them occurring, both immediately before and in months and years leading up to it
* What happened during the incidents, both the death/injury/destruction aspect, and the management/police/governmental handling and mishandling
* What was gained, what was lost, lasting effects good and bad
Expect that several minutes will be spent at each site, explaining the significance of the site.

People would be interested in this, if promoted some. Some effort to research access, parking, hill climbs, and availability of water, food and restrooms, would be helpful. If held on Labor Day next year, expect that the buses are running a Sunday schedule, significant if trying to get back to where a car is parked, in a reasonable amount of time, effort, and bus fare.

Ensure that the cue sheet makes sense and can be ridden by a non-expert rider. Pre-riding it with such a rider would have helped considerably.

The route we did take:
* Started at Ohio Street, Presston (Stowe, McKees Rocks Bottoms)

* Past the 1909 strike marker

* McKees Rocks Bridge upstream sidewalk
* Crossed PA65, then we split, a couple of us using the Davis Ave steps, the others riding the brick street up to the corner of California and Termon.
* California, Orchlee, Fleming, Antrim, McClure, Eckert, Beaver, Westhall, to the trail
* Three Rivers Heritage Trail to past the casino; we did not try to go past the Science Center on the trail because of large crowds for a water exhibit.
* Rode the street to past PNC Park, but in doing this, we made a wrong straight. We should have turned under the Fort Duquesne Bridge and used Scotland and Merchant Streets to get up to West Park. As it was, we were able to use sidewalks on Federal Street and South and West Commons to backtrack to West Ohio Street.
* Thomas Armstrong statue in West Park

* Arch, North, Federal, Montgomery, sidewalk by school, to CIO marker

* Through park to the corner of Cedar and East Ohio; then Cedar, Canal, Anderson, Isabella (sidewalk), ramps to trail (caution: staircase!)
* Cotton mill marker

* Up to 6th/Federal, 6th St Bridge, Penn, 13th, to former Howling Mob Society (HMS) marker by Heinz History Center
* Smallman to 21st, by site of one HMS marker, and near another at Penn Ave
*  Behind Terminal Building to 22nd, to Railroad Street, to 23rd St, by existing HMS marker
* Railroad to 26th to Spring; existing HMS marker for the roundhouse riot and fire
* Spring, 28th, across Liberty to large lot; past existing marker for 1877 strike; near site of former HMS marker
* Back to Spring, to 31st, Penn, past former site of HMS marker at Doughboy Square
* Butler to 39th, up 39th to Penn, existing HMS marker

The ride ended here, as we were all hot, tired, hungry, and in need of restrooms.

Just missed seeing the 1862 Allegheny Arsenal site. (As I wrote this text, I was sitting in a coffee shop only a block away, so stopped by for a mini-tour by myself once I left.)
One last thing: One little giggle we got while looking at the 23rd and Railroad sign was watching the tow trucks show up for the cars that parked on the live train tracks.

You sometimes have to wonder why people do such stupid things.

* * *

Having done this once, I think there is value in it, though making it more accessible, more entertaining and informative, and do-able in two hours, would be a primary goal. I am also looking for more content to include. As one example, there was an October 1915 sweatshop fire in a Sandusky Street building that killed 13 workers; the building still stands today. There must be many other examples.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

A gigawatt of solar panels

To become fully self-sufficient in our energy production, we need to more than ramp up our use of solar energy. Double isn't good enough, nor is 10x. Maybe not even 100x. No, we need to start thinking in terms of gigawatts. The capacity of commercial power plants, be they nuclear or fossil fuel or hydroelectric dams, is measured in GW.

I am not here to argue climate change or the relative pros and cons of various generating mechanisms, concern over low sun angles in the winter, or the rather obvious problem of the sun not in the sky half of the day. Rather, how big an array would you really need to start thinking in terms of GW, in a metro area the size of Pittsburgh?

Start with a real product, a solar panel made by Sharp, model ND-F4Q300. Each panel can put out 300 watts. It's about 1x2 meters in size and weighs 50 pounds. I won't discuss price, as any major generating plant would cost in the billions of dollars to design and construct. If we end up spending a billion here, too, that's reasonable, but irrelevant for the current question. At least not yet.
My initial idea was to construct a large roof over an interstate highway, and mount the panels on that. Ignoring the problems inherent in building a shed of that size, assume it's possible. I am trying to visualize the scale of a structure big enough to generate 1GW of power. It does not need to be a roof over a highway, but that is the model I will use here.

Start small, let's say a kilowatt. At 300 watts a panel, that would require four panels -- 1200 watts total, building in some buffer to account for clouds and low sun angles. For purposes of estimation, this is close enough. A panel array 4m wide and 2m high would thus give us a kW. Single house residential roof installations usually consist of a few of these, some multiple of 1kW, depending on the size of the roof and the depth of the homeowner's pocket. We should have 10,000 of these, but in addition to, not in place of, the GW-scale installations, as there will certainly be tens of thousands of homes and businesses without their own installations. The power they use has to come from somewhere.

Back to our highway roof idea. A typical interstate highway is two 12-foot lanes and a 12-foot shoulder, both directions, with a 36-foot median, and 50 feet of "clear recovery zone" on either side -- space free of trees, light poles, large road signs, and supports for big solar roof structures, so you won't get killed if you fall asleep at the wheel and drift off the road. Total, 208 feet of space between roof supports. Again, not that we would actually build this thing, but how much space does that give us to mount some solar panels? 208 feet is about 63 meters. Assuming a simple trapezoidal cross section, let's say that would give us about 40 meters horizontal space on the roof to work with. Rearrange our array to be 1m wide and 40m long, that's 20 panels. So, 1m of expressway distance would let us generate (300 watts x 20 panels) 6,000 watts, or 6kW, about what's needed to power one house.

Now let's play with numbers. Ten meters of expressway distance, 40m across, is 60kW. That's roughly the size of a gas station or small suburban strip mall parking lot, or the building's roof. We have lots of those around. That's a perfectly manageable size. A city the size of Pittsburgh probably has 1,000 such locations, be they roofs of existing structures, or adjacent parking lots that could accommodate a 10x40m panel array. Do the math; that's now 60 megawatts. Together with the previously mentioned private residences, we are now only one order of magnitude removed from that GW.

Meanwhile, back at the interstate, let's lengthen that roof to 100 meters. Imagine now an airport hangar, not that you would put a solar array on one, but a building big enough to house a full-size jet is going to be on the scale of 40x100m. That size of an array would generate 600kW. That's enough juice to support a small neighborhood's summertime air conditioners, typically 3kW apiece, and changing that sunshine to go juice exactly when those 200 A/C units are running. This is roughly the size of a school building or small industrial building in a suburban office park, or its adjoining parking lot. Pittsburgh has hundreds of these types of spaces.

Not big enough yet, though. Make the array a full 1km long and 40m wide. Six megawatts. That can power a small town. If it was square, it would be 200 meters on a side. In terms of scale, think of shopping mall, hospital, or stadium parking lots. We have dozens of these in Pittsburgh. Building a solar roof over them is a lot easier to manage than building one over an interstate highway.

Let's change the multiplier here. How big an array to get to 10MW of generating capacity? At 40m wide, you would need 1,550 meters of highway roof, or a square 380m on a side, still in the scale of a stadium or regional shopping mall. A human can still stand in one spot and see it all, and moreover, nothing below it needs to change. Ross Park Mall's parking lot would do exactly what it does now, sit 80% empty 95% of the time, but require a lot less wintertime snow removal, and shoppers would not have to worry about being caught in a summer thunderstorm on their way into or out of the mall.

The next order of magnitude gets more difficult to envision. To generate 100 megawatts, our interstate would be covered for 15.5 km of its distance. For Pittsburgh, that would be as if I-279 was covered from Allegheny General Hospital all the way up to Camp Horne Road, or the Parkway East from the Squirrel Hill Tunnels to the Turnpike at Monroeville. A square would be 780 meters on a side. The Mall at Robinson takes up about that much real estate, considering both building and parking lot.

To get to that GW, though, we go up one more order of magniude. The highway roof idea is now 155 km, or roughly I-79 from Cranberry to Erie. A square is 2.5 km on a side, covering an entire village the size of Crafton. Even to me, that sounds challenging beyond comprehension.
But we don't have to do that. Add up all those other things I mentioned:
* 10,000 residential rooftops at 5kW each
* 1,000 gas stations at 50kW each
* 100 schools and office parks at 500kW each
* 50 big parking lots at malls, stadiums, hospitals at 1MW each
* 10 entire malls or similar huge, coverable structures at 10MW each

Each of them is generating a piece of the puzzle: 60 MW here, 100 MW there, it adds up. Rough numbers, the above is at about 300 MW, not quite 1GW but getting closer in magnitude. We could be building them all, bit by bit, but at orders of magnitude greater speed. We're not. What we're doing is incremental, at best, and at worst, we are making it difficult for ourselves. That residential solar tax credit expires 31 Oct 2015.

Here is where things get interesting, though. We've been here before, three times, at least. About 1830, enough little demonstration projects for steam locomotives and railroad trackage had been constructed to allow some visionaries to dream, and put those dreams into action. Hardly a generation later, we had built railroads to connect every city, and were well on our way to connect oceans. A generation after that, that was where all the money was -- railroads, and the steelmaking to support it all. The second and third biggies happened at once -- automobiles and electric power, both just after 1900. The amount of infrastructure to be built, and the support industries that grew up to feed them, and be fed by them, drove our economy like gangbusters for 100 years. Can we please learn from our own past success?

Getting to GW-scale power generation will not be easy. Putting roofs over entire shopping malls will require lots of everything -- engineering, construction, manufacturing, legal. But we can do this. Every major metropolitan area in the country will face a similar need for the same reason. Pittsburgh will need its own GW generator, so will St. Louis, Salt Lake City, Pensacola, etc. It might be easier to generate farther south, but it's also warmer, so more constant draw from A/C systems, too.

However, I have understated the need. Since the sun doesn't shine at night, we really need to double what I stated above. We need the first GW to run the A/C in the daytime and a second GW to run a set of pumps to refill the reservoirs to run the turbines to generate the juice to run the lights at night. It's all a mere matter of how many GW capacity can we build, and how soon?

We will need lots more electricity than we do now, as car fuel moves from fossil to electric. Recharging your Tesla while you are at work is a great idea, but the juice has to come from somewhere. May as well be solar.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Rescue angel

[retooled a bit from the original Facebook post]

The short version: I decided to bus home after the Critical Mass ride. A charity race had Liberty Ave & every cross street closed, so every bus route is detoured. Of course I missed my 12, but so did two young women who were already confused without the detour. Rather than wait 59 minutes for the next 12, I arranged with my wife to pick us all up in WView, and drive them to their car, six miles away.


So this is really a story about how I gained the trust of two 20ish women to get on a strange bus with a strange man who called his wife to come rescue them. If you were in their shoes, would you have done the same? But they did so without any pressure from me. Perhaps it was the interchange of "When is the next bus?" "Um, 59 minutes from now." Possibly it was because, with a helmet and a mirror on, pushing a bicycle, with a laptop strapped over my shoulder, I didn't fit the profile of the flesh-eating monster.

What actually happened was, I pushed the bike across Liberty, and saw that there was no queue of would-be bus riders at the stop. The two women, who were dressed very very nicely, as if they'd gone to a symphony concert or some such, were staring at the detour sign zip-tied to the post on the corner of Liberty and 7th Street. I poked my head around the side of the sign, gave it about two seconds' glance, murmured something about "Oh, they're doing that, OK", and started off to the detour stop. 

But I heard one of them say something about the 12A, a bus route that has not existed since 2011, so took a look over my shoulder as I walked away. They were still staring at the sign. This told me that they were well and truly lost. So I turned around, walked back the 15 feet, and asked, "Where are you trying to get to?" "Showcase Cinema." [Note: That park & ride lot hasn't been called that in about two years, and for that matter, the cinema itself is now closed.] This meant they were trying to catch the same bus I was, so needed to go to the same detour bus stop as me, so I told them that, and they willingly followed. Their fundamental problem was that they didn't know which direction to walk to to get to 7th Street and Ft Duquesne Blvd from that spot, and I did. It's only about two blocks away, but with sidewalk caf├ęs blocking foot traffic and streets partially closed (people and cars coming out of a parking garage were competing for space on 7th), it was confusing even beyond trying to navigate the distance. 

Turns out, we should have figured out all the details about 30 seconds sooner, as I saw the bus turn off of Ft Duq Blvd onto the 7th St Bridge just as we approached the other side of the street, too far away to run or even wave it down. That close. They didn't realize the fix they and I were now in, so I had to explain it. My mind was also trying to figure out multiple Plans B, not only for myself but for them. I wasn't really stuck; I could have biked home, if push came to shove. But they couldn't, and I wasn't going to leave them hanging. They had two options: Wait an hour for a bus in high heels and 85-degree heat, or possibly I could call my wife to pick us all up in West View, which is six miles from the P&R. I explained the plan, and that the 8 Perrysville would be along in only about five minutes, so they went with it.

They didn't know fares, they didn't know when to pay, they really had very little information, but were trying to use the system. 

I rather enjoy being the rescue angel. Actually, Spouse Taxi Service was the rescue, I was just the booking agent, and I needed the service myself.  

Moral of the story, it doesn't take too much work to be a nice person. It really does help when you go out of your way to help other people, and the way to do that is to have information, know what the options are, and have all the resources readily available: phone, spouse, car, time. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Old, nationalistic grudges

One day in 1985, I took my Toyota in for some routine work. While waiting at the counter, another customer, retirement age, said "Toyota, huh? Damned Japs. I won't own one! I blew more Nips out of the sky than you could shake a stick at. Didn't get them all, though. One got my brother on Okinawa in '45. Lost a good friend on the Arizona in Pearl Harbor, too. Never forget Pearl Harbor!"

I don't remember what, if anything, I said in response. It doesn't matter. But I thought later, wow, to be still carrying all that anger, 40 years later. It left a mark on me. Remember Pearl Harbor. Remember the Maine. Remember the Pueblo. The Alamo. The Lusitania. All of them got us into or carried us through one war or another.

And now, remember 9/11/2001. Remember it how? Remember it why? And increasingly, "Remember it? I wasn't even born yet!" Think about it. It's 2015. Unless you are already in your mid-20s, it was already history. Anyone not already in college will have little to no recollection, let alone understanding, of what happened that day, and instead have only experienced its after-effects. Continuous war. Threats of terror attacks. Constant security theater. And increasingly, demonization of an entire religion and an entire region of the globe.

Is this right? Why are we raising a generation to hate and fear Islam, and everyone and everything in the Middle East?

We can and should have a separate discussion about what spurred the 20 terrorists on 9/11, but that is not relevant here. Just, do we need to be like that Jap-hater from 30 years ago? I say no.