Saturday, February 6, 2010

10:10 Carbon saving tips: Step 2 - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

After 15 months the company I came to work for in Belgium was closed and I lost my job. This meant having to give back my company car and for the first time in 20 years meant we were down to being a 1 car family!

I managed to do some consulting work to keep a little money coming in and this led to a contract with a small firm in Brussels. By this point our savings were running low and we still did not feel we could buy another car. Luckily about a mile from home there is a tram that costs only €1.25 each way and takes me to within 100 meters to the office.

Good as the tram is, its main issue (like all public transport) is latency. I will explain: At the tram’s maximum speed, 60km/h, the 12km/7.5 mile journey would take 12 minutes. However including all of its stops the total time on the tram is 25 minutes. The Tervuren tram runs every 7 minutes during peak time. I have to change trams at Montgomery and the second tram, though nominally every 5 minutes can keep me waiting over 10 minutes if delayed by traffic. The worst case journey time including this latency is 25+7+10 = 42 minutes, instead of 12 minutes if it was point to point. The shortest journey is 30 minutes and the average 35 minutes. All of this does not include the 1 mile to get to the tram stop, which is a further 10 minutes. This was uncomfortably above my self imposed 30 minute commuting time limit.

For comparison, on the odd occasions I took the car it normally took 30 minutes. The shortest time was 18 minutes and the longest 2 hours 40 minutes (caught in Belgium’s biggest ever traffic jam with 500km of tailbacks across its motorway network). At least one in 5 journeys was over 1 hour.

As spring came I decided to try cycling to work. I’d bought quite a good Cannondale bicycle some years before so as to occasionally cycle to Ely and take the train into Cambridge. I had also cycled to Leuven a few times when the weather allowed. I was impressed that at 48 I could cycle to work in around 35 minutes. For about half of the journey I could take advantage of cycle lanes. I could overtake stationary traffic at junctions which kept my average speed up. Best of all the variance in journey time was low, with the best being 28 minutes and the worst being 40 minutes.

Unfortunately, the journey to work is almost never flat, with two long uphill drags and another two back down. The hill climbing dominated my journey time and I really had to push to keep my average speed up. By the summer I was reaching work in a dripping mess and had to take a shower. Showering added 15 minutes to my journey time and somewhat negated my gains. Nevertheless, the commute now doubled as useful leisure time and I was feeling the benefits of having an hour’s exercise every day so I did not want to give it up!

The answer to improving my work commuting times came in the form of an electric bicycle kit from Alien Ocean in Scotland. They sell electric bicycles from ₤500 but as I already had a good bicycle I decided to go for their Lithium Ion battery plus front wheel motor kit. It was very simple to install and in around two hours my new “electric bike” was ready. The kit, quite rightly, came with its maximum speed set to the EU electric assist limit of 25km/h/ 15mph. Although the assist increased my uphill speed from 6mph to 10mph I could already cycle faster than 15mph on the straight so the gains were a little disappointing. Happily the Alien Ocean kit is designed for both US and EU regulations so I was able, at my discretion, to turn it up to the much more reasonable US limit of 20mph. This probably means my electric bike is illegal but I figure if it means I can save the environment it is a transgression I would stand up for.

My journey time is now comfortably and reliably under 30 minutes. The motor is driven by a thumb throttle so I still get as much exercise as I want. On the straight I get a small amount of assist, perhaps 1 or 2 mph. On the hills the adjusted electric assist is closer to its maximum power of 250watt and has added another 2mph to 12mph. The 360WHr battery will just manage 2 days or 48km (30 miles) on a charge, which is lucky given I have forgotten to charge it overnight on several occasions. A days commuting costs just 0.2kWh/€0.03. Better still it meant we could comfortably run one car instead of two which is a massive saving in both cost and carbon footprint.

There is one word of caution however. It is more dangerous to cycle than it should be. I’ve been cut up by thoughtless car drivers on 7 separate occasions and actually collided with cars twice, once while I was in the cycle lane! If Governments really wants to promote cycling then they must do more to protect cycling from other road vehicles and, arguably, less to protect cyclists from themselves. In my opinion the 15mph limit makes the electric bicycle unattractive as a commuting vehicle; the Government should trust cyclists to use their discretion, after all they don’t limit cars to 70mph!

[The bike, including battery (back) and electric motor (centre of front wheel)]

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