Archive of category "DR"

by Tony Sirna

This article is also posted on Dancing Rabbit’s March Hare Blog and we encourage you to add any comments there.

Part 1 in a series of articles exploring cities adopting DR’s covenants.

People often say that Dancing Rabbit is in the middle of nowhere, and it’s hard to dispute. Rutledge, our nearest town, has a population of 100 (which we hope to surpass in the next few years) and our whole county has fewer residents than some big city high schools (4,843 by the last census).

But what we do at Dancing Rabbit is as relevant to cities as it is to small town USA, and I’ve begun to wonder: what if cities adopted Dancing Rabbit’s ecological covenants?

At Dancing Rabbit only pedestrians, cyclists, and delivery vehicles can use the roads

These six Dancing Rabbit covenants are the foundation of our ecological expectations of residents and members. Our covenants are based in the belief that radical change is possible and that it will come both through personal choices and through major shifts in physical and social infrastructure. They are based in the understanding that conservation is key, and that only with reduced consumption can technological innovation meet our needs sustainably. We’ve found that cooperation is a powerful tool for conservation and we believe a shift towards more sharing is a big part of the social change we’ll need. Our covenants don’t describe every aspect of a sustainable society, but we’ve found that these few simple rules put us far along the path towards sustainability.

In this series of articles I’ll explore what it would look like for cities, neighborhoods, or regions to adopt DR’s covenants.

Our first (and perhaps most impactful) covenant states:

“Dancing Rabbit members will not use personal motorized vehicles, or store them on Dancing Rabbit property.”

What would happen if a major US city passed a law that personal motorized vehicles were not allowed or at least seriously curtailed their use? For example, what if New York prohibited personal motorized vehicles to drive or park on the island of Manhattan? Could that really work? Would people stand for it? Would the city suffer or flourish under such a law? What exceptions would have to be made?

People have written whole books about New York City transportation systems and I can’t possibly cover it all in that level of detail but here’s a quick look at the possibility.

A Car-free Times Square in New York City

A Car-free Times Square in New York City

The Details

While Dancing Rabbit’s covenant is worded simply, it required a lot of work to clarify the details of what constitutes a motorized vehicle. New York would have to do the same. At DR, anything powered by internal combustion and anything much bigger than a bike is a motorized vehicle. With some careful wording you could make sure to allow electric bikes and maybe scooters, as well as wheel chairs, Segways, or electric skateboards while still regulating electric cars and motorcycles.

What about through-traffic from New Jersey to outer boroughs, upstate New York, and Long Island? To address this, New York City could create a few corridors for people to travel across the island and such travelers would probably see a speed up with no local traffic to contend with (current average cross town speed – 5.2 mph).1 Of course, this was Robert Moses’ plan, in opposition to which modern, community-based urban design was born and which still inspires spirited controversy today. Some creative thinking would be required to find a way to allow corridors to exist without disrupting neighborhoods and the robust pedestrian network that makes Manhattan unique among American downtowns.

New York would also have to define what it means for a vehicle to be “personal”. The law should allow for police, fire, and ambulances, as well as various forms of public transit. Business delivery vehicles could be restricted to certain hours and areas to allow pedestrians and human powered vehicles free access. And what about the ubiquitous NYC taxi? Taxis would likely still be allowed and their use might even increase to meet the needs of the now carless residents and visitors to the city. People with certain disabilities might be able to get special vehicle permits if transit could not meet their needs.

New York might even plan for a system like the car co-op at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. Our car co-op serves the needs of 60 people with only three vehicles. Companies like ZipCar, Mint, and Connect by Hertz could provide vehicles for short term use when a taxi or transit just won’t work, or for those taking a trip off the island. (Peer-to-peer carsharing is a non-starter when no-one has a private car.) To prevent an easy loophole (“This SUV? It’s my one-person carshare!”), New York would need a clear definition of a valid car co-op or carsharing program. A good litmus test might be a minimum member to car ratio, which could be set at 40 to 1, ZipCar’s current ratio.

If New York banned cars in Manhattan, more people would park in New Jersey and the outer boroughs and take mass transit from there. This would mean increasing the parking capacity at existing transit stations, as well as creating some new transit hubs with additional parking. New York could also provide parking at each bridge, tunnel, or ferry crossing, with taxi and transit service from these locations. New York’s current expansion of the ferry system would serve the car-free plan quite well.

The Benefits

What benefits would New York enjoy in such a scenario? At present, over 35 percent of the area of Manhattan is occupied by roads.2 One reason for this is because personal vehicles are a remarkably inefficient use of road area. Therefore, it’s likely that without private vehicles, road area could be reduced by 30-60% as street parking was removed and major roads narrowed. As most roads were turned over to pedestrians and bicycles, safety and convenience would increase for more ecologically sound forms of transit. Some existing road space could be converted to parks or gardens, allowing for urban agriculture and recreation. Other space could be used for commerce such as street vendors or outdoor seating for restaurants. New York City has been doing these things already, with over 250 miles of new bike lines (including protected lanes segregated from car traffic) installed since 2007,3 and new car-free pedestrian plazas at major intersections all over the city.

Transit ridership would jump, which would mean better service for everyone as buses, subways, and trains would come more frequently to meet the higher demand. Transit systems feeding NYC would also see an increase as many people would opt to take light rail to get into the city.

Air pollution would drop drastically, as “motor vehicles contribute approximately 11% of the local PM2.5 (fine particles) and 28% of the nitrogen oxide emissions” in New York City.4 It could be reduced even further if New York mandated that all taxis and car co-ops met high mileage standards, or were electrified. Buses could also be electrified (don’t get confused by the MTA’s current “hybrid-electric” bus fleet – that’s different) or use alternative fuels with lower pollution potential.

New York’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions footprint would also drop, since 18% of New York City’s GHG inventory is from on-road transportation.5 While only some of those vehicles are private cars in Manhattan, the effect would nevertheless be profound.

There would also be health benefits as more people would walk and bike – “New Yorkers residing in densely populated, pedestrian-friendly areas have significantly lower body mass index (BMI) levels compared to other New Yorkers.”6 Local businesses would benefit as well – a New York University study, in collaboration with Transportation Alternatives, found that protected bike lanes and select bus service in Manhattan’s East Village would increase spending at local businesses, despite fears that reducing parking would hurt sales.7

Overall, New Yorkers would see significant quality of life improvements with less noise, cleaner air, more outdoor space for kids to play, and better transit systems. Not only that, New Yorkers would have more money. According to the New York Times, “American families who are car-dependent spend 25 percent of their household income on their fleet of cars, compared with just 9 percent for transportation for those who live in walkable urban places.”8

Drawbacks

A huge change like this would require large infrastructure investments, so the obvious question is, how would these changes be funded?

Revenue would likely come from a variety of sources: transit fees, taxi medallions, parking fees, tolls for delivery vehicles, leasing newly vacated roadways, tolls on through traffic, and reduced cost for roads. Care would need to be taken to prevent any undue burden on any specific segment of the population.

One option is to transition towards banning cars by implementing some form of Congestion Pricing. This is a system adopted in some European cities (e.g. London, Stockholm, and Milan) that charges any vehicles to enter certain areas of the urban center, sometimes with rates calibrated by time of day or current congestion. Such a system was proposed for New York City a few years ago9 but, while widely popular with the majority of New Yorkers,10 did not pass the New York State legislature, a required step for implementation. Using such a system to transition to car-free areas could generate significant revenue from the vehicle surcharges (after accounting for lost income from moving violations and parking tickets) which could go towards the infrastructure improvements required for a car-free city. It would also allow for a smooth transition as areas of the city are designated for a surcharge, with a ban on cars following a few years later. These areas could expand at regular intervals to allow people and infrastructure to adapt.

There would also be significant cost avoidance in a car-free city, since “traffic costs the city nearly $30 billion a year due to losses in employee productivity, traffic accidents, air pollution, traffic noise and roadway damage.”1 Perhaps some of that $30 billion could make its way towards increasing the mass transit infrastructure.

Regardless of how improvements were funded, there would be some folks who would not appreciate the change. Those who make their living off of the car culture in the dense urban center and people who simply want to own and drive their own vehicle in the city might resent or resist the plan. This type of cultural change may always have its malcontents, but as with the pedestrian riots when new-fangled automobiles killed walkers in the 1920s, once the shift occurs, the new way of doing things quickly becomes “normal” and protests are few.

Other Cities

So what about cities besides New York, could they ban personal vehicles?

New Yorkers are not your average Americans. New York’s high density and robust transit system make it an ideal candidate for a car-free city, and over half of all NYC households don’t own a car. In Manhattan, that number is around 75% almost ten times as high as the national average of 8%.4 These exceptional characteristics make New York a natural place to start envisioning a car-free urban center. Nevertheless, could other cities consider banning personal vehicles?

It would certainly be harder in some of America’s sprawling metropolises like Houston or Phoenix, which would require a major infrastructure overhaul to allow for a switch away from private vehicles. But it’s not hard to imagine cities like San Francisco, Portland, Boston, Los Angeles, or Seattle banning private vehicles in major portions of their metro areas and then allowing those new areas to grow as the infrastructure and demographics shifted with the new system. While it would be harder for some cities than others, any place could make the shift if given the time for the infrastructure to change.

How Crazy an Idea is this?

There are already a number of car-free places in the world11 ranging from small towns and islands to small zones in urban centers. An experimental, mostly car-free suburb near Freiburg Germany. Car-free parks and weekly car-free days in major American cities. Pedestrian shopping centers. City centers in the developing world and the ancient world.

It is clear that car-free cities can be both possible and amazingly vibrant. I have no doubt that a move away from private cars will make our cities not just more sustainable but more livable and enjoyable for all. Hopefully our citizens and political leaders can take the brave step towards such a future soon.

This is part 1 in a series of articles exploring cities adopting DR’s covenants. In the next article we’ll explore eliminating fossil fuel for most significant uses.

Jacob Corvidae and Cecil Scheib also contributed to this article.

Footnotes

1 http://www.gothamgazette.com/iotw/traffic/

2 http://www.bopsecrets.org/CF/goodman-cars.htm — An essay from 1961 on banning cars on Manhattan

3 http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/bicyclists/past-route-projects.shtml

4 http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/air/emissions_from_transportation.shtml

5 http://www.nyc.gov/html/om/pdf/2011/pr331-11_report.pdf

6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transportation_in_New_York_City

7 http://transalt.org/newsroom/media/4629

8 http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/12/carless-in-america/

9 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_congestion_pricing

10 http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/schaller_paper_2010trb.pdf

11 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_car-free_places

by Tony Sirna

Nissan LEAFI’ve been doing a bunch of research lately on electric vehicles to see what might make sense for us at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage for our vehicle co-op. For 12 years we have been focusing on biodiesel and vegetable oil based fuels but things have not always been smooth. The main issues have been related to winter fuel gelling and fuel filters clogging in general. We’ve also never gotten a steady system for  collection of used oil and production going, so we have been using biodiesel made from new veggie oil which is only marginally better for the environment than petroleum.

We are now embarking on a major re-evaluation of vehicle technologies for our co-op, with a team researching things like electric vehicles, hybrids, ethanol (including home made, potentially from cellulose), bio-gas, wood-gas, human and animal powered, and any new technologies in the veggie oil world.

My interest in electric vehicles (EVs) has come out of my research into a village-wide electric power co-op with a largish wind turbine to power our whole village. With an abundant source of renewable electricity, EVs could be our most ecological option. There are ecological issues related to batteries of course, but my research shows that EVs are a net benefit over petro based vehicles and on par with other bio-fueled options currently or soon to be available (more on that in a post soon).

Of course the main issue with EVs is about range – how far you can drive on a single charge. Most all-electric vehicles (sometimes called Battery Electric Vehicles or BEVs to distinguish them from hybrids) still have ranges in the 80-100 mile range. That range is great for most folks daily commuting needs, but our rural location means many or even most of our trips are 80-150 miles.

A further complication, is that a 100 mile advertised range does not always mean you can drive 100 miles. Accessories like A/C, heat, lights, etc. can reduce your range. Higher speeds and hills also reduce range (and while we don’t have mountains we do have hills). Winter temps can also reduce battery capacity and range.  It also matters how you drive – fast acceleration and breaking are inefficient.

So what are our options?

In the All Electric Category I found the following vehicles available now or in the next 18 months.

Vehicle Range Cost
Nissan LEAF 100 miles $33,000
CODA 90-120 mi $30-40,000
i-MIEV 80-100 mi $30,000
Mini-E (2 passenger) upto 150 Unknown
Ford Focus 80-100 mi Unknown
Ford Transit Connect 80 mi Unknown
Tesla Sedan (claims to seat up to 7) 160-300mi $57-75,000
Think City 100 miles $37,0000
Conversion Kit Vehicle 25-80 miles $20-30,000

The most appealing for us would be the Tesla Sedan because of the extended range it can provide. The price tag is pretty high though. The Nissan LEAF is definitely more affordable, but its unclear if it would really get us where we need to go (and back that is). The CODA is still limited in its availability.

For folks living in suburban or urban areas with shorter commutes I think a lot of these options would work great.

I also looked into Plug-in Hybrids such as the upcoming Chevy Volt and the 2011 Plug-in Prius as well as the various Prius Plug-in conversion kits.

The Volt is expected to have a 40 mile electric range and get 50 mpg once the gasoline (or E85) engine kicks in.  The 2011 Prius will have only a 15 mile electric range and also get around 50 mpg. With a Prius Plug in conversion you can get electric ranges of 25-50 miles before it goes back into hybrid modde and gets 46-50 mpg (depending on model year).

Its too bad the electric range on these hybrids is so short. If you could get something with an 80 mile range and a gasoline/diesel back up that would really work well for us and for a lot of people I would think. Obviously the cost and weight of having a big battery pack and a gas engine is probably the issue.

I’m expecting that once these EVs are available,  someone will come up with an aftermarket add on battery pack to increase the range, just like there are plug-in Prius kits. That could be just the ticket and demonstrate the demand for EVs with a bigger range.

by Tony Sirna

Today there is  a blogathon happening at Dancing Rabbit. Its a fundraiser so please consider donating to Dancing Rabbit.

We’ve been promoting the blog as being Pedal Powered but the company that was supposed to ship us the pedal powered generator never shipped the product! Annoying…

So last night I went into McGyver mode to see if I could come up with some way to power the blog with a bicycle. I had less than 24 hours, so I had to use what was on site or could maybe go to an auto parts store (in the end I didn’t have to). Here’s what I came up with:

First I found an old training stand and mounted my bike on it.

Bike on Training Stand

Bike Mounted on Training Stand

Then I found an old cordless drill that I hadn’t used in years because it wouldn’t go in reverse. I hooked up some wires to where the battery would connect and then connected it to the training stand.

Cordless Drill For Bike Generator

Cordless Drill For Bike Generator

Then I found a pocket inverter that would convert 12 Volt Dc to 120 Volt AC and hooked that up to the wires coming from the drill.

Pocket Inverter

Pocket Inverter

Using a volt meter, I could adjust the speed of my pedaling to keep the voltage around 11 to 14 Volts. We then turned on the inverter and powered a lightbulb as a test.

Pedal Powered Generator Made from a Cordless Drill

Pedal Powered Generator Made from a Cordless Drill

Later today we’ll be hooking this up to a computer. I don’t know if we’ll be able to keep the computer powered the whole 24 hours like we had hoped but its at least something and not too shabby given 24 hours and all the parts were already on site.

Update: When we tried to plug in the computer the higher current draw made the voltage drop below the inverter’s cut off point, and we couldn’t bike fast enough to keep up. I went and found a small 12 Volt solar charge controller and a tiny 12 Volt battery and now the generator charges the battery as it is powering the computer.

I’ll be posting more during the Blogathon and don’t forget to Donate to Dancing Rabbit.

by Tony Sirna

At Dancing Rabbit we have been using consensus to make decisions since our inception. In consensus, decisions must be agreed to by all members of the group, with any member being able to block a decision. In practice, we now delegate a lot of decisions to committees and managers, such that the group is only called upon to make larger policy decisions.

We are at a stage where we are considering moving away from consensus to some other form of decision making. Discussions are in the preliminary stages, but one of the desires for a new system is to allow for better delegation and more streamlined management (at least some people express this desire).

It’s gotten me thinking about delegation and management and what it means to make good decisions on behalf of the group. I’ve started to realize that their are deep questions embedded here that touch on what it means to have good governance in almost any system.

How then do we define a good decision, or good management?

In a consensus organization, I would propose that a manager makes a good decision when she or he makes a decision that is essentially in line with what the group would have made if it had used its full consensus process. Another way to say this is that, if given a review by the membership, no-one would block that decision from moving forward.

Making such decisions is not always easy. It involves not just having good judgment on the topic at hand but also a strong sense of the group’s values and how to weigh them when making a decision. In a group that is functioning well, and with a manager who engenders trust from the group, the group will generally give them the benefit of the doubt as it takes a lot of effort and spending of social capital to object to a manager’s decision. So the manager does not need to be perfect, just make sure their decisions are within the threshold of the groups tolerance and/or passivity.

In a hierarchical system, I suppose that a manager is trying to make the decisions their boss would make if they were making them, or at least getting close enough to that target to avoid a decision being overturned by a boss or some other form of reprimand. Managers with people under them also have to “manage down” meaning that they must consider how their decisions will affect their staff. Hopefully, these two interested parties are not in dissent or you can be in trouble. But in such a case the manager would usually side with their boss as the bottom line and the staff can take it or leave it. (At least that’s how I remember hierarchies working – its been awhile :-) )

For those at the top of the hierarchy, its gets a little more confusing. For a CEO, a good decision is probably defined as one that will maximize the (long-term?) profitability of their company (though might, in fact, be tailored to maximize their bonus). For a non-profit, you might say the goal is to maximize the achievement of the organization’s goals.

But what of the mayor of a town or the president of a country or any representative in a democratic system. How do we measure their success or the quality of their decisions?

One could say that, it is again more like consensus, in that the goal is to make the decisions that the people would have made themselves, if it were practical to make decisions that way. Some might argue that this isn’t true – that a leader is sometimes expected to make better decisions than the people would make themselves. My gut says this is true, but what then defines “better”?

I suppose one could say that if there were an accepted measure of the prosperity of a city, nation, etc. then decision-makers could work to optimize for that metric. This could take the form of something like the Genuine Progress Indicator but its hard for any such metric to take all factors into account.

One could argue that in a functioning democracy a leader will know if they are making good decisions (or at least good enough) if they can get re-elected. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that most democratic systems of any large scale are functioning so well as to make sure that leaders are evaluated by the quality of their governance and not by their ability to raise funds, campaign, etc.

Going back to Dancing Rabbit, what guidance should we give to committees and managers whom we delegate power to? How should their decisions be evaluated? When should they be overturned? How much leeway do you give someone to diverge from what the group would decide?

In some ways, it puts the membership in the position of trying to be good at “managing down”. If the group wants to best achieve its goals there is a balance between finding the optimal decision and making a decision efficiently. When managing down, it is often best to give people a fair bit of leeway to use their own judgment even if its not exactly what the “boss” would decide, because otherwise you will likely have some very unhappy staff muttering a lot about micro-managing. It is not that different when “the boss” is the whole group. They must give people enough guidance and autonomy to do their jobs in a way that they will help them feel satisfied, while still expecting decisions to be reasonably in line with group values.

But how do you tell when a manager should be given the leeway and when they are going rogue, or just doing a bad job? How do you know when to ask that decisions be run by “the boss” and when do you just let them decide? When do you overturn a decision? When do you fire someone? When is the boss (group) micro-managing or being a (collective) control-freak?

I will say that finding that proper balance seems like a tricky task for a large group to execute well using consensus. I look forward to the day when DR delegates that task to a small group (call it a Town Council if you will). I think if you then choose the Town Council to have decent management skills they can more easily make those tough calls. They will still have to answer to the whole group in some way, but then you have simplified the groups management task to whether the Town Council is doing its job well, not whether each manager or committee is doing their job well. Not trivial, but hopefully something that is actually doable (I was going to say manageable but I couldn’t stand the pun!).

by Tony Sirna

When we started Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage back in the day we spent a lot of time talking about theory. Why start an ecovillage? What impact can we hope to have? Why not some other project – something urban or working within politics?

In my youthful zeal and naivete I would throw around phrases like “saving the world” or “fomenting radical change” with the full expectation that our efforts would do just that. Soon I realized the egotism in such statements, thinking that I (or we) would have such a huge influence seemed a bit self-indulgent.

And yet, I wouldn’t be doing Dancing Rabbit if I didn’t think it would change the world. I love my day to day life and am truly happy with the life I have chosen, but I also seem to have an unflappable urge to feel like I am contributing — doing my part to make the world a better place.

So how is Dancing Rabbit changing the world?