These images are from three interactive maps of the US at Cool Climate Network:

JT Average Vehicle Miles

(Joshua Tree in red oval)

Reanna and I drive our Yaris about 1,200 miles a month. That’s less than 40% of average if what they mean is how many miles individuals are traveling in vehicles per month. They could mean how many miles each vehicle travels per month, though, which places us at 75% of average.

JT Average Energy Carbon Footprint

(Joshua Tree in red oval)

JT Average Carbon Footprint

(Joshua Tree in red circle)

I tried out a three carbon footprint calculators (and wrote about it here and here) in 2012, which produced estimates of 10.41, 13.7, and 17 metric tons of CO2 for me. That makes it look like Reanna and I were somewhere between average and 2/3 of average, which I doubt. I bet we’re at half or less of Joshua Tree average–we live in a very small space with solar-generated electricity, don’t spend much money, and drive a fairly efficient vehicle–but I can’t prove it without a really good, thorough carbon footprint calculator. Can anyone recommend one?


On a challenge from the blog 400 Days ’til 40 I did a quick-and-dirty calculation of our carbon footprint for a year here in California. I just used the top hit on Google for “carbon footprint calculator” and made my best estimates for all the values they asked for:

1. I live in California, USA, in a household of two.

2. I use no natural gas, heating oil, coal, LPG, and no net electricity by virtue of a solar array, thanks to an investment by my father. Reanna and I cook with propane, and a little research is leading me to believe we will go through approximately 50 gallons in a year, maybe less. Our share of the firewood that my parents burn for heat in the evenings is about .4 of a cord. My share of all this contributes .08 metric tons of CO2 per year.

3. I fly to Portland and to Albany every year to work at Not Back to School Camp. That contributes .95 metric tons of CO2. Something like a quarter of a ton for each leg. Pricey!

4. Car travel is the biggest polluter at 5.05 metric tons of CO2. This amount probably varies quite a bit each year and is way up from my Eugene, OR lifestyle. This estimate includes a few trips to town each week, a dozen trips to the LA area, and one long road trip to Canada. That’s a bit less than 2 tons for each of those kinds of commutes.

5. I use a significant amount of bus and train travel on my business (and some other) trips as well, adding about .12 metric tons of CO2.

6. The second biggest polluter is a group of “lifestyle” choices. 1.21 tons for eating animal products, 1 ton for owning one car, .5 tons for eating only “mostly” local produce, .61 tons for buying stuff with packaging, .17 tons for buying “some” new equipment, .41 for throwing some stuff away, 1 ton for sometimes going out to movies and restaurants, and .4 tons for having a bank account. Total = 4.21 metric tons of CO2. (The highest value possible here was 24.53 tons.)

Here is the summary they gave me:

  • Your footprint is 10.41 metric tons per year
  • The average footprint for people in United States is 20.40 metric tons
  • The average for the industrial nations is about 11 metric tons
  • The average worldwide carbon footprint is about 4 metric tons
  • The worldwide target to combat climate change is 2 metric tons

I have plenty of questions about and criticisms of the way this calculator works. They ask my household size first but do not indicate if they are calculating my individual footprint or my household’s. That could change my score quite a bit if I’m taking the blame for Reanna’s share.

I’d like find a calculator which takes into account more specifics, too. I have owned the same car for 20 years, for example, but the way they asked the question gave me the same carbon footprint as someone who has a brand new SUV every year. Miles driven, too, is not as important as number of gallons of gasoline burned (see my mileage/fuel tracking project here). I buy some things with packaging and I throw some stuff in the landfill (see my landfill tracking project here), but “some” is a vague category to hang such a precise 1.02 metric tons of carbon on! What about grass-fed versus industrially produced meat?

On the other hand, two metric tons is a pretty tight carbon budget, and finding a more accurate calculator will not likely shift my score dramatically. And with this calculator, I am at 520% of my two metric tons, this with a relatively low-profile lifestyle for an American. I could come down to 222% if I did not own a car and never drove one. If I also stopped eating animal products and stopped going to movies and restaurants, I would be close, at 112%. If I also stopped flying, I could actually come in under budget, at 64%, leaving some slack for others.

That’s a pretty discouraging proposition! The biggest barrier is the isolation. No travel means never seeing a large part of my family and community. And the idea is that kinds of lifestyle choices would have to become the norm, not just the domain of eccentrics….

I’m going to have to do some more thinking about this.

I have always driven slow cars. It’s not that I have anything against fast cars, though. It was more or less an accident, aided and abetted by poverty. When I was young and wanting to drive fast, I got my first slow car, an extravagant $1,200 gift from my grandmother, a 1979 Honda Civic. It would go about 80 miles an hour with a tail wind, and I managed to get a few speeding tickets in it before I turned 20. It looked just like this except with a lot less paint:

1979 Honda Civic CVCC Hatchback

I bought my second (and current) slow car at 20, a 1988 Mazda pickup, and got my next and final speeding ticket a few months later. I was on the I-5 just south of Corning, CA. The Highway Patrol officer said, “You were going well over 70 miles per hour.”

I decided at that moment that speeding was not worth it. It was expensive and stressful because of the tickets and because of constantly watching the rear-view. “Oh crap, is that a Mustang? Is is black and white, or is that just sun glinting off of it?”

So why would I want a fast car? If I can get speeding tickets in slow cars, why would I want to tempt myself with all that velocity-headroom? No reason I could think of, until now.

Reanna and I just drove to Joshua Tree from Whistler in a fast car, a 2001 Acura 3.2CL. Borrowed. The owner told us he’d been clocked by radar at just under 150 miles per hour, and then the officer who clocked him (after he was off duty) drove it just over 150.

Still, I was not much tempted to speed. My aversion to paying speeding tickets has only grown over the years. But I realized that velocity is not the real reason to have a fast car. It’s acceleration. Driving is a series of decisions about what is safe to do. Is it safe to pass this slow car? Do I have enough room to change lanes? Make this left turn? Etc. In my Mazda, the answer is very often, “No, I’d better not.” In my decades of driving it, all those “No” decisions became invisible. It’s not a choice if there’s only one choice, right? In the Acura, even with my habitually conservative driving style, the answer is usually “Yes, no problem at all.” A very different experience!

Fast Car, Slow Car

And even though I was still driving the speed limit, I think that all those “Yes” decisions add up to to a faster trip, especially on a long trip like we just made. I continue to think that fast cars are probably not worth the extra money for the purchase price or for the lower gas mileage, but I concede that fast cars probably increase your quality of life.

I’ve been visiting Vancouver for a few weeks and most days we end up commuting at least once from the west side of the city to the east side and back, mostly by car, sometimes by bus. (I’ve done it by bike, too, but not on this trip.)

It’s about six or seven miles each way and takes about 30 minutes. Google maps says 20 minutes by car, and I’ve heard rumors of 15-minute trips, but I’ve yet to experience one less than 30. Yesterday, our commute was 10 miles and it took 50 minutes (extra Christmas shopping traffic, I’m told). That’s five miles per hour in the middle of the day. It was worse on the way home, at 3:30 rush hour.

I found myself quite impatient with this situation. Five miles an hour does not seem a reasonable speed to travel. I think of Los Angeles as congested, but in non-rush-hour traffic I expect to be able to get to another city in 20 minutes–from the train station in Los Angeles to my brother’s house in Glendale, for example.

The thing is, I’d be on the I-5 most of that trip. There are freeways all over the place in LA. This is strikingly not the case in Vancouver. We are on surface streets wherever we go, hitting stoplight after stoplight, very often with no left-turn lanes so traffic piles up behind each turner. Suddenly I miss all of those ugly, loud LA freeways.

Reanna and her family argue that the fact that it sucks to drive in Vancouver is an accomplishment. The more it sucks to drive, the better, because more people will use public transportation or bicycle. We fought to keep freeways out of here, they say. I was reminded of how upset my grandfather gets when he talks about the freeways in LA. The house he built was one of the houses they demolished to put in a freeway (it might have even been the I-5 that went through his house). Freeways went through the middle of neighborhoods, loud and ugly, splitting them in two. It’s very hard to imagine that happening in Vancouver, if only because the real estate is too expensive.

I am pro-public transportation, so when I’m not stuck in Vancouver traffic I think it’s a shame that LA was designed for cars. Maybe it is the relative ease of car-travel that has kept LA’s public transportation from moving to the next level — though LA, at least according to this article, is quite low in miles of freeway per person compared to other major US cities.

This situation does not strike me as a straightforward win for Vancouver, though. People still drive a lot, and in cars constantly in their least efficient mode, stopping and starting all the time. The busses use the same congested, no-left-turn-lanes roads as the cars, so they lose efficiency and speed along with them. Maybe the answer is to have the government quadruple gas prices or insurance prices to make driving a rich-person-only thing, and leave the roads for public transit. I’d much rather see public transportation that wins because of how great it is, rather than because of how crappy driving has become, but I guess I would take what I could get. Not that I could get quadrupling the price of anything related to driving even here in the most progressive part of Canada. That might be less popular than putting in freeways.

In thinking about all this, I wanted to be able to compare the transportation systems in different cities and found it quite difficult to do. We need a single-number transportation index that takes into account the average speed of travel, average energy-expenditure per mile, and how far people travel on average to live their lives in their area. People-miles per gallon-minutes, maybe, or maybe people-kilometers per joule-minute. Any economics or urban planning students out there looking for a project?

I got hit by an SUV as I was biking back from my swing dance tonight. I’m fine–neither of us were moving fast–but pissed off. The kind of accident I had is common enough to have a name: The Right Hook.

I was in the bike lane, with traffic on my left, moving at the same speed I was. We were all about to cross a street at a light. The person in the SUV next to me turned right into me as we entered the intersection.

So, if you are in a car next to a bike lane, keep in mind that it is a traffic lane so it would be a good idea to use your turn signal and look over your shoulder before turning across it. You might really hurt someone if you don’t.

If you’re on a bike with cars around, wear a helmet and be ready for anything.

PsychCentral reported today on a study in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review that found, unexpectedly, that 2.5% of the participants in a study were fully capable of driving while talking on a cell phone. Apparently they were interested in finding out just how much cell-phone talking disrupted driving abilities, not whether anyone was capable of doing it. Their answer: It disrupts it a lot. Cell-phone talkers take 20% longer to hit the breaks on average, for example. But this 2.5% were unaffected. They called these people “supertaskers.”

Still, 2.5% is not a large percentage. I’ve heard that something like 90% of drivers consider themselves to be better drivers than average. I wonder how many people think they are in the top 2.5%?

My twenty-two year old truck broke down in Portland recently and it got me thinking about my dad. We’re close and he’s never that far from my thoughts, but he comes up especially during breakdowns. It’s his voice I hear in my head, “Hmm, it’s turning over but not starting, so the battery’s probably fine…probably fuel, maybe spark…check for anything dripping, check the plug wires, distributor cap, coil…” He was never a professional mechanic, though once he told me he wished he had been. That was one of the two times he’d said something like that to me. “That’s real work,” he said. “Something’s broken and you fix it.” (The other time he talked about being a park ranger when we visited Crater Lake. “Imagine living in places like this all the time!”) He’s been a working musician, studio engineer, and commercial photographer since I was born. That’s real work too, of course, but having done some of it myself, now, I know what he was talking about. With aesthetic work, it can almost always be better, you can always fuss more over it, you’re never quite sure how much is enough to make the current client happy, and you don’t want them to just be happy. You want them out in the community raving about you and how you went the extra mile and how the project turned out so much better than they ever imagined. You want that both because it turns down the heat on having to constantly hustle for new clients, and because you want to be proud of your own work, and this is your work, making other peoples’ art look and sound as good as possible. For a mechanic, you just have the right tools, know your shit, put an ad in the yellow pages, fix the cars that come in, and do it right. There is much less room for fussing and second guessing. If it came down to it, though, I doubt my dad would change much about his past. He’s a craftsman and artist and thinker. He is, as my mom often says, a genius at fixing things, and he does like to get his hands dirty, but he prefers fixing sound systems and soldering broken music gear to working on cars, and he much prefers for things not to break at all, so he can concentrate on the mix or master he’s working on.

Another reason I was thinking about him when my truck broke down was because I had to call a tow truck. If I had been home, in Eugene or in Joshua Tree, I would have called a friend with a tow chain to get it home and tried to fix the thing myself. In Joshua Tree, that friend would have been my dad. It’s something of a family tradition. I’ve only owned used cars, so I’ve broken down with some regularity over the years, and I know for a fact that my dad has towed me over 200 miles because one of the ten or so times was from Bakersfield down to Joshua Tree, when I cracked my block on the I-5, on a trip down from Eugene. It’s been continually surprising how slowly my reliance on my dad has diminished over the decades—the price, I suppose, of having such a reliable dad. The thing is, I was never aware of him relying on his dad at all, and I’ve known him since he was a lot younger than I am. There has also been a continual recession of ‘living up’ to my dad. It’s not that I get any outside pressure to be like him—he has scrupulously avoided that. It’s that there are a bunch of ways that I just assumed I would be more like him by the time I was an adult. A small but salient example: Will it ever be that when I tie something down in the back of my truck that there is no chance it will fly out a mile down the road? I know it’s possible. When my dad ties things down, they stay down.

Maybe living up to your dad is a mind trip that every son lives with—that someone further along than you always looks invincible and unreachable in important ways. There were ways, though, that I reminded myself of my dad when I broke this last time. Unlike me, he would have known that the distributor had gone. In fact, he likely would have known as soon as the truck started faltering a little, a couple weeks ago, and fixed it then, probably with a distributor he’d had laying around the shop for years just in case this happened. But even though I was more confused, I did remain calm and fully engaged in my environment. This is one remarkable element of my dad’s personality that took me a while to appreciate: Wherever he is, that is where he is. I mean if he’s in the shop, returning the tow trailer after towing me home from Sacramento for seven hours, he’s not in a hurry and he’s really interested in the guy who rented him the trailer, and probably knows his name, where he lives, and a decent amount of his history before he leaves. And from that day on he will probably not only remember him, but refer to him as “my friend Jim, who owns the towing company down Fox Trail.” It’s been a source of some boredom and occasional consternation for me over the years, because a trip to town for some plywood and a drill bit is likely to take a couple hours. I would be lurking in the background on those trips (unless he drew me out, usually by bragging about me) and eventually saying some version of “Let’s go, Dad.”

I reminded myself a lot of my dad, in Portland. The mechanic I found was not through the phone book, but through the guy running the gas station where I broke down. The tow truck driver I found through the mechanic. When the driver arrived, I asked for his name and shook his hand. I called him Valentino when we talked. I asked him if he took his kids on jobs with him when I saw the baby seat in the cab. By the time I’d paid him for the job, not long after, I knew that his older son was eight and hated homework but was great at soccer, that Valentino supported him in soccer even though he was a basketball player, that his younger son was four and came on jobs with him because they didn’t have baby sitters, that he moved from LA to Portland 12 years ago because the gangs were not as bad there. My dad would have loved the mechanic he took me to. He was a giant white guy in his 50s named Vale, hands easily three times the size of mine, with thick, oil-encrusted nails and skin. Works seven days a week, all day. (Lucky for me—I broke down at 5:30 pm on Saturday.) His shop wasn’t one of those clean, spacious places with uniformed men and a receptionist. It was tiny and cluttered with tools and parts and books and rags and stuff, staffed by Vale and his partner, his son. His daughter is nineteen and apparently brilliant, studying psychology on scholarship at OSU. He diagnosed my truck out loud to me, with us both leaning over the engine compartment. “Well, it’s getting fuel… Looks like you replaced the cap and rotor recently… Start it up so I can check the distributor.” It was late in the day, Saturday, and it looked like he couldn’t get the part until Monday or maybe Wednesday, but he had it running perfectly for my by noon on Sunday for $300.

This is what my dad knew instinctively and I was proud to see come out in myself: The people that you meet and know aren’t just interesting. They are your source of information, adventures, and luck. They are your community. It doesn’t matter if they share your beliefs or aesthetics. It doesn’t matter much that they live in a different city. That you are at the same place at the same time means that you share something with them and it’s almost weird not to find out what that is. I get it. Thanks, Dad.

Dad, Me, Mom

Dad, Me, Mom