40 years of cycling

2016-09-14-17-16-48Our local cycle lobbying group spokes is celebrating 40 years of cycling (or lobbying).  2017 being one of these years when there seem to be lots of anniversaries.  This is also coincidentally about the same time I have been cycling (a bit longer).  How time flies!

How life has changed.  I was not in Edinburgh 40 years ago but in those days there was no cycle lanes and cycling was banned in many places where its now possible.  Spokes came out of some Friends of the Earth people who wanted to improve cycling provision in Edinburgh.  Many had linked up in the unsuccessful fight against Torness.  In those days only a tiny number of people cycled.  Those who did were thought to be eccentric at most and according to one Tory councillor at the time dangerous “commies”.  He was forced to retract.  The whole attitude to cycling is much better and I (rarely) get abuse.  My boss says on the West coast abuse and even attacks are common.  By the time I arrived in Edinburgh in the 90’s there were cycle lanes (off road) and a growing number of “Sheffield cycle racks”.  The number of these has grown exponentially.  There were also by that time cycling officers employed by the council to plan and improve cycling provision.

One of spokes big successes in 40 years of cycling lobbying has been over getting bikes on other forms of transport.  This was a right battle when new trains started appearing in the 90’s.  At first Scotrail banned bikes!  After 4 weeks of sit down protests at Waverley station (which I regret not taking part in), Scotrail caved in.  They then said there would be a £3 fee for each journey.  This was quite a lot of money in those days.  All right for intercity but very bad news for commutes.  After further lobbying this was dropped.  The same thing happened with the trams.  Spokes lobbied at the design stage. Again we were told that its was unsafe etc.  It was pointed out European trams carried bikes.  My understanding is that you can take a bike on the trams.

Other things spokes has done over the last 40 years are produce a series of excellent cycle maps and start an annual transport survey on a key route into the city.  This suggests that cycling is rising slowly from the low level.  This is borne out by my anecdotal experience.  We have reached the 3% level where there is always a bike in front of a car.  Spokes lobbies in a patient positive manner and its been very successful but key challenges still remain.  These are as I see them.

  • The Scottish government has cut cycle spending compared to that of the previous lib/lab coalition.
  • Cycles on trains are still an issue on what could broadly speaking would be called intercity routes.  Whilst carriage is free, a booking is required.  This is difficult to manage if a further bike reservation is needed for another stage in the journey, though on Edinburgh/Glasgow there is a way round by using slower commuter routes such as the one I use where there is no need for reservations.  New or refurbished trains are arriving and promises of increased cycle spaces are being reneged on.  The rail/cycle fight is not over.
  • Segregated cycle routes; this is just beginning but we can expect push back as in London from the motoring lobby.
  • A lack of off road arterial routes in the centre of the city and almost nothing north-south.

Here’s to 40 more years.




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One thing we have learnt this week- cutting energy costs

DSCN1669In a post last week we looked at cutting energy costs for the poorest.  I was slightly despairing at the lack of any organised government action since that’s where its got to come from with this level of need.  (That is not to say that it is not going to be private companies organising and doing the work.)  In the last week two things have happened.  The first is the government has somehow levered in some private cash to stick solar PV on 800,000 homes of social housing tenants in England and Wales over the next years.   This will lead to electricity savings of £250 at no cost to the householders.  A significant saving.

The second is a report looking at the success and potential of energy efficiency at cutting energy costs.  This report reckons that up to 2015 savings on average have been about £500, i.e. without these measures bills would on average be this much higher.  Gas use has fallen 27% since 2004 and electricity by 13%.  A further 25% could be cut easily and a further 25% less easily with much more expensive measures such as heat pumps or solid wall insulation.  We just need a better way of  cutting energy costs than the green deal which was too complicated and involved borrowing money at interest rates that were too high.  We are just left with the large energy company schemes which are better than nothing.  The government has said its coming up with a replacement since it was scrapped two years ago but nothing has happened.  The potential is there to cut energy costs and in particular protect the poorest, cut carbon and improve our energy security.  We just need a strategy to get on with it.


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ode to autumn

virburnum on the change_optAutumn is upon us.  Like you can smell spring, there is a palpable change on the last days of August and beginning of September.  Whatever the days are like there is a nip in the air in the evenings and the leaves are just starting to change.  I love autumn and all the seasons.  There is a promise of of sitting around the fire on a cold dark evening.

But I love this change period as well.  Produce from the garden is at its peak.  I have been eating fresh fruit for months.  First blackcurrants and raspberries, then plums and now blackberries.  Runner and French beans are producing in profusion we have been eating potatoes and there is the promise of leeks and parsnips soon.  At a suggestion of Monty Don on “Gardners World” I have sown turnips and swedes.  The turnips should be ready in November and the swedes in the early spring.  This a complete experiment in Scotland but so far both have shot up (turnips with 48 hours).  This will maximise the use of my ground over the winter and give me low carbon vegetables (hopefully).  As this autumn takes hold why not think about what you can grow in the way of food either now or next year?


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One thing we have learnt this week – what’s the best way of dealing with high energy prices?

DSC_1734What’s the best way of dealing with high energy prices?  That was the discussion on the BBC radio 4 Today programme this morning.  Is it some kind of cap on high energy prices as suggested by both government and opposition. or is it by other means?  Well for starters the cap is off the table since the election.

The people interviewed thought that high prices were the way to go since this is the only way to get investment in new forms of energy and people to take energy efficiency seriously.  The problem is as was said this morning energy is too cheap.  The examples this morning of high paid workers in the city of London who have no idea how much energy they use.  Meanwhile all the lights are left on in their offices.  (Something I can confirm here cycling back from church last night past our cities financial sector).  Another example I pass a school on the way to work and a few weeks ago steam was coming out a flue.  The boiler was obviously on in an empty building during the holidays.   The problem is energy costs for most businesses and organisations make up a very low part of their costs.  Meanwhile for many individuals energy costs are far too high.  How to square this dilemma?

The best and fairest way is a carbon ration, but when the government climbs down on a modest cap how likely is that?  This would encourage both energy efficiency storage and renewables.  Energy efficiency is the next measure but since the green deal was dropped this idea is in chaos.  Energy efficiency has proven hard to get people to do.  Many of the measures have long pay back times and are very disruptive.   The last idea was to provide those with low incomes with compensation in some way.

Both the energy efficiency (through the big 6) and compensation are happening to certain extent and at the moment this looks like way we are going.  The whole thing is piece meal though and it look like this problem is not going to go away until there is consistent organised attempt at tackling it.


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Is planting trees a good idea?

DSC_2310Is planting trees a good idea?  Recently its been announced that to counter Donald Trumps decision to pull the US out of the Paris climate change treaty.  A group of people in New Zealand has started an on-line pledge page for donations to plant 10 billion trees worldwide.  This is an area the size of Kentucky.

This is to balance the total emissions that Trumps policies will put in the atmosphere by 2025.  650 million tonnes.  Planting trees is always a good idea.  As this blog has noted particularly in urban areas they have positive environmental, health and wellbeing effects.  Sticking it to Trump on almost anything at the moment has my support.  There is also a websearch engine Ecosia which uses the revenue from your searches to do the same thing.  It gives an implausible counter on how many have been planted so far.  The number is not, its the rate this number goes up that seems a bit rapid to me.  That being said I use it as my homepage and default search engine.

However my concerns are not with the idea but the long term implementation of the idea.  These trees need looking after.  Forests need management.  Walking with a group of people on Skye we came across the remains of trees that had been planted as a carbon offset by a well known rock band.  They had almost all died, largely defeating the purpose (some carbon was tied up in their remains).

The advantage is that trees can be planted very quickly (if not perhaps as fast as Ecosia claim) and when young absorb carbon very fast.  We need to stop deforestation worldwide so anything that can help in this regard is great.  But we should not rely on this without guaranteed protection and management.  Better still is not to put the carbon into the atmosphere in the first place…


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Truck platoon

Road_train_(6)This morning the UK government announced they were trialling a “truck platoon”.  A truck platoon is a convey of (at the moment) semi-autonomous trucks.  Up to three I believe.  This is the first time I’ve heard of this idea, as it was this week its the first time that I have heard of motorways fitted with overhead wires so that trucks with pantographs can use electricity for part of their trip.  This is happening in Germany and is being trialled on some autobahns.  Each truck platoon is controlled by one driver by wifi.

This idea has been trialled in other parts of the world.  It being sold as partly being good for the environment.  But is it?  Its a little known fact but trucks have appalling economy.  Even diesel powered trucks cannot manage as much as 10mpg (usually about 7 in the EU and about 5 in the US).  There are two possible reasons why driving in close convoys as a truck platoon might help fuel economy.  The first is that they all will drive at a consistent speed.  The second is that driving close to another vehicle reduces drag.  Cyclists like Chris Froome utilise this effect in the Tour de France.  I can see both reasons for improvements in economy as being valid.   I think the effect will be marginal.  However I think the real reason is to get autonomous vehicles on our roads.  This will wipe out a whole sector of jobs and despite having being driven in a car with semi-autonomous cruise control I’m not sure I’m happy about driverless trucks on our roads.  If you want major  improvements in fuel economy then you need to look elsewhere in the trucks’ design.


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I’ve been meaning to write a post on bees for a while.  This week I read an article that said recent research suggested that bees were not visiting bee friendly plants as much as was thought.  This post (mainly pictures) will concentrate on bumble bees since I rarely see a honey bee in my garden nowadays.   This is part of an ongoing problem with bee numbers.  Honeybee populations have declined massively in recent years.  A wide variety of things have been blamed from nuclear power to climate change to insecticides.  But certainly some of the same factors affect bumblebees which have also declined in numbers.

Bees are important since they a systematic pollinators.  By that I mean they work a plant over.  Other insects wasps, flies, beetles and hover flies will pollinate plants but visit flowers on a random basis.  Hence the importance of these insects.  Even plants that are self fertile do better with pollination.  We get 5-6 different types of bumblebee in our garden as well as some types of solitary bee.  Here are some of them.  I’ve been trying to photograph them, which is not easy.

Bumblebees build small nests often using grass and other materials.  They contain up to about 200 insects.  They often nest in roofs (we have had at least one).  It forbidden to to destroy the nests under UK law and they rarely cause trouble unlike wasps or honeybees  where the nest gets very large and can damage the building.  Bumblebees can sting many times (in fact the only bee I’ve been stung by was a bumblebee) but are very none aggressive.

Bombus terrestris, buff tailed bumblebee (worker)

cuckoo beeBombus hypnorum, the tree bumblebee queen.  This species has benefited from climate change and is now found in Southern Scotland.

Bombus hypnorum the Tree bumblebeeBombus pascuorum, common Carder Bee

common carder bee

These are most common one I see, they seem to go in stages in that one particular species works one plant at at time.

The bees visit all the flowers in the garden that the article above says they don’t.  One of their favourites are the thistle which I’ve photographed them on above since they have to work at getting the pollen on this.  They also love common sage, a type of salvia from south Africa that no insect seems to be able obtain anything from but they try, Lavender, Oregano, echinops.  They quite like nasturtiums and inula.

I hope this short blog has given you a bit of insight into these important insects which we rely on so much and need all the help they can get.


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One thing we have learnt this week – biochar from poop


Reaction vessel where faeces is converted to biochar research in the US.

Biochar was seen as one of the miracle cures for climate change nearly 10 years ago.  Like so many eco solutions greatly exaggerated claims were made about its ability to solve the climate crisis.  George Monbiot who hates all miracle cures (apart from nuclear power) makes a justified critique here.  Nevertheless even he conceded that it may have a niche role.  In Kenya one of the local water companies has found a way of turning poo into a fuel.  I call it biochar since it does contain other plant based products.  If you are eating turn way now.

The local water company collects poop from latrines and septic tanks.  Then it dries it in the sun.  Then it its it to 300°C and adds sawdust.  Finally molasses is added to the product as a binder.

There are 3 big problems this product helps to mitigate.  First, one major problem in the developing world is people cutting down trees to make fuel for cooking (not the only reason of course that trees are felled).  One of the big wins and easy ways of cutting emissions would be to stop deforestation.

Related to this is the use of paraffin or open fires to cook on.  Both create respiratory disease problems due to the release of particulates and paraffin obviously has a oil dependency. This product is being sold at a competitive price with these.

The last problem is that of health due to the spread of faecal bacteria.

One claim made about biochar is that its carbon negative (if you read the Monbiot article above you can see this could vary).  This product cannot be carbon negative since it involves heating to high temperatures and the addition of plant based products.  Nevertheless it seems to me press a number of the right buttons.  Another alternative that is going on all over the developing world is the use of poo to make biogas.



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Energy Africa

DSCN1669Energy Africa – there is a boom going on in small scale renewable energy in Africa.  As this blog has covered TEARFUND have a campaign to get the UK government to fund very small scale off grid solar power.  I was poking around the Department for International Development’s (DFID) website the other day for another reason and came across a large number of projects relating both to off grid stuff (almost all solar) and some on grid renewables (also solar with other technologies undisclosed).

The programme for small scale solar is called Energy Africa.  This somehow hopes to lever in private cash to help provide householders with small off-grid systems.  As I put in the post linked to above its hard how to see how this will happen since this is a classic market failure.  That is something that will create a large number of private sector jobs installing and maintaining the equipment as well as other jobs from other businesses that flow from this.  However its difficult to see how the private sector can make money from providing the systems themselves.  (Mobile phones in particularly Kenya does off a model however, although the investment by individuals would need to be bigger.)

Sierra Leone Somalia, Ghana, Malawi and Rwanda are all signed up.  One criticism of the scheme is that Africans need on grid electricity.  This is true at some point but at the moment providing that would be vastly expensive.  By starting here you build capacity knowhow and as hopefully small systems expand you create bit by bit the backbones of a grid system.


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One thing we have learnt this week – tourism pressures

electric bus island of the monksThere has been a lot in the news this week over tourism pressures.  From protests and even attacks in various parts of Spain to huge pressures on the Isle of Skye and continuing problems in Venice we do seem to have reached some kind of tipping point as far as the locals in very popular tourist destinations are concerned.  Controversy abounds over Airbnb and the tax take from its rentals and pressure its putting on local services and even places for locals to live.  in the Balearic islands people who rent out there rooms without a licence will face an enormous euro 400,000 fine.  There are questions over the trickle down effect of money reaching the locals and of course of the sustainability of travel due to climate change.

I cannot claim to be anything other than part of the problem of tourist pressures.  I have been to some of the top tourist destinations in the past (including Venice, which is under huge pressure).  I also live in a country that is a top 10 and in a city that is one of the most popular destinations in the world with a huge international festival on at the moment.  I see change around me.  My near neighbours are doing Airbnb in their house and short term lets opposite.  They are doing nothing illegal to the best of my knowledge.  The traffic today seemed far worse cycling home, tourists?  Maybe.  Despite the pressures I don’t feel my adopted home is being ruined by tourism.  Where there are problems they are due to planning decisions made by the council for other reasons.  The local economy has to benefit to an extent due to local renting out their rooms and the proliferation of restaurants.  What to do about tourism pressures?

Firstly, providing people are not behaving illegally then we should welcome tourists to where we live.  Violence and intimidation have no place in what is supposed to be a meeting of minds and cultures.

Second, its up to us to make sure by pressuring governments that companies and individuals pay their fair share of tax.  This is course easier in your home country and in democracies.  There is an argument for restricting Airbnb’s and the like through the planning system.

Third, we need to green up transport (the Dutch bus above being a very small example) as far as possible.

Last, we cannot say that Chinese or Indians cannot travel any more than anyone else (most tourists where I live are white anyway).

Ultimately we all need to travel more slowly and less often.  However I recognise the above are weak and partial solutions to what is becoming a major global issue.  We live in a very narcissistic culture and with rising middle class in the developing world these tourism pressures are only going to increase.  Any ideas welcome


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