Thursday, November 22, 2012

Mike Bloomberg's Thanksgiving Gift

Last week, I received a great Thanksgiving Gift from Mike Bloomberg.  I work in Morningside Heights, and take my bike to Midtown sometimes.  It's always been dicey: Central Park is OK without cars, but can be downright dangerous when bikes and pedestrians are all crowded into just one of the three lanes (I know from unfortunate experience).  I generally tried to use it only during no-car hours for this reason.

Well, last week I noticed something different upon entering the park: the lanes have been reconfigured! Now, there is one lane for pedestrians, one for bikes and one for cars (and carriages).  Now it FINALLY safe to use this route through the City, even during rush hour.  Horray!

But what about horse carriages?  Should they go in the bike or the car lane?  I have no idea.  But I do know that horses are big, and I give them a wide berth.

Hubway Bike Share: First Impressions

I took a trip to Boston this past October.  It was a quick in-and-out for business: arrive late in the evening at South Station, sleep over, and then leave the next day from South Station immediately after the meeting.

In the past, I would take the T to get around town: I can't tell you how many times I've found myself waiting for the Red Line late at night at South Station.  But this time... this time, I figured I would try out Hubway, Boston's new bike share program.  Instead of my Charlie Card, I took my bike helmet.

Upon arrival at South Station, I had no problem finding the bikes.  And after a few minutes of studying the instructions, I figured out how to use it and paid $5 on my credit card for a 24-hour membership.  The price was incredibly reasonable, as this would serve all my transportation needs for the next day: three trips in all.

The first thing I did was add lights to the bike.  They have built-in dynamo-powered lights.  But the lightweight LED headlight I strapped on to the handlebars was much brighter.  Same thing for the LED light I'd attached to my backpack.  In my book, you can never have too many lights on your bike.

And then off I went.  I headed across Downtown Crossing, then cut across the Boston Commons to the Arthur Fiedler Memorial Bridge.  From there, it was an easy level stretch along the Charles River: always a pleasant way to get in and out of downtown.  I rarely feel unsafe biking alone at night because --- someone would have to stop me before they do anything.

By this time, it became clear to me: these bikes are NOT built for speed.  They are indestructible and not particularly heavy.  But their 3-speed gearing is rather low, and I was simply not able to go more than maybe 12 mph.  Since I'm used to getting around at about twice that speed, this was hard for me to get used to.  Patience is a virtue.... anyway, it still beat waiting for the T and walking.

I popped back over Storrow Drive in the middle of BU and found a nicely renovated bike lane on Commonwealth Ave.  Great job!

Hubway allows you only 30 minutes of ride before they add a surcharge.  But you can ride as long as you like if you "check in."  So that's what I did on BU Campus.  I found another bike rack, turned my bike in, and then tried to get a second bike.  For that, I had to insert my credit card again.  Not to charge, just verify.

Uh oh... the machine couldn't read my card, and I might find myself walking the rest of the way.  NOT COOL.  Luckily, it finally did manage to read the card, and off I went again.  I found that the BU Bridge was now safe on bike, something it never was in the past (thank you, nice job), and then left the bike at Micro Center.  It was an amazing feeling to just roll up, stick the thing in the rack, and then just... walk away.  No muss, no fuss.

All in all, my entire trip from South Station to Cambridgeport took less than 30 minutes.  That is comparable to the T.  This particular location is a 10-minute walk from the T, which made the bike so much more convenient.  Unfortunately, I still had to walk a couple of blocks from Micro Center.

The next day went smoothly.  I picked up a bike at Micro Center (the same bike as last night, in fact) and had no problem riding to Harvard Square.  Again... these are slow bikes, and that didn't feel as good as my own bike riding in traffic on Putnam Ave.  But I got to Harvard Square all right and had no problem finding an empty rack slot.  No muss, no fuss.

Given the slow speed of these bikes, I was a little apprehensive of riding all the way back to South Station. They're not as fun as my own bikes.  In the end, I ended up talking with my colleagues for so long, I had to get a ride to South Station. And I must say, the way you can just drive down the Pike and then right up into the parking garage on top of the bus station is pretty cool.  Before I knew it, I found myself on a Greyhound heading back to Port Authority.

So what do I think?  Overall, a great system, but the bikes are slow.  Patience is a virtue.  It was a great value for $5, even though I got only 2 trips out of it, not 3.  Do I plan on using it the next time I go to Boston?  Certainly!

What does this mean for New York?  New York is bigger than Boston, but I'm afraid the bikes won't be any faster.  Members will need to become well versed in the bike-swap procedure in order to get many interesting places in New York --- certainly any inter-borough travel will require that technique.

The biggest possible problem for the  casual user would be broken credit card readers and getting stuck mid-trip because of them.  This could be fixed if they allow you to enter a code to re-rent once you've turned in a bike, rather than having to insert your physical credit card.  Or if they make an app and use RFID phones.  Or... there are a million ways to solve this problem.  But it does need to be solved.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Which Newfangled Vehicles will Save You Money?

The past few years have been an exciting time in the automobile industry. For many decades, "innovation" meant changing the tail fins or adding bluetooth to the radio. But now, in the face of rising gasoline prices and global warming, the industry is finally responding with some truly innovative new products and drivetrains. We've seen exotic cars like the Tesla Roadster, all-electric vehicles that change the way we think about range and fueling, and increasingly a lot of just plain improved gasoline, diesel and hybrid vehicles.

A lot has been written about the carbon footprint of these new options. And there will always be early adopters willing to spend anything on the latest low-carbon vehicle. Most of the rest of us are interested in lowering our carbon footprint, but we also need to save money. More importantly, advanced-technology fuel-saving vehicles will really take off when they offer consumers overall savings. But with a bewildering array of alt-fuel vehicles coming out every day, it becomes increasingly hard to tell which car will actually do that for us.

The problem is that so many of the assumptions we've taken for granted have been uprooted. A car that saves money for one driver might not for another. Hybrid technology saves gas in city driving but not highway. Diesel vehicles get impressive fuel economy, but diesel fuel also costs more. Electric vehicles bring a whole new dimension to the cost issue, and plug-in hybrids make things even more complex. And many of these new cars get better fuel economy in the city than highway, uprooting decades of thinking about fuel economy.

To help bring clarity to this conundrum, I put together a spreadsheet (below). At the top, you fill in your prices for gasoline, diesel fuel, electricty and your particular city/driving mix. Then you make a series of columns for each car you're considering. I've filled in some columns for cars I might want to conside buying (ideally, small wagons). In general, you enter yellow cells and white cells are computed for you. Then, a "total" cost of ownership is provided at the bottom. Note that this does not include factors such as insurance and repairs. And it assumes you will keep the care for 100,000 miles and then sell at whatever the resale value is at the end.

(To play with yourself: click on the diagonal arrow to open the spreadsheet in a new menu. Then choose "Download" under the "File" menu.)
So what does this spreadsheet tell us?

Electric Vehicles

A quick glance tells us we might save money with the Nissan Leaf. This all-electric vehicle is cheaper than plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt because it has no gasoline engine. And electric vehicles certainly cost the least per mile to drive. If someone else pays to charge your vehicle at work or at the mall, they cost even less (put in $0.00 on your electric cost to see how much less.)

But before running out and buying a Leaf, beware that the resale value of the Leaf of $10,000 may be optimistic. Priuses with 100,000 miles can sell for $10,000. But we just don't know how things will hold up with all-electric vehicles. Battery packs will be more expensive than those for the Prius, and that could affect their price. So could brand perception of Nissan vs. Toyota. Here's an in-depth analysis of how Leaf battery issues might go over time.

On the other hand, other than the battery, the Leaf has very little on it that can wear out. It could last until the body rusts through --- which is a long time with today's high-quality paint jobs. And even if you spend $9K after a decade to replace the batteries, that's still a lot less than a new car.

Other things to note: The Leaf's price includes a $7.5K tax credit which will not survive forever, and it is only appropriate as a second car due to range and charging issues common to all electric vehicles.

Conclusion: An electric vehicle such as the Leaf could be a cost-effective second car for the early adopter willing to take a little bit of a risk. If thins turn out well with maintenance, battery and depreciation, it could be an amazing value. If not, it could be near worthless after a decade.

Hybrid Vehicles

For the one-car family or someone not ready to take the risk of an all-electric vehicle, hybrids make more sense and are also quite economical. Hybrid technology is now over a decade old, and we have extensive data on how well it holds up. The answer is, remarkably well. In fact, the Toyota Prius has the lowest depreciation of any vehicle. I continue to be amazed that you can drive one of them for 100,000 miles and then sell it for $10K --- twice the new sales price of my 1980 Honda Civic.
Assuming resale values hold, the Toyota Prius V looks like a sold winner on price. It saves enough fuel, and holds its resale value well enough, to justify the initially higher sales price compared to a traditional gasoline car such as the Toyota Matrix or Ford Focus.  And plus, it's COOL, it has lots of extras on the inside.

The Ford C-max, a close competitor to the Prius V, offers another intruiging possibility. Its overall cost is rather similar, but it gets even better fuel economy. The real question is whether or not it will hold its resale value as well as the Prius. I assumed it would hold its value better than most cars, but not as well as a Prius; but that is a guess. Lowered resale value is also an issue with the Prius: resale values could drop as hybrid vehicles become more common.

Conclusion: The eco-conscious buyer with low financial risk tolerance need look no further than the Prius. It will cost you more money up-front, but you will make it back at today's gas prices. Other hybrid vehicles will likely offer a similar value proposition.

The Losers

Finally, for the vehicle choices NOT on the efficient frontier:

  • Diesel: Diesel engines are great for trucks, and they offer impressive low-RPM grunt. But they are heavier than gasoline engines and cost more to build. And the higher price of diesel fuel makes them almost as expensive to run as traditional gasoline engines.

  • Traditional Gasoline: Rising gasoline prices and falling cost of hybrid technology mean that traditional gasoline engines are no longer cost effective.

    So go ahead, buy that Prius you've been eying. You can afford it (once your current car dies).