Trains, E-Bikes, & Blimps — Bill McKibben Envisions Slower, Cleaner Transportation
Bill McKibben is a hero of the fight to preserve the Earth as a place where humans can live sustainably. We have his photograph prominently displayed on the wall of our executive suite at CleanTechnica headquarters alongside our other heroes like James Hansen and Michael Mann. Among his many contributions to the cause is writing about topics that are of interest to CleanTechnica readers on his blog, The Crucial Years.
The other day, McKibben made a journey by train from his home in Middlebury, Vermont, to New York City. Along the way, he decided to pen a blog entry describing how civilized and pleasant it is to be on a train with ample leg room, rolling through the New England countryside with the fall foliage visible outside his window. At one point, the train is early, so the conductor invited all the passengers to disembark and partake of the fruits and vegetables at the farmer’s market outside. Try that on your favorite airline!
“Slowing down the rise of temperature, speeding up the deployment of clean energy is our task and there is no ducking it,” he writes. “But it’s worth asking if we can wring some delight out of that job — if the move away from coal and gas and oil might come with some unanticipated benefits.
“Fossil fuel is so powerful — so energy dense — that it produced a particular aesthetic. It became easy to do things fast and by ourselves. The car is the perfect example of this — a sealed box to move your body and your stuff with great speed through space. And of course it’s possible to recreate this with electricity—we drove the ten miles to the train station in an EV and it was fine. Quiet, smooth, and powered by the solar panels on the roof of our home.”
“But the substitution of electricity for fossil fuels also allows us to do things a little differently if we want, beginning with this question of speed. The train is not as fast as the airplane for the trip to New York, but in every other dimension it’s infinitely superior: big windows to stare at the passing beauty, plenty of legroom and the chance to get up and stroll, an easy wifi connection, no TSA.”
“It takes you to the center of the city, instead of dumping you on the outskirts. It’s cheaper. Oh, and a lot less carbon. (And this is on an American train, plagued by decades of under-investment. I was on a fast night train through Poland last week. In a bedroom. With a shower.)” We wrote recently about the Nightjet trains coming to Europe thanks to Austria.
“But it is slower,” McKibben writes. “Which — well, who cares? Huge numbers of us now work via our laptops. We don’t need to be at the office every day (many don’t need to be there any day). I have rented a rolling office for the afternoon, with a sublime view; I’m going to get more done than if I was at home; and when I’m done I’ll be someplace new.”
A Plea For Electric Bikes
McKibben says, “So now consider the electric bike. A bike bike is a wonderful thing, but it’s tended to be a sporting good — we’re a big sprawling country, and because, postwar, we built it on a suburban model, things tend to be car distances apart. But you can use an electric bike to make many of those trips because it erases hills and allows you to tow three bags of groceries. And when you do, you get some exercise, and you get the wind in your face, and it’s a little like being a kid.
“You don’t have to do it every day—sometimes it rains and sometimes it snows and sometimes you don’t have the time, which is why I imagine that there will be EVs for a while. But you can do it 70 percent of the time, and I am willing to bet you will be happier for it. (Willing to bet because I have data: exercise makes you happy, and being outdoors makes you happy.)
“It’s good that the Inflation Reduction Act will help people purchase EVs. (Here in Vermont, state subsidies are aimed directly at middle and low income people, which makes sense). It’s a shame that the Manchin stripped subsidies for electric bikes from the bill, but enlightened cities and states are stepping in to fill the need. Delight needs to be affordable.”
Please see our CleanTechnica guide to electric bikes and Fritz Hasler’s advice about how to maintain them. We obsessively cover electric bikes and invite you to view our many articles about them. Just type “electric bike” into the search prompt and hit Enter.
Let There Be Blimps!
“But what about the blimps?” McKibben asks. “They are, I think, the ultimate in this new aesthetic, where you trade some speed and power for some serendipitous joy. A British company is supposed to be offering intercity blimp travel by 2025, on routes like Seattle to Vancouver or Liverpool to Belfast. It cuts carbon emissions up to 90% compared with jet travel and soon the diesel engine will apparently be replaced with an electric motor cutting emissions to almost nothing. But — to be absolutely truthful — I don’t care about the carbon as much as the joy. I want to do this — I really want to feel that tug as the thing glides from its tether. ”
Then he tells his readers about a journey in a blimp he took in 1986. “We climbed aboard in a New Jersey field, and soon were silently floating towards the Lady in the Harbor. The pilot handed me the controls and showed me how to circle the statue in ever tighter circles, just about crown-level. Then we glided up the West Side, along the Hudson, going just slowly enough that you could peek down each street as they clocked by. We ended up at Coney Island and the pilot — maybe showing off just a bit — did a series of dives that brought us down within feet of the ocean before climbing steeply back; the throngs along the beach got a real show. And we got something sublime: it was like being suspended in air, striding around from one floor-to-ceiling to the next. It was close enough to magic.”
“This is going to be a hard century,” he concludes. “We better look for delight where we can. It could be on the ocean or an e-bike, or the train.”
Bill McKibben is a visionary — some might call him a dreamer. Americans leaving their cars at home to ride a bike or take a trip in a blimp? Not very likely. We are in thrall to our automobiles. They define us and send not so subtle signals to the world around us about the kind of people we are. We prefer giant pickup trucks with enormous grilles that look angry and intimidating. “Get out of my way,” they say, “or else. They are powerful symbols for people who, more and more, feel powerless.
A bicycle just doesn’t convey the sense of aggression and power people crave. Nor does a blimp, for that matter.
Years ago, a group of people in France founded a “slow food” movement, one that celebrated the joy of dining rather than pounding down a burger and fries and dashing back into life’s fray. Could we be ready for a “slow travel” movement? McKibben certainly thinks so. Not only would it be far more enjoyable than being crammed into a slender aluminum tube with wings, it would help us reconnect with the natural world — while there is still time left to enjoy it.
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