Welcome to my New Website

Hey there. Welcome to my new website! In the coming weeks I hope to fill this space with some of the things I am working on as I tackle the Quals after our first year in the Bredesen Center.

What I hope to share

I’d like to use this space to show articles of interest, that I first started with Closed Loop last summer and move forward with applications in R that I have been slowly working on that could have some cool uses. A lot of good news sites already cover the good releases, I’d like to explore longer pieces with some implications of new tech and mobility, where my interests seem to most align.

Thanks for stopping by!

Alex

Crowdfunding Can a civic campaign restore a rural community?

Crowdfunding

It’s a word you see often next to: potato salad, new startups, mobile hardware, and new technology. It was even parodied by South Park this season. It’s been an innovative way for startups to get capital fast in addition to traditional routes of funding: friends, family, themselves, angel investors, and eventually venture capitalists. It by no means is a replacement for traditional funding but can help supplant stages of funding without divesting ownership of the startup. At the same time, growing infrastructure maintenance costs, public worker wage stagnation, decreased tax rates, and housing markets that have not fully recovered have seen public funds for public goods slashed to keep local and state governments solvent and operating. Projects in big cities like Portland, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Miami have been realized with the power of crowdfunding as a way to overcome these challenges. But, little - if any - focus had centered on America’s small towns. Although we at Closed Loop have covered a lot about the large urban revitalization in the States, small towns remain a large part of the American identity, and for many parts of Appalachia, represent the remaining cultural identity and connectivity left behind as mines closed and money left. A project this semester at the University of Tennessee (that I am part of) looks to investigate whether civic crowdfunding can be a viable option to revitalize small towns and provide new opportunities to areas lacking many. You can find out more about the project and donate below!

[iframe src="https://www.indiegogo.com/project/copper-basin-3d/embedded" width="222px" height="445px" frameborder="0" scrolling="no"]

[caption id=”” align=”aligncenter” width=”588”]Copper Basin looks to crowdfund a project as part of a larger strategy to become the greenest small town in America. Copper Basin, Polk County, TN From Appalachian History[/caption]

Copper Basin

Since the first discovery in the 1840s until the 1980’s, the SE corner of Tennessee hosted at one time the world’s largest copper resource. By as early as the 1860s, the surrounding environment was forever altered with complete deforestation to fuel the ongoing copper smelting operation and complete vegetation poisoning from the heavy sulfuric content found in the local raw copper ore. Appalachian History provides an historical account of legislation that proceeded from the extreme environmental degradation that ultimately failed, 80 years before the enactment of the EPA,and allowed the mines to continue their operation. When the mines closed in the late 1980’s, with them left the area’s major economic driver and people with high paying jobs. As statistics for Ducktown, Copperhill, and Polk County show, their economies haven’t gotten much better. But, if you relied on statistics alone, you would completely miss the spirit that looks to change this area to not only attain the level of growth the rest of TN enjoys, but to leverage sustainability as a primary growth strategy to leap frog larger cities in sustainable development.

Ducktown, TN

Emblematic of the Copper Basin region, this small town of 475 hasn’t had a lot going for it, or reasonable chances to succeed. But Mayor James Talley has crafted a larger vision towards taking Ducktown along a sustainable path as a way to find an opportunity for economic revitalization and potentially a strength over much larger cities. On my visit last month to the Copper Basin, I got to see first hand, the work he and his town have put in starting towards that goal. Between a 28 kW solar PV array that can provide up to 40% of the town’s daily electric needs (with plans to expand to 200kW to go nearly solar), to two electric vehicle charging stations downtown. As seen below, they were quite impressive.

Blink EV charging stations find their way in Ducktown, TN site of my community revitalization project with 3d printing. #sustainable

A photo posted by Alex Pawlowski (@alexpawlowski) on

Solar Array Installation provides Ducktown, Tn (pop. 600) with 40% of their energy needs. #ruralrevitalization #appalachia A photo posted by Alex Pawlowski (@alexpawlowski) on

Crowdfunding a Cubify Cube 3D Printer

How you can help

Identified in a class project last year, contour crafting and 3d printing could serve as part of a larger strategy to increase core competencies that help Ducktown become a center of innovation in not only the greater Copper Basin, but of Tennessee as well. This crowdfunding campaign is the next step towards that goal. With a 3D printer available to students in the Copper Basing Learning Center, 3d printing concepts and prototyping can be integrated to enhance STEAM education, building future opportunities for students that may otherwise have not had them. In addition, 3d printing looks to augment Ducktown's larger green strategy to become the greenest small town in America. And that, could be quickly realized.

Vans Vans! Invading a city near you!

[caption id=”attachment_295” align=”aligncenter” width=”700”]Ram Promaster City Van From MT 2015 Ram Promaster City Van Source: Motor Trend[/caption]

If tomorrow everyone left their car in favor of a bike, rail, or a bus (or gondola, or streetcars in 5 cities where those exist), a glaring need would still find this segment on the road; whether in cities or in rural locations. That’s right I’m talking about the commercial vehicle market, and this week I’ll talk about its hottest segment (that didn’t exist 6 years ago in the U.S.): small vans.

[caption id=”attachment_292” align=”aligncenter” width=”696”]2009 Ford Transit Connect Van (from The-Blueprints.com) 2009 Ford Transit Connect Van (from The-Blueprints.com)[/caption]

What do you define as a small van?

Glad you asked. In 2009, Ford brought its European-produced Ford Transit Connect to the States selling 8,834 vans in 2009 to 39,703 in 2013. Based on the Ford Focus, Ford began selling it in Europe in the early 2000s (CO2 regulations, high fuel prices, and history of small spread out rural communities and tight spaces of London all but make it small van-centric or larger vans based on cars-centric), before finding its way here as a trial during the height of the recession when fuel was expensive and car sales were hard to come by, let alone the commercial vehicle market. After all, the commercial vehicle segment (especially on the lower end) has always depended on small businesses, which were the first to feel the real pain of the Recession.

[caption id=”attachment_293” align=”aligncenter” width=”700”]Ford Transit Connect Small Cargo Van 2009-12 Ford Transit Connect Small Cargo Van | Source: wikipedia[/caption]

Small Vans are new?

Before 2009, the smallest vans general consumers and businesses alike could buy were short wheelbase vans based on full-size van platforms that were either paired with an old V6 or a large V8 engine, like the below Chevy Astro van.

[caption id=”attachment_296” align=”aligncenter” width=”700”]mid 00s chevy astro van Mid 00’s Chevy Astro Van Source: wikipedia[/caption]

 

For the average florist, distributor, or even repair service manager, these offerings well outdid their needs, which sparked a small niche of vehicles in the mid 2000s of panel converted car-based crossovers like the Chevrolet HHR and the vehicle it emulated the PT Cruiser. These vehicles provided the room these groups needed without the large payload capacity (they didn’t need) offered by small wheelbase full size vans. Instead of (city / combined / highway) 15/17/20 mpg, (adjusted for 2008+ EPA Maroney window labels) they got 22/25/30 mpg, an improvement of 1.9 gallons for every 100 miles travelled or 264 gallons of fuel per year (assuming they travel 14,000 miles a year with their van). With their fuel savings, they could keep their businesses in tact through the economic downturn and keep those savings to the benefit of their customers. Add to it a lower carbon footprint (as well as easier places to park and smoother ride), and many businesses found this small niche rather convenient. Although both the HHR and PT Cruiser would find their end due to uncompetitiveness with their main selling audience (non cargo van versions), the Ford Transit Connect created its own market share to grab this small but growing need that was never really realized in the marketplace.

[caption id=”attachment_297” align=”aligncenter” width=”1000”]Late 00s chevy hhr panel Late 00s Chevy HHR Panel Source: wikipedia[/caption]

 

 

A little thing known as the Chicken Tax and why it's hurting US consumers

Like any good economics class will teach you, new markets with relatively low barriers to entry don’t last long without new competitors entering, less they not be a totally free market. Well, as it turned out, there was a reason why this “untapped market” was left untapped: the story of the Chicken Tax. You can read more here about the Chicken Tax, but essentially it all started after WWII, where US chickens were finding their ways to European dinner plates, undercutting European chicken prices by a great deal. Europeans didn’t quite like it (they loved the chicken but farmers farming conglomerates found many friends in various government offices) and chose to restrict US chicken imports. President Johnson decided after 18 months of failed talks through Proclamation 3564 to impose a 25 % tax “on potato starch, dextrin, brandy, and light trucks, effective January 7, 1964.” This effectively killed VW Microbus (both van and pickup versions) sales among other European truck imports, as well as Japanese produced vehicles as well. As time has gone, all but light trucks have been repealed, and as Robert Lawrence, professor at Harvard specializing in international trade, postulated that the Chicken Tax effectively insulated the US from the growing reality outside of the US of small light duty trucks that would ultimately find their way to be successful today (delivering class leading space with more efficient powertrains).

Circumventing the Chicken Tax

So if a tarriff is still preventing the import of light trucks from other countries and no small vans are being built inside of the U.S., how are they selling here without a tarriff? Well, friends, let’s jump into the secret refitting that goes on to get a commercial vehicle to the States.

As this Wall Street Journal article points out, any Ford Transit Connect van that comes to the U.S. starts life on container ship from Turkey as a full passenger “wagon” - that is, there are seat belts, windows, and bench seats in the rear of the van. When they arrive in Baltimore, if that vehicle is matched to a cargo van configuration, the seats come out: the metal goes straight to recycling, and the seats become landfill cover. The expense (and carbon footprint) to ship back the components is way too prohibitive, whereas this reconfiguration is seen as cheaper. Rather sad isn’t it? Unfortunately, that is the reality for this growing segment. Why not build in the States you ask? Although their market is expected to grow from 44,000 in 2013 to 120,000 in 2017 according to IHS Automotive, this number pales in comparison to the expected 16.7 million vehicles to be sold this year and for this year or next, US production may not make sense (yet) for this vehicle type.

[caption id=”attachment_298” align=”aligncenter” width=”612”]Ford Econoline E150 Van Source: Author ZipVan: Ford Econoline E150 Van Source: Author[/caption]

[caption id=”attachment_299” align=”aligncenter” width=”612”]Inside ZIpVan Inside a ZipVan | Source: Author[/caption]

Small Vans: A Big win for Cities and Small Businesses alike: Vanshare!

Despite the Chicken Tax’s growing induced environmental problem, the small van movement has seen more entrants develop US versions of their European offerings to grab a small piece of the growing market. With better fuel efficiency, these vehicles provide better options for small businesses to move goods and services across cities and towns with better maneuverability and space density. While in the U.S., Zipcar offers vans (of which I have used personally to move myself from a summer in DC to finishing my last year of undergrad last summer), they are a fleet of Ford E-150 full size vans, and with the E-150 set to be phased out in 2015 for the new full-size European-designed Ford Transit, I would expect within 18 months to 36 months, ZipCar to offer small cargo vans as part of its growing car van share fleet. This could allow more consumers to get behind the wheel of a new small van and replace ungainly van rentals. Better yet, it could even promote further use of vansharing by eliminating the need for many to still need a car: transporting “stuff.” And with electric vans like the Ford Transit Connect Electric that was briefly sold during 2010, further technologies could find their way into this segment that could make a long lasting impact due to their lack of substitution by other transit means in urban city centers.

Small van offerings

[caption id=”attachment_301” align=”aligncenter” width=”900”]Chevy City Express Van Chevy City Express | Source: Auto News[/caption]

2015 Chevy City Express / Nissan NV 200 (Chevy rebadged the Nissan NV 200 to get into the market quickly) More here

Chevy starts at $22,950 with 24/25/26 mpg More here , sister Nissan NV 200 starts at $20,720 also 24/25/26 mpg More here

 

[caption id=”attachment_302” align=”aligncenter” width=”700”]Ram Promaster City Van Ram Promaster City Source: Motor Trend[/caption]

2015 Ram Promaster City More here Price and fuel economy TBA

[youtube id=”_cBkvtOMzAk” align=”center” mode=”lazyload” autoplay=”no”]

Next Time...

With the small van market expanding, maybe so can the midsize pickup truck market? Abandoned during the recession by the Big Three citing “consumers would spend a few thousand more for a full-size truck anyway,” this market has remained stale ever since, with the only two offerings: the Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma using underpinnings at least a decade old(!). Add to it an unfavorable position on the CAFE mandate, and you find a disappearance of a market that is far more loved than the industry believes consumers will respond to. Chevy and its upscale counterpart GMC have released the new Colorado/Canyon (the models it last had in the segment) to breathe new life and turn that previous sentence’s assumption on its head. Just like the small van market, it too was vastly crippled (and still is) by the Chicken Tax resulting in the present situation of “new” 10 year old trucks with no competition to deal with. (Not to put blame on Nissan or Toyota, but when the costs to upgrade said trucks without stiff competition outweighs the perceived sales increase, it takes a new (or in this case returning) entrant with new technology to take a risk and shake up the market, not to mention the fact that they cannot effectively sell their overseas trucks in the U.S.) I’ll take a look at what the Chevy / GMC twins show promise and how that too could change the landscape of the urban environments, especially in pickup truck dominated urban markets like Houston and Dallas, or add to ZipCars carshare fleet. In addition, I’ll look at key features that could turn around the full-size mid-size debate.

Bike Smart; Find your place on the road

Bike Bloc during the People's Climate March in NYC | Source: AP

Last week’s terrible news in New York City of the death of Jill Tarlov resulting from a bike-pedestrian collision - whatever the cause - found the usual corners of the biking debate. Regardless of the actions of both of those involved, no doubt in countless conversations off of social media and the internet at large, cycling as a community took a hit far larger than the NYC bike community itself. From the successes that the Climate Action grassroots movement achieved this past weekend with the People’s Climate March, the urban biking community interweaves a large subset of this now mainstream visible movement

 

You yourself may find that the community you are in, whether topologically challenging or road width / bike accommodation deficient, have a role to play in your community about promoting bikes far beyond a cute obsession but a sustainable mobility alternative. Much like other social phenomena, bad experiences lead to social prejudice, and rightfully or wrongfully affect judgement when you are out on the road. Bicycling Magazine last year put together a great list of staying safe in traffic written from an ultra-cyclist’s (first North American man to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France in 1986) perspective that actually captures great tips to be on the road.  I will add one, here:

 

  • Just Bike, leave entitlement at home. (Don't be a ____)

Far too often I hear from conversations or the tones of many cycling related articles or comments that bike riders people encounter act entitled to the level of a “me-first” attitude. Because as I stated before of social phenomena, this attitude becomes a prejudice that many times over ruins the gains the cycling community makes in local communities and eventually into the national spotlight.

How this changes is a better awareness on the road that can only happen with large events aimed at bringing the largely non-riding public with the cycling community through civic sponsored events, non-profit organized rides with police, and local bike shops being elevated into the community spotlight as partners in moving forward toward this social change and encouragement of car-less trips.

How do we start, you may be asking. Like any grassroots event, start with existing local events that feature space to table and an audience of non-bikers and bikers a like that would find a social ride interesting: maybe you coordinate with a local group and start with the local police to integrate a skills-based class with a larger fun social ride to take over a few city streets in coordination with an existing event. Farmer’s market (if those are regular in your area) are a good place to start, because they often attract a diverse audience who is amenable to social gathering and experiencing new things.

For all of this work, bike riders, non bike riders, city planners, and local law enforcement can have positive conversations and better understanding between sometimes opposed groups, while also helping to address cycling’s paradoxical racial and socioeconomic divide again born from cultural prejudices towards bikes as a “toy”, cars still considered as status symbols as wealthier people in urban settings reduce their car dependencies, and “white, entitled” “cyclists” - who may happen to be riding expensive bikes - giving little courtesy to others.

[caption id=”attachment_284” align=”aligncenter” width=”600”]Share the Road : A Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition's program to educate cyclists and motorists. Share the Road : A Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition’s program to educate bike riders and motorists.[/caption]

A helpful way to avoid entitlement is to keep an idea of your place on the road and more importantly, keeping an idea of the social goodwill that you as a bike rider hold for everyone else in your community. As a bike rider grows more comfortable with the area, it may feel easy to take control of the road and go about your way as we feel equal to a car driver on the road. What we should keep in mind towards the overall goal in the sentence above, is that we are sharing the road with other traffic, or sharing a multi-use trail / sidewalk (where permitted) with pedestrians. Just as you in a car wouldn’t cut someone else driving a car off, or tailgate, or hold up traffic, the same applies to you as a bike rider on the road. If I am going up hill (which is often here in Knoxville), I know that my speed is going be to rather substandard to flowing car traffic even on the quiet roads that I actively seek on my commute to school twice a week, so I will try to be as far to the side of the 2 lane road as I can be, looking ahead for any obstacles (glass, potholes, manhole covers) that may need me to navigate around. On downhills where I will be approaching the speed limit of the quiet road I have chosen, I will move slightly to the left - still no more than 3 feet away - to just ensure that people do see me and that when they do I can feel good that I have helped to raise the social capital of the burgeoning bike community here in Knoxville.

Another useful tip highlighted in the Bicycling article is that road awareness should always be on your mind. Even if you are rightfully able to ride through the green light while a pedestrian tries to cross or a get nearly cut off by car turning in front of you, always keep in the mind that just as driving a car, being defensive rather than always opportunistic keeps not only you safe but others as well. With modern distractions taking away pedestrian and driver attention from the activity they be should concentrated on, as you are riding think about those situations that could arise and give yourself options if you need to make an evasive maneuver. While the facts that led to Jill Tarlov’s death still remain unclear as the investigation continues, and I will avoid any speculation, it serves as a critical message of what can happen even if all of the steps I have outlined here are followed.

  • Be predictable

Overall, if anything is to be surmised from this reminder, it is that the social chain of the advances of the biking community as a subset of the greater climate action movement depends on each and every bike rider. To keep that chain growing and unbreakable really does take care and thought, even if it slows you down by 30 seconds. No one wants to be involved in a bike accident, and while as seen recently these steps in themselves can’t prevent everything, when a future incident like this unfortunately occurs, the story headlines won’t be “Cyclist kills pedestrian” but rather an “Accident Involving a Cyclist and Pedestrian results in death.” And don’t get wrong, 1 death / injury is 1 death /injury too many no matter who is involved, but our nation’s urban mobility lies in the balance of this social chain that we as bikers must uphold to reduce the barriers to entry and have a lot of fun with a growingly diverse set of fellow bike riders to enjoy the ride with.

 

A Vision for what bikes could do for urban mobility: A New concept for the Urban Tricycle

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[vimeo id=”103315894” align=”center” mode=”lazyload” autoplay=”no” aspect_ratio=”16:9”]

 

Now, one concept that I think will end up being great towards seeing bikes as highly usable mobility mode comes from the added benefit of another wheel: a tricycle. Much like the 3-wheeler article I wrote several weeks back this concept uses two wheels in the front and one in the back, greater for carrying a payload that usually justifies why you would want to take a car rather than yourself. As showed in the video, however, it has a cool trick like the Toyota i-Road we shared 2 weeks ago in that the front wheels tilt, delivering a turn-in feel of a bike that we would normally ride. We’ll keep on eye on this project to see if it is able to make it to market, but for more info for now, check out this great CityLab article on it.

[caption id=”attachment_288” align=”aligncenter” width=”620”]<img class=”size-full wp-image-288” src=”http://closedloop.us/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/4ac0ae74a.jpg” alt=”Payload Capability of the Kiffy Agence 360” width=”620” height=”519” /></a> Payload Capability of the Kiffy Agence 360[/caption]

 

As Sheila mentioned Wednesday night, we have switched days, so expect to see my columns now every Friday, and these next weeks I’ll be giving some more insight into the project of the Copper Basin in SE TN / N GA. Please like our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter, if you haven’t already.