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Umbra on washing your car

Dear Umbra, What can I do about washing my car in a more eco-friendly way? Is phosphate-free soap enough, or should I just suck it up and go to the drive-through car wash every time? Katie North Carolina Dearest Katie, You are one of those fastidious people I see busily washing their cars on Saturdays. I always wonder why some people are driven to go to such lengths, while others consider washing their cars somewhere below replacing their toothbrush on life's long list of things to conveniently forget about. One of the little mysteries. Fun for the kids, bad for …

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Summer in the city

Are people smart enough to abandon the ‘burbs?

A fairly speculative piece on MSN yesterday asks the question, "Could rising gas prices kill the suburbs?" Its talk of infill and vertical cities may be the stuff of urban planners' dreams, but how will it resonate with real people? Someone I know read the piece and took away this message: Housing prices in the suburbs are about to drop because everyone's going to leave! Sweet! And if last night's House Hunters -- in which a couple with a baby upgraded from a 2,800-foot house in the 'burbs to an even bigger one because there "wasn't enough room" -- is …

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Umbra on dropping out of society

Dear Umbra, Although I have always been one to conserve, recycle, etc., it is only in the last year that I have realized the extent of the catastrophe coming upon us in terms of climate change. I am 40-something, live in a city, own an older home with a sizeable mortgage that requires my husband and me to work, two kids, two cars, etc. I've done all the usual stuff: changed the light bulbs, we've each started biking to work when we don't have to pick up our kids, and I've gotten politically active, writing emails and organizing my first …

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Engineers Gone Wild

Automakers combine forces to develop new hybrid transmission Tired of getting their rear ends handed to them by the Prius, GM, BMW, and DaimlerChrysler plan to invest over $1 billion in R&D toward a new hybrid transmission that, boosters say, will leave Toyota's market-leading hybrid in the dust. "Dual-mode" hybrid technology includes an onboard fuel-optimization computer that will calculate whether the vehicle should be using its electric motor or its gasoline combustion engine, and determine how the onboard battery will be recharged. The system can be adjusted to emphasize either improved value or high performance. GM plans to introduce the …

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Umbra on carpooling to a reunion

Dear Umbra, You have told us, in no uncertain terms, that traveling by train is better ecologically than traveling by car. Several members of my family plan to carpool to an upcoming family reunion 600 miles away. I have considered trying to talk them into taking the train instead, but face the following problem: It would cost about $130 each, round-trip, and involve inconvenient hours guaranteed to annoy the elder generation. The car will cost about $40 each, round-trip. I myself, having a very tight budget, am considerably swayed by this, and have no doubt they will be also. Consequently, …

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Pardon Me Boys, Is That the Chattanooga Cough-Cough?

Add diesel locomotives to the list of things killing you Recently, researchers discovered they'd been a little off in their estimates of how much smog-forming pollution diesel locomotives generate. How off? Turns out by 2030 the trains will be producing about twice what was previously estimated -- 800,000 tons of nitrogen oxide and 25,000 tons of soot, according to new estimates. Oops. The railroad folks rush to remind us that diesel locomotives are still three times more fuel efficient than trucks and emit only about a third as much pollution; indeed, greens are among the biggest fans of rail (for …

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Switch Getters

Industries pull the switch on mercury switches The steel and auto industries have agreed to pay $2 million each to remove mercury-containing light switches from millions of scrapyard-bound vehicles. The deal will reduce U.S. annual mercury pollution by at least 5 percent over the next 15 years, according to U.S. EPA chief Stephen Johnson. Bully for the U.S., but a wash for the planet: the mercury will be recycled, refined, and likely sold to loosely regulated industries in developing countries. The toxin was phased out of foreign-vehicle lighting systems in 1993 and domestic cars in 2002, but about 67.5 million …

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Yukon Fool Some of the People Some of the Time

GM builds world's first LEED-certified auto plant, slows SUV production If BP went Beyond Petroleum, does that mean GM is Greening Motors? The struggling U.S. automaker recently unveiled two nuggets of eco-friendly news. Its brand-spankin' new Lansing Delta Township assembly plant in Michigan received the U.S. Green Building Council's gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, making it the world's first LEED-certified auto-manufacturing plant. The facility's eco-features -- which include waterless urinals and a lights-out section where robots will work -- are expected to save 30 million kilowatt-hours of electricity and over 40 million gallons of water during …

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Words Fail Us

Hummer propaganda aimed at kids through McDonald's Happy Meals Sometimes a story comes along that so perfectly captures a culture's pathologies that it should be put in a time capsule, so future generations ... oh, right, there won't be any future generations. It seems that, according to fast-food behemoth McDonald's, this is a "Hummer of a Summer." A new series of TV and radio ads depict happy families on their way to fatten their children and clog their arteries at McDonald's in GM's gas-guzzling Hummer. When they arrive, soon-to-be-obese boys can choose from eight different toy Hummers with their Happy …

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Umbra on car trade-ins

Dear Umbra, I'm the not-so-proud owner of an 18-year-old Honda Civic -- great car in that it gets 39 mpg, has a decent amount of zip, and generally runs well. However, it needs some mechanical work, the paint and some of the upholstery are shot, and the AC runs on Freon. I've reached the point of analysis paralysis in deciding whether to fix this car up or trade it in. At what point do you give up the ghost on an older car? And how bad would it be if I got the old car painted? Driven to distraction, Renee …

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