30 January 2014

Sky-borne urban transport: introducing the FlyWay and the FlyPod

In a blog-post about one year ago I wrote about how ridiculously expensive it is to build underground transport in existing high-density cities and how much better it would be to transport people and things in the airspace over existing streets and other free space. I also wrote that elevated railways (including monorails) and elevated roadways are unacceptable in people-friendly dense cities, because they create too much noise and remove precious daylight from the streets below.
I have also discussed that hovering, flying, or floating in the air are all impractical for urban transit vehicles, so we have to find some kind of support structure to hold unto, but which takes up as little airspace as possible. Obviously, the smaller and lighter that structure is, the smaller and lighter all the vehicles have to be. This brings us to the question: how light can people-transportation vehicles possibly be? Here are some numbers:
  • Bicycle: 10 to 15 kg
  • Velomobile (fully faired, recumbent bicycle): 30 kg
  • Motor Scooter (electric or combustion engine): 50 to 200 kg
  • SegWay: ca. 50 kg
  • Renault Twizy (faired two-seater, electric): 450 kg
  • Mercedes Smart (two-seater): 730 kg
  • ULTra PRT vehicles (Heathrow Aiport, 4 seats): 850 kg
  • SUV car: up to 2000 kg and more
As you can see, light vehicles like bicycles can transport up to ten times there own weight, while the heaviest ones often transport less than even a tenth of their own weight (because the usual load is much less than the permitted maximal payload).

Thinking of transit you'll probably think of large buses and train cars which weigh several tons a piece. Those will obviously be too heavy for a light-weight approach. But don't worry about getting enough transport capacity in our system: instead of big vehicles with big gaps in-between them, we'll just have to make sure that our small vehicles can draw really close and even form emergent trains without any coordination.

Using this idea we can design a vehicle, our FlyPod, to transport people together only if they really want to travel together, not (unlike buses or trains) if they just happen to travel in the same direction. The minimal payload would then be just one person with clothing and keys while other luggage could already be transported in a separate, trailing, vehicle. However, there is lots of convenience associated with having your luggage with yourself and furthermore, if the vehicle has enough space and the seating flexibility, this space could be used for either a second passenger or for some luggage! Taking this into account our design payload would be 200 to 300 kg depending on the country of usage. (People sizes and weights vary quite a bit in the different regions of the world.) The empty weight of the vehicle would then be between 50 and 150 kg depending on other factors of the design. 

Note particularly that the resulting overall loaded weight is much less than that of typical areal lift vehicles (gondolas) which usually transport between 4 to 20 people per vehicle. And there we have the solution to our problem: just hang the vehicles on cables! Cables are so slim that they are almost invisible and small pedal-powered or electric vehicles running on those cables with less than 50 km/h will not make much noise. Supports will have to be spaced closer than for areal lifts (because vehicle density is higher), and they will have to be a bit sturdier than those built for streetcar overhead-wires, but otherwise they can be customized and integrated into the urban landscape adapting to whatever style is already present. And that's the FlyWay on which our FlyPods will travel!

FlyPods bring cycling to a whole new level

I have to admit that I personally prefer the pedal-powered variant because I love bicycling myself. It actually has so many advantages compared to a regular bicycle that it becomes a whole new experience. The best thing for me is that a passenger does not need to stop at red lights and crossings, you don't even need to look out for traffic! You could be reading on your phone, playing on your tablet or just gazing out the window for the whole trip! Totally like in a taxi except that you have to pedal a bit. And the pedaling will be easier, too, since most of an ordinary urban cyclists power is used for accelerating themselves after a stop. But if you don't stop, you also never waste energy for braking and speeding up again! Also, even though the vehicle is a bit bigger than a normal bicycle the recumbent position and the fairing make for a very aerodynamic shape which doesn't need much more power than a bicycle to get moving. In fact, vehicle weight only matters when accelerating and we just need to do that one single time per trip. (And there's help for that too, as we'll see later.) The next advantage is that you are protected from rain and wind and even excess heat, since a simple yet effective cooling system could be powered by solar panels on the vehicle roof. (The sun creates the heat, so it's always available when we need energy for cooling!) Fleet management of the FlyPods is very similar to how public bicycles (like Paris' famous Velib and numerous others around the world) are managed except that empty FlyPods can be moved around in little trains along the wires itself without taking up any extra road space for maintenance vehicles. If a station has surplus empty vehicles which need to go somewhere else, these can even be just pushed onto the main FlyWay and then pushed around by other vehicles, but this leads us to the next exciting topic: emergent trains and smooth merging.

Emergent trains are very simple to explain: since we are dealing with slow vehicles that have no obstacles on their way except other vehicles of the same sort (which in turn have no obstacles in their way...), a train simply forms by a faster vehicle bumping into a slower one! This bump is cushioned of by springs in the vehicle ends which contract as the vehicles approach and slowly expand again as the front vehicle gets pushed and the rear one consequentially slowed down. The spring also compensates for the normal small variations in pedaling power which would otherwise result in repeated bumping into each other. The nice thing about those emergent trains is that the air resistance of two closely travelling vehicles is almost the same as for a single one. In other words, not only the front vehicle profits by being pushed, but the follower also profits because they now have less resistance to overcome.

Smooth merging is also simple and it is necessary to keep vehicles from stopping at intersections. But, of course, there won't be shared intersections in the usual sense. Instead, crossing FlyWays will be on different heights such that vehicles just pass above and below each other. Just like on grade-free highway crossings turning onto another FlyWay means merging out onto a ramp and then into the other main FlyWay. Therefore, the only traffic conflict possible in this system is two vehicles merging into one lane. And this is accomplished by an automatism which uses the kinetic energy of the vehicle which enters the merging zone last to speed up the vehicle which is ahead. The second vehicle will thereby lose speed such that the first one will clear the merging point safely ahead. Note that if the vehicle being slowed down is a train, then all the vehicles behind it will also be slowed down, while the vehicle being sped up is always pulled away from the train so that the other vehicle can sneak in. If two trains meet this results in vehicles being sped up from the front of the trains in alternation while the tails of the trains get slowed down more and more.

Flying Bicycles, so what?

Of course, this great invention of mine is not going to appear in reality very soon. I found one project, called Shweep, which is very similar to what I described here (they use a very narrow metal rail instead of the cable) and which itself is still in the research stages, especially for the switching technology: how to merge in and out of lanes. I admit that my description is very fuzzy in this regard and while the rest of the system is pretty low-tech and could have been build 50 or 100 years ago, the best solution for switching might actually use quite a bit of high-tech.

While doing research into this topic I found a lot of information about "Personal Rapid Transit" (PRT) systems, a combination of mass transit and private vehicles (basically a transit system that never requires transfers and always takes you from your starting station directly to the destination station). Despite much research this never took off big and the above-mentioned ULTra system at Heathrow airport is probably the example which handles the most traffic. ULTra with its vehicles driving on normal asphalt also shows that PRT now becomes less like rail-based systems and more like ordinary cars. To me, it actually seems quite likely that self-driving cars will popularize enabling driverless taxis and thereby fulfill all of PRTs promises plus picking people up at their door without the need of any stations at all! Isn't it fun to think that SciFi also imagined flying cars which were driven by people, but now in reality we seem to be getting the boring old combustion-powered asphalt-rolling cars, but they will drive themselves?! (I know that burning fuel to drive might get out of fashion soon with electric cars, but that's not a point I want to argue here. Besides: (1) electric traction (in street-cars) was commonplace in big cities many years before cars arrived at the scene, so it's not really a new technology, and (2) there are ways to produce engine fuel from other than crude oil, so maybe combustion engines will stay with us for longer than it seems now. See XtL (sorry German), English: CtL, BtL.)

Driverless cabs might make commutes much more relaxed and save a little space on crowed streets (for example, by separating the car into two compartments and taking two passengers on the same ride, or by taking a full four or more, for a cheaper rate than a bus and still end-to-end, with a minimal detour to drop off or pick up others), but they will not make obsolete the need to create higher capacity for transport in general as in new subway construction. The FlyWay, on the other hand, can take between 10% and 30% of inner city traffic which in itself might be just enough to considerably reduce congestion on the streets as well as in subways and buses. So the FlyWay isn't just a very relaxed, comfortable, and quick way to travel for those who use it, but it's also a great service to everybody else on the road.

28 January 2014

I just donated eight percent of my 2013 net income to GiveDirectly, a charity that directly transfers this money to some of the poorest people in the world.

I have learned about GiveDirectly the charity via GiveWell, a charity evaluation project founded by two people who wanted to donate heaps of money for good purposes, but didn't find good information on what best to invest in. I already donated a smaller amount to GiveDirectly twelve months ago. What I like about GiveDirectly that they are the first organisation who do a very simple and obviously good thing efficiently on a large scale: directly giving donations to people who need resources. By donating such a large amount to one single cause, I am not neglecting all the other important causes, but I am following GiveWell's detailed analysis which says basically that most of the really good causes and efficient charities already get a lot of funding and sometimes even have trouble absorbing and using more funding with their existing staff.

Recently I read a lot of interesting articles on "effective altruism", the science of doing the most good with the little money that each of us can spare:
So Warren Buffet gives away 99% percent of his wealth during his lifetime or in his will. In the meantime he talks to other billionaires to convince them to give away at least half of their wealth and it seems he's quite successful at that. 

There's also a more inclusive club for non-billionaires (like you and me) called Giving What We Can. All you need to do to become a member is commit to regularly donate 10% of your regular income to any good altruistic cause. 

Twice in a row, I have used my winter-holidays in January to decide on and make a yearly donation. This time I realized that I can make my giving much more social by doing it in the traditional holiday season. Then I can talk to others what and where they intend to give this year. This will be much more fun and probably also do more good. I am looking forward to a great year!

7 January 2014

my vegan cooking and meditation club

→ Deutsche Version des Artikels gibt's unten! ←

I am trying a mixed German/English post here and I am not a diligent translator, so only the key facts are the same in both versions and the narration/motivation is half English, half German. Feel free to read however much you understand or want to read. ;-)

I've participated in my friend's meditation meetups every week since I came back to Berlin. (Today is the first time that I skip it, because of the parallel LYL Berlin meetup.) I also feel the desire to contribute to the world by offering or organizing meditation or self-help groups. And additionally I have the desire to meet new people and cook together, and get to know each other to possibly do other stuff together. 

So this week I decided to bring it all together and organize a combined cooking - meditation - dinner - socializing event. The idea is simple: I want to give myself and others an occasion to exchange in a relaxed and social manner, but also provide a common theme: we are all interested in cooking and meditation. Also, I find that meditating together creates a nice, tranquil atmosphere by making people more open for others. (This way, we don't need alcohol as an ice breaker ;-) We could even add a listening meditation in one of the later meetups. 

Here's a sample schedule for such an event:
6 pm: people arrive and start cooking. if too many are in the kitchen, others can just sit on the couch and chat over tea.
around 7:30 pm: when the meal is prepared and the table is set, we keep the food warm and close the doors for 20 minutes of group meditation. Then we silently walk to the dining room, do some waiting meditation for people to fill their plates, and then 15 minutes of eating meditation. Then the social part of the evening begins!

That's the end of the English part!

Random picture of delicious vegan food to make this more viral on the social networks :-P

Also hier nochmal auf Deutsch, zuerst die Idee: nur wegen einer kurzen Meditation eine lange Reise durch Berlin zu einem Treffen zu machen, kostet vielen zu viel Zeit. Aber für eine lange Meditation am Abend bin ich persönlich meist zu müde. Deswegen habe ich mir einen Kompromiss ausgedacht: verbinden wir eine kurze Meditation mit einem Kochabend und zur Krönung des Ganzen noch einer Genuss-Meditation beim Essen! Danach sind wir dann nicht nur satt, sondern auch im Geiste erholt und können den Abend gemütlich ausklingen lassen.

Hier ist ein beispielhafter Terminvorschlag (je nach Wochentag/Wochenende bzw. den Teilnehmern anzupassen):
18:00 Uhr Gäste trudeln ein und wir beginnen zu kochen. Wer in der Küche nicht gebraucht wird, darf auch gern einfach bei einem Tee auf der Couch sitzen und mit anderen plauschen (die vielleicht ihren Teil des Essens schon fertig zubereitet haben). Dadurch muss niemand pünktlich sein und jeder kann kommen, wann er eben kommt.

so gegen 19:00 Uhr: wenn das Essen fertig ist und der Tisch gedeckt, stellen wir es warm und verschließen die Tür. (Jetzt kann niemand mehr hinzukommen, damit wir in Ruhe meditieren können.)
Wir machen ca. 20 Minuten Meditation in der Gruppe (z.B. zwei verschiedene Übungen à 10 Minuten). Gleich im Anschluss und ohne zwischendurch die Edle Stille zu verlassen, nehmen wir uns Essen, warten bis alle am Tisch sind und machen dann 15 Minuten Genuss-Meditation beim Essen. Dann können wir zu reden beginnen während wir fertig essen und fließend in den sozialen Teil übergehen.

2 January 2014

S-Bahn Leipzig

Der neue S-Bahn-Tunnel in Leipzig ist fertig und hat Mitte Dezember den Betrieb aufgenommen. Ich war dort und habe mir vieles angesehen. Die Stationen sind wirklich beeindruckend. Große helle Räume, kurze Wege, Prunk nicht durch Dekoration sondern durch Eleganz und Größe. Ganz das Gegenteil der Pariser Metro, an die ich mich im letzten Sommer nicht gewöhnen konnte.
Am Hauptbahnhof zum Beispiel kann man vom Tiefbahnsteig durch den nördlichen Eingangsbereich bis hoch zum großen Bahnhofsdach schauen. Am Markt und Wilhelm Leuschner Platz hat man die Tiefe von ca. 20 m genutzt, um die Decke entsprechend hoch zu machen, was beim Wilhelm Leuschner Platz dazu führt, dass man die Decke gar nicht mehr wahr nimmt. Schön einfach mutet es an, dass die S-Bahnsteige im Hauptbahnhof einfach als Gleis 1 und 2 bezeichnet werden. Tragisch ist dagegen, dass die alten Gleise 1 bis 5 allesamt stillgelegt wurden!

Andererseits gibt es neben all der Schönheit und dem Glanz auch andere Dinge zu beobachten, die das "Halle-Leipziger-S-Bahn-System" zu etwas Besonderem machen -- und zwar nicht nur im positiven Sinn. Alles in allem ähnelt es in vielerlei Hinsicht eher einem "Regionalbahntunnel" als einem eigenen Stadt-und-Vorort-Bahn-System wie wir es aus den größten deutschen Städten kennen. Es ist ja eigentlich das wichtigste Kennzeichen der Stadtschnellbahn oder Vorortbahn, dass sie den Stadt- und Vorort-Verkehr vom restlichen Eisenbahnverkehr trennt. So hat in Berlin und Hamburg die S-Bahn (fast) komplett eigene Gleise und Bahnsteige. In München, Frankfurt und Stuttgart hat sie zumindest eigene Bahnsteige und die meisten Stationen der S-Bahn werden auch nur von der S-Bahn und nicht von Regionalzügen bedient. Die S-Bahn bedient den nahen Einzugsbereich der Stadt mit maximal 30 Minuten Fahrzeit zum Zentrum und für den Rest gibt es eigene Linien. So sind S-Bahn-Züge auf kurze Fahrzeiten, häufige Halte und einen schnellen Fahrgastwechsel ausgelegt während die Regionalbahn zum Beispiel mehr Sitzplätze bietet und Toiletten im Zug. (Die S-Bahn Berlin hat ja nichtmal Mülleimer im Zug!) In Leipzig vermischen sich beide Verkehre total. S-Bahn-Züge von Leipzig nach Hoyerswerda sind zum Beispiel 2,5 Stunden in einer Richtung unterwegs und fahren nur alle zwei Stunden so weit. S-Bahn-Fahrgäste in den halbstündlich fahrenen Bahnen zwischen Leipzig und Eilenburg mischen sich also alle zwei Stunden mit den Regionalfahrern der längeren Strecke im selben Zug. Bei einer richtigen S-Bahn würde der Zug aus Hoyerswerda ab Eilenburg (oder ab Torgau) ohne Halt durchfahren.
Am Hauptbahnhof steigen so viele Menschen ein und aus, dass in manchen Zügen kein Platz mehr ist. Ich stelle es mir etwas unschön vor, wenn der Zug nach Hoyerswerda voller Leipziger ist, die nur ein paar Stationen fahren wollen, und deswegen Reisende nach Hoyerswerda selbst keine Plätze mehr im Zug finden!

Auch die Transportkapazität liegt einer anderen Liga als die der großen S-Bahnen. Die Bahnsteige sind so lang wie in Berlin (140 m), aber die Züge fahren meist nur in halber Länge (meist 3 oder 4 von 7 möglichen Wagen). Die Taktfrequenz liegt aber mit 30 Minuten weit unter dem in Berlin zur Hauptverkehrszeit praktizierten Zehn-Minutentakt oder dem Hamburger System mit 5-Minutentakt pro Linie. Andererseits haben Systeme wie Frankfurt und Stuttgart zwar auch einen 30-Minuten-Basistakt, aber dort sind die Züge mit bis zu 210 m um 50% länger. (In München wird diese Zuglänge sogar teilweise im Zehn-Minuten-Takt gefahren.)

Das "Regionalbahngefühl" kommt nicht nur in den Zügen auf, die übrigens auch ganz im Gegensatz zur typischen S-Bahn alle mit Zugbegleitern fahren, sondern auch auf den Stationen, die ganz "wie auf dem Land" gestaltet sind: moderne Bahnsteige mit wenig Mobiliar, Automaten auf dem Bahnsteig und nicht wie bei S- und U-Bahn in einem Zwischengeschoss oder Empfangsgebäude. Selbst in der Haltestelle Wilhelm-Leuschner-Platz mitten in der Innenstadt fühle ich mich ob der niedrigen Bahnsteige (55 cm), der DB-Regio-typischen Ausstattung und der kaum wahrnehmbaren Decke ganz wie auf einem dörflichen Regionalbahnsteig.

Aber das alles soll keine Kritik sein: die neuen Stationen machen den öffentlichen Verkehr sicher sehr attraktiv und verkürzen Reisezeiten für viele Menschen. Nicht zuletzt wurde hier eine Infrastruktur geschaffen, die über Jahrzehnte oder gar Jahrhunderte den Menschen dienen soll. (Die Berliner Stadt- und Vorortbahn ist ja schon 125 Jahre alt, der Nord-Süd-Tunnel 77 Jahre alt.) Durch die Auslegung für und Ausstattung mit ganz normaler Eisenbahntechnik ist das Bauwerk sicher flexibel genug, um sich auch zukünftigen Herausforderungen zu stellen. Vielleicht gibt es ja irgendwann einen getrennten S- und R-Verkehr und vielleicht fahren einige R-Bahnen trotzdem durch den Tunnel. Vielleicht sieht man irgendwann ja auch mal Doppelstockwagen im Tunnel.

Hier noch mehr Photos von meinem Besuch.

from better decisions to better motivation to a better life

To prepare a training session on Rational Decision Making (slides here, if you are curious) I read really quickly through half of the book The Three Secrets of Wise Decision Making and I also started applying it to my own decisions right away. To get more practice, I decided to also apply proper decision making to rather small decisions or things that one wouldn't normally call decisions -- I call it challenges to the status quo -- and I found something wonderful: there's a big flexibility in my life that I haven't seen before. Many things of which I thought they have to be this way or that are actually just decisions that I once made in a bad or biased way and if I look deeply at what I really want, I can choose to have it any way I want!

In the past, I often thought that I need to train my concentration or prop up my willpower to get things done that I had decided to do. But now I see that maybe all I was lacking was real deep motivation to do those things. Megan Hayes just wrote a piece that's talking about the same thing.

All to often we get our life goals (or nasty todo-items) just by looking at what others do (house, car, kids, career, ...) or by viewing ourselves as a specific type of person (hard-working, health-conscious, ...) or member of a specific group (vegans, bike fans, train spotters, ...) or we just internalize expectations that others (parents, bosses, spouses, ...) have for us.

I found that rational decision making helped to refocus on my values and what I really want. It helps me see objectively what is good for me individually. It helps gain perspective and set priorities better.

In a world where we have more and more options, more and more possible life styles, more and more choices, it's important to be able to sit back and find your own way. I have found that a certain mindfulness is important to become aware how things affect me and what influences me. And explicit, creative decision making is the perfect counterpoint to design my response to life.