Thursday, March 19, 2009

Why Biking to Work is Better Than Driving

There are a whole pile of reasons why biking to work is better than driving. Here are some visual reminders of some of them...

Traffic sucks. Sitting in stop-and-go traffic makes me crazy. Having to drive to and from work during rush hour is like a punch in the mouth. However, passing cars in the wide-open bike lane makes me quite happy.

Gas is expensive. Below is the sign at the local BP. Don't shrug off the seemingly-low price for Euro 95 (standard unleaded) -- that's in Euros per liter. Today, a Euro is worth about $1.30, and there are 3.8 liters in a gallon. Factor those conversions in, and gas here costs just over $6 per gallon. No wonder this is the land of the Smart car. What's that 51-cent price, you ask, for "Autogas?" Autogas is LPG, liquified petroleum gas, some sort of mix of methane, propane, and similar stuff. Apparently many cars here have been retrofitted to burn LPG rather than gasoline (benzine, in Dutch). I looked into it when I bought my car, but I guess that while LPG is ubiquitous within the Netherlands, elsewhere in Europe it is tougher to find. But, luckily, I don't need any of this nonsense to bike to work!

Biking puts a smile on my face because it's simply pleasant! Check out the bike paths I get to use every day, which are way nicer than even the quaintest European roads:

Nice, eh? Of course, it's not always sunshine and roses... Sometimes other "traffic" in the bike lane leaves its mark:

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Silent Crane and the Singing Mason

Construction... a necessity everywhere, a general inconvenience, a way to manifest humanity's desire to build higher, faster, more. While stuck in traffic when I'm forced to drive the Aalsterweg under a half-built overpass of the long-under-construction A2 motorway, it's easy to be annoyed by the general concept. However, this fall, when taking my time, riding my bike, walking my dog along the quieter streets, I discovered some nicer, more civilized, more craftsmanlike kinds of construction.

One early morning, I was walking Lacey the doodle dog near my apartment, and I heard a baritone voice singing operatic phrases. Overhead, a crane was moving large sheets of cement into a hole, where they were taking shape to create the foundation for a new house. As I approached, I realized that the singer was one of the masons in the hole, guiding the cement blocks into his ready lines of mortar. Cranes like this are way more common here than in the U.S., for residential construction at least, probably because the materials here are all heavy cement and steel, not wood that a carpenter can carry up a ladder...

Cool, I thought, that the mason sings while he works -- but wait, why was it quiet enough for me to hear him? Every construction site I've seen is reverberating with diesel noise, from generators, compressors, not to mention heavy equipment. This one was totally silent, save the singing, even as the crane toiled! The crane's winches and rotation hummed and clicked a little, but quietly like an electric motor rather than a rattling diesel. I went back one evening to scope the crane, and it was indeed plugged in to the grid via a big temporary electrical junction box. Very nice, very civilized. Quiet in use, and pollution-free (at least at the construction site). A picture of the folded crane can be found on the manufacturer's site.

Speaking of masons, if I were to ever become a mason, I would want to apprentice in Holland. The Dutch love bricks: virtually every house is brick (I heard that wood construction for a dwelling is simply illegal), garden walls and fences are brick, and streets and sidewalks are brick. Of course, many major roads are asphalt, but most residential streets, mine included, are indeed brick, laid in tidy herringbone patterns and set into compressed sand.

How are these brick streets built? Well, for the first couple weeks I was in the Netherlands, I was staying on a road that was being rebuilt due to plumbing changes or something. The process was this: dig a hole, play with the pipes, fill it with sand, compress and grade the sand, lay the bricks, then fill the gaps with more sand. Move 20 meters down the street, and repeat... I took pictures, natuurlijk. Here, road in progress (to the right is the perfectly-smoothed sand):

Check out the two kinds of special edge-bricks, perfectly shaped to blend the herringbone pattern into the edge course and curb. Very nice, I think.

So what does brick road construction sound like? Well, when the backhoes are at work, it sounds as noisy as any other, but when the bricks are being laid, it's quiet and craftsmanlike, rubber mallets thump-thump-thumping each brick into place, with the occasional high metallic ching-ching-ching as a brick is trimmed with a chisel. Real, manual work, patiently done, day after day, until the road is complete. Here's a more complicated bit, where the herringbone is interrupted and the bricks need trimming:

This general thread dates from the fall, and the photos were taken then, when I noticed these things, but before I had a car. Apologies for waiting so long to post, but I think my appreciation for the quiet, civilized construction projects has grown with the time I've spent in the car on crowded, ever-unfinished motorways...