Monday, July 15, 2019

Invasive Tree Growth Contributes to Near Fatal Accident

There's a dangerous spot on Quaker Road where traffic makes a sharp left turn to cross the DR Canal. Recently, a car didn't make the turn and instead went flying through this guard rail and into the canal. The driver in the sinking car was saved by a nearby resident roused in the middle of the night by the sound of the crash.

You'd think there'd be lots of signs warning of the impending 90 degree turn, but the article in Town Topics stated that this stretch of road comes under multiple governmental jurisdictions, none of which has ultimate responsibility for its safety.

Perhaps due to this lack of clear responsibility, there is only one warning sign, and it was not visible that night.

I happened to be riding in a car out that way recently, and took some photos as we passed by. There is the sign, on the right, obscured by the surge of growth we get every June, as trees extend their reach to catch more sunlight. This tree happens to be an Ailanthus, better known as Tree of Heaven, an invasive species from Asia that is common along roadsides. Introduced species that turn invasive also constitute the main chore for organizations that maintain nature trails.

Get a little closer and you can see that the sign is at least warning of a sharp turn..

Only when you're passing it can you see the recommended speed limit.

Though invasive species are particularly fast growing, a native box elder nearby would also have eventually grown over the sign. The take-home message here, beyond the lack of clear responsibility mentioned in the article, is a recurring one about the importance of maintenance. Few people, when seeing a clearly visible warning sign, think of the ongoing care that goes into keeping it visible. Yet maintenance is something our lives depend upon.

Close Call As Storm Threatens to Flood Princeton High School

Inside our house this past Thursday evening, we could hear the unusual weight and density of the rain falling on the roof. The downpour was heavy enough and extended enough that thoughts turned to Princeton High School, and the possibility that it might have flooded for a third time. The first two floods caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. Most of the damage was paid for by insurance, though the impact on the schools' ongoing insurance costs is unknown.

I headed towards the school on Franklin Avenue, which had turned into a river as the town's stormdrain system became overwhelmed.

The detention basin next to the PHS tennis courts was reassuringly doing its job, collecting some runoff.

The ecolab detention basin between the arts and science wings was more worrisome, filling to within one foot of overflow.

The concrete slab installed to block overflow from pouring down the steps into the PHS basement was reassuring, though the sandbags left over from the last flood had long since decomposed in the sunlight and spilled their contents.

The drain next to the back entry to the wooden stage--the stage that already had to be replaced twice due to past flooding--had not been overwhelmed this time, fortunate since the rotted sandbags would have been of little use.

Same story on the ecolab side of the musical arts wing.

The first massive wave of the storm had already moved through when these pictures were taken. Some re-engineering of Walnut Street last year, when the broad new sidewalks were installed, seems to have helped. What we don't know is what would have happened if the downpour had lasted another fifteen minutes. With an overheated planet lifting ever more moisture up into the skies, some day we'll likely find out.

Dreaming of Clean Streets, Clean Air, and Lower Costs in Princeton

This is my dream for making clean streets, clean air and lower costs routine in Princeton: a compost cart put out for pickup on a specified day each week.

Though yardwaste bags could still be used, the cart would hold as much as all these bags together, and not require lifting by the resident nor the collecting crew, which would use a small hydraulic tipper hook to empty the cart.

And collection would happen most weeks of the year, and on a specific day of the week, like trash or recycling, so that the streets wouldn't be littered with crumpled bags of yardwaste for weeks on end,

as they soften, fester and ooze.

My dream is not this,

nor this, which backed up runoff during a recent rain,

nor this, which sat in the street for many days and caused a car to skid,

nor this, which festered in the street for weeks.


my dream is this. Let the giant collecting machines roll in autumn if people really need to purge their properties of leaves. Let the machines make special pickups of large doses of brush.

But for most weeks of the year, please, Princeton, make these compost carts available to residents. We deserve a pleasant streetscape. Be skeptical of the naysayers. This dream has been realized in municipalities across the country. Why not here?

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

The Composting Toilet Alternative to Porta-potties

While planning a recent event at Herrontown Woods, the question came up: Is there a more natural alternative to a plastic, chemical-laden porta-potty? Turns out there is, at least in Australia. It's called the Natural Event, and was developed there for use at festivals.

The Natural Event people are determined to "change the world from the bottom up," and their website declares that they are coming soon to the U.S.A.. Meanwhile, composting toilets like Nature's Head are getting good reviews in the tiny-house trade.

The key, it turns out, whether its a row of portable composting toilets at an event or a composting toilet installed in a tiny-house, is to separate the liquid from the solid. With pee going into a separate container, the solids remain dry and aerobic. This, along with aeration and/or a handful of sawdust or woodchips tossed on the solids after each use, reportedly eliminates the odors associated with porta-potties.

Funny thing is, when separated from the liquids, the solids really don't amount to much. Our bodies are built mostly of elements that come from the air--oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen--as is our food. A substantial portion of what we eat magically exits our bodies as CO2 exhaust when we exhale. The solids in a composting toilet, particularly in the non-portable indoor toilets that use assisted aeration rather than woodchips, dry out and compost down to nearly nothing.

The technology is there to bypass our traditional system, which manages to flush everything "away," but in so doing creates massive amounts of liquid waste that must then be transported and cleansed somewhere else at great expense. In Princeton, the so-called "biosolids" are then separated out, then incinerated using hundreds of thousands of dollars of natural gas, then landfilled.

The nutrient cycle of which we are a part, long interrupted, really could be mended. A user of a portable composting toilet in Plainfield, MA, says she doesn't use her indoor plumbing anymore. Strange to think that an individual could disengage from the sprawling system of sewer pipes and pricey wastewater treatment plants, and make use of what we've worked so hard for so long to get rid of.

But what are the chances, given the heavy regulation of sanitary processes, and the lack of regulation of all the fossil fuels burned to keep our current system going, that the composting toilet will be any different from all the other promising technologies that linger indefinitely on the fringes of society?

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Experiment at Nassau Street Intersection: a Pedestrian Only Signal Phase

Nassau and Vandeventer at 4:15 on a Wednesday afternoon, three days in to the experimental "pedestrian only signal phase," which clears the intersection of all cars while pedestrians cross. This is the latest attempt to make this intersection safe for cars and pedestrians, and each time the waits get longer.

The upside? Having all pedestrians cross at the same time, while all cars wait, creates a clarity for pedestrians that was missing in the past. I saw one pedestrian sneak across out of phase, but my guess is that the pedestrian-only phase will get more respect from pedestrians than its confusing predecessor.

The downside? Well, five years ago, it was the drivers coming up heavily shaded, low-slung Vandeventer who had to wait while drivers coming down sunny Washington Rd exercised the "arrogance of the high ground," continuing to turn left onto Nassau even when their green arrow had disappeared.

Now. drivers on Vandeventer again seem to have the longest wait, with only 12 seconds to get through the intersection. I counted 20 cars waiting, backed up almost two blocks, and only ten managed to get through the intersection each time. The long wait can cause some drivers to get distracted and not notice when they finally have the right of way, causing even more inefficiency.

Still, the pedestrians-only phase is wonderful to experience if you're a pedestrian. Thirty seconds of relief from a car-soaked culture is to be savored.

Can it work? Maybe with some tweaking. The solution proposed on this blog five years ago was a flashing yellow arrow to make more clear to drivers that they must yield to oncoming traffic and pedestrians before making a left turn. The flashing yellow is used in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and probably many other states as well, but apparently not in NJ. That simple change five years ago might have avoided the multiple, traumatic, expensive alterations since then. Currently, there is some two-way traffic during the 45 seconds of green devoted to Nassau Street. Compare that to Washington Rd (15 seconds of one-way traffic) and Vandeventer (a mere 10 seconds of one-way traffic). A flashing yellow arrow could potentially allow some 2-way traffic during the Washington Rd/Vandeventer phase as well, adding efficiency and reducing the wait time for car drivers while keeping the pedestrian-only phase. The current pedestrian phase is 30 seconds long, which seems ample.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Why Voluntary Change in Lawn Care Seldom Happens

There was a time when I believed that education could change the behavior of homeowners and landscape companies. I even wrote the Guide to Fall Leaf Management, years back while a member of the Princeton Environmental Commission. The brochure sings the praises of mulch mowing, leaf corrals, and incorporating leaves into the landscape. I'd like to think it helped some people view leaves as an opportunity rather than as a nuisance.

But since that time I've had enough experiences with homeowners and landscapers to convince me that very few are listening and even fewer are interested in changing their ways voluntarily. A yard is an extension of a homeowner's personality, so that asking them to change their approach to yardcare is akin to asking them to change their view of themselves, their culture, and of nature, and that stuff is pretty hardwired. People take their cues from their past, their neighbors, and what the town will let them get away with. That's a lot for a brochure to compete with.

This photo speaks volumes about the dominant culture and the future of the world. First, there is a reduction of land to mere ornament--nature reduced to the role of a visual support for the house, seldom stepped on other than to mow. One of the sketches in my climate change theater is called Turf Therapy, featuring a suburban lawn who tells a therapist that she feels like a trophy wife, trapped in a co-dependent relationship with the narcissistic House. On a larger scale, nature plays the sacrificial, supporting role to meet the needs of the self-centered, extractive economy.

In this lawn and in nearly every other yard and grounds you could think of, there's also the need to simplify nature, to reduce its baffling complexity down to something less intimidating and more easily managed. We can't all have a deep knowledge of plants and plantcare, and even the professional landscape companies are little more than custodial operations. Though less extreme than in the photo, our yards reflect that.

In addition, it may seem counterproductive, self-defeating, to pile yardwaste in front of a tidied up front yard, but this juxtaposition is apparently jarring only for those of us who value public space. For those whose interest stops at the property line, this pile of grass clippings is as invisible as the fossil carbon emanating from our machines' exhaust pipes and chimneys.

Passing by, I complimented the owner on his lovely tulips and weeping cherries, and then politely explained to him and his landscaper that the town doesn't collect grass clippings. Later, I double checked and found that the town website says:
"The leaf and brush pickup does not include grass clippings. It is recommended they be mulched back into your yard. Do not leave them out for pickup."

The owner smiled and said he'd remove them, which all seemed very logical and thoughtful until a week later, when another pile appeared. Perhaps a miscommunication with his landscaper?

A week later, the pile grew larger.

Now, imagine the environmentalist's predicament. Believing in the benefits of sustainable landscaping, the environmentalist carefully crafts a brochure to convince homeowners to change their wasteful ways. If only people would read the brochure, surely they'd be swayed to change their ways. But the simple, heedless act of piling grassclippings at the curb sends a more powerful message than any brochure ever could. Each passerby who sees the grassclippings is thinking, "Oh, maybe that's what I should do."

Meanwhile, the rains come and cars run over the pile, spreading its rapidly decaying, high nitrogen contents and washing nutrient pollution into the local waterway. The nutrients feed algal growth in the water, the subsequent decay of which depletes the oxygen available for fish to breathe. Such are the complex ways of nature, all taking place far from view until the fish go belly up in Carnegie Lake, not from this one pile of grassclippings but from the collective impacts of biological and chemical insult that we unthinkingly impose on the world around us.

And imagine the town's predicament. If they scoop up the clippings on one of their collection days, they encourage the homeowner to continue violating the ordinance. But if the town stays true to its ordinance, the clippings then sit there for weeks, looking ugly and raising a stink if disturbed, given the anaerobic decomposition going on inside the dense pile.

A comic aside: I was walking my dog by the man's house sometime later, when the dog, being a dog, decided to pee on the grass extension between the sidewalk and the curb. The man, who was cutting down his spent tulips, waved us away, as if I were supposed to give my dog the bum rush, lest the pee impact the pristinity of the lawn. It's as if the lawn becomes more carpet than something alive, cut off from nature's cycling of nutrients. The disconnect between private and public, yard and the natural world beyond, is deeply entrenched, and I don't see how any educational intervention, no matter how thoughtful, will ever change that on its own.

It's not right for environmentalists to be burdened with the task of changing behavior. In essence, we are being punished with extra work while the malefactors blithely keep doing what they've always done. When, through policy change and enforcement, and through better options like containerization of yardwaste in compost carts, people are both required and encouraged to change their ways, that's when an informative brochure will help people adopt, and feel good about, a more ecological approach.

Update: After several weeks, the pile of grass clippings finally disappeared. Apparently the homeowner, who also runs a landscape company, gave up hope that the town would take them away. I doubt that he'll pile any more grassclippings at the curb. He changed his ways not because of education, but because the town made a rule and stuck with it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Greenfest Transforms Princeton Shopping Center and Embraces the Future

Sunny weather returned to Princeton just long enough to grace Sustainable Princeton's Greenfest this past Saturday, May 11. This was a full scale festival that transformed the Shopping Center's partially sheltered courtyard with so much to learn and enjoy. It was a revelation to see the courtyard's potential as a gathering and learning space being fully utilized, seemingly for the first time.

Though the focus of the festival was on solutions--bicycles, electric vehicles, stewardship--councilman David Cohen challenged passersby to find which disastrous events on his poster were not caused by climate change. Only a couple, as it turned out.

Sustainable Princeton's Jenny Ludmer, one of the chief organizers of the event, showed kids the power of the pedal by having them pedal a bike hooked up to a blender that ground up ice.

My favorite table was organized by girlscout Cadette Troop 72905, which has been so active in helping take care of Herrontown Woods and educating people about its natural and cultural history.

The bike theme began with parking your bike at some new racks purchased to provide Bike Valet service at local events. I had the pleasure of meeting a mother of middle schoolers named Lisa, the master mind behind the middle school recently installing additional bike racks. I had posted in the past about the shortage of bikeracks at the schools and on Nassau Street, but Lisa was able to work effectively through PTO, and even tracked down a good deal on the racks, to ultimately make it happen.

Fest-goers could testdrive electric vehicles of various sorts. A Boston-based electric bike company looking to expand into New Jersey had some very nice electric bikes in the $1-2,000 range. First time I tried one, a few years ago, it felt like cheating to have all that power boost under your feet. The owner said he doesn't hear that said much anymore. Electric is a way to get people back on their bikes. Batteries and electric power are the only way to shrink our sprawled communities back down to a size where we can get around without feeling dependent on carbon fuels. If suburban sprawl has made us feel physically helpless, then turn us into avatars with battery technology.

One of the raffle prizes was an electric scooter--another awesome enabler of transport.

Trash cans were muzzled for the event, with all disposables to be taken to a special tent for separation into recyclables and landfillables.

The courtyard's "green"was dotted with people listening to some fine vocal and instrumental groups. I did a ten minute stint on the stage as Climate Cabaret, taking on the character of CO2, and contrasting sport's celebration of can-do collective action with climate-denial's deep pessimism about taking collective action to slow climate change. I also sought to make up for a global scarcity of environmental jokes. For example:

Question: How many environmentalists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Answer: Two--one to screw it in, and another to keep turning it off.

Brizo the mermaid was holding court in her own tent, talking to kids about that magical substance we call water.

Sustaining health was another theme at a couple tables, with Isles of Trenton on hand, and a nurse to take the blood pressure of passersby and discuss such topics as Lyme.

This solar suitcase comes with an unfoldable solar array to sustain a house through a power outage, but I ran out of time to find out more. Learning about that will require another Greenfest.

Each day, politically and economically tethered to our roles as dystopia's lackeys, we spew more fossil carbon into the air, unintentionally but knowingly and legally sacrificing the future for the present. A livable  future has been kept bound and gagged by a political opposition warped by pessimism and cowardice.

At Greenfest, all the solutions were on display. It was a chance to once again believe in the future. That old saying, "the sky's the limit," has in recent decades taken on two opposite meanings--one of promise, another of portent. Sustainable Princeton's fabulous festival transformed Princeton Shopping Center for an afternoon. Now, it's a matter of permanently transforming Princeton, of realizing promise, for the sake of the future.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Sustainable Princeton's Greenfest This Saturday, May 11, 11-3

Sustainable Princeton will be hosting a Greenfest at the Princeton Shopping Center this Saturday, May 11 from 11-3. There will be, among other things, electric cars and bikes to test drive, local businesses and nonprofits with their displays, and varied music and entertainment. More info at the link. I'm scheduled to perform some climate cabaret from 12:25 to 12:35.

Sustainable Princeton received a $100,000 grant to put together a Princeton Climate Action Plan, which is now in draft form. Comments are being accepted through May 31.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Compostables and Self-Expression in Princeton's Streets

It's not clear whether the descriptions below reflect merely an aesthetic blight or are also evidence of a deep inefficiency. Princeton has never calculated the full cost of its collection of leaves and brush, but one estimate put the annual cost at close to $1 million. It seems to be hard for municipalities to track the cost of individual services, which in turn makes it hard to determine whether another approach would be less expensive. A comparative figure I was able to obtain, after considerable effort, from a municipality that requires compostable materials be containerized, was $250,000/year. That number, delivered to me by an environmental commission member in Ann Arbor, MI, suggests that a city four times larger than Princeton is able to deliver a comparable service for a quarter the cost. That works out to being 16 times cheaper, and in Ann Arbor residents can toss food scraps in the compost bin with leaves and sticks--essentially two services in one. Whether accurate or not, the number suggests that an open mind towards other approaches would be worth Princeton's while.

This post looks at the status quo, and also points to one of the constraints that is holding Princeton back from considering more cost-effective approaches to collection of compostables.

Princeton's streets are never dull. There are always new designs being etched in the pavement, like this one, left by a giant single-clawed machine that periodically lumbers by. The scars look lasting, but usually disappear in a day or two.

Each etching is different. This one looks like a baleen whale balancing on its nose.

The varied shapes of scars are preceded by an endless variety of piled sticks and leaves, each piling an expression of the homeowner's or landscaper's degree of indifference to town regulations.

Some are a jubilantly defiant mix of multiple violations, with dirt, sticks, leaves, and pizza boxes all in a jumble.

Another homeowner put sticks out in containers, not knowing that the proper way is to make a mess in the street by piling them loose.

On another street, this highly ordered progression of carefully assembled pilettes of sticks went above and beyond the complex requirements detailed on the town website.

Yet another resident carefully separated out leaves and brush, but they weren't picked up, perhaps because they were placed too close to the stormdrain. Many piles put out at the wrong time or in the wrong manner linger on the streets for days, weeks or months.

Just down the street, yet another resident had an extraordinary display of tulips and weeping cherries in a sea of lush green turf. How better to show it off than to illegally pile grass clippings on the street, to rot and fester in the public space?

For those of us who have moved to New Jersey from other parts of the country where yardwaste is either containerized or composted in the backyard, this use of the streets for endlessly varied pilings and scraping seems oddly unattractive and inefficient.

Princeton has an added twist to this deeply embedded tradition. Because the town composts most of its leaves and brush at the Lawrenceville Ecological Center, it has to conform to Lawrenceville's requirements. Turns out that the composting center has a grinder that cannot grind leaves and brush at the same time. So Princeton has to make separate trips up and down the streets with its giant clawing machine to pick up either one or the other.

I had never quite believed that the town actually makes separate pickups for leaves and brush. People are always putting them out together, and they disappear in one fell swoop. But on one special week this year, the schedule for picking up leaves and brush coincided, as if they were planets lining up in the night sky. In our section of town, that special week was the week of April 22. Would the town actually make two separate trips through all the streets to selectively pick up leaves and brush?

The answer proved to be yes. There, can you see it in the distance? A tiny pile of sticks was left behind when a big pile of leaves was taken away.

And here, too, some leaves were left behind while most of the rest of the pile was taken.

For anyone who believes government services should be efficiently delivered, the vision of a very big and heavy, gas-guzzling machine and its entourage of other heavy trucks having to do a double pass through the streets goes against common sense. Other municipalities have grinders that can handle leaves and brush at the same time. Why not Lawrenceville? On the other hand, some residents may find this display of massive machinery reassuring, it being the most visible evidence that the government is providing services, no matter how Sisyphean.

Containerizing leaves and brush in large compost carts, as is done elsewhere in the country, would likely save a lot of money. But such efficiency and conformity seems to run against the grain of Princeton and other New Jersey towns. There's something embedded in the culture, as deeply as the requisite swath of idle green lawn, that drives this perpetual spilling from private onto public space. Though it is visible, and to my eyes unattractive, it seems for many to be as unnoticed as the carbon dioxide we pour into that other public space, the atmosphere.

Gone would be the varied etchings in the pavement. The endlessly varied piles of sticks, leaves, and dirt would disappear behind the conformist green or brown plastic walls of a compost cart. The giant claw's back and forth, fossil-fueled dance as it scrapes, lifts, and loads leaves and brush into a dumptruck would be replaced by the steady, orderly progression of a truck down the street, emptying each container in turn. Our streets would be cleaner, pickups more predictable and frequent, money would be saved, but at what cost in individual expression?

Monday, April 15, 2019

Dinky Buses Running on Different Schedule While Bridge is Closed

It makes sense, but there was no notice of a schedule change online.

And the NJ Transit schedule from Princeton Junction to NY still has a link to a schedule that was outdated six months ago, on October 13.