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bike rackAmtrak’s latest efforts to modernize its cars will improve traveling by train for bicyclists. Previously, cyclists had to keep their wheels in cumbersome boxes when riding the rails, an inconvenient task for commuters living in the Northeast corridor. To remedy the situation, the company has just begun field-testing a new baggage car design that features collapsible shelves for luggage. The shelves double as bike racks when not in use.

Joe Boardman, president and CEO of Amtrak, says, “It’s clear that Americans want a national system of intercity passenger rail and Amtrak is moving ahead to build new equipment to meet customer demand.” During the testing phase, the new cars will travel along the Northeast corridor and will be tested for speed, breaking, stability and, of course, baggage handling. When testing is complete, these new baggage cars will be implemented along all 15 of Amtrak’s long-distance routes. 

In addition to new baggage cars, Amtrak has already given the green light to new diner, sleeper and baggage-dormitory cars. “We’re excited for this next phase of the new equipment journey into revenue service and hope you are, too,” says a company spokesperson. Amtrak hopes for the new baggage cars to be ready for use by the end of 2014.

Photo by Amtrak



Congratulate me! I drove MAX south of San Francisco about a month ago to the Maker Faire Bay Area and won the Maker Faire Editor's Choice award for our class. What is our class, exactly? That's hard to say. It's sure not the Amazing Vehicle class, because we were outclassed numerous times on that front; every time I turned around I'd bump into an amphibious dragon boat or a high speed cupcake or a steampunk submarine...or a 25-foot-tall mechanical octopus shooting gouts of flame from its tentacles.

Maybe there was a Street Legal Vehicle class, but probably not—conformity to standards is not a strong motivator at the Maker Faires (note the “e” in Faire) so I doubt we'd get our own class for dotting the Ts and crossing the Is as required to get a license plate.

I know I didn't get it for workmanship, either. The guy right next to me, Nick Jenkins, had a car he'd built from scratch (with a number of Kinetic Vehicles body and hardware parts, I'm proud to say) that looked a lot like MAX looked in its Escape from Berkley trim...or a lot like Dave's MAXine which attended last year's Maker Faire Bay Area...except Nick's car looks like it rolled off the showroom floor and into a restoration shop, and from there to a museum where curators applied bugs to the headlights to give it a simulated “used” look. It's a work of art in the old-school sense of the phrase, whereas Dave and I (and the guys who built the octopus) subscribe more to the how-soon-can-we-get-this-on-the-road aesthetic.

DIY Philosophy at the 2014 Maker Faire

Compared to MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS, the Maker Faires draw folks who want to see stuff more than who want to learn stuff, and while Maker Faires are indeed a celebration of the Do It Yourself philosophy, it seems the majority of the spectators came to admire DIY from afar. And though MAX was generally well received, a surprising (to me at least) number of people thought I was trying to pull something over on them with my claim of 100 MPG on the freeway. One guy grinned and said, “You must really baby it.” No, sir, when I baby it, I get 120 MPG.

So maybe I won the High Fuel Efficiency Vehicle class, but fuel efficiency isn't a huge motivator at the Maker Faires...wait a minute, that's not completely fair (or faire, as the case may be). They do honor efficiency, and efforts to make our world greener, but art for the sake of art is honored as well. Since many of the objects d'art are huge and flamboyant (a word one rarely gets to use literally) they get well-deserved attention, and only a nitpicker such as myself would note that, for example, a flaming octopus typically runs through 200 gallons of propane a day. To quote Butch Cassidy, A small price for beauty.


The curiosity is killing me, so I've emailed the organizers for clarification of MAX's class. I'm guessing it's something like Non-Flaming Vehicle Under Six Tons but I'd like to know specifically.

Photo by Jack McCornack

Check out to make your own MAX.

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The United Kingdom’s first all-electric bus route started running in Milton Keynes in January and will be closely monitored over a five-year period to test the effectiveness of an electric system against diesel.

Electric BusThe eight electric buses run 17 hours a day and seven days each week to cover approximately 56,000 miles a year. Paul Adcock, Area Managing Director of public transport company Arriva, says: “Electric buses have huge potential, and we’re exploring how they can help us take better care of the environment without compromising passenger service.”

In order to maintain the same service schedule as diesel buses, the buses charge overnight and receive charges throughout the day from wire coils buried beneath the road. Through a process called inductive charging, parking a bus over a charging plate for 10 minutes replenishes two-thirds of the energy needed to run its 15-mile route.

“Electric buses’ physical and economic potential has historically been sidelined because no one could see around the range problem associated with the batteries,” says John Miles, director of the Milton Keynes electric bus program. According to global engineering firm Arup, Miles has a plan to combat this issue: “Wireless charging can bring electric buses in from the cold, and potentially put them neck-and-neck with their diesel counterparts. If we can demonstrate true parity with diesel buses during this trial, we’ll have reached a tipping point for low-carbon transport – we’ll have proved it can be cost-effective as well as green.”

The buses are projected to reduce CO2 emissions by approximately 270 tons each year. The amount of CO2 savings could increase to about 680 tons annually as the U.K. moves toward greener energy and the electric bus system continues.

Counselor John Bint, Cabinet Member for Transport and Highways, explains to BBC News: “This electric bus trial is the result of over a year's careful planning, so getting bus drivers behind the wheel is a wonderful milestone to reach. Seeing all eight buses on the route will be a very proud moment for everyone who's been involved.”



In response to public demand, it's time to make a MAX-ified pickup truck.

Maybe 'demand' is overstating the case; it's not like folks are telling me, “Put all the money in this bag and nobody gets hurt, and while you're at it, make a high mileage pickup.” It's more like, “Sure, MAX is cool, but...” followed by a description of their particular needs, followed by “...and gets a hundred miles per gallon.”

I used to explain why their particular needs were incompatible with 100 mpg, and why small and light and streamlined are essential ingredients if you want three-digit mileage on a beer budget, just like I used to explain why a walk-in closet and two bathrooms are incompatible with a 100-square-foot tiny house*. My father used to describe these folks as, “He wants to be an astronomer, but he doesn't want to work nights.”

Finding a Reasonable Mileage Target

But I've mellowed out somewhat. Unlike the 100-square-foot thing**, that 100-mpg thing is an arbitrary line in the sand, so now when people describe their vehicular needs, I ask, “What's a reasonable mileage target for that?” and we get to talking.

These needs commonly include space for an occasional third person, and occasional building supplies, and an occasional half ton of produce to the Farmer's Market, and an occasional ATV or riding mower, and (here in the Pacific Northwest at least) a way to keep the cargo dry—all of which can be achieved by a small pickup truck with bench seats and a removable canopy.

And for our mileage target? According to, the best mileage small pickup you can buy today is the Toyota Tacoma 2WD, with 21/25/23 mpg for city/highway/combined. I suspect we can double that, using the same principles we used with MAX—we can't go as far as the MAX car regarding weight, drag, and powerplant (not if we still want a practical pickup, which we do), but we can make significant improvements in all those areas, and I think 42/50/46 mpg is within reach.

Furthermore, I think we can do it on a beer budget — domestic beer, no less — $7,500 for the whole project, which is ¾ of what it took to make MAX. It should take a lot less time, too, and the bulk of the time and money savings comes from starting with the job half-done — starting with an existing vehicle instead of starting with a pile of steel tubing.

MOTHER's Pickup Experiment

So we've purchased a 1994 Toyota HiLux, with mumbledymumble miles on the odometer, and if you look carefully at the body, you'll note various paint shades from factory red to oxidation pink, depending on the history of the various body parts. I suspect this truck has had a difficult life, but it drives straight, and it stops with minimal drama when I push the brake pedal, and the shifter shifts with alacrity, so I think it's a decent base for this project.

Now what it needs is a good name. Until someone suggests a better one, we'll call it MPX for Mother's Pickup Experiment.

*I live in what used to be known as a cute little cabin, and is now known as a “tiny house”. It's about a hundred square feet inside but it's bigger on the outside because it has hewn log walls—see, I told you it was cute!

**In my neck of the woods, if you go over 100 square feet you need a building permit. My cabin is on wheels, so it's a trailer, not a building. BTW, log cabin construction is a poor choice for mileage, but I doubt I'll be driving it much.

Photo by Jack McCornack

Check out the 100-mpg Car page for all MOTHER's MAX stories, and to make your own MAX.


Bixi Bike Rental StationAre you able to walk, bike or use public transportation to get to your workplace? If so, grab your sneakers and start now because bicycling and walking to work have been proven to have long-term health benefits.

study by Imperial College London and University College compared workers’ methods of commuting with the state of their heath, using data from a survey of 20,000 people across the U.K. The researchers found that bicycling, walking and using public transportation were all associated with a lower risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and being overweight.

Anthony Laverty from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London reports, "This study highlights that building physical activity into the daily routine by walking, cycling or using public transport to get to work is good for personal health."

Physical exercise can be incorporated into daily routines with little extra effort when people bike or walk to work. Plus, being outdoors and exploring the city has been associated with relieving the stress of a hectic workday.

In the U.K. study, 19 percent of working age adults who commuted via private transport — such as cars, motorbikes or taxis — were obese, compared to 15 percent of those who walking and 13 percent of those biking to work.

Tips for Walking and Biking to Work

Stanford University Parking and Transportation Services offers the following tips for making the commute easier and safer for people who choose to walk or bike to work.

  1. Map out a biking or walking plan that is clear and accessible. Time the plan and try it out on the weekend to see if the route fits well for you.
  2. Learn the rules of the road. Ride on the appropriate side of the street, wait at stop signs and obey traffic signals for a safe trip.
  3. Wear appropriate attire. If you’re biking to work, make sure to wear a helmet, have your bike registered and put reflectors on for night riding. If you’re walking to work, wear comfortable shoes and dress for the weather. Remember to grab your rain boots on rainy days!
  4. Count the calories you burn. Refer to Calories Burned Per Minute for Walking and Calories Burned Per Minute for Biking charts to track your progress. You’ll be more motivated to continue walking or biking to work when you see the positive differences it makes. 

Photo by Fotolia/imageegami


As spring chugs along, Amtrak will soon be celebrating the seventh annual National Train Day on May 10, 2014. Started as a way to spread information about trains and the role that they still play in America’s transportation system, National Train Day is expected to be celebrated in 210 locations throughout 43 states as well as the District of Columbia. Los Angeles’s historic Union station will begin its celebration earlier, on May 3, as part of the historic passenger terminal’s 75th anniversary.

Being 16 percent more efficient than planes and 34 percent more efficient than cars, Amtrak trains are an ecologically friendly travel alternative. Not only do Amtrak trains use less energy per passenger than cars and airplanes, Amtrak now “plugs in” their locomotives at layover facilities in order to minimize diesel emissions during the train’s idling time. In addition to these measures, Amtrak also offers ways for individual passengers to offset their carbon footprint through a partnership with by way of donation.

Started after the Rail Passenger Service act in May of 1971, Amtrak’s still carries 31.5 million passengers a year and if trends continue, by 2040 ridership could reach 43.5 million. Cheaper and faster than shuttle planes, a third of Amtrak’s ridership comes from east-coast commuters traveling between New York, Boston and D.C.

If you’re interested in participating in National Train Day, head over to Amtrak's official site to search the interactive map for events near you. You can even start your own event if there’s nothing in your area.


green busDuring the first week in March, students in California’s Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD) were picked up in a new yellow school bus with a distinctly green detail: its engine. The first of its kind in the nation, KCUSD’s new wheels will not only to cut down on the effects of fossil fuel emissions to the environment, but will also improve student health by keeping the immediate air around the bus cleaner.

 The new bus, aka the Trans Tech SST-e, contains an all electric powertrain, developed by Motiv power systems and is expected to save the school $10,000 in fuel costs, by itself. In a PR Newswire news release Jim Castelaz, founder and CEO of Motiv expressed his hopes for this major step in green transportation: “We are absolutely thrilled to see this school bus transporting students without exposing them to diesel exhaust. I hope that by the time my daughter is old enough to go to school clean, zero-emission school buses like this one will be the industry standard.”

 Currently, KCUSD has ordered a total of four electric buses and has received funding from the California air resources board as well as the Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project. These buses are just one more step in the school becoming more environmentally friendly. “KCUSD has taken major strides to reduce diesel particulate emissions by as much as 85 percent” said Jason Flores, the school’s director of transportation.

 According to Ecowatch, the bus holds either 25 students or 18 with the addition of a wheelchair lift and comes with telemetry systems for fleet management. The bus can also be 50 percent charged in less than an hour.

Photo by Motiv Power Systems

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