31 October 2009

Bascart Chronicles: Cart on the Run or Tending the Shubbery?

Normally, shopping carts in their natural environs (i.e. parking lots) don't make the cut for the Bascart Chronicles. This one however was worth the capture. It's either definitively trying to escape or tending the shrubbery. Your call.

30 October 2009

How can you save a buck, your health, your city, and the planet!?

Americans love their cars right? So much so that we nearly have one for every person in the country (by count at least) and every newspaper has an automotive section. For decades the car has been the only transportation choice for 90% of Americans. New car sales has been a leading indicator of the economy.

With car-makers gaining more coverage in the headlines than the automotive section of the papers recently, a new story is percolating. Attitudes are shifting noticeably among the young (Gen Y'ers), and even older Americans. So much so that the LA Times car blog recently used the headline "A Rebel Without a Car?" while pondering a new JD Power and Associates report.  Naturally, these stories have generated skepticism and slight. After all, this is the American way of life. Yet, big car folks (i.e. Ford, the only non-bankrupt US automaker) have taken notice and even started to look at ways to embrace the trends.

And why not. These trends seem to follow a perceptible arc of young people and retirees moving back to cities. Further, both are groups who have been literally behind the wheel or passengers in cars for a significant portion of their lives. All of the creature comforts on earth don't make motoring down 16 lane, traffic clogged suburban shit strips any better.

Ok, so there might be a case for a movement of certain demographics (i.e. young professionals, empty-nesters) to desire more urban surroundings and more urban transportation options. This would certainly explain a great deal of the trends reported over the past decade with increased downtown and urban development across the country. It would also explain the trend of light rail development in dozens of places. Bicycling and plain walking seems to have grown in popularity too. Groups such as the ever-innovative Livable Streets Initiative have certainly made an impact in that regards.

Yet, it is almost certainly true that Americans won't just give up what has been not just a cultural icon, but an economic engine because of a severe economic downturn and a planetary crisis. Well, not if they have a choice. However, one thing that might just offer that choice and actually do a fair bit of good in the process is car-sharing. Now before the advent of RFID (radio-frequency ID chips), the mobile telephones (and internet), and GPS tracking the idea of sharing a car was what you had to do with siblings or parents.

Today, if you're a Zipster*, you can literally access thousands of cars conveniently parked in your neighborhood, on campus, near work, shopping, or transit stops all on your mobile phone or via the a quick reservation over the internet. Rent by the hour or day and don't worry about insurance or gas. Just follow some quick and easy to remember rules and you're all-set. Wave that member card over the windshield (or tap an app on your phone) and...

...it unlocks, wherever you're car is. No worries about maintenance, parking. Have a Scion Xb with lots of cargo space for a couple hours today and later this week pick up that important new client from the airport with a BMW. Want to get out of the city for a day-trip or weekend get away?ab a different vehicle fitting the weather, your needs, or your mood.

Oh, and you can do all of this and...
  1. save lots of money (hundreds of dollars a month for most car-sharers)
  2. live a more active, healthy lifestyle (car-sharers walk, bicycle, and use transit more)
  3. and help avert planetary disaster (on average one shared vehicle may take as many as twenty off the road)
    What's the Catch? Rules! If you share something you want those who share with you to be respectful of certain rules right? So return on time, with gas (gas-card is included), clean, no smoking and please keep pets in a carrier. That sort of stuff. Oh, and there is of course ensuring that the vehicles are serviced and then dealing with potential mishaps and market demand. What happens when a car you booked isn't back on time or you can't get a car when you need one?

    The leading, company in the US, ZipCar, and its for and not-for-profit counter-parts, have attracted amazingly satisfied and loyal-followers despite such challenges. They have honed service and in many ways perfected some of the most obvious challenges (i.e. your car is late in returning when you pick it up, "how about switching to one in the next spot over or at the worst let us reach the person who has it and let's change-up your reservation and make it gratis for your wait?").

    What makes this service so compelling to Urban Mechanic is that it has the ability to scale (as its already in scores of cities big and small) and is something that is clearly commercially viable. For so many situations to list here it improves upon having to own an automobile unless you literally live in the middle of nowhere. Further, for cities lacking significant transit options, car-sharing offers an amazing opportunity to supplement transportation choices. Car-sharing could work quite well if you ride the bus downtown to work, but also might need a car some evenings for big hauls to the grocery store.

    *Zipster is what Zip Car, a leading (for-profit) car-sharing company calls its members. Of which there an estimated 325,000 plus. The company, which has been featured (everywhere) was part of a larger look at car-sharing in a CNN Story from August of this year. The story takes a fairly in-depth look at the phenomenon, the forces behind it, and ZipCar (the good the bad and the ugly).--

    NOTE - Urban Mechanic is a member of ZipCar (and uses the service frequently, along with numerous other modes of transport). ALSO NOTE - This post is but an introduction (albeit a bit lengthy) to car-sharing as a topic. Urban Mechanic will continue explore other facets of car-sharing, beyond ZipCar, such as non-profit models, and a separate, but related phenomenon, bicycle sharing.

    29 October 2009

    Cooking at Home

    One of the real joys of city living (so Urban Mechanic believes) is food shopping at various places around town...

    ...and the equal joy of taking it home (most of it) and putting together a fantastic dinner. This evening's meal featured a fresh basil and tomato sauce over Gemelli pasta topped with shavings of aged Pecorino Cheese (From Back Bay Shaw's). Accompanying this hearty dish was a tomato and cucumber salad with fresh mozzarella (from the Pru's Farmer's Market) soaked (not drizzled) with an aged balsamic vinaigrette.

    The meal went exceptionally well with a San Angelo Pinot Grigio (2008) from Castello Banfi Montalcino (Italy). Props are in order to the kindly folks at Liquor Land (across from Victoria's and next to the Hen House on Mass Ave) for the "Fright Night Wine Tasting" that landed this one in the cart!

    Save any room for something sweet?  Hot chocolate seemed only appropriate on this crisp autumn evening. After nibbling on a delightful  Madagascar "Purist Bar" from Hotel Chocolat (previously discussed on this blog), the remains of the bar were melted and blended with Vodka, Coffee Liquor, and steamed milk...

    ...and of course topped with fluffy froth for effect.

    For tomorrow...maybe some butter curry chicken over Basmatti rice cooked in coconut milk and paired with a Casillero del Diablo Sauvignon Blanc (2008) from Concha Y Toro (Chile)...

    ...maybe a warm chocolate cake (another visit to Hotel Chocolat perhaps) topped with brandied cherries?

    o a few errands to run tomorrow; and for good measure.  All of the walking keeps the Urban Mechanic from weighing as much as he eats.

    28 October 2009

    Shopping Cart Takes Out Recycling

    Shopping carts and Boston denizens across the city are in love with the new, large "carts" distributed by the City for recycling. The new carts are being distributed throughout the city of Boston over the Fall, Winter, and Spring...free of charge.

    In addition, recycling throughout Boston is now single stream for a wide array of materials. Urban Mechanic has re-deployed one of his small recycling boxes to indoor duties (transferring recycling as it builds...very geeky). More important the weekly payload of garbage has reduced from one bag to about a half a bag (for his residence of two plus a cat).

    Find out more about recycling in Boston by clicking here

    A note for transparency. Urban Mechanic does not arrange, pose, or abscond with bascarts. The bascarts chronicled and photographed here are only done so as found objects. Further, only bascarts found outside of their normal environments (i.e. stores or store parking lots), are chronicled. Submissions are gladly accepted and will be credited. Just think to yourself, what is that bascart up to?

    27 October 2009

    City Squirrels...

    ...cute, fuzzy, and friendly the Boston Public Garden Squirrels (like most city squirrels) are also armed with the cunning of a well-seasoned member of the special forces.  

    If you're going to tempt them roasted cashews, be quick on the second course or quick on your feet. Otherwise you might discover that being climbed like a tree isn't as much fun as it might look. Of course it does make for entertaining YouTube posts for friends and onlookers.

    Music Video Disses Cul-de-Sacs & Suburban Sprawl

    The Congress for New Urbanism has released a "music" video titled "Built to Last" on You Tube. A  Psychoesque set of violin chords opens the video with the question "What is the greatest threat our planet? The cool, animatronic slide-show doesn't just give a big open-handed slap in the face to suburbia. Shifting into a jazztronic beat, the clip showcases urban living and its inherent green cred. A bit didactic? Perhaps. Yet, irresistible for geeky urban mechanic sorts.

    24 October 2009

    DOT Abuzz This Weekend

    This weekend is a abuzz in the DOT with events crisscrossing the neighborhood, including open studios and Boston's first annual Barista Throwdown.

    Dorchester Open Studios (Saturday and Sunday 12 to 5 PM)

    Around the neighborhood artists are opening the doors to their studios and showing off not only their works, but often fabulous work spaces (and sometimes residences). Organized by the DAC (Dorchester Arts Collaborative), more than 60 artists will participate in the event. For more details check out the official program (PDF document).

    White Chrome; Boston's First Annual Barista Throwdown (Saturday 2 to 9 PM)

    Hosted at Flat Black Coffee Company's Ashmont Location (just steps from Ashmont Station), this event promises to be not only a Boston first, but likely a soon-to-be Boston must. Baristas will square off in competition to claim the title of Boston's best with spectators enjoying the fruits of their labors and enjoying special demonstrations of equipment, coffee and espresso techniques and much more. The event will wrap-up at Tavolo's, just down the street, with an awards ceremony and celebration. Proceeds will benefit the Greater Boston Food Bank.

    22 October 2009

    Bascart Runs on Dunkin

    A note for transparency. Urban Mechanic does not arrange, pose, or abscond with bascarts. The bascarts chronicled and photographed here are only done so as found objects. Further, only bascarts found outside of their normal environments (i.e. stores or store parking lots), are chronicled. Submissions are gladly accepted and will be credited. Just think to yourself, what is that bascart up to?

    11 October 2009

    Boston's Neighborhood and Best Block

    Ahh Savin Hill. Perhaps one of Boston's best kept secrets, it has beautiful Victorians, a hilltop park with stunning views and unrefined wildness, a beach (affectionately known as Malibu Beach), a smattering neighborhood retail including an awesome cleaners, a package store (or two), pharmacy, a bubble tea shop, a couple Vietmanese markets, clinic, and McKenna's Cafe...add nearly a dozen Zip Cars in the area and the red line stop in the middle of it all and you have the makings of a fabulous little neighborhood.

    Even more wonderful than the neighborhood as a whole is Auckland Street, perhaps one of Savin Hill's best kept secrets.A stone's throw away from the red line, stroll down Savin Hill Ave; west of the bridge. Take a left off of Savin Hill Avenue onto Auckland Street and walk the block down toward Bay Street.

    In this singular block you will find...wonderfully clean and tidy sidewalks. I know, not the most stellar proof of being the best block you might think. BUT, we have the very best sidewalk sweeper in the entire city. She is out day after day tirelessly sweeping not only nearby DOT ave, but her very own stretch of Auckland Street! You'll also notice a fabulous fire hydrant. It's currently painted red, white and blue with stripes and stars and all. Each year, block organizers circulate a simple hydrant outline on a sheet of paper to every house. Inspired and ambitious designers can submit their hydrant styling ideas, with the most popular design taking over the hydrant for the year.
    "Urban Mechanic might be a bit biased, but this little stretch of Auckland Street, is truly Boston's best residential block."

    Residents of the street also are known for organizing seasonal block parties where traffic is closed off, kids play ball in the street and make chalk drawings for half the block. Neighbors fill the street enjoying food, company and even a local band or two. Then there is Dorchester (DOT) Day, whereby the block's residents poor onto the neighboring Dorchester Ave, which is still a bit gritty, for a truly authentic parade. Halloween in its own turn features porches and stoops filled with trick or treating.

    Of course you might be tempted to think this idyllic street is just a yuppie haven filled with condos. NOPE, there are but a handful of condos on the block. There are a number of families who occupy various parts of their triple deckers, renting out one or more floors to others. There are elderly, there are young professionals, there are families. There are not only the old-guard (largely Irish) but also young professionals, Vietmanese (not new to the area either), a Latinos and African Americans, and yes this is all within one little block. It is the best of Savin Hill, Dorchester, and Boston.

    10 October 2009

    Gritty, Glistening, & Bustling

    With Filene's and more significantly, Filene's Basement, shuttered and a giant crater occupying much of the former store site (the Historic and best bits remain) Bostonian's might note that Downtown Crossing seems to have seen better days. In fact a great deal of other area properties are either vacant or under construction. Yet, Downtown Crossing on any given day (week or weekend) is a bustle. There are streetcar vendors, random street performers and people of just about every walk of life imaginable.Though much-maligned, there are also a great deal of (re-)development projects planned and underway.

    Despite the current and recent conditions both economic and development related, Downtown Crossing remains true to its namesake. It also remains one of the most successful nearly all-pedestrian environments in urban America. The reason? Good bones. It really is that simple.

    In the case of geography and placemaking, good bones can be seen as transit, roads, and other elements of the built environment. Downtown Crossing has the best of all of this. All five of the MBTA urban transit lines converge on/around the Downtown Crossing area. South Station and the emerging South Boston waterfront area; next door. Boston Common and the Public Garden is but a block away. The Financial District is; well right there. Emerson College and Suffolk University are right in the neighborhood. Tufts New England Medical Center is next door. Beacon Hill; across the way. Government Center; next door. The Theater District (and the 19 screen Boston Common Cinemas); right in the neighborhood. That doesn't include any of the data and such of course...

    The neighborhood just plain has good bones (you can see some data here); density, parks, transit, wide-range of uses that brings activity to every hour of the day. So, current conditions may feel a bit dower, but one thing seems completely certain to Urban Mechanic. Downtown Crossing will remain vibrant, hopefully always a bit gritty, definitively urban and uniquely; Boston.

    08 October 2009

    Geny Y and the Car?

    Does Generation Y (roughly those born between late 70's and early 90's) hate the All American car?

    "James Dean might be rolling in his grave" about a recent JD Power and Associates study on Generation Y attitudes towards cars; that is if you share the view of the LA Times Auto Blog. Not surprisingly the study finds that Gen Y'ers have lower opinions about automakers. The study also seems to indicate a lower interest among particularly young professionals in cars and car ownership. Unfortunately, the study and the writer of the blog seems to miss the more than obvious reasons why.

    It is Urban Mechanic's professional view (aka opinion) that young urban people don't just have low opinions of cars and car companies as factors of a bad economy or bad marketing. Young people get that being totally auto-dependent is horrible for the environment no matter what type of hybrid you drive. It's also expensive. A young urban professional can cut her expenses by as much as a $1,000 a month without owning a car.

    Also, a great deal of those who have grown up being shuttled around in cars recognize that complete automobile dependence is plain bad for us. Not only does it (car dependence) help contribute to being antisocial and getting fat, but car accidents are among the leading causes of death among young people. Driving is not all cruising through picturesque Acadian landscapes. Urban Mechanic's suggestion for JD Power and Associates and the Car Industry...

    Don't spend the next decade and billions of dollars trying brain wash young people back into cars.

    Young people are discovering the joys of bicycling, walking, transit, and even ZipCar. More important, they're discovering that real communities aren't built around cars, but people and interactions with people, not just "free motoring."

    04 October 2009

    A Captivating Character

    Does this get your attention? Would you feel compelled to at least stop, maybe peak inside, maybe even walk inside if you came across this display? Urban mechanic found this while perusing Down City (aka Downtown) Providence, Rhode Island. It wasn't the only storefront tin the area to present intrigue or such wonderfully well-thought quality either.

    02 October 2009

    Worcester, a lovely little place...

    About once a month the Urban Mechanic visits Worcester for a board meeting for a statewide group (plus other "statewide" events throughout the year). After having carried out this routine for the past several years Urban Mechanic has discovered quite a few things that make the city interesting, beyond its "centrality," which apparently is the attraction for all of the non-Bostonian Bay Staters who insist on meeting in Worcester (and not Boston) for such statewide functions.

    First off, in any other state Worcester would be known as quite the college town with nine colleges and universities. That may not hold up to the nearly 100 or so colleges and universities (30 or so within Boston proper) around greater Boston. Yet, it is still a sizable mass of higher education.

    Along with all of those colleges and universities comes of course some of the usual town and gown, but also the trappings of the modern "knowledge" economy (i.e. research and development, knowledge economy).

    Further, the city has some physical character and charm. There are lovely hills aplenty. The city hall (above) doesn't give off the appearance of being a concrete packing crate surrounded by expanses of stale brick. The Union Station is classy and actually is used as a train station (which isn't a total shocker in New England, but still).

    Another little area, Shrewsbury Street, has some pretty cool places to hang out, eat, and drink. Urban Mechanic (and his peeps) frequent the Flying Rhino (left) most often when visiting town for meetings and such.

    Of course there are still a good few drawbacks that keeps Urban Mechanic deeply rooted in Boston over Worcester. This includes things such as lacking real local transit, having a cute but not truly vibrant downtown, and way too much parking everywhere...though locals think otherwise; as they always do. Also, they don't have any major bodies of water to enjoy, which I suppose they can't quite fix too easily. It's still well worth visiting and poking around, and who knows, one day good Quinsigamond might just clue-in on the things that hold them back from being a bit more urbane if not urban itself.