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Green City

Cab it forward


› news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Eight San Francisco cabbies fed up with their money-devouring gas guzzlers have founded a taxi company that is friendly to the environment and to workers.

Green Cab hit the streets April 25, flaunting its ideology with bright paint jobs. The driver-owned cooperative has about 14 drivers and three hybrid vehicles, and it plans to purchase two more cars next month.

"We’re the only cab company in San Francisco where every driver is going to have an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process," cofounder Mark Gruberg, a taxi driver of 20 years, said. "We’re driver owned and driver operated."

The business is blazing a trail that others may soon follow if Mayor Gavin Newsom realizes the goal he announced last October of having all SF taxis be clean and green by 2011. On June 12 the San Francisco Taxicab Commission will discuss ways of meeting this goal of, in a sense, transitioning the city’s cabs from yellow to green — or at least greenish. Of the 1,351 taxis in 34 fleets that operate in the city, there are 140 Crown Victorias that run on compressed natural gas (CNG), which is made mostly from the greenhouse gas methane, and 40 hybrids, most of which are Ford SUVs. By October of this year, another 25 alternative-fuel or hybrid taxis are expected to be on the streets.

Heidi Machen, executive director of the Taxicab Commission, told us that taxis are required to be replaced after they’ve clocked 350,000 miles. On April 24 the commission decided to hold off on a policy that, she said, "would have restricted any replacement vehicles to be hybrid or alternative-fuel vehicles."

A key reason the policy was not approved, Machen said, was concern that the replacement alternative-fuel vehicles would be mostly those that run on CNG, which burns more cleanly than gasoline but still produces greenhouse gases and gives vehicles worse fuel efficiency than hybrids have. "[CNG] is an improvement, but only an improvement over something terrible to start with," Gruberg said.

Hybrids, unlike purely gas-powered vehicles, have engines that switch to electric power when the cars are stationary due to, for instance, traffic jams or stoplights. According to Gruberg, hybrids get about 40 miles to the gallon for city driving — a drastic improvement over the 12 mpg of standard Crown Victorias. Hybrids emit 13 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for every 30 miles they drive, compared with the 40 pounds that Crown Victorias produce.

So, besides hybrids, what’s the next efficient upgrade to the Green Cab fleet: Hydrogen? Electric? Biodiesel? "We’re open to anything that’s going to have beneficial effects to the environment," Gruberg said, adding that the company’s always looking for more ideas — and envirofriendly car donations.

Joe Mirabile, another Green Cab cofounder, emphasized the urgency of the company’s role in fighting or at least lessening the adverse effects of global warming.

"We have to move fast," Mirabile said. "Hybrids aren’t going to do everything, but they’re one small piece of the puzzle."

At its next meeting the Taxicab Commission will discuss possible monetary incentives, such as a higher gate fee, to make it easier for cab companies to purchase green vehicles. Newsom press secretary Nathan Ballard also told us that grant money is the key to putting more Priuses on the street.

"The Mayor has made a commitment to seek additional grant funding at the federal, state and regional levels to help taxi companies finance the more expensive vehicles," Ballard wrote in response to Guardian questions.

But even if Newsom can’t get those grants or otherwise fails to meet his goal, at least San Franciscans have Green Cab, which Gruberg said has been getting 50 to 60 customers per day and lots of goodwill from passersby. "People will wave and honk in the street," Gruberg said. "They’ll come up to the window and say, ‘How can I support you?’ A lot of drivers are asking if they can work for the company. Why wouldn’t they? Instead of paying $40 to $50 a day for gas, they can be paying $10 to $15." Machen likewise expressed her enthusiasm for the growing fleet.

"[Green Cab] is a business model," she said. "They show the direction the industry is going and the direction San Francisco is going." *

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Little green burners


› steve@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Today’s environmental problems — global warming, peak oil, drastically dwindling biodiversity, an unsustainable economic system that pollutes and consumes too much — are big. And there are many big solutions proposed by big governmental bodies, big individuals, and big corporations.

A major commitment is truly needed, but perhaps it’s the million small innovators and gestures that are most likely to add up to the most fundamental shift. Could these people, linked together, with enough freedom and support to pursue their visions, save the planet?

Burning Man founder Larry Harvey threw a stone into this pond last September when he chose Green Man as the theme for this year’s event, a decision that has rippled through the thousands of creative, capable people who spend much of the year tinkering in workshops around the Bay Area and across the country. People like Jim Mason.

Mason heeded Harvey’s call in his typically exuberant fashion, developing an innovative gasification system that turns biomass waste products into a usable fuel similar to natural gas. Collaborating with fellow artists and engineers in the Shipyard space that he created in Berkeley, Mason has been doing groundbreaking work.

The group converted a 1975 pickup truck owned by impresario Chicken John to run on substances like wood chips and coffee grounds, and Mason and John have been working principally with artists Michael Christian and Dann Davis to develop a fire-spewing, waste-eating, carbon-neutral slug called Mechabolic for Burning Man this year.

"Chicken’s shitty truck is going to be sitting in front of the Silicon Valley’s big alternative-energy conference for venture capitalists," Mason told the Guardian on May 22 as he headed to the Clean Technology 2007 confab, an illustration of the place little innovators are starting to find amid the big.

The New York Times featured Mechabolic in a technology article it ran earlier in May about the Green Man theme, and the project has been a centerpiece of the green evangelizing being done by Burning Man’s new environmental director, Tom Price.

Price has been working with hundreds of innovators like Mason to turn this year’s Burning Man, at least in part, into a green-technology exposition where creative types from around the world can exchange ideas. "It’s the Internet versus the big three networks" was how Price compared the big and small approaches to environmental solutions. "The goal is to show how easy and do-it-yourself profound solutions can be."

But ragtag approaches like Mason’s don’t fit well into institutional assumptions about art and technology, as he discovered May 11 when Berkeley city officials ordered him to shut down the Shipyard or bring it into immediate compliance with various municipal codes.

"They need to temporarily leave while they seek the permits that ensure it’s safe to be there," Berkeley planning director Dan Marks told us May 18. He criticized the Shipyard for using massive steel shipping containers as building material, doing electrical work without permits, and not being responsive to city requests.

The move stopped work on gasification and other projects as the Shipyard crew scrambled to satisfy bureaucratic demands — but it also prompted a letter-writing campaign and offers of outside help and collaboration that convinced Mayor Tom Bates and city council member Darryl Moore to meet with Mason on May 21 and agree to help the Shipyard stay in business.

Berkeley fire chief David Orth and other officials fighting the Shipyard say that Bates has asked for their cooperation. "A request has been made to see what can be done to keep the facility there but bring it into compliance," Orth told us.

All involved say the Shipyard has a long way to go before it’s legal and accepted by the city. Among other things, Mason must prove that the old, recycled oceangoing shipping containers (which enclose the Shipyard and other Bay Area artists’ collectives) are safe. But he and others are hopeful, driven, and convinced that they’re onto something big.

"Places like the Shipyard, which is a cauldron of ideas, don’t fit into the traditional model of how a city should work," Price told us. "The fringes, where the rules are a little fuzzy, is where surprisingly creative things happen." *

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Green City


› amanda@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY I spent my undergraduate years at a microscopic liberal arts college set in the shadow of a national park on an island in Maine — a remote idyll where people abhor locking their doors and you can almost smell the Atlantic whale migration when a southeastern wind blows.

The college is overtly environmental and so small it’s possible to practice what’s preached: food is grown on the school’s farm, students cycle around on communal bikes, ceremonies strive to be zero-waste. My graduation in 2000 was the largest the 31-year-old school had ever hosted, and all 97 of us stood in a haphazard row listening to keynote speaker and hobo musician Utah Phillips. After Phillips counseled us on how to avoid becoming a "blown-up" (his word for a bloviating grown-up), my friend Dan turned to me and said, "When I came to this school, I was, like, ‘Aah, here’s my tribe.’"

I had the same feeling a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon the Urban Alliance for Sustainability. Maybe I’ve finally found my people. In the 18 months that I’ve lived in San Francisco, I’ve watched global warming go from a marginalized theory to a universally acknowledged threat. That’s triggered a lot of hyperactivity about how to be green, which seems more commercial than communal. Companies are setting up booths to hawk magic elixirs, but carbon offsets seem about as realistic as get-out-of-jail-free cards. They don’t really shift what actually needs seismic adjustment: the bottom line in your life.

The UAS is different. This is a group with the serious intention of living what it believes. On top of that, it wants to help you do the same.

The organization’s basic mission is so simple it seems like it must have been done already — be a clearinghouse for all the environmentalist activity in the Bay Area. The Web site www.uas.coop lists events, and the hotline answers questions, but the coolest thing the UAS is doing is using the delicious blossom of technology to connect people who really ought to know each other by now.

For example, the group tracks members’ addresses, and when it has enough in the same area, it facilitates a potluck so everyone can meet and discuss how to green their streets. As someone who’s participated in some funky social networking experiments, I think this is simply brilliant. In a world rife with a cruel suspicion of strangers, city living can be hard duty, and trust hard-won. This is kind of like finding your tribe.

Membership isn’t free, and in the interest of full disclosure, the UAS just gave me one after I expressed interest in it while working on another story for the Guardian. But the group is a cooperative, and kicking in gets you discounts to events and something called a sustainability consultation. Mine was a meeting I approached with suspicion. Remember: I went to a hippie school where the Earth Day piñata was full of natural cotton tampons. I already ditched my car and store my quinoa in old yogurt containers. What could this guy tell me about sustainability?

But this was much more than I expected. Kevin Bayuk sat in my yard for two and a half hours, and we discussed practically every aspect of my life — what I eat, how I get around, what I read, how I take care of my health. His suggestions were realistic, and he reminded me of things I let go of back when I ripped up my rural roots. I hadn’t even considered composting here, but he told me where to get a worm bin and offered me some worms from his to get started. He knew what kinds of edible plants could grow in the shade under the jasmine in my garden and the cost of a permit to rip up the sidewalk to grow food.

People often move to San Francisco because this is a city that can handle them. The uniqueness of the citizenry and the genuine desire to do good are what I love most about this place, but there are things I deeply miss about where I came from — the smell of freshly turned dirt in the sunshine, the shimmer of uninterrupted moonlight on water, the silence in the absence of cars. But I love this place, and I’m not going anywhere. Those things are just going to have to come to me. *

Green City, the Guardian‘s new weekly environmental column, will be a mix of staff-written stories and contributions from experts and provocative thinkers. Submissions may be sent to news@sfbg.com.