Kevin Skaggs is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer whose work has appeared in Wired and Harvard Review.
Green transportation for around-town travel.
April 15 2009
These days, anyone who slaps Bark’s bumper sticker—Dog Is My Co-Pilot™—on a car is conscious of rising fuel prices and looming environmental crises. More and more, people are paying attention to the fuel economy and emission levels of that bumper-sticker-bearing vehicle. Some, especially in urban areas, have opted to go the old-fashioned route and get around town on two, or in some cases three, wheels. And, more for fun than for grocery shopping, there’s even a dog-powered scooter. “Emission” levels notwithstanding, is there anything more eco-sensitive than paw power? Whatever mode we choose, one thing’s for sure: Our pups will want to come along.
Purchasing a vehicle that makes a low contribution to air pollution and greenhouse gases is one way to do less harm to the world. Last fall, J.D. Power and Associates published the Automotive Environmental Index, a study based on information from the Environmental Protection Agency as well as on data collected from consumers. In the study, they listed 30 of the top environmentally friendly cars, eight of which were, as expected, hybrids. One interesting statistic that came out of the survey was that more than half of consumers who were thinking of buying a new car in the near term were considering a hybrid.
In fact, the research firm forecast that hybrid vehicles (which use gas to get the car going and power from a battery when cruising) would increase to a 5 percent share of the U.S. market by 2013.With fuel prices rising to a national average of nearly $3 per gallon and with images of drowning polar bears and shrieking hurricanes scrolling across our TV and movie screens, these results are no great surprise. (For a rundown of hybrids currently available and in development, visit Hybrid Cars.)
Though hybrids have been getting most of the attention when it comes to environmentally friendly cars, there are other ways to hit the road these days. For example, if you’ve got the dollars, you can join the likes of George Clooney and Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page and plunk down a cool $92,000 for a Tesla—a new, 100-percent-electric car that’s slated to hit the streets this year. These aren’t just emission-free vehicles, they’re also truly performance cars that go from zero to 60 in four seconds and have a top speed of 130 MPH. Their technology is also notable. Rather than a heavy lead-acid battery (such as was used in the original fleet of GM-developed electric vehicles, for example), they employ a lithium-ion battery—a larger cousin of the battery used in laptops—which is lighter, energy dense and much more efficient when it comes to miles-per-battery-charge.
Another attention-grabbing motorized vehicle new to the U.S.—but a familiar sight on streets from India to Sri Lanka—the Bajaj autorickshaw might be just the ticket if you’re looking for something that, with its three wheels, is more stable than a two-wheel scooter and gets a whopping 80 miles per gallon. When he was looking for a clean alternative vehicle, Bark reader and Santa Cruz resident Larry Lewis did his homework. As he says, “I chose the Bajaj autorickshaw, which is low in cost and just a complete work horse and charmingly ugly, but burns clean and is simple to maintain.” It may be the only one in town, but Lewis likes the fact that it makes a statement.
ArgoUSA started importing these autorickshaws from Pune, India, about two years ago, making sure that, unlike the golf carts they somewhat resemble, they were street legal and safe; among the added features are dual headlights and a fully hydraulic braking system. At about $6,400, the Bajaj autorickshaw is also priced right. In terms of emissions, the autorickshaws have a clean four-stroke engine, though ArgoUSA President Al Kolvites thinks the fact that they come only with manual transmissions may limit their popularity in the U.S. Nevertheless, these vehicles, which are designed to go no more than 40 mph on city streets, are definitely a novel and environmentally friendly driving alternative.
In cities these days, it’s not just bike messengers who are pedaling the streets. It doesn’t get much more environmentally friendly than pedal power, and manufacturers have taken notice and are producing a wider range of recreational cycles for those of us who aren’t quite up to the Tour de France. For example, you just might see a tricycle pass you by on the way to the store. That’s right, three-wheeled tricycles aren’t just for kids anymore (actually, tricycles—or trikes—for use by adults actually date back to the 1860s).
Today’s trikes offer a range of amenities. You can opt for a cool (and expensive) electric version, such as the eZee Carro, which includes a front-mounted motor that, with the turn of a throttle, takes over the pedaling chore. Among the more traditional, non-electric trikes are the Port-o-Trike three-speed and the folding Trifecta single-speed, both of which are sold online and at some of the big-box stores and go for between $300 and $400. Most tricycles come with wide seats, safe and efficient dual brakes, and a large basket that fits between the two back wheels.
For those who wouldn’t be caught, um, dead, on a three-wheeler, the Dutch Citybike from Vancouver-based Jorg & Olif supplies buckets of retro panache. With its wide seat and traditional bell, this bike is built for city riding; among its niceties are fender guards; pre-installed lights; and Shimano gear systems that come in one, three, and eight speeds (great for those hilly cities). The technical styling and beautiful design don’t come cheap, however—the Citybike runs between $795 and $1,295. (According to the manufacturer, a lower-cost but equally reliable model will be available soon.)
A Dog’s Place
Speaking of city streets (and bike paths), many are too crowded for your dog to run safely at your side, which is another good reason to look into these handy accessories. Dog trailers come in a variety of styles, support a range of weights and incorporate several safety features; most are easy to assemble and to attach to your bike.
The base kit usually includes the dog wagon itself, a towing bar that attaches to the bike and the bike connection. Since there are no American Society for Testing and Materials standards for pet carriers, it’s up to the consumer to take a close look and do some comparisons when making a buying decision. Among the things to look for are a strong but lightweight base, a low center of gravity to keep things stable, reflective materials for visibility, good ventilation and a frame that can be zipped closed. Three to consider are the Burley Tail Wagon, the Pet Ego Sport Wagon and the Wike Wagalong.
The newest Burley Tail Wagon (about $400 with the stroller kit), has a 75-pound carrying capacity and is suitable for most dogs. For more than 30 years, Burley has been known for its well-crafted bike trailers for children, and the company applied this expertise to its dog trailers. The Tail Wagon has a UV-resistant, water-repellent, fabric-enclosed frame; a suspended floor; and large mesh screens that allow the free flow of air through the trailer. It comes with a bright orange flag for good visibility in traffic, and the zip-up frame helps ensure that your dog doesn’t make an unscheduled exit en route. Factor in the fully removable sun and rain cover and optional We! Ski kit and you’ll have everything you need for year-round dog transporting.
The Pet Ego Sport Wagon is another new trailer on the market, and at about $500, one of the most expensive. But for big dogs, its size and strength—it holds up to 165 lbs.—make it a good option. This one also has zip doors for easy access, and to keep your dog (or dogs) cool, it has a nice sunroof that can be removed and stowed. (If you have a smaller dog, there’s a Sport Wagon sized for her as well.) For small dogs, the Wike Wagalong ($300) may be the way to go. A lightweight trailer, it comes in two versions, one of which is appropriate for dogs under 30 pounds. It has ventilation panels, a bug screen in the front, and rear and side reflectors. Your pooch will also appreciate its two-inch cushioned floor.
Just because a dog is elderly, less mobile or recuperating doesn’t mean she wants to stay at home, and optional stroller kits make outings both practical and safe. Attach the front wheel and a handlebar and voila! The kits make it possible for even bikeless dog folks to take advantage of these trailers, which can be particularly useful for navigating crowded sidewalks with your dog.
As you might imagine, this scooter is practical for medium to large dogs. To determine whether a dog is strong enough to power a rider’s weight, Schuette’s rule is to add 100 pounds to the dog’s weight; so, for example, a 60-pound Boxer should be able to power a 160-pound person. As Schuette joked with San Francisco Chronicle writer Paul McHugh, “People talk now about generating energy by combusting pet poop. Well, using this, you get work out of the kibble before it even leaves the animal.”
It’s doubtful that dogs care whether your vehicle is powered by gas, diesel, ethanol, a battery or muscle power. But in the long run, if we think green, our co-pilots will benefit.
A Flying Icon Spins Gold
For everyone who’s spent afternoons wrestling slobber-laden Frisbees from a Golden Retriever, tried to get an Airedale to chase a flying object or gone through a closetful of unrecognizably mangled plastic discs, it’s time to salute an American icon. This year, Frisbee—the pastime of dogs and the sport of college students everywhere—celebrates 50 years. Well, actually, people have been throwing disc-shaped objects around for millennia, back to the ancient Greeks. But it took a man, a company and the American sense of commercialism to bring a flying disc to the masses.
Plenty of urban myths address the origins of the Frisbee. You hear about Yale students tossing pie tins made by the Frisbie Baking Co. around campus in the early part of last century. But, when it gets down to it, it was a man named Walter Frederick Morrison (Fred to those in the Frisbee world) who realized that the large popcorn-tin lid that he was throwing back and forth at a Thanksgiving Day family picnic back in 1937 could be something special.
Special enough to begin manufacturing “Flyin’ Cake Pans” that he and his wife, Lucile Eleanor Nay, offered for 25 cents on Santa Monica Beach. And when those cake pans started selling, Morrison and his wife took it a step further and produced the first plastic disc in the ’40s, which they took to county fairs to demonstrate the fun of flight. And people ate it up. “We started demonstrating our plastic discs at the county fairs, and we just killed them; everyone wanted one and we couldn’t make them fast enough,” says the now 87-year-old Morrison.
Capitalizing on the popular culture’s fascination with UFOs, he decided to reinvent his crowd-pleasing disc. “There were flying saucers being reported everywhere at that time, and we just took advantage of what the media was reporting,” said Morrison, who latched on to the craze, molded his flying disc in the shape of a UFO and named it the “Pluto Platter.” In 1955, it was something on which kids would spend their full week’s allowance of 75 cents at the local five-and-dime.
And then, Wham-O. Literally. Along came the Wham-O company, which invited Morrison to its plant to discuss joining forces. Morrison agreed, and Wham-O began manufacturing the flying disc on January 23, 1957. It turned out, however, that in the marketplace, people were calling the flying object the Frisbee (influenced by those pie tins made by the Frisbie Baking Company); just a few months later, Wham-O renamed and trademarked its product the Frisbee.
As popular as Frisbee quickly became and has been over the years, the product (Morrison finds it aggravating to hear the Frisbee called a toy; “Do you call a baseball a toy?” he asks) may not have caught on in the way it has with dog lovers without the antics of Alex Stein and his Whippet, Ashley.
It was August 1974 and the Dodgers were playing the Reds at Dodger Stadium. At the bottom of the eighth inning, 19-year-old Alex grabbed his dog—and his moment. He hopped the field fence and took center stage in front of the packed stands (and TV cameras, which were broadcasting the game to the nation). It just took a few Frisbee throws at speeds of 35 mph, with Ashley leaping nine feet into the air to catch the disc, before the ball game was stopped and Joe Garagiola, the stadium announcer, began calling the Frisbee-throwing action.
The police soon escorted Alex off the field, but not before the crowd cheered its approval. Alex would soon be invited to perform with Ashley at national events (they performed at the pre-game show of Super Bowl XI) and Ashley Whippet became famous (he even performed for Amy Carter at the White House). Alex went on to help organize the annual Frisbee Dog World Championship, which Ashley won the first three years.
When it comes to dogs and flying discs, Fred Morrison likes to promote the phrase “dogs jump for joy as Frisbees reach the completion of their flight.” Fred’s dog was a German Shepherd, and, when asked about his dog-playing days, he recalled: “We’d throw our discs, and he’d catch ’em and try and throw ’em back. And every time he’d flip his head, the Frisbee would get caught up on his fang. He was never a successful Frisbee flipper.”
In the 50 years since he invented the Frisbee, Morrison has kept busy. He wrote a book recently, Flat Flip Flies Straight! True Origins of the Frisbee, with co-writer Phil Kennedy (who, by the way, has a collection of some 1,200 flying discs). But, he says, at 87, “my flipping days are just about over.” You’d think he might be a bit of a local celeb in the town in central Utah where he now lives, but he says he’s not. “They think I’m a multimillionaire, which I’m not. Though the Frisbees provided me with a comfortable life.” Reminiscing over the history of his Pluto Platter, he says, “What’s evolved is just amazing. I just sit back in wonderment.”
Happy 50th birthday, Frisbee! And congratulations, Fred.
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