Warming Ourselves, Warming the World

Yesterday morning, I woke up to the pounding knock knock knock of our steam radiator’s discontent. After two hours of youtube, random DIY websites, and twisting knobs and pulling levers, I figured out how to clean the water level sight glass (ew) and drain/flush the boiler (also ew). All in the pursuit of warmth.

Daylight is scarce, snow and ice cover the grass, and my wife is perpetually wrapped in blankets; it must be that time of year when I’ve started obsessing again over the windows, doors, the attic, and any other areas where hot air is escaping and cold air creeping in. Part of this is to avoid the kind of shocking triple-digit heating bills that pain my bank account so terribly, but just as important is a matter of climate change.

In case you missed it, the Arctic has been screaming this winter with temperatures up to 60 degrees above average. Sea ice in the Arctic, as a result, is way below the historic average extent.


I already posted about climate change and the contribution that the transportation sector makes to greenhouse gas emissions. However, when combined together, heating and electricity are actually the two largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions in the Pioneer Valley.


I thought I would take the opportunity of plunging temperatures to look at how we heat our homes in the region, mostly because I was curious, but also as a way to think about how we can transition away from fossil fuels. All of the below maps are taken from the 2015 five-year American Community Survey. 

The History of Heating

My home was built around 1922, and demonstrates the history of using fossil fuels to heat buildings. When it was first built, there was a coal furnace. I know, because I can still see bits of anthracite coal scattered around the side of the house. At some point, it was converted to oil heat – again, I only know this because there were two holes in the side of the house where intake pipes used to be. Finally, the heating oil system was replaced with a natural gas furnace.

I was pretty surprised to find that gas is the most popular heating fuel category for Hampden County – a little under half of all households heat their homes using natural gas.


Looking at the town-level map, it looks like natural gas is a primarily urban amenity. I guess that makes sense, because you need to have the pipe infrastructure delivering the natural gas into people’s houses, and that’s a lot easier when houses are closer together.


Going back a step in time for my house, there are still a lot of homes heated by oil. There are a bunch of reasons why heating oil isn’t very good:

  1. You have to truck the fuel around, making the environmental impact that much worse.
  2. A lot of the heating oil tanks were installed underground and ended up leaking and contaminating the soil, creating brownfields.
  3. On a personal note, the one time I had heating oil I was a broke 20-something living with a bunch of other broke 20-somethings. We would always run out of fuel on a Friday afternoon and were too cheap to pay the extra $20 bucks for a weekend delivery, meaning that we would just be freezing until Monday morning.


Shockingly, there are also a handful of homes still heated using “coal or coke” according to the Census Bureau – talk about old school! The question becomes, where do they even get coal?


The Future of Heating

As we transition away from fossil fuels (because we will, we must), the future of heating must be mostly electric, with geothermal almost certainly mixed in. Holyoke is a great example of what the future of home heating should look like, since 95% of its electricity is generated from renewable sources (hydroelectric and solar primarily).

Surprisingly, electric heat is not that that common in the region – no town exceeds about a quarter of households using electric (except Sunderland which is almost 40%!). This could be partly the inertia of past heating systems, or the fear of losing heat in the event of a power outage, or a little bit of both.


In the future, I’m hoping that we can leverage more solar power for passive heating. My house has a giant tree on the south side that substantially diminishes the ability to install solar panels, but that’s not true for a lot of homes. You can see in the map below that very few homes right now have solar heating, but, surprisingly, Holyoke is leading the way!


A Path Forward

Unfortunately, converting heating systems to more efficient or planet-friendly fuel sources can be very costly. Even though a homeowner might save a bunch of money in the long run, the lumpy expense of replacing the heating system can be prohibitive. And unlike the vehicle fleet which, eventually, turns over cars from old dirty ones to newer cleaner ones, houses (and their heating technology) tend to stick around for decades or centuries.

We’ve started looking at converting to more efficient steam heating systems, and I’m also getting interested in a geothermal exchange system. I would also like to convert from natural gas to an electric system and take advantage of all that green electricity Holyoke produces. These are all big expenses, though programs like Mass Save could help.

In the end, any serious climate action must include getting rid of all heating oil-fueled houses and, eventually, natural gas heated homes as well. Even though the federal government is unlikely to do anything about climate change (other than deny it) over the next four years, the future of the planet literally depends on small things like furnace upgrade programs. In the meantime, I’ll look to state governments to lead the way.



Car Commute: Easy Rider

It’s easy to forget just how unusual my work commute is. This past week it’s been rather cold (one morning was -1 degrees F, according to my weather app). I still biked to the bus stop, rode the express bus to work, and then biked the rest of the way to work.The reason is pretty simple – I didn’t have much choice, since I live in a one-car household and my wife uses it most days. But even if she didn’t need the car, I still probably would have done that same morning routine, because it’s just that – a routine.

At my office in Springfield, multiple people came up to me on that sub-zero day after seeing my bike and said, “I can’t believe you rode your bike into work today.” I sort of shrugged and explained that I didn’t really ride my bike in, not all the way, but only to/from the bus stop.

“Still,” they’d say, “you’re crazy!”

My Easy Ride

Yesterday, I had to drive into work to make it to an afternoon meeting in Northampton, and fortunately the household car was available. Here are the things I noticed on my car commute:

  1. Instead of needing to be out the door by 7:25 AM to make the bus to Springfield, I got to leave at 7:45.
  2. If I left at 7:46, it would be fine – unlike the bus, the car would still be there.
  3. It usually takes me several minutes just to bundle up. Since I was going from a heated home to a soon-to-be-heated car, I didn’t have to spend nearly as much time putting on winter weather gear.
  4. I got to crank my NPR up as loud as I wanted on my way to work.
  5. I got to park literally feet from the entrance to my office, instead of having to bike about a mile from the Springfield Bus Terminal to the office – again, reducing the amount of bundling I needed to do.
  6. I finally got to bring my suit jacket to work with me, which I’d been delaying because I really didn’t want to stuff my suit jacket into a pannier on my bike ride in.
  7. Driving to work was really convenient, easy, stress-free, and generally pleasant.

I forget how thoroughly engineered our transportation system is, so that driving the obvious choice. So self-evident to the point that people think you have a screw loose if you choose not to drive (and as for those poor folks who don’t have a choice and can’t drive – they deserve our sympathies).

Of course, the same does not hold true for places like Boston or New York City. In those cities, space is at a premium and driving is much more difficult – it’s just a reality of geometry. But Springfield, Massachusetts is much more representative of the rest of the country than these metropolises. The car is king.

In the end, if we want people to choose walking and transit and biking as their travel mode, driving has got to become harder. This could be done through more expensive gas, or parking, or dedicating a travel lane to bus service instead of cars – but in the end, if we want more people using active and/or sustainable transportation, driving is just way too easy.

Maps: Pro-Trump in the Pioneer Valley

Since the election results, there has been much discussion about a particular demographic: white males without a college degree. Specifically, the narrative has gone something like:

White men without a college degree have been left behind by the US government and its economy, and their decisive support of Donald Trump was their retribution for this injustice. 

I won’t get into all of the things I think are wrong about this analysis, though I will quote one of my favorite scholars at the Brookings Institute, Richard Reeves, who wrote:

In the long run, the only cure is for whites, and especially white men, to change their expectation that high status, along with a decent-paying job, will be delivered to them merely by virtue of their race and gender.

Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that when you look at a variety of outcomes broken down by race/ethnicity, whites are doing pretty well. If any group of Americans is being left behind, it is (still) African-Americans and Latinos. As John Hudak, another scholar at the Brookings Institute, points out:

The conversation around the “economically marginalized” has focused almost exclusively on white working class voters, and that is a travesty. There are many other Americans who are not traditionally grouped under the heading “white working class voters” who remain economically marginalized—and most of them voted for someone other than Donald Trump.

He goes on to use a variety of charts pointing out that, certainly, some white working class Americans have had a hard time in the 21st century economy – and that this is a bitter pill to swallow when the generation before had no problem making a good living as a lumberjack or welder. But Black and Latino Americans have a much harder time succeeding in today’s economy.

As a racial/ethnic group, Whites earn far more than Blacks or Latinos.

Regardless of whether it is justified, there have been subsequent analyses released showing the strong correlation between the share of non-college educated whites and the share of votes for Donald Trump in a given state. This made me kind of curious about how that played out here in the Pioneer Valley.

Divides in the Valley

Even though a lot of people think of the region as “The Happy Valley,” full of hippy-dippy liberals with degrees in Women’s Studies, there are definitely conservative areas. 


I was curious, though – does the prevailing narrative about disaffected white non-college educated men also hold true in our part of the state? So, of course, I went to the American Community Survey to answer that question.

(Warning: Here is where I go into some technical stuff about the analysis I did.) Unfortunately, there was no data at the town level showing proportions of white non-college educated men (at the town level, I could have gotten “white men” or “non-college educated men” but not combining all three). To filter at that level, I had to use an artificial geography that’s called a Public Use Microsample Area, or “PUMA.” This meant that unfortunately I couldn’t get results town-by-town, and the maps I produced might look funny. I swear it’s not my fault!

First, here are how the PUMAs in the Pioneer Valley voted:

“Sources” got cut off, but it was supposed to also list WBUR.

Interestingly, if PUMAs existed as real political units, Trump wouldn’t have won any of them in the Pioneer Valley. However, he still did petty well in the close-in suburbs to the east and west of Springfield. The region gets less pro-Trump the further north you get.

Now for the proportion of the PUMAs that are Non-College Educated White Men (NCEWM):


Looking at the map, the two PUMAS most strongly pro-Trump also had the highest NCEWM population. Springfield, right in the middle, had the lowest NCEWM population and also voted most decisively for Clinton.

In fact, running a simple correlation I find an R value of 0.74, which is pretty strong (though there aren’t enough observations to feel comfortable running a statistical test).

R = 0.74

So what does this mean?

First off, it means that just like in the rest of the country, the Pioneer Valley has its own political divisions, and that there is geographic clumping of differing political views. It also suggests that the same economic forces getting so much attention in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin are also at play here – our own Rust Belt in Hampden County.

This means that even in uber-liberal Massachusetts, there is still work to be done. Sharing the prosperity inside of 128 is essential to that effort. Otherwise we may find a rude awakening the morning after some election in the future, much as Ohio or Wisconsin did on November 9th.


Bus Commute: Community of Strangers


In transportation professional speak, I’m what is called a “choice rider.” These are the folks using transit who have other options, and tend to be higher-income, white collar, white-skinned professionals. When I first heard that phrase, “choice rider,” I thought it was offensive – like a choice cut of meat. Like there was some intrinsic quality of these transit users that made them preferable to the rest of “those people” who are using transit.

Of course, the origin is more innocuous – it refers to people who “have a choice” about whether or not to use the bus. Hence, “choice rider.” 

I live in a one-car household, and my wife uses it about 95% of the time. We could get a second car for me to use, but haven’t yet done so. For me, being mostly car-free is definitely a choice. If I wanted to, I could choose to buy or lease a car of my own and drive to work, to go shopping, to get to the end of my driveway if I wanted to.

But since I care about the environment and like to exercise and am a cheapskate, I stay mostly car-free. And it’s hit that time of year (dark, snowy, icy) when riding my bike becomes more challenging than I want to deal with. So I’ve switched over to the bus for the time being.

Taking transit in a big city isn’t a big deal. Even where I lived in relatively suburban Belmont, most people working in Cambridge or Boston hopped on the 73 bus or used commuter rail to get into the city.

Mid-sized cities are a whole different story. Growing up in Lexington, Kentucky (population 308,000), I never took the bus even once. Going to school in Eugene, Oregon (MSA population: 357,000), I took the bus rapid transit system several times, but only ventured onto the rest of the bus system only once. Even when I was in college at Hampshire, I generally only used the buses between college campuses, which act more or less as a shuttle for students and faculty.

Using the bus to get from Holyoke to Springfield, then, was a fairly new experience for me compared to my prior transit use. The big reason goes back to what I mentioned earlier: there are comparatively few “choice riders” in Hampden County. According to the most recent PVTA rider survey, two-thirds of transit users do not have reliable access to other transportation. That squares with a map I put together showing the percentage of households in Holyoke with zero cars (in some spots, >50%).

Source: PVTA Comprehensive Service Analysis


In short, that means a lot of very poor people are using the transit system in Hampden County.

And there is a stigma to using the bus. There’s a sense that “those people” who ride the bus are using drugs, or drunk, or cussing loudly, or stinky, or doing any number of other objectionable things. And of course race/racism plays into it, too – even though Hampden county is three-quarters white, the bus ridership is overwhelmingly non-white.

Riding the Bus

As I have ridden the bus, the biggest surprise is the subtle sense of community that exists. I take the P21 Express from Holyoke to Springfield, which runs hourly. That means that I ride with basically the same people every day, and have the same driver on most days. In an unexpected way, I get to know them all just the tiniest bit. 

Typical afternoon on the P21 Express. 

Like last year, there was the driver who, everyday before her shift, was on her phone talking with her daughter and going over spelling words. She had to be at work at an ungodly early hour, but still wanted to help her daughter study for apparently frequent spelling quizzes.

There was also the family who would take the express bus most days, with the father who had to be at least 6’ 6” tall and his two daughters. They were always late, rushing to the bus stop – but usually that same bus driver who practiced spelling with her daughter would stop mid-block and open the door for the huffing family. That sort of thing would never happen in Boston, the driver would just keep going. 

I remember last winter that there was the one other biker who would put his mountain bike on the bus alongside mine. He would come in from South Hadley, from a public housing apartment complex, and take the bus down to Springfield where he drove a truck for deliveries. The business owner worked him hard, it sounded like, because sometimes he would just barely make the last bus back to Holyoke. That made for a long 12-hour day, but keeping the job was one of the conditions of keeping his apartment.

On the bus I’ve heard the crescendo-ing arguments of lovers in the midst of a quarrel, one side of cell phone calls with child protective services, and more frantic pocket-searches for day passes and nickels and dimes than I care to remember. Most conversation snippets I catch have the same undercurrent of being broke, being oh-so broke.

And not once have I been  harassed, or thrown up on, or in any way felt threatened. Indeed, surrounded by families and familiar faces, it’s actually comforting being on the P21 E – in an unexpected way, I feel connected. 

Would it be faster to drive to work? Oh yeah. Would it be easier? In a lot of ways, yes. But taking the bus I get to exit my white-collar bubble for a few minutes a day and become part of a subtle, unconscious community of strangers.


New Analysis: Proximity to Bus Routes Raises Property Values

I just finished up a GIS course on Coursera, and for the capstone project I tried to answer the question, “Does being near a bus route make your home more or less valuable?” I could see it go either way – bus service is an amenity, and the value of that amenity should be reflected in the value of a home located nearby. On the other hand, bus service – especially outside of the Boston area – has a stigma to it (the result of classism, or racism, or both). So I could see property values actually being lower the closer they were to bus lines.

I did the analysis for properties served by Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs) because their boundaries are pretty set – the MBTA service area is a little mushier, with Commuter Rail service spanning all the way to Worcester. The analysis shows that in almost all parts of the state, having a home near a bus line raises the value of your property.

Legend shows impact of proximity to rubber tire transit per meter closer to a bus route. So a value of $20 would mean that for every meter closer to a bus route, a residential property would be $20/acre higher. 

What’s really exciting about this analysis is that it’s the first I’ve heard of which looks specifically at rubber tire bus service. Most other studies look at rail transit or bus rapid transit, generally finding positive impacts on property values. These studies are often used to justify investment in building rail or BRT facilities.

While rubber tire bus service doesn’t require the same level of capital outlay as other kinds of transit, it still requires investment and community support. I hope this analysis will help generate a little more excitement for bus routes and dispel some of the stigma.

For anyone interested in the details of how I did the analysis, you can read the report here. Without getting too technical, I used a linear regression model to control for variables like access to jobs, access to highways, crime rate, school quality, etc. This helped to isolate the impact of transit alone without these confounding variables.

If you have any questions or thoughts, please send them my way! You can direct message me on Twitter, @pricearmstrong.


Chicopee on the Road to a Bike/Ped Plan

As Winston Churchill once said of Russia, I feel about Chicopee: It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

I bike through Chicopee every day, and even spend a fair amount of time going to businesses in the city, but I still don’t feel like I have a sense of the city. It is a community of contradictions: It is the second largest city in the Pioneer Valley, but routinely gets omitted when listing “major” cities in the area (usually it’s Springfield, Holyoke and Northampton that get mentions). It was settled in 1660 but is dominated by post-war suburban-style strip malls and ranch houses. It used to be one of the largest producers of bicycles in the country, but today boasts no bicycle facilities and few bicyclists. 

Compared to Springfield and Holyoke, Chicopee doesn’t have the same pockets of very high population density that support biking, walking and transit. Source: 2015 American Community Survey

The best I can make of Chicopee is that is a city trying to distance itself from its past and blend into the panorama of sprawling Brady Bunch suburbs. An industrial city that was built by immigrants, most people today know it by the box stores lining Memorial Drive. Billing itself as “The Crossroads of New England” because of the numerous highways that crisscross the city, it seems like a place that you pass through going somewhere else. 

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I learned that a group of UMass graduate students was preparing a bicycle and pedestrian plan for the city. The city enlisted this group of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning (LARP) students to develop a basic plan laying out key points of interest and connections via bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Kudos to the City Planning Department for this modest, but crucial, step forward.

The network they put together was ambitious and connected all parts of the city. They divided the city into three segments: Northeast, Northwest, and South, roughly divided up by highways. The network they constructed is a mix of on-road and off-road facilities, focusing on schools as key destinations.

A shot of the proposed bike/ped path network. 

One of the things the plan doesn’t do is prioritize investments or provide any sort of implementation plan. That’s fine; that wasn’t the point of the plan. But the next step has to include thinking about where are bicycle and pedestrian improvements both most useful and easiest to implement.

I have three suggestions:

  1. First is that the Cabotville area should be focused on. This is the historic downtown area in Chicopee, and has multiple one-way streets crisscrossing the area. These could easily be reduced from two lanes to one, with buffered bike lanes added. Furthermore, traffic calming measures which improve the pedestrian and biking environment would be relatively easy.
  2. Next, I would suggest that the viaduct on Route 116 just north of the Chicopee River is terrible for biking and walking. Furthermore, it is supremely overbuilt for the amount of traffic it carries. Bike lanes would be extremely easy to add. (This is a personal one for me, because that route would be super-convenient for getting to work). 
  3. There will be a strong temptation to build bicycle and pedestrian facilities on roadways which are out of the way and little used, because it’s easy and non-controversial. That’s fine for maybe the first Complete Streets project, but they should move on quickly to places that people actually want to go to and that are conducive to biking and walking.

Again, I’m thankful to UMass LARP for putting together this initial vision for the City of Chicopee, and for the city staff who are interested in making the community more livable. As I said, Chicopee sometimes falls off people’s mental maps of the valley. Only by getting people out on the streets can a sense of place take hold, and turn Chicopee into a destination instead of merely a “crossroads.”


Bike Commute: My Unexpected Friends

In general, I find my bike commute to be a fairly solitary activity. It wasn’t as much this way when I lived in the Boston area, just because there were plenty of other bicyclists around me. I would occasionally bump into someone I knew and we’d ride together for a bit. But here in Hampden County, I’m usually the only biker on the road.

Of course, driving is a supremely isolating experience. People talk about being in their car-bubble while they go to work, engrossed by Terry Gross or singing an epic love ballad alongside the band Heart. A big difference for me when I’m on my bike, I can hear every singing swallow and booming bass beat and chatty Cathy on the street. In short, I’m exposed to – and a part of – the world

My bike route takes me the length of Chicopee, from the northern end with Al’s Diner and the Willimansett Bridge along suburban streets and over the Chicopee River through downtown. Once the school year started, I noticed crossing guards popping up along my route. It’s sort of like seeing the same person in the break room at work every day; at first, you don’t say much, but eventually you can’t avoid it. Not through shared interests but through repeated proximity does a tentative friendship form.

The first crossing guard to break the wall of silence that separates strangers was Bob, at the corner of Granby Road and Grattan Street. He’s the kind of guy who waves at passing school buses, so of course he started chatting with me.

Bob, my first crossing guard friend.

Since the first time he said hi, I’ve gotten to know him in 30-second intervals. I found out that Bob is retired and lives about half a mile away. He used to be the maintenance manager at a warehouse in Springfield, but after he retired he thought being a crossing guard would be a good use of his time.

The next guy I got to know was Ricardo. I met him at the corner of Center St and Hampden St. Ricardo is less effusively sunshine and smiles than Bob, but still friendly and lights up when I roll into the intersection.

Ricardo, my second crossing guard friend.

Here’s what I know about Ricardo: He is from Poland and France (I don’t know when he lived in one versus the other, though I do know that Chopin also called both Poland and France home!). Inexplicably, I believe Ricardo is a Spanish name, so I’m sure his story is much more interesting than I’ve gathered so far. He is also retired, and worked at Westover Air Force Base as a machinist making chains. I’m guessing the chains he machined were way more massive than my bike chain.

Finally, there are a couple of crossing guards at the intersection of Granby Rd and Montgomery St that I talk to less often, and haven’t really gotten to know. I don’t know their names, though I’m guessing by their age that they are also retired. My one main interaction with them was one time they unexpectedly stepped out into the crosswalk while I was making a right turn, and I had to slam on my brakes (my fault, not theirs). Since then, they’ve joshed me about being a reckless biker when I pass by.

The crossing guard duo

There has been a lot of talk about social fragmentation that accompanies suburban sprawl and car dependence (see Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone). Certainly, if I drove instead of biking I would have never met these folks, and Chicopee would just be a faceless expanse of post-war houses and whizzing traffic. 

At first, it was kind of annoying that when I was waiting for the light to change I would have to make conversation with the crossing guards standing nearby. But morning after morning of saying hi, talking about the weather, about biking, about retirement or ancestry, they’ve become welcomed sights – friends of a sort I didn’t expect. I bike to work because it’s good for my health, for my wallet, and for the planet. Waving hi and exchanging pleasantries wasn’t something I thought much about, but it’s come to be a nice fringe benefit.

Here is a quick video of a chat I had with Ricardo:


Kicking Off the Commute Series


Between the all-consuming consternation of DJ Trump’s Electoral College triumph and finishing up a GIS Specialization on Coursera, November flew by with only one blog post. I thought I would break the drought by kicking off a new series of blog posts: The Commute Series. 

Much like Michael Pollan wrote about The Omnivore’s Dilemma, commuters today have a lot of choices (though most of us don’t know it, or don’t care). Especially in big cities, the options of how to get from A to B are numerous. Over the years, I’ve traveled to work the following ways:

  1. Bike
  2. Walk
  3. Run
  4. Drive
  5. Subway
  6. Razor Scooter
  7. Bus
  8. Kayak
  9. Carpool
  10. Telecommute
  11. Intercity Rail
  12. Probably more if I think hard about it
The view from my kayak commute on the Charles River

Even though it’s something most of us don’t think much about, it’s my job to think about transportation. Each method of getting where we’re going involves varying experiences, different frustrations and small joys. Each time we set out on a journey, we make a decision that impacts ourselves and the world around us. Whether conscious or not, each trip is a choice with consequences.

The Commute Series is my effort to shine a light on the experience and implications of these transportation choices. Some of the key questions I’ll be looking to answer are:

  • What’s the best part of my commute?
  • What’s the worst part?
  • What’s the most unexpected thing that happened to me?
  • If I could change one thing about the commute, what would it be?

I’ll also intersperse some this series with some more data-heavy aspects of commuting. Expect some posts about climate change, public health, transportation funding and spending, and demographics.

This should be a lot of fun, and my helmet camera which my dear wife got for me a couple of years ago is definitely going to come in handy. Stay tuned!