Daniel and his Mercedes Both Smell Like French Fries

Daniel has always been full of pretty fantastic and creative ideas. One of my favorite was his idea for a fleet of food carts that sold spaghetti sandwiches and honeysuckle juice, the later which he was in the process of inventing. The spaghetti sandwich and honeysuckle juice stands never materialized, which I think had to do with lack of funds for the research and development of the honeysuckle juice but he shocked me with an even more interesting project on a visit I took to the United States a few years ago.

We were in West Chester having a few afternoon vacation beers when I told him he smelled like French fries. “Faaaantastic ! I almost forgot to tell you I converted the Benz to run on the used fry oil from restaurants.” I was suspicious at first and thought maybe he was trying to wind me up. “Really I process the oil in my basement. I filtered a batch right before I came so the smell is kind of lingering, plus when she first starts up she smells like McDonalds. I still thought he was putting me on until walk over to his house, and I saw the mini refinery he had set up in his basement. He had two fifty five gallon plastic drums with hand cranked pumps attached, like the pumps at old fashioned gas stations. On the top of each fifty five gallon drum there was a filter. He would pump the oil back and forth between the two drums a few times and he was set to go, free fuel. As far as modifications to the car went he spent five hundred dollars to have a vegetable oil conversion kit installed. It produces much lower emissions than burning fossil fuels and it’s free. You can’t run just any old car on UVO, used vegetable oil, it has to be a diesel.

If you have to drive I think the friesel powered car makes a lot of sense. But do you really need a car? Is it really a convenience or is it just a burden in disguise? A few weeks ago I was explaining to some of my adult students why I show up to their factory everyday on a bicycle. Their English is pretty good and usually we can converse about most topics with ease but they just didn’t seem to get my point so I created a formula to explain. The value for mode of transport A equals the monthly total cost, for example with a car your car payment, insurance, fuel, and maintenance, divided by your average hourly wage, plus your actual monthly commute time. You do the same for mode of transport B, so it looks like this. TA=TC/HW+CT=<>TC/HW+CT=TB. It is pretty self explanatory but here is a quick example; $600/$20+20=50hours > $60/$20+40=43hours. While transport A may have seemed like a convenience we find out it’s actually wasting seven hours a month. Of course there are other factors to be considered but this is a great starting point for analyzing if you actually need a car.

In a country like Korea, where every neighborhood is pretty much self sufficient right down to having their own hospital, a car is not a necessity. Anything you need is a five minute walk from your apartment and public transportation is more than affordable. A trip from my house to the beach on the underground costs me about one US dollar. 

On a recent visit to my hometown, a suburb of Philadelphia, it struck me as strange that one couldn’t exist without a car, a huge inconvenience that seems to be built not on practicality but on the culture of the car. My hometown used to be a lazy suburb filled with woods, rolling green hills, and corn fields. Today it’s a sea of strip malls and asphalt. To me it makes no sense to have a parking lot that’s ten times larger than the strip mall it services and to have a several hundred acre shopping mall that could take up a quarter of the size if it was built four stories high instead of one. Every community or new development could have their own main street and we could stop covering beautiful spaces with parking lots and unsightly strip malls.

The automobile has allowed us to close distances in a country that is geographically massive and has given the average person the freedom to travel those distances. When those distances naturally exist it might make sense to travel by car, but what doesn’t make sense is to artificially create those distances. There was a time when a car may have been necessitous for most suburbanites but that time has passed. The idea that we need to spend hours a day in cars and many more hours working to pay for them has to be reanalyzed and we need to start planning our communities better. 

Columnist Joshua Lorenzo Newett is a novelist, entrepreneur, and English professor at The Korean Naval Academy in Jinhae, South Korea. Saving Bill Murray, his second novel, was recently published here.

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