Velomobile
Cynthia Albers

Cynthia Albers

I noticed the bright orange vélomobile stuck in homebound traffic on the day the Kincade Fire evacuation was lifted. The low-riding, torpedo-shaped, pedal-power car held a commanding position on Gravenstein Highway South, and it shone as brightly as the patches of sunlight breaking through the post-fire sky.

Was this a Sebastopol-style response to the critical CO2 tipping point? I wondered.

By happenstance, I found myself in conversation with the vélo-driver just after the December holidays. Elliot Marshall, an Oregonian, has lived and worked on a farm south of Sebastopol since 2017. His humble low-waste lifestyle is inspiring and worth sharing.

Marshall has been sensitive to efficient modes of transportation since his high school years.

“I’m 31,” he said, “and for all of those years people have known, at the very least, that burning fossil fuels is changing our climate.” With that in mind, he became a sensible teen driver. “I didn’t accelerate the family minivan too hard, and I also traveled by bike,” he said.

His college degree program in Mechanical Engineering at the University of California, Davis, presented opportunities to study things like the flow of energy from the sun to our homes and vehicles. “I began to pay attention to the geo-politics of accessing energy and the world-infrastructure that is necessary to make my life possible,” he said.

We don't need new gadgets

Over time, Marshall turned his focus from the mechanical world to the ecological and biological world of resources and energy.

“Our gadgets work just fine (he referred to the bicycle as a mechanical “gadget”). We need to use what we have more efficiently rather than assuming that the future will provide new technology or a new way of doing all the things we want to do,” he said. “The goal is to live a comfortable and satisfying life without degrading the lifestyle of our descendants.”

Adapting to local bounty

Marshall bikes to the store and seeks opportunities to meet his food requirements efficiently. A recently salvaged acquisition of wheat berries (they were going to be thrown out) inspired him to learn the art of grinding grain for bread making.

Formerly a vegan, Marshall now describes himself as a locavore. He eats the foods grown or raised in his locale. In line with permaculture practices, he chose his current farm-residence for its peripheral land that allows him to keep and breed a milk cow. Over time, his grass-grazing cow naturally converted a side-field without any need for human-brought amendments or irrigation. No artificial resources were required to convert this land that can now support the cultivation of nutritious food. Marshall acknowledges that cows graze and emit methane, but considering what his cow provides in return, he noted, “It is easy to get to a zero-positive offset,” especially when comparing the methane footprint of the beef and dairy industries.

For those who cannot keep cows, Marshall suggested participating in a local CSA or Herdshare, like the program offered by Freestone Ranch.

Let’s share the road

Marshall’s reasons for acquiring his vélomobile had everything to do with safety. He considers Sonoma County to be the most dangerous area he has ever cycled in. He has been hit while commuting on his regular bicycle and has sustained injuries requiring significant periods of rehabilitation.

His vélo-vehicle is technically an electric bicycle built on a “tadpole trike” frame, meaning that there are two wheels in the front and one in the back. When riding, he is fully encased in a shell that offers some protection and better visibility. It has a lighting system and a horn, and an electric-assist motor that can reach 36-40 mph on a flat road — that is, when he is not towing a trailer full of farm-fresh foods.

Cynthia Albers is a member of the Sebastopol Zero-Waste Subcommittee. Send comments to albers.zw.seb@sonic.net.

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