September 2009

cellphone_driving_poka0059-325x294This one is just too easy.  The New York Times published a story on Sunday about how truck drivers are lobbying not to have texting laws apply to them.  I fully understand the need for drivers to get to locations on time and the demands of a driver to get their trailers from place to place quickly and efficiently.  However, this is not an excuse for hurting safety.

According to the Times, rather than chatting on cell phones or texting on Blackberrys, truckers are communicating with their dispatch centers via computers in their cabs.  These computer feature screens and often keyboards right in the laps of drivers.  Here is a snippet from the article:

After videotaping truckers behind the wheel, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that those who used on-board computers faced a 10 times greater risk of crashing, nearly crashing or wandering from their lane than truckers who did not use those devices.

That figure is lower than the 23 times greater risk when truckers texted, compared with drivers simply focused on the road, according to the same study. However, the Virginia researchers said that truckers tend to use on-board computers more often than they text.

The study found that truckers using on-board computers take their eyes off the road for an average of four seconds, enough time at highway speeds to cover roughly the length of a football field.

Given all the hype present currently on texting (e.g. this summer’s MBTA crash) and distracted driving in general, the position of the truckers is unacceptable.  If only truck drivers were in danger from their actions, then so be it.  But truck drivers occupy the roads with millions of other Americans, and reckless driving by a driver in a multi-ton 18-wheeler puts the lives of other drivers (truck and automobile) at tremendous risk.

I really have very low tolerance for such action, if we cannot transport our goods effectively and safely on the roads it is all the more reason to invest more in our freight railroads where drivers rarely intersect with the trains.

Cargo Unloading

Applications for Department of Transportation TIGER (Transportation Invesments Generating Economic Recovery) were due September 15th.  The DOT got an overwhelming response for the available $1.5 billion available.  Applications came in from all 50 states totaling $56.9 billion in applications.  According to the DOT (pdf graph), 1381 applications were received.  Unfortunately, 56% of the money requested was for highways, but 19% of the money requested was for transit and another 10% for railroads.  Here are some of the applications that have received media attention.

I’m just glad I’m not the lawyer who has to read all of those applications.

Amtrak Bridge

In last Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer there was an article on the sad shape of Amtrak’s infrastructure in and around Philadelphia.  As a particularly disturbing example of disrepair, the article first focused on the 108-year old 52nd street bridge, which carries both Amtrak and SEPTA traffic.  According to the Inquirer the bridge is in such sad shape that piers are cracked, holes are visible in the deck, and trees are growing through it.

Amtrak is of course is not entirely to blame for the sad state of its infrastructure.  The organization was set up doomed to fail as it inherited all its infrastructure from various private railroads who were desperate to get out of the non-profitable passenger business.  So goodness knows what condition the bridge was in in 1971 when Amtrak was first created and first underfunded.  That underfunding has led to the following infrastructure crisis:

Nearly half of Amtrak’s 302 bridges in the Philadelphia region have some elements rated “poor” or worse, according to Amtrak’s bridge-inspection reports, prepared over the last two years. The Inquirer obtained them under the Freedom of Information Act.

The inspections show that 143 bridges – 47.4 percent – received “poor” or lower marks for such defects as deteriorated metal plates or decaying stone walls. Some have eroded support piers, others badly worn girder elements and missing rivets. (The count does not include marks for painting or signs, which would push the number of “poor” structures even higher.) None of the bridges had any “failed” marks.

Amtrak officials say the bridges remain safe for travel. But decades of deferred maintenance mean the aging bridges will require hundreds of millions of dollars to bring them into good repair.

The situation is similar elsewhere in the country, where Amtrak owns about 1,400 bridges, largely in the Northeast. Lacking money to meet all of its repair and maintenance needs, Amtrak has deferred an estimated $5 billion in capital and infrastructure maintenance spending.

And regarding the need for repairs in Philadelphia and when they might occur:

As bridge elements deteriorate, they can cause the rails to bend or shift, making trains slow down or even derail.

Amtrak’s Yordy, standing under the 52d Street bridges, said that even with its litany of problems, the structure “is still serviceable.” But he noted that its age was catching up with it.

“One-hundred-year-old bridges should be considered for replacement,” he said, noting the corrosion and the possibility of steel fatigue.

As Yordy and Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black examined the structure recently, a pedestrian chastised them: “Why don’t you paint it so it looks like something?”

Black looked at the rusting bridges overhead and acknowledged, “These are ugly, just as that guy said. But they are safe. They may need some remedial work. But one bad member won’t bring them down.”

With more bridges than money, Amtrak has a challenge to determine which repairs can afford to wait and which must be made now.

Amtrak alwyas has had funding problems since its inception and that is not likely to change dramatically, even with Obama and Lahood allocating funds for rails at historic rates.  Amtrak has been so neglected for nearly four decades, and the rails it runs on for decades before that, that no one time boost is going to solve its infrastructure woes.

This is why Amtrak needs a railroad trust fund that is similar to the highway trust fund.  The highway trust fund provides resources for maintenance for the Interstate Highway System via fuel taxes.  A railroad trust fund could similarly provide for funding through taxes and an initial grant by the federal government.  It is insane to tax Amtrak riders or public transportation users.  However, perhaps each Amtrak rider could be charged an extra $1 that goes to the trust fund.

Moreover, given that drivers do not currently pay the fuel tax that provides for the highway trust fund, the oil that is essentially already taxed to be used by railroads should be provided to the railroad trust fund.  Rather than providing oil revenues used by railroads to highway improvements, such money should be directed to rail maintenance. Also, since many rails run on electricity, including Amtrak, perhaps there should be a small electricity tax.

These are partial solutions at best, but at least a start.

UPDATE: Apparently, I was not the first to come up with this idea and have been done one better with the notion of a national infrastructure bank.  Such a fund would allocate money to any mode of transit and be done so wisely, especially as the highway trust fund no longer pays for itself with low gas taxes.

Audi TDII know admittedly very little about fuel efficiency or internal combustion engines.  My engineering background is nonexistent.  However, I have been quite intrigued by auto manufacturers – in particular Audi and Volkswagen – promoting diesel engines for cars.  They are not only promoting diesel as an alternative, but a more efficient one.

Wikipedia does its traditionally thorough job of explaining how diesel works.

Unlike petroleum ether and liquefied petroleum gas engines, diesel engines do not use high voltage spark ignition (spark plugs). An engine running on diesel compresses the air inside the cylinder to high pressures and temperatures (compression ratios from 15:1 to 21:1 are common); the diesel is generally injected directly into the cylinder near the end of the compression stroke. The high temperatures inside the cylinder cause the diesel fuel to react with the oxygen in the mix (burn or oxidize), heating and expanding the burning mixture in order to convert the thermal/pressure difference into mechanical work; i.e., to move the piston. (Glow plugs are used to assist starting the engine to preheat cylinders to reach a minimum operating temperature.) High compression ratios and throttleless operation generally result in diesel engines being more efficient than many spark-ignited engines.

This efficiency and its lower flammability and explosivity than gasoline are the main reasons for military use of diesel in armoured fighting vehicles like tanks and trucks. Engines running on diesel also provide more torque and are less likely to stall as they are controlled by a mechanical or electronic governor.

Diesel-powered cars generally have a better fuel economy than equivalent gasoline engines and produce less greenhouse gas emission. Their greater economy is due to the higher energy per-litre content of diesel fuel and the intrinsic efficiency of the diesel engine. While petrodiesel’s higher density results in higher greenhouse gas emissions per litre compared to gasoline,[10] the 20–40% better fuel economy achieved by modern diesel-engined automobiles offsets the higher-per-litre emissions of greenhouse gases, and produces 10-20 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than comparable gasoline vehicles.[11][12][13] Biodiesel-powered diesel engines offer substantially improved emission reductions compared to petro-diesel or gasoline-powered engines, while retaining most of the fuel economy advantages over conventional gasoline-powered automobiles. However, the increased compression ratios mean that there are increased emissions of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) from diesel engines. This is compounded by biological nitrogen in biodiesel to make NOx emissions the main drawback of diesel versus gasoline engines.

Many periodicals have taken interest in the “new” technology, including Green Tech Media.  The article stated that Audi and VW believe that diesel can have 25% of the auto market.  It also noted that the cars aren’t quite as efficient as a Toyota Prius, but are more efficient than most other car models.  What holds diesel back are its higher cost than traditional gasoline and the continuing problem of sulfur emissions, even if the newer engines are much cleaner than their predecessors.

Popular Mechanics recently ran a great overview of all the new diesel cars, including those made by Honda and Cadillac.  However, what I truly appreciated was the longevity inherent in diesel engines:

Meanwhile, diesel’s core virtues remain unchanged. The fuel contains more energy per unit volume than gasoline, and diesel engines operate at higher compression ratios than gasoline engines—typically 14:1 to 25:1, compared to 8:1 to 12:1. (The compression ratio is the relationship between the volume of the cylinder when the piston is at the bottom of its stroke and the volume when it’s at the top.) The higher the compression ratio, the more mechanical energy an engine can squeeze from its fuel/air mixture. So each time the mixture in a diesel engine’s cylinder ignites, the car gets a slightly bigger push than it would in a gasoline engine. That means it takes less fuel to move the car down the road. It also means that the engine generates a lot of power even when it isn’t cycling fast—and that’s the source of the beefy low-end torque these vehicles are famous for.

The high compression ratios also explain why diesel engines tend to last so long. “Diesel engines need to be built stronger,” explains Tony Molla, author of Chilton’s Diesel Engine Service Manual. “The crankshaft and connecting rods are quite a bit heavier than those in gasoline engines.” And because diesel has a low coefficient of friction, it also happens to be a good lubricant that provides protection to the cylinder walls. The result? It’s not unusual to see diesel engines still chugging along at 250,000 miles.

I personally would like to see Americans less dependent on fossil fuels in general, but that doesn’t mean the diesel car does not have its  place.  After all the car is more efficient and uses less oil than current internal combustion cars.  Moreover, if it lasts longer it is inherently more sustainable as we need to make fewer cars.  One of the elements of transportation sustainability frequently overlooked is the production of new cars and all the energy and raw material that goes into their production.  If each American kept his or her car for 250,000 miles worth of driving, this country could be a lot different (though GM would probably be bankrupt).

The other advantage for diesel is that as opposed to new technologies like electric cars, there is already a standard fueling system that is widespread across the country.

CH-engineer-careyMy partner alerted me to this fascinating 1943 historical abstract from Transportation Magazine.  The 1943 article was aimed at male supervisors who suddenly had to deal with female employees (presumably because the men were off fighting a war).  The article was terribly frightening.  Feministing highlighted some of the more insulting suggestions:

1. Pick young married women. They usually have more of a sense of responsibility than their unmarried sisters, they’re less likely to be flirtatious, they need the work or they wouldn’t be doing it, they still have the pep and interest to work hard and to deal with the public efficiently.

2. When you have to use older women, try to get ones who have worked outside the home at some time in their lives. Older women who have never contacted the public have a hard time adapting themselves and are inclined to be cantankerous and fussy. It’s always well to impress upon older women the importance of friendliness and courtesy.

8. Give every girl an adequate number of rest periods during the day. You have to make some allowances for feminine psychology. A girl has more confidence and is more efficient if she can keep her hair tidied, apply fresh lipstick and wash her hands several times a day.

9. Be tactful when issuing instructions or in making criticisms. Women are often sensitive; they can’t shrug off harsh words the way men do. Never ridicule a woman – it breaks her spirit and cuts off her efficiency.

Yikes! We as a society and transportation organizations have come a long way since 1943.  Now women are an expected part of the workforce and reasonably so.  Moreover, transportation is a phenomenal field for all people as many of the driver and maintenance jobs require few skills before hiring.  Public transportation agencies, much like police officer positions, are seen as an ability for the lower and lower middle class to find positions that are secure and pay well; hence their attractiveness to men and women, people of all ethnicities, sexualities and nations of origin.

I would imagine that like many blue collar positions and jobs of manual labor railyards can be rough and tumble places.  However, I hope that many more women enter the workforce and articles in transportation magazines speak about creating feminist workplaces and places that are welcoming and embracing of diversity of all sorts.


For a class I am taking I read the National Resource Defense Council report on Stormwater Strategies: Community Responses to Pollution Runoff.  In that report I happily stumbled upon the following paragraphs (emphasis mine):

Transport imperviousness generally exceeds rooftop imperviousness in urban areas of the United States.5Cumulative figures show that, worldwide, at least one third of all developed urban land is devoted to roads, parking lots, and other motor vehicle infrastructure. In the urban United States, the automobile consumes close to half the land area of cities; in Los Angeles the figure approaches two thirds.”6 The city of Olympia, Washington, also found that transport imperviousness constituted approximately two-thirds of total imperviousness in several residential and commercial areas.7 This distinction is important because rainfall on transportation surfaces drains directly to a stream or stormwater collection system that discharges to a waterbody usually without treatment, whereas some roofs drain into seepage pits or other infiltration devices. Research has also found a strong relationship between curb density and overall imperviousness in residential areas suggesting that roads lead to the creation of other impervious surfaces.8

The creation of additional impervious cover also reduces vegetation, which magnifies the effect of the reduced infiltration. Trees, shrubs, meadows, and wetlands, like most soil, intercept and store significant amounts of precipitation. Vegetation is also important in reducing the erosional forces of rain and runoff. In one study, conversion of forest to impervious cover resulted in an estimated 29 percent increase in runoff during a peak storm event.9

Urban life will always have impervious surfaces, it’s the nature of human settlement.  We cannot possibly achieve runoff totals that mimic life before urban development.  However, that does not mean we cannot plan for the future or current establishments to cut back on the total amount of roads, parking lots, driveways, garages and other automobile related structures.  While railroad tracks exist on firmly packed land and are therefore impervious as well, they also are not the same as asphalt in terms of the type of imperviousness.  Moreover, light rail can exist in green spaces, as in the above picture.

However, the most important part of rail technology is it takes up less space than roads.  The number of people that can travel on a skinny railroad track can mimic the number of people on a busy multi-lane highway.  As I always say, roads are not about to and nor should they disappear.  However, decreasing the number of roads and other auto-dependent land uses would be a boon to the environment.

Runoff is a danger for a number of reason: for the pollutants it carries, for the erosion that occurs, for the way it prevents water from getting back to aquifiers, ground water, and other elements of the watershed.  Decreasing our impervious surface area by relying on rail more and our roads less would be a boon to our cities not just for ecological and economic reasons, but also because it would open up more space for the city to either grow in density or for public space to be available to be used.  Imagine your busy roads now being parks instead!

Rapid Transit w Key Bus Web

In the past I have written about the need to get better maps for bus routes.  Well, apparently the MBTA in Boston was several steps ahead of me.  They are about to publish their first significantly upgraded rapid transit map in apparently 40 years (see above).

The new map shows some of the most highly trafficked bus routes, such as the Rt. 1, 66, 77 and 39 buses.  The bus lines are thinner and clearly distinct from heavy and light rail lines, along with the Silver Line (a combination trackless trolley and motrorized bus line).  The map also displays ferry routes.

One can argue that there should not be a differentiation on the map between modes of surface or subsurface transit, but I’ll take the progress.  (H/T Human Transit).  At least the map shows where the buses intersect with track-bound transportation modes.  Now, we just need better maps at bus stops as well.

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