July 2010

Takeoff Group by Carlos Rubin

One of the best parts of running this blog is finding the images to put in my posts.  However, as I search for applicable images I often find pictures that are beautiful, interesting, or thought-provoking, but are off topic.  I have decided to introduce a weekly feature of great transportation images to utilize that surplus.

To lead off the feature I have chosen the title-appropriate “Takeoff Group” by photographer Carlos Rubin.

Hot air balloons are not likely to be featured often in this blog, as their transit relevance seems dated to Jules Verne.  However, they are a striking sight to see (and I would imagine quite a thrill to ride in).

My readers have many-times-before provided me with great resources.  If you have any suggestions of where to find great images of transportation, please let me know in the comments.

With the announcement of the list price for the Chevy Volt ($41,000 before tax breaks), the time has never been better to constructively talk about the electric infrastructure that will fuel the Volt and the electric cars of the future.  The Volt joins other mass-produced electric models that are starting to hit the market, including the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla.

What makes the electric car so tantalizing is that it can run on clean energy, and be responsible for far fewer emissions than traditional gas-powered vehicles.  The electricity that we use to power electric cars could come from wind, solar, hydroelectric, or nuclear energy, and never make a substantial contribution to carbon emissions.  Even if the electricity comes from coil and gas power plants, it is still more environmentally friendly than combustion engines, because centrally-generated power is more efficient.

While the question of where we will fuel these cars is tantamount, the question all-too-often glossed over is how to best fuel these cars.  We can measure fuel efficiency for gas-powered vehicles only by miles per gallon.  However, the electric car’s efficiency can be measured not only by how many miles it travels per volt, but also how efficient it is at utilizing the electric grid from which it receives its charge.

The idea for a smart charge has been formally proposed on General Electric’s Ecomagination Challenge, which is a $200 million competition to find the best new ideas on how to create, connect, and use a better electric grid.

“Charging electric cars at night is cheaper and cleaner than during the day because energy demand is lower. But what if you drive more in a day than your battery’s range? Software anticipates when you need power based on your driving habits and manages recharging.”

I encourage all of my readers to both check out the ideas and vote for this particular one because it exemplifies the ideals of the Transit Pass (registration and voting will take approximately 1 minute total).

A number of products already allow consumers and property owners to observe their electricity and other utility usage.  However, while these products may help people and institutions lower usage, they do not help advance efficient use.  The proposed idea would allow car users to fuel their cars most efficiently.

The software would help car users to fuel their cars at times when energy demand is lowest (typically at certain times at night) as well as how to make the most of mid-day re-charges.  This would be a boon both to the consumer as well as our overall energy use and overtaxed grid.  By charging when overall electricity demand is lowest, it takes some pressure off the grid during the day and allows electric companies to generate kilowatts on a more consistent basis over time.

This is important not only to the individual electric car owner but also to institutional users such as car-sharing services like Zipcar and fleet owners who could implement electric vehicles such as the postal service and other delivery companies, police departments, taxi services, and other governmental entities.

Companies and drivers would benefit from the device as they could potentially re-charge at a a cheaper price if kilowatt usage is based on time and demand.  Likewise, utility providers benefit from insuring that their grid will not be swamped at the worst times of day.

Again, I encourage you all to vote for a great idea.  It is a small device that could have a big impact on the success of America’s utilization of electric vehicles, the diminishing demand for foreign oil, and a way of insuring that our fragile electric grid not only stays safe, but potentially improves.

If you come to this post expecting a breakdown of some trend in cleantech transit, you will have to kindly wait until next week.  Tonight’s post is fully dedicated to a New York City transit center’s incompetence that this blogger witnessed first hand just a few short hours ago.

For thousands of travelers each day, for both commuters and tourists alike, the New York City Port Authority Bus Terminal serves as a portal to the “city that never sleeps.”  By all accounts, this is one of the most bustling public transit hubs in the United States, as it serves over 58 million passengers annually.  Simply stepping into the main terminal’s entrance on 8th Ave between 41st and 42nd streets, one wonders how this labyrinth even functions to serve it’s purpose of transporting passengers on buses throughout the Northeast.  The answer is barely.  For instance, just today, I had to wait 25 minutes from the time our bus returned to Port Authority until the time we alighted from the bus due to a last second gate logistic switch.  In talking to other friends, apparently this type of experience is the norm, not the exception unfortunately.

It is no secret that buses are treated as second class citizens in New York City.  Simply look to the lack of bus rapid transit lanes, a strategy that has shown time and again to work in South America and Europe.  City planners and policy makers have always favored subways or commuter rail lines over bus transit.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the comparison between Grand Central Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal.  One is a beacon of architectural reclamation and commercial triumph, the other is a seventh rate architectural structure whose only commercial highlight is that it contains a Heartland Brewery (brewery should be used loosely……) by one of the main entrances.  Such an important transportation hub should be seen as an architectural landmark.  Other nations seem to understand this, even China.  Apparently, we in the US, especially in New York, missed the memo.

If the exterior architecture weren’t bad enough, perhaps one should take a closer look at the circuitous paths leading up to the actual bus gates.  It is time for a Grand Central-esque overhaul.  And while they are at it, why not let the revised structure rise to the sky with gleaming commercial office space like some of these 2008 proposals. I understand this is a massive capital investment that will probably bankrupt the city and state even further.  The city and state probably don’t have a cool $10 billion just lying around these days.  We must continue to put relevant infrastructure in place that will finally elevate the bus to its proper place alongside trains in the perception of the city public transit user.

I recently switched from taking the train to taking the bus for my commute home from work.   I will always be a fan of the rails.  I love everything about them, from the feel of a train ride, to the dedicated space for travel, to generally firm scheduling and the fact that they are independent from other forms of transportation (unless there are grade crossings involved).  However, the bus became cheaper (due to to extenuating circumstances, not merely system prices) and here I am taking it!

However, I will never get used to being stuck in traffic during the commute.  I find it incredibly frustrating to watch traffic go the same speed as the bus or faster.  My transit elitism leads me to believe that I am entitled to go faster than people traveling alone in individual cars.  In fact, if more planners thought this way, I am positive more people would be riding public transit, it’s all about marginal costs and returns.

We all know that the bus has a sad history of being disfavored, sometimes used as an instrument of racial and/or class oppression, and generally is perceived as vastly inferior to the personal automobile.  However, for all those drivers stuck in endless traffic on metropolitan America’s overcrowded highways, think about how much better life could be if most people took the bus (let alone rode a bike).  While I recognize the importance of biking and that more streets, workplaces, and transit stations should accommodate bicycles, it is also relevant that many people due to age, distance, weather, etc. cannot bike to work.

The above image from Transportation Alternatives (a New York advocacy group)–and similar to a more photographically deceptive German image–illustrates the incredible power of public transit.  Moving many people from many moving motorized vehicles into one is a huge coup for traffic flow (not to mention safety) and commuter sanity.  Even though some companies are trying to solve the problem by building smaller cars–and admittedly bikers are very efficient on smaller vehicles–organizing people into larger systems is not efficient and clean, but creates more usable streets.  It is one of the many reasons I applaud New York’s engagement with bus rapid transit.

The next time someone gives you a hard time about the bus, whether it is its speed, its comfort, or its perceived social status, remind that person that if more people rode the bus system, and public transit systems in general, not only would our society feel and be more equal, but those buses would move faster and be better for all people in transit, regardless of their mode.

For transit lovers and planners across North America, and perhaps around the world, Jane Jacobs — the great opponent of highway builder and ultimate mid-century planner, Robert Moses — has achieved reverential status.  I fall into that group; forever grateful that Jane acted to save Greenwich Village, and forever inspired by her insights in the Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Two generations of urbanists, planners, activists and legislators have been influenced by Jacobs’ startling review of the obvious.  With an eternally curious and unassuming eye Jacobs reintroduced the beauty and intelligence of mankind’s greatest creation, its cities.  At the same time, Jacobs who was anything but dogmatic, has become the tabula rasa to be written upon by the sustainability movement, in its varied facets.  Some people complain Jacobs is cited too often.

The new essay collection in What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs illustrates the breadth of her influence and the genius of her observation.   While Jane was not a transportation theorist her descriptions of how cities operate and what makes for successful urban planning (or lack thereof) directly implicates sound transit policy.  The way we lay out our streets, the way we get to and from work, and the way we integrate uses of buildings into blocks, neighborhoods and cities all influence how citizens ideally move and how their choices are influenced. (more…)


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