Transportation Ideas


The transportation idea that has been making the internet rounds this past weeks is the “straddling bus“.  The idea is to combine the best (worst?) of buses and trains to simultaneously preserve auto traffic.  The bus would run on tracks or guided lanes above moving cars on a typical road and connect to above ground stops to let passengers on and off.

Consider me unimpressed.  I admit that it is thinking outside the box.  However, if we’re going to go through the cost of building tracks, why not just build a train?  It has to be cheaper to build and operate than this behemoth.  Again, if we’re going to build dedicated stops, why not just run bus rapid transit or a train?  Isn’t that easier?

What I hate about this idea is that it prioritizes the movement of cars.  Haven’t we already learned that it is a mistake to build cities that depend on cars first and foremost?  Let’s build transit systems that encourage citizens to utilize public transportation first, rather than as an alternative.

The last part I do not trust about this concept, is the skill of the drivers passing through and around this giant machine.  I work for the Chicago Transit Authority’s law department currently and I can tell you that the CTA’s buses and trains get into an awful lot of collisions with bad drivers, or just because there is a lot of traffic.  I would not trust drivers to successfully navigate around and through this hulk.  It is sure to be dinged, bumped, or straight-up collided with on a frequent basis, drawing all positive attributes to a screaming halt.

I appreciate transportation ingenuity, I welcome it.  I just hope no city dedicates its resources to these unwieldy wheels of innovation.

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.

Scientific American features stories from past issues 50, 100, and 150 years ago in each publication.  In this month’s issue the 100-year story was a snippet from a feature regarding a proposed zeppelin-railway system.

DECEMBER 1909
FLYING RAILWAY—“A German engineer has conceived a novel and marvelously impracticable mode of transit, a sort of cross between the airship and the electric railway, in which a balloon supports the weight of passenger cars, which run on aerial cables and are propelled by electricity. The balloon is of the rigid Zeppelin type of construction, and is propelled by electric motors capable of developing an airspeed of about 125 miles per hour. There are engineering as well as financial objections to this scheme.”

In 1909 the New Jersey Zeppelin disaster was still 28 years away, so I do not blame this transit dreamer for scheming.  However, given that railway electrification was emerging at the end of the nineteenth century and railroads could not yet achieve 125 miles per hour, nor could cars and the Wright brothers had made their first successful flight just 6 years prior, this idea does not seem as stupid as it appears to the 21st century eye.

I hope that we live in an age where people continue to dream boldly and ambitiously such that future generations can selectively pick out ideas to poke fun at.  Right now Americans struggle with the idea of high speed rail let alone anything more innovative or revolutionary in the transportation sphere.  May America once again invest and dream grandly regarding its transportation future.

MetrocardsThe passion of new MTA chaiman Jay Walder in New York is infectious.  I also admit that I have a bit of transit nerd man crush on his use of subway token cuff links.  However, his idea for price restructuring on New York City public transit leaves me a little baffled.  It may just be that the New York Times did an insufficient job explaining the benefits of the policy.

“We might imagine that we offer discounts at later times, or we offer weekend discounts,” Mr. Walder said in an interview on Wednesday. “Time-of-day pricing might be very attractive.”

The goal would be to encourage use of buses and subways during traditionally quieter hours. And it would bring New York’s subway system in line with local commuter rails, which charge a range of fares.

“We have an infrastructure that is set for the capacity of the peak,” Mr. Walder said. “What we really want to do is use that infrastructure all the time.”

The chairman ruled out charging higher prices for longer trips, a system used in cities like Washington and London, saying such a move in New York “would be a mistake.” But he said a frank discussion of changes to the pricing structure “will be an important part of what we’re doing.” A transit spokesman said later that Mr. Walder was not considering higher peak fares.

I understand the desire to have more people riding at non-peak hours in order to make the system run as efficiently as possible.  This is especially true in New York City subways which almost never shut down.  However, I do not follow the logic of reducing prices so people ride more.

In New York there are two types of people who travel at night and weekends, permanent residents and tourists/visitors.  The commuters, who constitute a huge number of MTA’s ridership are avoiding the MTA on nights and weekends if possible.

For the residents and tourists/visitors to ride at night or on weekends requires someplace to go, which is the expensive part in New York, not the subway ride.  Once traveling, though, the only other real option is a taxi and the regardless of the price of an MTA fair, it will almost surely be cheaper than a New York City cab fare which is $2.50 just for getting in the cab.  City residents on the other hand probably own monthly passes which means each additional ride they take, regardless of when they take it, is essentially free.

If anything, it would make more sense to tax certain hours of travel, say 8am-10am and 4pm-7pm to encourage people to take the subway and bus at off peak hours, hence increasing demand the and helping to reduce congestion during rush hours.  However, I like the fact that a transit administrator is excited about transit and trying with innovation to get more people to use it at all times.

Perhaps I am missing something logical and important here.  If one of my readers recognizes it, please inform me and other readers with a comment.

Stock pricesI wish I could claim credit for this idea, but I cannot.  Today in a class of mine the idea of car vehicle or vehicle mile traveled cap and trade was briefly bandied about.  Cap and trade is the basic idea of setting some sort of limit on the use of a commodity and then giving permission for those who use the commodity to trade their allotted value of that commodity such that those who see the allotment as a surplus can trade to those who are in greater need of that commodity.  The idea is to spur innovation in use of environmentally hurtful products such as oil and coal, generally.

In the case of an automobile cap and trade either car ownership or vehicle miles traveled could be regulated.  In my opinion it would be far more effective to cap and trade the vehicle miles traveled than the cars themselves.  One author suggests how to pull off such a system:

Such a “cap and trade” (CAT) system would establish a mileage threshold and allow vehicle owners who drive fewer miles to use them later or sell them to vehicle owners whose mileage surpasses the allowable threshold. Credit and debit amounts would reflect relative fuel-efficiency based on EPA gas mileage ratings or similar manufacturer data. Administered most effectively at the state level, such a program would generate massive government revenue to research alternative energy sources. Reducing fossil-fuel consumption comes down not only to increasing miles per gallon (MPG) but to reducing miles driven per vehicle (MPV). Reducing MPV saves oil more directly than either the technological improvements that impact CAFÉ standards or increased gas taxes.

However, such a cap and trade program is effective and efficient only if it is coupled with a variety of other transit investments including new public transportation resources.  In addition, such a cap and trade system would be effective for encouraging re-engineering of zoning plans that facilitate sprawl and low urban density.   Without giving people better options of where to live and how to get around such a cap and trade program is simply a tax for those who live further away from their place of employment.  However, encouraging people to move closer to the central and regional cores of metropolitan areas is a relevant goal in itself.

Such a system, by making driving less desirable, also drives down our reliance on oil, always a good thing for political, social, economic and environmental reasons.

Of course, my notion right now is exceedingly vague and specifics would have to be developed on just what the cap on vehicle miles traveled would be, whether to create such a system at the federal or state level, how commercial vehicles would be allotted credits and by what means the vehicle miles traveled credits could be traded.

I personally would suggest establishing higher credits for commercial vehicles like delivery trucks and tractor trailers.  We cannot get rid of vehicles like FedEx trucks or bakery delivery vehicles.  However, you will find little love lost from me regarding 18-wheelers.  The sooner we can get a percentage of that freight off the roads onto the rails the better, if you ask me.

America needs to shed its auto infatuation.  That automobile is a tool and a useful one, but it should not be the source of daily existence for hours a day.  Getting people to live more densely, to utilize alternative transportation options and to be less dependent on oil all could be accomplished by a VMT cap and trade system.

Damian Ortega, False MovementShana Tova loyal Transit Pass readers.  I welcome you all back and wish you all a happy and healthy new year.  In Sunday’s New York Times, long-time columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about the necessity of a hike in the gasoline tax.  Friedman challenges the masculinity of the nation, saying essentially that even the French have more courage to confront their problems than we do.

But are we really that tough? If the metric is a willingness to send troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and consider the use of force against Iran, the answer is yes. And we should be eternally grateful to the Americans willing to go off and fight those fights. But in another way — when it comes to doing things that would actually weaken the people we are sending our boys and girls to fight — we are total wimps. We are, in fact, the wimps of the world. We are, in fact, so wimpy our politicians are afraid to even talk about how wimpy we are.

Friedman goes on to say that America needs a gasoline tax because it would reduce our dependence on foreign oil, spur energy innovation and investment in alternative energies and improve some of our foreign policy issues (and, oh, people might drive less).

Such a tax would make our economy healthier by reducing the deficit, by stimulating the renewable energy industry, by strengthening the dollar through shrinking oil imports and by helping to shift the burden of health care away from business to government so our companies can compete better globally. Such a tax would make our population healthier by expanding health care and reducing emissions. Such a tax would make our national-security healthier by shrinking our dependence on oil from countries that have drawn a bull’s-eye on our backs and by increasing our leverage over petro-dictators, like those in Iran, Russia and Venezuela, through shrinking their oil incomes.

Friedman and I differ on how to spend the money from a gasoline tax.  He would use most of it on the defecit and healthcare.  I would put a gasoline tax toward improving our transportation infrastructure.  However, that’s small chickens compared to the notion of actually having a gasoline tax.

Americans, since the advent of large road building projects and the AAA and truckers’ unions have depended on largely free roads.  Of course there is no such thing as a free road, it gets paid for somehow.  But Americans have never really had to think hard how their roads get paid for.  On the other hand we’re all too well aware of the cost of public transportation, in the form of a fare.  But roads don’t have fares largely, it’s just pay the cost of a car and the gasoline and go driving. There aren’t even significant car taxes or licensing fees to pay for the upkeep of roads.  We like our big government, just not paying for it.

However, a gasoline tax is incredibly important, if for no other reason than we need to wean people from gasoline and cars because they will eventually be largely unaffordable if we keep driving at our current pace.  The whole notion of auto-based cities and suburbs and sprawling exurbs need to become ideas of the past.  The car cannot and should not be eliminated, but this country needs to emphasize the urban, and the car is not a significant part of our urban future.

There is no debating that our country is growing; the US census estimates there will be 392 million people in the country by 2050.  Those new people have to live somewhere, and the formula of quarter acre lots in the suburbs is not sustainable.  We should not and cannot raze the suburbs, but we can make sure that our cities are beacons for the next generation.  In order to do so the transportation networks must be better, more thorough, reliable and affordable.  A gasoline tax would go a long way towards helping to create those necessary infrastructure improvements.

One final thought, how about tax breaks for car sharing?  If the idea is to get people to drive less and own fewer cars, what better way than supporting car sharing systems with essentially subsidized gas?

My friend David Gasser sent me the following video of traffic engineering, or lack thereof, in a Dutch community, featured on CBS (I am sorry, I could not figure out how to embed a CBS video on WordPress).

The footage (beyond the fact that it is still jarring to see people steer cars on the right side) is rather fascinating.  The segment also reminded me of a post by the Infrastructurist on the same issue (based off a great explanatory post on the Project for Public Spaces).  The Infrastructurist posited on whether or not such systems could work in America and I have been wondering the same thing.

Eric Dunbaugh of the Texas Transportation Institute has looked at the fatality rates on “livable streets”–broadly speaking, those that aren’t mini freeways–in the US and found that they are considerably lower (pdf). Apparently, using street design to wean drivers from highway-style driving habits really does save lives.

The rub, however, is that involves slower diving speeds. As Dunbaugh puts it: “The more basic problem appears to be that safety and livability objectives are often in direct conflict with the overarching objective of mobility, and its proxy—speed.”

We Americans do love our speed. Saying, “We’re going to take this wide smooth inky-black four-lane street with bright painted lines you’re used to–where you’re functionally encouraged to go 15 mph over the speed limit and all you have to worry about is staying in your wide well-marked lane and do what the traffic lights tell you–and replace it with a ‘naked’ street, where you’ll be jumbling around with everybody and just have to be a grownup and go slower and be considerate and observant,” will not necessarily be the beginning of an easy conversation. But it’s certainly an important one.

I am attracted to these ideas on traffic for the simple reason that they have been proved to save lives.  Transportation deaths are tragic and we should do all that we can to decrease them.  However, I am skeptical of this idea ever taking hold in America.  Traffic signs, wide lanes and stop lights are not just part of our culture we seem to be frequently defined by them and consider them birthrights.  After all, consider all the people who you have heard state that they are from a town with two stoplights or that they are near exit Z off the highway.

Moreover, Americans are a confusing bunch who like speed and are not for patience.  In addition, while they don’t want government interfering in their lives, they want “safe” streets with lots of signs and the luxuries of large highways that they do not have to pay for upon each use.  Taking the signs away would inevitably be spun as a dangerous idea of a radical intelligencia and those patsy Europeans.  Perhaps I am too harsh, but I find it difficult to believe that any community would take their signs and stop lights away and trust the instincts of their fellow drivers.

If these ideas are to catch on at all it will occur in new towns or new developments where the streets have not yet been paved and there is an opportunity to experiment.  Of course there is not a whole lot of new residential construction currently occurring, but it is possible that developers and towns will rethink the traditional notions of engineering traffic.  I hope someone gives it a try, because if people see it work in one place, it may catch on in others and lives may be saved.  That is what is most important.

Next Page »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.