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…)

When lay individuals consider the new electric economy as it pertains to transportation, they typically think of a trendy electric sports car or its corresponding charging station.  I would venture to say that seldom, if ever, do these individuals think about the stodgy old bus.  Well, the bus designed and built from Golden, CO based Proterra, formerly Mobile Energy Solutions, is far from the lumbering, belching bus your grandmother knew.  The 6 year old company is dedicated to making the drive components and energy storage systems for electric and hybrid buses, delivery vans and other commercial models, as well as the vehicles themselves.  Just this month, Proterra landed a $20 million investment from MK Energy and Infrastructure to build an assembly plant in Greenville, SC by 2011.

Unlike the majority of cars on the road, buses generally drive a fixed route that is highly predictable and routine.  This repetitive pattern makes it the perfect vehicle to adopt a range restricting electric engine.  Apparently, other cities feel the same way as Proterra has stated that as many as 21 transit agencies around the country had requested government funding for the purchase of more than $400 million worth of its vehicles.

From a technical perspective, the Proterra designed bus will travel 30 to 40 miles at 11 to 13 miles per hour before it needs a recharge, which it gets by passing under a contact arm at a bus stop or a bus yard.  According to Proterra founder Dale Hill, batteries can be recharged in under 10 minutes.  At present, the companies first and foremost objective is to reduce the price of the vehicle from approximatley $1 million to under $300,000.  This can only be accomplished by manufacturing scale, an issue currently being addressed with the new South Carolina plant.  From there, the largest technical challenge lies in extending the range of the battery and improving speed.  2012 appears to be the date that the company is targeting for these improvements.

While the electric car field is already crowded with competitors, the nascent electric bus and truck market is releatively spacious.  Smith Electric Vehicles of Kansas City, MO is one of the other companies attempting to make a dent in the heavy vehicle electric market.  For now however, it appears that Proterra has a significant headstart over its competitors in the US.  Generally, a good trend in cleantech power and transportation is to look at China.  If the nation of nearly 1.4 billion capitalists is pursuing an initiative, chances are it will have staying power in one form or another.  Well, plenty of Chinese manufacturers and state owned companies are pursuing electric buses.  Just one example here.

The electric bus has particularly outstanding potential.  This market is truly massive.  Just imagine a day in the next decade when cities like New York and Los Angelas have rapid bus networks that zip people across town while emitting zero noxious gas (so many more al fresco dining options…..).  Or, envision a time when all school buses are powered by a battery, thereby making a mere mild buzz as they pass by and not the standard rumble?  These days are no doubt coming.  Likely, sooner than we might think.  Companies like Proterra will help us get there.

**Disclaimer: I am working as an extern in the law department of the Chicago Transit Authority this summer.  The CTA does not endorse or sponsor my writing on this blog.**

Being a public transit person creates a lot of conversation, especially with people living in urban centers.  Everyone has a public transit story, or complaint, or idea.  Transit is the great commonality in cities, not merely as conversation, but as public space and property as well.  It is this latter piece, as public property and space that mystifies some people.

At least a handful of people have argued to me that public transit should be privatized or at least support itself financially without any sort of public subsidy.  Ironically, these seem to frequently be the same people that are upset that public transit has not made one sort of accommodation or another, whether it is for the handicapped, or enough service, or insufficient cleanliness.

I am in no way against economic efficiency in the sense that transit systems should work to keep costs down.  However it is problematic when transit systems are expected to fend for themselves financially (as Governor Christie seems to desire for NJ Transit).  Such a system results in a terrible combination of higher fares, less service, and greater inaccessibility for those who least can afford such cutbacks.

The Chicago Reader recently featured a fantastic history of the early years of the CTA.  Robert Loerzel wrote a very-well researched story of how transit systems operated in Chicago from the mid-nineteenth century until the period of public ownership of the urban rails in the mid-twentieth century.  Loerzel used this history to illustrate how private ownership of utilities frustrates public purposes.  Moreover, especially in this era of governmental criticism, he demonstrates why reformers sought public ownership of utilities, including public transit, in the first place.  A great summary quote:

The dream of municipal ownership finally became a reality in 1947, when the Chicago Transit Authority was formed to take over the bankrupt transit lines. Finding enough money to run the CTA has been a problem ever since. “A transit system that was unable to survive on fares as a private enterprise was somehow expected to do so as a public entity in a declining market,” Young wrote. The all-time high for public-transit use in Chicago was the late 1920s, he says, when the city’s streetcars, buses, and trains annually handled more than 1.1 billion rides. In 2009 the CTA handled 521 million rides, not quite half as many.

This history is not unique to Chicago and Loerzel’s article is informative for residents of all cities, not just Chicagoans.   Moreover, the lessons regarding transit apply to all public services (e.g. police, health care, roads, energy, water, etc.).

Based on those of my peers who have suggested privatizing transit I think many are just deluded by Reaganomics.  The others who believe more sincerely in privatization usually have more sinister anti-urban or racist or classist goals that go along with cutbacks in public transportation.

In these tough financial times it is difficult to find money for all services.  However, suggestions to privatize our public transportation systems is not the answer to our woes.  Private companies will not put people first, but rather profits.  The good of our cities depends on continuing investment (and reasonable expectations of sound fiscal policy with that investment) in our great public properties and spaces, our transportation systems.

As the US moves ever so slowly to a transportation mix that includes plug-in electric vehicles (PEV), the lack of mileage range on PEVs has emerged as a critical concern going forward.  Despite many PEVs such as the Leaf, Coda, and the BYD e6 that have made mileage claims of approximately 100 miles per charge, the general public remains extremely worried that these cars will not live up to this stated performance.  Despite the fact that the vast majority of Americans drive far fewer than 100 miles per day, it is the freedom of untethered mobility that has become woven into the fabric of American life.  There is nothing more terrifying to the American driver than the feeling of being stranded.  This is even more magnified when driving a vehicle powered by a battery as oppoed to one simply running on a tank of liquid fuel.

There is no doubt that one of the fundamental obstacles toward widespread PEV adoption is the lack of a successful charging (“refueling”) infrastructure.  At present in the US, there does not exist a distributed network of PEV charging stations.  At best, companies such as Coulomb and Better Place have a smattering of stations across mainly California.  One issue these companies have faced has been finding a location that would provide for a concentrated amount of charging stations to satisfy demand.  In lieu of a highly developed gas station-esque car charging network, consumers will rely on their trusty garage outlet to provide their PEV with all the electrons it will need for a full days charge.  While this could be seen as convenient since one could simply charge the car overnight (though it is not clear this method is suitable for urban residents), this still does not satiate the demands of people who want to refill on the go when they’re out and about.

Now that I’ve laid out the dilemma, I would like to make a rather modest, albeit not novel, proposal.  It would entail massive, widespread deployment of distributed car charging stations.  These would be rolled out en masse in parking lots across the country.  This would have particular appeal in the suburbs as seemingly 99% of our suburban jungles are now paved over to accommodate strip malls or big box retailers.  Coincidentally, it just so happens that parking lots generally provide high solar irradiation compared to rooftops or other structures.  This is largely due to the lack of shadowing both from trees or high buildings.  Several companies have proposed “solar canopies” and several firms are actually developing parking lots with 10-200kW of solar potential.  Pairing the “solar canopy” concept with PEV battery charging stations could provide outstanding synergies.  Firstly, solar is a peaking resource meaning it produces the majority of its electricity during the day when most people are doing the bulk of their driving.  Secondly, with the implementation of the smart grid, this type of natural resource integration will reduce the strain on the local power utility.

Overall, the pairing of the solar parking lot canopy with PEV charging stations has the potential to become as ubiquitious as gas stations.  This will surely rush along the adoption of PEVs.  As for the cost of the solar canopy structure itself, or the battery charging station, I will discuss this in a later post.

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