We are all familiar with public transportation maps based on the famous London Tube map with its colored lines and dotted stops. Cameron Booth has developed a map of the US Interstate System based on that style (click above for a link to a larger image) and the map is available in print for sale on his website.

I believe this map is a great cultural commentary on American transportation.  The car may not be as mythic and the road trip may not be as legendary anywhere in the world as in the United States.  In a country where you cannot take a train nearly anywhere long distance and where planes are increasingly expensive and burdensome, the automobile is still the great expression of freedom.

However, as freeing as the car is we are still largely constrained to certain thoroughfares for major long-distance travel.  Yet this map, reducing the country to the format of a city-transportation map also reduces the magnitude of the country to the size of a city.  There is a certain irony in that given just how vast the nation is and how many days it takes to cross by car.  However, there is also something profound about how that Eisenhower Interstate Map shaped our consciousness of physical and cultural space in the country. The interstates made some great cities greater and raised other from the abyss into places of status.

Moreover, the interstates may have done more than anything else in the nation’s history in creating a sense of national community and greater connection.  Eisenhower was first interested in national highways when participating in a post-WWI exercise attempting to transport military materiel across the country on existing roads.  The interstate project suddenly made most of the nation accessible to every American with a car, a little bit of cash, and the time to travel.

The interstates more than any other system my have crashed down the provincial mental and physical walls defining states to trump intense locality with a sense of national community.  Hopefully one day a high speed rail map will once again redefine our national sense of geography, community and nationalism.  Transportation has been and will continue to be the means by how communities are partially defined.

PS: to those who read this blog frequently I sincerely apologize for my extended absence.  It was not intentional, finals and the end of the semester just caught up with me.  I hope to be back to posting nearly daily for the foreseeable future.  Happy and healthy new year to all.

Coal Miner

I do not want to challenge 19 really smart professors, but I am skeptical of all the conclusions in the new report from the National Research Council, Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use.  The report, as titled, examined costs of energy, especially coal, that go unaccounted for in market prices.

The report estimates dollar values for several major components of these costs.  The damages the committee was able to quantify were an estimated $120 billion in the U.S. in 2005, a number that reflects primarily health damages from air pollution associated with electricity generation and motor vehicle transportation.  The figure does not include damages from climate change, harm to ecosystems, effects of some air pollutants such as mercury, and risks to national security, which the report examines but does not monetize.

The report made significant conclusions about transportation, especially cars, according to GreenTech Media:

Overall, the transportation industry incurred $56 billion of mostly health-related damage in the United States in 2005. Driving cars typically contributed to less than a third of the hidden costs and translated into 1.2 cents to 1.7 cents per mile traveled, the report said.

Gasoline has earned a foul reputation because the country’s reliance on foreign oil. But the heavy focus on domestically produced ethanol doesn’t necessary provide less damaging options, the report found.

Impact from corn ethanol production was similar or “slightly worse” than gasoline because turning corn into fuel takes more energy, the report said. Making ethanol from corn stover and other types of plants, on the other hand, inflicted less damage.

Electric and plug-in hybrid cars also aren’t as “green” as they appear. While these cars produce less or no emissions, they are run on power from fossil fuels, the report said. Manufacturing batteries and electric motors also takes up quite a lot of energy.

The report concluded that the non-climate damage caused by manufacturing and operating electric/hybrid cars was “somewhat higher” than other types of cars in 2005, and the same trend would continue in 2030.

Maybe it’s difficult, but how do you release a study like that without taking into account the effect on the environment or admitting the political difficulties of oil.  I’m not going to disagree that electric cars that essentially run on oil are problematic too.  However, electric cars, which are picking up steam from major manufacturers, have potential because they could run on renewable energy.  Yet, that doesn’t mean all oil-based cars are inherently wrong.

Electric cars are only part of a larger transit solution, but if we drive electric cars as we drive our current cars we will still have problems.  Our goals instead should always be as follows (in no particular order):

- Driving less, of any car.

- Taking public transportation, walking and cycling more.

- Owning cars for a longer time.  Fuel efficiency is only relevant if the energy to build a car is not used every 2-4 years.

- Driving fuel-efficient cars.

- Building environments and neighborhoods that emphasize these values.

I’m glad someone is taking account of energy use and not just mindlessly swooning over electric cars.  However, electric cars provide part of an answer in a transit and energy revolution and should not be dismissed just because they may run on coal energy now.  Real economists cannot look at just one sector and claim to have made a whole study, the politics and environmental effects of oil and coal and potential for new energy solutions must be taken into account as well.

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.

Courtesy of the Transportationist comes this 4 minute time-lapse video of a cross-country road trip from San Francisco, CA to Washington, D.C.

The producers of the video used a time-lapse camera that took a photo once every 10 seconds over the course of this 3,052 mile route.  As much as I may write about the virtues of rail and the importance of public transportation, there is still something undeniably romantic about the American road trip, especially of the cross-country variety.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics the US had 4,032,126 miles of paved public roads as of 2007.  However, of that, almost 3/4 of the mileage, 2,987,758 miles of it to be exact came in the form of rural mileage.  I adore the fact that Americans can drive just about anywhere and see pretty much any part of this country just by hopping in their cars.  However, the time has come to essentially stop building.  How many more roads do we need?  As of the 2000 Census, 79% of Americans lived in urban places.  Those people need means to get from one urban area to another and out of the urban areas altogether.  That said, we currently have the means to do it.  Building more roads is only a burden down the line of maintaining them.

It is now time to focus our funds on urban areas and sustainable ways of moving people within metropolitan areas and from one area to another.  The focus on building highways should rightfully come to an end.  I too one day want to take the great American road trip and I want those roads maintained for longevity, but we do not need any more for that dream to be realized.

Impact

The National Transportation Safety Board can account to the fact that public transportation is not perfectly safe.  There are occasionally tragic fatalities as the result of accidents on subways, trolleys and buses.  However, when compared to the number of fatalities on America’s roads, public transit appears to wrap passengers in bubble wrap.  For a culture that is obsessed with safety, it is unfortunate that public transportation discussions do not more frequently cover safety.

Our reliance on roads as the primary means of transportation led to 37,261 fatalities in 2008, not to mention however many countless thousands of other injuries were sustained to both person and property.  There have been 419,321 auto-related fatalities over the past decade.  That is like killing off all of Miami, Oakland or Cleveland over the course of a decade.  Keep in mind that people are generally more afraid of flying than driving, but according to the NTSB, ony 706 passengers have died on American flights in this decade.

We all too frequently gloss over the cost of human life when discussing the cost of infrastructure.  If cities and metopolitan areas have the opportunity to devise systems of public transportation that allow more residents to commute to work via train/bus/light rail rather than driving, those opportunities should be taken advantage of.  The cost in human life alone is too much to bear in order to say people should have the freedom to drive.  More importantly, people should have freedom of choice in their means of transportation.  In too many metropolitan areas in this country people are burdened with the necessity of a car.

There are innumerable benefits to public transit, but the human benefit of lives saved or otherwise unaltered by severe injuries, should never be taken lightly.  No transit method is ever free from danger, and that includes the simple act of walking.  However, moving our populaces via mass transit rather than the individually controlled method of the automobile is sure to preserve the sanctity of life going forward.  The more people are on larger systems and the less they must rely on cars the better off both individuals, families, businesses, communities and society will be.

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