Article I Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the authority “To Establish Post Offices and Post Roads”.  Like most enumerated powers of the Constitution, this was not a suggestion to Congress, but a responsibility.  However, in the age of email, UPS, FedEx and DHL, both the monopoly and the seeming necessity of the post office have diminished.  USPS is now seeking to lay off as many as 120,000 workers and close 3,700 post office locations.

USPS, much like its private-public cousin Amtrak, is stuck in an uncomfortable position.  It is a public entity providing an essential service and monitored by the federal government in the process.  At the same time, it is largely expected to run as a for-profit corporation.  That seems to be a broken system, that leaves essential government-owned infrastructure both unable to keep up with private competitors, and underfunded to serve locations and needs that cannot be properly met on a for-profit model.

Despite the presence of email and other private delivery services, USPS still provides an essential service.  It links communities and the people within to the outside world, as well as providing critical jobs.  USPS is also a national and cultural icon, uniting a diverse nation together.  Given that the post office finds its roots in one of the rare enumerated powers of the US Constitution, subsidizing the USPS and spearheading its modernization is something the Tea Party would finally be right to scream about.

While I am not a logistics expert, USPS with its world’s largest civilian fleet of 218,684 vehicles, has a huge transportation problem, as much as anything else.  The Infrastructurist wisely suggested that USPS must modernize its vehicle fleet and emphasize fuel efficiency, ASAP.  I could not agree more.

I believe access to the post office is critical, especially for the poor and for the elderly.  One area where the postal service can save money long term is in fuel costs (especially as gasoline prices continue to climb).  With an enormous fleet of local delivery vehicles, frequently stopping and starting, and moving short distances, USPS is primed for an efficiency mandate.  By making a partial switch to electric vehicles they could also assist in energy modernization by fueling at night and helping to protect consistent energy production on the grid.  Hybrid cars are also key.  USPS could also think outside the box to save money on fuel.  In warmer communities some postal workers could offer delivery via rickshaw or bikes with trailers.

I am not personally familiar with the economics of delivery of the mail and particular services, so I am going to shoot from the hip now.  It seems to me that mail has been sorted into three categories lately: next day or 2 day, moderately fast, and where speed doesn’t matter as long as it gets there.  Perhaps USPS could offer more services like Media Mail that offer slower service at a lower price, and entice some ground shipments away from UPS and FedEx.  While doing so, it could utilize more efficient and cost effective transportation methods, such as freight rail.

Regardless of the solution, the federal government must own up to its constitutional responsibilities.  The Postal Service is critical to America and as such should not be a purely for-profit business.  Those parts that are profitable should be so, and the business should modernize.  However, Congress should subsidize USPS for offices and services, that while necessary for those served, cannot be justified economically.

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.

Tokyo_train

Yonah Freemark (of the Transport Politic, see my blogroll) posted a fantastic cumulative response to Edward Glaeser’s lackluster and academically dishonest essays on high speed rail at the Infrastructurist.  Freemark performed the first comprehensive analysis that incorporated real data.  He challenged Glaeser’s basic assumption and his calculations.  Here is the data Freemark used in pdf format.

Here are some of the highlights from Freemark’s insightful and devastating response to Glaeser.

Number of users

Glaeser argues that a Houston-Dallas line would be roughly one-half as popular, relative to population, as the current slow Amtrak service is in the Northeastern Corridor. His reasoning is that both Dallas and Houston are less transit-friendly areas, and therefore less conducive to train travel. So, assuming a 50 percent lower per capita ridership rate, he comes up with 1.5 million annual customers for the line – this is similar to the number of people who currently fly directly between the two cities.

There are a number of major flaws with this approach though. First, while transit-friendly conditions are desirable – and it bears mention that both Dallas and Houston are expanding their transit systems significantly – there is little evidence those networks are vital in attracting customers to high-speed rail.

Carbon Emissions

The reduction in carbon emissions from people choosing not to drive cars or fly airplanes would be quite significant – especially if the rail system is powered by renewable energy. These savings are particularly evident on the very short flights on this corridor, such as from College Station to Houston or from Waco to Dallas, which could be replaced entirely with rail service.

Glaeser argues the power plants that produce the electricity used by high-speed trains would produce significant carbon emissions, reducing the environmental gain from switching away from air or car travel.

Yet he fails to account for the green potential of an electric rail line: it can operate without releasing any carbon at all. California, which is developing a 220 mph line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, has pledged to run its trains with electricity obtained only from carbon-neutral sources, such as wind turbines and solar panels. Texas could make the same commitment and dramatically expand the environmental benefits of the high-speed system. Texas is uniquely positioned to build such facilities, too – its western and northern sections are sunny, windy, and sparsely populated.

Assumptions about where a line is built

Rather than looking at Glaeser’s hypothetical 240-mile rail line directly and exclusively between Dallas and Houston, I’ll base my argument on a line actually under consideration called the Texas T-Bone that would run roughly 300 miles between the cities, with intermediate stops at Waco, Temple, and College Stations. For simplicity’s sake, in this piece I’ll ignore the roughly 140-mile proposed extension of the line south to Austin and San Antonio but factor in connecting slow-speed trains from those locales.

Seattle Light Rail

Today’s New York Times has an article on the white roof movement, pushed thoroughly by Secretary of Energy Chu.  I first read about white roofs on the Infrastructurist (a great blog for all things infrastructure and on my blogroll).  The basic premise was explained on their website thus:

By reflecting back huge quantities of sunlight that is now absorbed by dark surfaces, whitening our roofs and roads could offset 44 billion tons of carbon emission, calculates Arthur Rosenfeld of the California Energy Commission and two colleagues. It may be one of the cheapest and most effective ways humanity can seriously address global warming in the near term.

Whitening our roofs and roads would also cut demand for air conditioning by as much as 15 percent on the hottest days of summer, which would also have the benefit of making our electrical grid more stable.

My question is what would happen if we similarly painted all of our public (and private) transportation vehicles white or other light colors.  The new Seattle light rail system (Sound Transit, see picture above) has the right idea with its fleet of white vehicles.  Given how much space is covered with our vehicles I would have to imagine we would save a ton of energy by having white roofs on our cars, buses, trucks and trains, or other similar light colors.  Perhaps we can just have the roofs of our vehicles white so that we still provide for colorful dynamics on the roads, which should also be whitened.

Some infrastructure greening projects are difficult.  Getting zoning regulations to require white roofs is easy.  Perhaps having public transportation agencies paint their vehicles white or their roofs white could be similarly easy.

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